By Jennifer Taylor
In 2007, the Places Rated Almanac named Pittsburgh the “most livable city” in the United States. Despite its long winters and reputation as an aging steel town, the city scored strongly for recreation, education, and safety.
The chamber of commerce and local politicians enjoyed the victory, but business leaders and families aren’t the only ones moving to Pittsburgh; hundreds of refugees from Myanmar relocate to the city each year. Many of these refugees from the country formerly known as Burma arrive in the United States to escape the ruling military junta and its repression of human rights.
Toney Salva, lead pastor at Discovery Christian Church in Cranberry Township, a suburban area north of downtown Pittsburgh, understands the impact of this new population; during his years on staff at Harbor of Hope Christian Church in Lowell, Massachusetts, thousands of Cambodian refugees began relocating to the northeastern part of the state, and Harbor of Hope helped launch New Life Cambodian Christian Church.
“The influx of refugees can really revitalize an urban area,” he says. “Lowell began proactively bidding for Cambodian refugees and subsequently experienced decreased crime. We wondered if promoting immigration could revitalize declining areas of western Pennsylvania, as well.”
But the recent arrival of Burmese refugees is not just changing Pittsburgh; it’s transforming Discovery Christian Church.
Discovery became involved after Eric Rogers, a DCC member and second-generation Asian-American, began working with the city’s Catholic Charities Refugee Services Program to “adopt” the Wor family arriving in Pittsburgh via refugee camps in Thailand. Through his work (including a “housewarming” party hosted by Eric and his wife to raise donations), Discovery members provided enough clothes, furniture, and food to meet the Wor’s needs plus provide for four additional families.
“It’s kind of funny to see a small Burmese man wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey,” Salva laughs. “But they’re grateful for anything we can give.”
Church members also helped the refugees obtain medical exams, immunizations, Social Security cards, and bank accounts.
“Most of these people have never experienced electricity,” Salva says. “So simple things like turning lights on and off, using the stove, or understanding a furnace were brand new. Then imagine their learning curve figuring out a bus route or shopping at Wal-Mart! Our members have helped with all of this.”
The church soon began meeting other needs, organizing an “open forum” every Monday night where volunteers teach English as a second language, answer questions about American culture, and provide homework assistance for kids.
“We’re one of the only groups in Pittsburgh actively working with the refugee population, and the only Protestant church working with local agencies,” Salva says. “Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services have the responsibility, on behalf of the U.S. government, to handle the logistics of refugee immigration and relocation. But a good-sized bureaucracy comes with that, and they don’t provide relational support.”
Of course, Discovery quickly extended assistance beyond help with daily chores to support of a more spiritual kind. Beth Hoey, a Filipino woman, and other Discovery members began leading Bible studies, and DCC held its first worship service for the refugees last Easter. Salva offered a message (translated into both Burmese and Pwo Karen), and the 40 people in attendance enjoyed a potluck meal after the service.
Discovery has organized six additional services in the last year, all held at a nearby Lutheran church in the Troy Hill area where many of the refugees live.
Despite this proximity, logistics make the gatherings difficult to organize.
“One hundred people attend each service, but the refugees live in three separate areas of the city and most rely on public transportation,” Salva says. “This is a city of many rivers, bridges, and tunnels! So when we do have services, we charter buses to go to the other two areas and bring everyone to Troy Hill.”
Salva usually offers the message at these services, although a missionary visited the church after the devastating May 2008 cyclone in Myanmar and answered questions about the storm and its effect on the country. The refugees lead songs in Karen, often accompanied on guitar.
Salva hopes to find a leader of Karen descent who can eventually lead the new congregation. “We love serving this group, but it’s inevitable that some of the message will be ‘lost in translation,’” he says. “I’d love to find a leader who speaks the language and who can also be a liaison to the community.”
Until then, Discovery continues its outreach with the gospel as Pittsburgh’s refugee population grows. “Perhaps this will transform our city just as it did Lowell,” Salva says. “You can be sure Discovery will continue to welcome new arrivals. We have a greater transformation project in mind.”
Jennifer Taylor, one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, lives in Nashville, Tennessee. For more information, go to www.discovertogether.com and www.myanmarchurchpgh.com.
SIDEBAR: Good WorkS
Dave serves as an elder at Discovery and co-owns BreadWorkS Inc., a 30-year-old company that bakes bread for many of the city’s finest restaurants and hotels.
After attending Eric’s initial housewarming party to raise money for refugee families, I wanted to find a way to provide jobs for some of them. But the language barrier was huge—just a few could speak English, and Catholic Charities recruited them to work as translators. In addition, our bakery isn’t in the best area of town, and most of the refugees don’t drive.
But one of my partners and I visited a Monday night tutoring session and met San Kyi, who speaks English very well. We offered to take several of the refugees to the bakery for an impromptu tour and, as we walked through, I could see San Kyi thinking of people who could do the various jobs.
We started by hiring him and, to be honest, it flopped. He quit after two days. I found out later he had ridden his bike to work and someone in the neighborhood let the air out of the tires.
I called him and invited him to come back to work in a department I supervise personally. Soon he was recruiting others, and now we’re up to 17 Burmese refugees on the payroll, every single one working out great. They have an amazing work ethic, and it’s an easy “sell” to place them among other departments.
In fact, some work too hard. When San Kyi started he also held down a second part-time job. I told him, “Working seven days a week is not the best, but if you’re going to do it anyway, work those hours here so you can at least get overtime.”
Another young lady began operating the walk-in dishwasher. When she showed up the first day wearing her nicest clothes, I offered her a company T-shirt to wear instead. It was an XXL and she is a tiny thing, but she accepted it gratefully. The next day I walked by and noticed the shirt fit perfectly. I asked how she managed to shrink it and San Kyi told me she pulled it apart the night before and sewed it to a custom fit.
San Kyi is well educated and could work many places, but he stays at BreadWorkS because he realizes his ability to help others find a job here is the best thing for the refugee community.
The experience is fulfilling as a business owner and as a church member. Our company receives the benefit of their hard work, and our church grows from the opportunities to serve. In fact, a church member even stepped up to provide San Kyi with a loan to buy his first house. He’ll have it paid off in four years.
I really have received more than I’ve given. Last summer BreadWorkS was so short-staffed I was working nights and bringing my two oldest sons with me; a year later we’re completely staffed with a great workforce. Every time you think you’re doing something kind or blessing someone, God uses it to bless you in unexpected, abundant ways.