September 5, 2018

Myanmar Refugee Finds His Pastoral Calling in the U.S.

Meet Stephen Moe Tha Po, a Karen refugee and pastor of the Des Moines Karen Company, in Des Moines, Iowa, United States. He is from Myanmar (Burma), a country that has been devastated by civil war for decades. Below, Po shares his harrowing story. His experience is not unlike those of many other refugees and immigrants trying to build new lives in the U.S. His story also illustrates the redemptive power of God to transform lives and to bring good out of horrible circumstances. — Editors

I was born and raised in Ohn Daw Village, where medical missionary Eric B. Hare started a small Adventist mission school in 1915. There were only two students that first year: my great-grandmother, Naw Htoo, and her brother, Tun Pai. My great-grandmother’s parents became the first converts of Hare’s ministry and were the first Karen Adventists in the region.

Becoming a Refugee

I attended Pastor Hare’s mission school as a boy. When I was 12, a radical Buddhist abbot and his army began to persecute Christians in our village. One evening we were told they were coming to kill us all. It was getting dark, and no one knew what to do or where to go. We prayed fervently, and the Lord sent local government troops to protect us.

Eventually, our school was taken over by the abbot and his troops. They destroyed the church and all the other buildings on campus. Leaving everything behind, we fled.

We moved from place to place. The mission school reopened in another location, where I finished high school and went on to get a theology degree from Myanmar Union Adventist Seminary.

After graduating, I went to stay with family members. The war had intensified, and on my way home one day I was arrested by the government and accused of being a rebel. They eventually let me go, but I knew I was no longer safe anywhere in Burma, so I fled to a refugee camp in Thailand and joined other family members who were already there.

Life in America

I was resettled in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2008. A few months later, I received an invitation to begin a church planting initiative in Des Moines, where there are a lot of Karen people.

Over the past eight years, the Lord has blessed our work in the Iowa-Missouri region. We’ve celebrated 50 baptisms so far, with growing groups in Kansas City and St. Louis, and our company in Des Moines.

The Des Moines Karen Company currently has 136 members. This year we are launching two Bible study tracts, one in Karen and the other in English.

We believe 2018 will be a successful soul-winning year. We’re reaching out to Buddhists, Animists, and Baptists, and our ministry has an impact not only in Iowa and Missouri but in neighboring states and the greater American Karen community. Our success is truly due to the blessings of God, the leadership of our conference, and the collaboration among our dedicated church leaders, board members, youth, women, and children’s departments.

Opportunities and Challenges

Karen Adventists are worshiping in 46 locations around the United States. There are two churches, four companies, three mission groups, 35 church groups, and more than 2,000 Adventist members.

Many of these groups don’t have services in their language and struggle to understand what’s being said in the English services they attend. There is great potential for growth, with much work to be done, many new challenges to be faced, and many bold prayers to be prayed for the success of Karen refugee ministry.

Please keep this work and our family in your prayers as we serve our community for Jesus.