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Aug 21, 2017 | The Rev. Sharron Cox

All Saints Taught Seminarian More Than Farming

(Editor’s note: All Saints is a movie about how a group of Burmese immigrants helped to save a dying Episcopal Church in Smyrna, TN. Starring John Corbett, it will be in theatres on August 25, 2017. The Rev. Sharron Cox did her field placement at All Saints while in seminary and wrote the following reflection about the congregation. See a trailer for the movie and a background video. In June, the Rev. Michael Spurlock, previous rector of All Saints and now at St. Thomas, New York City wrote this opinion piece on Fox.)

“Just love the people,” my clergy mentor encouraged me, “That’s your assignment.”

Midway through my second year of seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, I began my one-year field education placement. The time is designed to give seminarians a taste of serving in a parish, preaching and teaching and performing the typical “all other duties as assigned” that most internships require.

I had met the rector of All Saints a year earlier visiting numerous Episcopal parishes throughout middle Tennessee and ignored someone’s advice to avoid this “strange” parish. I craved learning in a setting completely different from the small town parish where I grew up or the large urban parish I’d been a member of before seminary. 

Eighty percent of the congregation at All Saints, Smyrna were recent immigrants from Burma (Myanmar if you use the name given by the military junta after violently suppressing an uprising in 1989). These immigrants were members of a small ethnic group—the Karen (pronounced Kah-ren’)—who are predominantly Christian, due to the Church of England’s presence when Burma was a British colony. The Karen have been viciously persecuted for decades by the Burmese military.

So, “love the people” was my assignment, and despite significant language and cultural barriers, I did just that. I greeted the Karen as they left worship services with a broad smile and “Good…morning,” and “Have…a…good…week,” as they parroted back both words and smile. I joined the American-born members in tutoring a Karen high school student. I attended the frequent “house blessings” the Karen members hosted after services, whether to celebrate a new job, a birthday, an engagement or recovery from a serious illness. I reveled in the spicy Karen food that other American-born members politely declined. I listened to their horrific stories of ethnic cleansing, sometimes with a young child translating, other times just gleaning what I could from broken English. I watched the Karen offer their “widow’s mite” to each other and in support of All Saints. Many of the dedicated but small group of American-born members of All Saints supported the Karen as ESL teachers, citizenship exam tutors, transporting to and assisting them at doctors’ appointments, spring plower of the All Saints’ farm, and even helping the young adults learn how to set-up and run a small business making hot sauce.

I learned what true community is, seeing the Biblical admonition (Deut 10:19) to “welcome the stranger” put into action by a very small number of people. I learned what faith is because, whenever All Saints was in danger of financial ruin, money or human resources would appear in the nick of time. And I learned what love is through giving and receiving love with people who were are vastly different than me and with whom I could not even communicate. 

My experience of All Saints was that of the Body of Christ working at its most messy and luminous Self.

Cox is assistant rector at St. Paul’s, Waco.

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