On a recent afternoon, about a dozen women and children and two men crowd into what once was the living/dining room of an apartment in the Autumn Woods complex on Fort Wayne’s southeast side.
They’ve lined up to see the Rev. James Keller, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor, and his helper, Kyaw Sann of Fort Wayne.
While Keller hunches over a laptop tapping out an application for a green card for one refugee, Sann gets a call on his smartphone. He gets up and heads over to Keller. A refugee has a doctor’s appointment at Parkview Hospital and needs a ride.
Who’s picking him up? Sann asks.
Timothy, Keller says, barely looking up. He should be there any minute.
Then it’s on to Sann’s next task – going through a handful of envelopes filled with bills aOnd government paperwork handed him by one of the women seated in front of him.
It’s just a typical Thursday for the pair, both affiliated with LAMB – Lutheran Agency for Missions to Burmese. The 11-year-initiative aids those who fled the nation of Myanmar, formerly Burma, and have settled in Fort Wayne through programs such as this weekly help center.
Keller, who speaks Burmese, and the Rev. David Strable, both pastors at New Life Lutheran Church, 2424 Coliseum Blvd. S., used to work together at the center. But since the summer of 2011, Sann, a refugee himself, has become Keller’s right-hand man and a rising leader within Fort Wayne’s Burmese refugee community.
Sann has translated for Burmese-language worship services at New Life, where more than half the members are refugees and their families. He also has worked as house manager for a LAMB-affiliated transitional-living home for refugees; has translated Bible study materials into Burmese; has helped develop LAMB’s Burmese website; and manages the agency’s English as a second language program.
At New Life, he’s been a church elder. And, in January, the 42-year-old was unanimously elected New Life’s president. Denomination officials say he is the first person of Burmese descent to have that role in the Lutheran synod’s more than 6,300 congregations.
Born into a Buddhist family, Sann has a story similar to that of many refugees from his homeland. As a high school student, he joined the pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi in the late 1980s, he says, participating in anti-government demonstrations in his hometown of Taungoo.
He fled to the jungle in Karen state in eastern Burma, not far from Taungoo, when soldiers cracked down on demonstrators.
The army has taken the government power and (was) making trouble among the people. Those involved in the demonstrations, they capture, and ask who the leaders are, he says. They go into the villages and they question parents.
Fearing for his family because authorities imprisoned and killed people no matter what they said, Sann says, he joined the Karen National Union, organized freedom fighters. He became a medic, treating the sick and injured and training others in medical tasks.
He met his wife, Ma Cho, a Roman Catholic Christian, when she came for medical training, he says. But both were forced to flee again, to Thailand, after the military took control of Karen state.
There, he met Dr. Cynthia Aung, who ran a clinic for refugees near the border, and resumed medical work. He and his wife then spent two years in Nu Po refugee camp in Thailand – teeming with as many as 15,000 people – before they were able to repatriate, with daughters Josephana, now 16, and Christina, now 10, and son Henary, now 13, all overseas.
Keller was the first American whom Sann got to know after arriving in Fort Wayne in 2007, he says.
He was very, very kind, he says. The pastor helped him find a place to live and steered him to social services.
He was already a Christian, he says, because I wanted to have in my family one religion and had come to accept Christ. But Keller taught him more through children’s Bible stories and answered his questions, he says, and people at New Life – refugees and Americans alike – came to trust him.
Through his job as the transitional home manager, Sann saved enough to buy a house, he says, and all the children are in school.
Sann stresses that he serves all refugees regardless of their religion or ethnic background. At present, many of the newly arrived are Muslim from the Karen region – evidenced by women wearing headscarves waiting in line to speak to him as their children play with a tub of colorful plastic blocks in the corner.
Sann speaks Burmese and learned English in school beginning in fifth grade. That helps him as he navigates cultures, Keller says.
Sann is Bamar – or Burman – and therefore a member of the nation’s largest ethnic group. But he treats all refugees fairly, Keller says.
He says Sann is a blessing, adding: He’s just dedicated himself in growing in leadership in the congregation and the community.
Keller laughs at a visitor’s observation that, as a New Life elder and now president, Sann technically is his boss.
Sann laughs as well, shaking his head from side to side. No, no, he says. I feel that we are working for Christ together.