Lunch and Learn Burmese Documentary Summary

On May 25th the Desmond Tutu Center hosted its last Lunch and Learn of the academic year which featured Dr. Susan Adams’ and Dr. Brooke Kandel-Cisco’s documentary entitled “Welcoming Strangers: Finding Brothers and Sisters”. The documentary covers the story of Burmese refugees of the Karen ethnic group who settled in the Indianapolis area, and the  efforts of First Baptist Church Indianapolis to welcome these new neighbors and open into a real, mutual relationship with them.

Speaking more specifically, the documentary explores the history and relationship between three related but distinct organizations that have been collaborating and coexisting for the last ten years. The first organization is First Baptist Church Indianapolis, a church in the American Baptist Church denomination which has been a presence in Indianapolis since 1822. The second organization, First Karen Baptist Church, is a church that serves the Karen population of Indianapolis, which holds services in their native language and shares space with First Baptist. The third organization, The Burmese Community Center for Education (BCCE), is also housed at First Baptist Church and provides assistance and fellowship of many kinds to the Burmese Karen community in Indianapolis. Their stated mission is to “strengthen and empower the newly resettled refugee-immigrant communities from Burma to become informed, self-sufficient, independent, and positive contributing members of the broader society in Indianapolis areas and beyond through formal and informal educational programs leading toward their self-realization, confidence and sufficiency.” As the documentary unfolded viewers were introduced to each of these groups, the history of their relationship together and the joys and challenges that they have all experienced throughout this shared journey.

After the documentary Lunch and Learn attendees had some excellent questions to generate conversation on the numerous topics touched upon in the documentary. One attendee asked how things had changed for First Baptist since welcoming First Karen and the BCCE into their doors. Dr. Adams pointed to the admission Pastor Bever, Associate Minister of First Baptist, made during the documentary, which was that many people left First Baptist at the beginning of this partnership. However, since then Pastor Bever has shared with Dr. Adams and Dr. Kandel-Cisco that they have seen an influx of new and often younger people to the church who are looking for a greater racial diversity in their congregation. Along the lines of that question Adams and Kandel-Cisco also shared that in the recent past First Karen had begun searching for a building of their own, which was an indication that the power relationships inherent in the partnerships between all these people were still being negotiated. Thankfully the members of First Karen decided to stay in their shared space, which has helped the groups come closer and closer together in partnership and community.

Another attendee wanted to know more about the Burmese youth who in the documentary admitted to losing their ability to speak their own home language. He pointed to his own experience growing up in the Jewish community, where in the early 20th century Jewish parents actually actively discouraged their children from learning and speaking Yiddish. Adams and Kandel-Cisco spoke from their experience as ESL educators, pointing out that this is a common occurrence among second generation immigrants and refugees. The first generation is often so concerned with surviving in their new environment that they don’t have the energy to think about how best to preserve or teach their cultural heritage to their children, such that many children simply lose their native tongue. In the case of the Karen, Adams and Kandel-Cisco pointed out that growing up in refugee camps many of them never learned to write or read their own language in the first place.Other questions came up during the conversation, including some about the relationship between the Karen and other Burmese ethnic groups who have settled in Indiana as refugees, including the Chin, who have settled in southern Indianapolis, and another, largely Catholic group that has settled in Fort Wayne Indiana. Attendees also asked about the health concerns, both physical and mental, that the Burmese have, pointing to nutrition and fitness being two big concerns that have come with their adjustment to American culture.

The last thing discussed in the conversation was that, as the American Baptist churches all have had a large missionary presence in Burma since the 1800’s, many of the Karen who have settled in Indianapolis are actually descendents of those who were first evangelized to by Baptist missionary movements from the United States. This interesting fact brought full circle the understanding that the relationship between First Karen, First Baptist and the BCCE is something that has a history much deeper than we may even realize today.

Mark July 10 at 5p as your next opportunity to watch the film. Visit to more information.

By: Andrew Weller


The event was made possible due to funding from Indiana Humanities and the Indianapolis Foundation.

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