Meet Stephen Moe Tha Po, a Karen refugee and pastor of the Des Moines Karen Company; and Joseph Zohming Thanga, a Mizo immigrant and pastor of the Des Moines Mizo Company. Both are from Burma (Myanmar), a country that has been devastated by civil war for decades.
Below they share their harrowing stories. Their experiences are not unlike those of many other refugees and immigrants trying to build new lives here. Their stories also illustrate the redemptive power of God to transform lives and to bring good out of the most unimaginably horrible circumstances.
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 Pastor 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 church planting in Des Moines, where there are a lot of Karen people.
During the past eight years, the Lord has blessed our work in Iowa-Missouri. We’ve celebrated 50 baptisms so far, with growing groups in Kansas City and St. Louis, and our company in Des Moines.
By the grace of God, 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 over 2,000 Adventist members.
Many of these groups don’t have services in their own 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.
I was born in the small village of Tuingo. A third generation Adventist, I was the second youngest of six children. Our family was poor, and my parents supported us by working the paddy fields.
Burma is an extremely dangerous place, and in 2007 I sought asylum with the UN Refugee Agency in Malaysia.
I stayed there a year without legal papers waiting for my appointment, but one night I was startled out of sleep by the sound of Malaysian forces pounding on my door. I was arrested and taken to a detention center.
A prisoner for Jesus
During this time my faith was tested. I prayed three times a day and learned what it really means to put my trust in God.
I began sharing Jesus with non-Christian prisoners. Some of them were excited to learn more about my beliefs, and one man even asked me to baptize him.
Another man told me he had been a Christian in his youth but had converted to Hinduism and later to Islam because none of the Christians he knew had lived what Christ taught. He believed God put him in the detention center with me to convince him to follow Jesus once more.
Sold to human traffickers
One day there was a fire at the detention center. Afterward, the government decided to deport the prisoners to their own countries.
This was a problem for some of us from Burma because the Burmese government wouldn’t recognize us as citizens and refused to take us. Instead the Malaysian government sold us to human traffickers from Thailand. I was sold for approximately $195 (USD) and would have been made a life-long slave were it not for my brother and uncle, who bought me back.
Once free, I managed to get a job at a Chinese restaurant and worked hard for the next year and a half to help support my family and pay my brother and uncle back.
Life in America
By God’s grace I had the opportunity to come to the U.S. in 2010. I settled in Maryland and finished high school. For three years after that, I worked in a factory warehouse in Indiana.
In 2014 God led me to Iowa to work with the Mizo group in Des Moines. We started with approximately 10 members and have grown to 32, becoming a company last year. Many of our children are receiving an Adventist education, thanks to the Des Moines Church, conference leadership and members across the conference. I believe God has big plans for our future.
Please pray for the Des Moines Mizo Company as we work to reach the large number of Chin and Mizo people in Iowa. Jesus is coming sooner than ever. Let’s prepare ourselves to finish His mission and be ready for His return.
—Stephen Moe Tha Po pastors the Des Moines Karen Company. Joseph Zohming Thanga pastors the Des Moines Mizo Company.