Minister gives back to congregation

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On Sundays, Pastor Isaac Moo, 30, leads a service for 30-40 Karen families in Lincoln. He says about 120 Karen have joined the Karen congregation.

Story and photos by Jaclyn Tan

Sunlight streams in through tall stained glass windows at First Baptist Church in Lincoln, Neb., on a Sunday afternoon, lighting Pastor Isaac Moo’s 5-foot-5-inch frame as he preaches from the pulpit.

“It’s a responsibility for the preacher,” Moo said. “We need to let people know what God wants them to do.”
Every Sunday from 12:30-2 p.m., Moo addresses 40-50 Karen refugee men, women and children in a Karen church service. He said about 60 Karen families are members of the church.

Moo became a Christian on Oct. 4, 1994, while he was still in his village in Burma. Even though Buddhism is the largest religion in Burma, Moo said most Karen people are Christian — specifically Baptist.

Baptist missionaries reach the Karen

It all started with an American Baptist missionary, Adoniram Judson. “I have some story here,” Moo said as he opened a spiral bound college notebook containing his notes from seminary school.

He traced his finger across a page filled with curvy Karen script. “This is the first person who received Christ: Ko Tha Pyu. He is a Karen,” he said. “He became the first Christian because of Baptist missionaries from America.”

That was in 1828. Through the work of Baptist missionaries and Judson translating the Bible into Burmese, more Karen have become Baptist Christians, Moo said.
The Karen is a minority ethnic group in Burma persecuted by the Burmese military government. Karen armed forces fought back in the 1940s, starting a civil war that continues today.

“When the Burmese come, (the Karen) just run and escape to the jungle,” Moo said. “When the Burmese go back, (the Karen) just go back to their village.”

Many Karen fled to refugee camps, waiting to be resettled in other countries. In 2006, Harry L. Riggs II, lead pastor of First Baptist Church, got connected to one of the first Karen refugee families to be resettled in Lincoln. “These refugees came looking for Baptist homes,” Riggs said, because they were already Baptist Christians.

Moo himself arrived in the United States as a refugee in August 2007. Before that he lived for 10 years in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border after being separated from his family.

In 1997, Burmese and Karen military forces clashed near his village. As villagers scattered, Moo, his mother and his three brothers ran in different directions. He hasn’t seen his family since.

Pastor Moo pauses for reflection.

“I didn’t get a chance to contact with them because they live in a rural area,” he said. “They don’t have any telephone.”

Moo said he would like to go home and visit them some day, but he doesn’t know when that will be. “I miss them. Sometimes I saw them in my dreams,” he said softly. “It’s hard.”

Driven by beliefs

Moo speaks softly and smiles often. But as he preaches in his native language, Karen, his voice echoes inside the church’s main hall and he furrows his brow in earnestness.

After he became a Christian, Moo felt compelled to share his beliefs as he studied more and more of the Bible. “(God) taught us that we need to let the people know what God said, and listen to him and obey him,” Moo said.

“He’s a nice pastor, but he’s a young pastor,” said Heh Wah, one of the few translators in the Karen community. She said Karen pastors are usually more than 30 years old when they get done with a four-year Bible school program in Burma. Moo, 30, graduated from seminary school in the refugee camp when he was 25.

But Heh Wah said Moo is hard-working and the Karen community likes him. “He has had a lot of experience,” she said. “He learned a lot in the refugee camp.”

That’s where Moo met his “grandfather,” Cyril Sein, 73, with whom he now shares a 2-bedroom apartment in downtown Lincoln. They met at the Mae Ra Moe refugee camp where Sein was a pastor. Since neither of them had family, they decided to adopt one other. “I just came to the camp and we talk to each other and we decided he should be my grandpa,” Moo said with a small laugh.

Not ordained but liked and accepted

To support Sein and himself, Moo works in a local meat-packing plant. From Monday to Friday — sometimes Saturdays and Sundays — Moo strips meat from carcasses and puts the meat on a conveyor belt. “My sense is that that takes him away from what he loves, which is serving the church,” Riggs said. “But he does it. He’s a good guy, a hard-working and committed gentleman.”

Although Moo leads the Karen congregation at First Baptist Church, he has not been ordained in America and doesn’t receive a salary from the church.

In the Baptist Church, the congregation ordains its pastor. The Karen congregation wants to formally ordain Moo as a pastor this year, Heh Wah said, but he declined because he wants to learn more about Christianity first.

Ordained or not, Riggs doesn’t have a problem with Moo leading the Karen congregation. “Bottom line is Pastor Isaac is their pastor.” Riggs said. “He serves that group of people. He does not marry, hold communion, or baptize, but he’s their pastor.”

The Karen congregation calls an ordained Karen pastor from Omaha to conduct the formal ceremonies that Moo can’t, Riggs said.
Moo said he doesn’t have time to further his education at Bible school yet. “I have to take care of my grandpa,” he said. “But later if I have the chance, I want to do that.”