Awana connects with immigrant families

Bethesda congregation reaches out to diverse community, including Karen immigrants

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Small group "book time" during Awana at Bethesda Church in Huron, South Dakota, is when students focus on studying and memorizing Scripture. Leaders have adapted the program to better meet the needs of the immigrant and unchurched children they host. Photo: Bethesda Church

Members of Bethesda MB Church in Huron, South Dakota, didn’t expect they would be involved in cross-cultural missions and discipleship—until 15 years ago when immigrants from Myanmar, historically known as Burma, as well as Brazil, China, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, India, Nepal, South Korea, Vietnam and Puerto Rico became their next-door neighbors.

“God’s bringing the nations to us and that’s really cool,” says Katelyn Duba, a youth group and Awana volunteer at Bethesda.

Awana commander Brion Stahl agrees. “It’s great how God has brought them here,” he says. “We didn’t have to get on a plane and go over there—they’re just coming to us.”

Prior to 2005, about 97 percent of children in Huron schools were white. Today 28 percent of kids in Huron schools are Latino while 21 percent are Asian. In 2018, the Huron area took in more people from abroad and Puerto Rico, as a share of its 18,800 population, than any other place in the U.S. In less than 15 years, the community has gone through a demographic transformation that usually takes generations, says a recent news report chronicling the changes in the community following a resurgence in the meatpacking industry.

Most of the Asian immigrants are Karen (kuh-REN), members of an ethnic minority group from Myanmar who left their homes as refugees to escape persecution.

Awana commander Brion Stahl leads the group session. Photo: Bethesda Church

One way the Bethesda congregation is connecting with these Karen neighbors is through Awana, a worldwide ministry for children that focuses on evangelism and discipleship. The Bethesda Wednesday night program invites preschool through middle school children to learn about Jesus through Bible memorization, Bible stories and group discussion. The clubs include Cubbies, ages 3-4; Sparkies, kindergarten through second grade; TNTers, grades three through six; and Splash for grades seven and eight.

Stahl and Duba serve along with 18 other leaders who help with memorization, teaching the lessons, organizing game time and leading singing time.

“We take our talents and our creativity, and we try to use them to reach whatever kids come in,” says Stahl.

A typical Awana night at Bethesda has three parts—large group time, game time and book time. As a large group, kids hear the Bible lesson, which is always rooted in a passage of Scripture, and sing a few songs related to the lesson. For game time, the clubbers expend some energy and participate in activities chosen by the leaders.

Because the Bible has been translated into the language of the Karen, there are a variety of languages among the Bibles children bring to Awana. Photo: Bethesda Church

The crux of Bethesda’s Awana ministry, says Stahl, occurs during book time, which is spent in smaller groups divided by grade with a small group leader. The leader takes the clubbers through the Bible lesson and emphasizes the context of the verse or passage and also helps them learn the verse in a way that they will remember and understand. The leaders also explain the meanings of the words in the passage so that the students can easily apply the stories to their lives.

These small group leaders, which include Duba, experience the most direct interaction with the clubbers, says Stahl.

Duba, who grew up in Huron and attended Awana as a clubber, works full time as the communications and program director at Byron Bible Camp, located about 20 miles north of Huron, which partners with Bethesda for ministry in numerous ways.  She also serves at Huron public schools as the assistant high school girls soccer coach.

All of these responsibilities give Duba the chance to minister to many of Huron’s young people and especially to the young Karen girls who account for around 80 percent of the soccer team. She has been able to develop relationships with them and learn more about their lives, their culture and their spiritual perspective.

Most of the Karen families came to Huron to work at Dakota Provisions, a plant employing 1,200 that provides full processing for turkey meat. Many of the Karen people immigrate to the Minneapolis area and then make their way to Huron, following other Karen refugees who began arriving in Huron in 2005 to work in the new meatpacking plant. Huron’s Karen Association puts the town’s current Karen population at about 2,500.

Most of the Karen people have some sort of faith or religious grounding. According to Anthony Lind, Bethesda’s associate/youth pastor since 2010, Baptist missionaries shared the gospel with the Karen people in Burma in the early 1900s, which started a tradition of faith in Jesus.

Huron is home to several Karen churches. These churches have no programming for children, opening the door for Karen children to be a part of Awana. Bethesda congregants connect with parents and other adults through one-on-one interaction outside the church walls.

Lind says that Bethesda believers treat the Karen as neighbors and friends. Because of this, Bethesda has been able to minimize the cultural divide in Huron while still acknowledging, honoring and trying to understand the Karen culture.

The Bethesda congregation takes responsibility and ownership for reaching out to others around them, including Karen adults and children, and they don’t always wait for the church to form an official outreach plan or coordinate something. They just do it on their own, says Duba.

“That’s a huge part of it—just to take ownership,” she says.

Duba has been able to build relationships with girls who attend Karen churches. She remembers one Karen girl sharing that Karen people know about Jesus but don’t know what it means to follow him, and that their churches meet primarily for community.

Hearing this caused Duba to shift her approach from telling the girls she coaches about Jesus to showing them how to follow Jesus through her actions.

“It’s cool that when I come to practice, a lot of them already know that I love Jesus, so they’re a lot more open about it,” Duba says.

Game time is one of the three components of Awana at Bethesda Church. Photo: BC

Because of the changes in recent years in who attends Awana, the program has shifted its focus. Stahl says that leaders have been working hard to identify the differences between ministering to churched kids and unchurched kids, both of which are equally represented on Wednesday nights.

The program now focuses on solid memorization and deeper analysis of Bible stories for church kids and emphasizes the basics of the gospel for the unchurched kids.

Another group that is special to Stahl is the foster kids who come to Awana.

“We have several families that have foster kids,” he says. “Broken homes and hurting kids that we have a chance to minister to.”

Leaders focus on loving and accepting the children for who they are.

“We mention a lot, especially in our large group, how God created them special, there’s no one like them, he didn’t make a mistake when he created them,” Stahl says.

Stahl remembers a foster girl who came to Awana from a Muslim home and had never heard about Jesus. 

“She was very interested in hearing and learning about Jesus. She was like a sponge,” Stahl says. 

He says that the girl’s foster parents, who attended Bethesda, encouraged her to pursue Jesus and that she accepted Jesus as her Savior. But then, she needed to go back to her home with her mom, and the people at Bethesda have lost contact with her. 

“While we only had a short time with her we were able to share Jesus. We pray that she will become a vibrant follower of Jesus,” says Stahl.

Lind attributes the success of the Awana program to the strong core of leaders that have opened themselves up to change and have welcomed clubbers from all different backgrounds.

In the midst of significant changes in the Huron community and in Bethesda’s Awana program, the goal remains consistent. Awana’s theme this year is “Know, Love and Serve Christ,” and the believers at Bethesda have been practicing that themselves and inviting those around them to do the same.

Toby Penner
Toby Penner is from Elbing, Kansas and is a junior at Tabor College majoring in communications and English. In addition to serving as an intern at the Christian Leader for the spring 2021 semester, Penner is a member of the college track team and is the editor of the Tabor View , the student publication.

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