Gathering place for the Karen

Karen Baptist Church reaches out to growing community of Myanmar workers in S'pore

Naw Nailvin Cho Cho, 27, is a picture of serenity as she wades into the sea off East Coast Park to be baptised by Reverend Timothy Aye, a visiting pastor from Myanmar.

Moments later, the domestic worker and Myanmar national becomes a member of Karen Baptist Church (KBC), the only church in Singapore formed by Karen Christians. The Karen, also known as Kayin, are an ethnic group mostly from the southern half of Myanmar.

Pastor Saw Eh Htoo Nyo, 48, now leads KBC in Singapore with two other pastors.

ALL ARE WELCOME

Some of the farm workers who come are not believers.

But we welcome all; I will not turn them away because they are not Christians.

In 2000, when members of the Karen community in Singapore started gathering to celebrate the Karen New Year, which usually falls in December or January, about 1,500 of them attended. Last year, about 5,000 Karen of various religious persuasions turned up.

PASTOR SAW EH HTOO NYO HELPING THE COMMUNITY

My motivations are not political. I just want to help our community here, especially the lower-wage workers.

PASTOR SAW EH HTOO NYO, who leads Karen Baptist Church with two other pastors

There are no official figures on the number of Karen here, but Pastor Saw has seen an increase.

The growing parish at KBC also points to a growing community of Karen here.

The church began with about 30 people in 1997. Today, about 500 people attend weekly services conducted in the Karen language. More than half of them are domestic workers, while the remainder are construction workers, technicians and professionals.

Historically, the Karen have experienced much persecution in Myanmar. A Karen refugee problem is still ongoing in the country and in neighbouring Thailand.

Pastor Saw says: "My motivations are not political. I just want to help our community here, especially the lower-wage workers."

The hard life of these Karen migrant workers is something the father of two is familiar with.

Pastor Saw came to Singapore in 1995, and worked as an electrician for 15 years before swopping his screwdrivers for sermon notes.


Reverend Timothy Aye, a visiting pastor from Yangon, baptising Naw Nailvin Cho Cho in the waters off East Coast Park on a recent Sunday morning. The domestic worker and Myanmar national is now a member of Karen Baptist Church, the only church in Singapore formed by Karen Christians. The Karen, also known as Kayin, are an ethnic group mostly from the southern half of Myanmar. ST PHOTOS: DESMOND LIM

He enrolled in a local Baptist seminary and is now studying for a master's degree in divinity.

His wife, Naw Soe Gay, was a domestic worker here for seven years. The 42-year-old now spends her weekends cooking traditional Myanmar food for migrant-worker church members pining for home.


Pastor Saw Eh Htoo Nyo (standing) praying with his family and a few church members during a Bible study session one night. Pastor Saw's wife, Naw Soe Gay (in striped shirt), was a domestic worker in Singapore for seven years before they were married, and now spends her weekends cooking traditional Myanmar food for migrant workers. Pictured between the couple are their children, Naw Eh Gay Htoo, 13, and Deborah Htoo, nine, both of whom study in local public schools.ST PHOTOS: DESMOND LIM

But the problem can sometimes be more than just homesickness.

In a three-month period around the end of last year and early this year, Pastor Saw counselled about 20 domestic workers with unplanned pregnancies. A few of them committed suicide.


Church deacon Saw Doo singing during a service. The 72-year-old is a retired doctor who used to work in Singapore’s public hospitals. He is now a permanent resident and his children are citizens.ST PHOTOS: DESMOND LIM

"It's very painful when I come to know about these cases. I try to prevent this from happening by counselling the newly arrived domestic workers," he says.

Once a month, KBC members make their way to the farms in the Lim Chu Kang area with food and necessities for Karen workers at a chicken farm.


Karen Baptist Church members singing Christmas carols with Karen workers by the roadside in Lim Chu Kang Lane 9. The church reaches out to these workers employed by a nearby chicken farm about once a month, giving them home-cooked Myanmar food and necessities like soap and shampoo. According to the church’s pastor, they do this to help fellow members of the Karen community who cannot go to church on Sundays because of work. ST PHOTOS: DESMOND LIM

There, by the roadside and lit only by street lamps, they hold mini services, using the back of lorries as a makeshift stage.

Pastor Saw says: "Some of the farm workers who come are not believers. But we welcome all; I will not turn them away because they are not Christians."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2015, with the headline 'Gathering place for the Karen'. Print Edition | Subscribe