July 10 – CIC Welcoming Strangers Screening

On July 10th the Desmond Tutu Center partnered with the Center for Interfaith Cooperation to feature Dr. Susan Adams’ and Dr. Brooke Kandel-Cisco’s documentary entitled “Welcoming New Neighbors: Finding Brother 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 begin a substantive, mutual relationship with them.

More specifically, the documentary explores the history and shared growth of First Baptist Church of Indianapolis, First Karen Baptist Church, and the Burmese Community Center for Education. There have been many challenges over the past decade for the Burmese refugee community and also the First Baptist Community, as they have both had to embrace change and welcome strangers into their lives. While the journey has not been easy and there is still a lot of work to be done, each organization has done a remarkable job in adapting to empower their community in a way that they had previously never considered. This touching story is a statement on the trials faced by refugees in the United States and the difficult process that a community goes through in accepting another group of people. There have been many joys and challenges that have been overcome together.

Following the documentary attendees engaged in a stimulating conversation with two panelists that were featured in the film: Pastor Bever and Sun Light. A recurring subject of interest was language and the power dynamic that it can embody. A young lady in the documentary who struggled with forgetting the Karen language particularly struck one audience member, and they asked what efforts were being undertaken in order to preserve the community’s cultural integrity. Sun Light and Pastor Bever responded that mastering English is a much higher priority to members of the refugee community, as otherwise they would be unable to provide for their families. However, Sun Light also said that it is common for members of the community to speak their native language to one another in informal settings, which keeps their cultural identity alive.

Another audience member was interested in what the public school system was doing to teach minority languages of Indianapolis communities like Burmese. Here, Dr. Adams was able to offer key insight into the complex process of teaching a minority language in the Indiana public school system. For one, it would take legislative action at the state level to broaden the foreign language curriculum from the accepted Spanish, French, and sometimes Mandarin classes, which would be difficult. Second, if such legislation were to pass it would be difficult for schools to hire staff capable of teaching a minority language such as Karen effectively. Third, how would we decide which of the hundreds of Burmese languages to teach among the different dialects of Burmese, Karen, Chin, Mon, and Shan languages? Still, she encouraged the audience to think critically about expanding the way the foreign language curriculum is defined in Indianapolis.

The audience was a diverse crowd that included many immigrants and visitors from countries all over the world such as Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mexico, and the Desmond Tutu Center’s very own cohort of South African Youth Fellows. Many people shared their own experiences of what it was like having to live in a place where their language has less power than English. Amongst them, there was a consensus that that while their own language was integral part of their identity; learning English was an essential component of integration to life in the United States. The efforts of First Baptist and members of the Burmese community to come together and work towards a mutually empowering relationship also impressed many audience members.

When asked to share a moment that demonstrated this cooperation, Pastor Bever shared a personal story of how he wanted to have a meeting to coordinate with a pastor from First Karen Baptist Church. He told us that he wanted to have this meeting for a long time, but found that he was nervous about it because he wasn’t sure what to say or talk about. After a month or so of procrastinating, Pastor Bever scheduled the meeting over a cup of coffee, and was met with an enthusiastic reply. At the meeting, Pastor Bever was shocked that the other pastor came prepared with fantastic ideas, proposals, and questions on how the two organizations. Pastor Bever shared that, “for some reason I had this fear of reaching out to the ‘other’ that I knew was irrational, but once I overcame that fear it was so easy to work together and get to know each other”. This one meeting over coffee was so productive that the entire dynamic mutual understanding shifted for the better, and is one of the reasons that First Baptist and First Karen continue to coexist today. This story is an example of how reaching out to the ‘other’ may be difficult or daunting, but taking that first step might be all you need to change your relationship for the better.

By: Corbin Panturad

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