How Majors Steve and Latdavanh Are Loving Their Refugee Neighbors

Apr 21, 2021

On a typical day, Majors Steve and Latdavanh Kounthapanya, officers at The Salvation Army Rockford Tabernacle Corps Community Center, receive at least one phone call from a local school about an issue with a student. They receive similar calls from various government and doctor’s offices about adults. None of them are their relatives, and some they don’t even know. But they always try to help.

“I think most of the Karen people in our area have our number listed as their emergency contact,” Major Steve said. “So, we get calls from the schools when their kids miss a day.” Or when a doctor or government official needs some information about a patient or client.

The Karen (pronounced Kah-REN) are an ethnic group from Myanmar (Burma), many of whom fled their home country due to the political upheaval there in recent years. Most spend several years in refugee camps before getting resettled in other countries, like the U.S., where they usually wind up in concentrated communities, like the one in Rockford. Major Steve estimates that more than 6,000 Karen have migrated into Illinois and more than 2,000 of those have settled in Rockford and the surrounding area.

Dozens of those Karen people have wound up at his church, where they know him as pastor as well as de facto translator, explainer of documents, and emergency contact.

Filling in the Gaps

This ministry to the Karen community came as a surprise to Majors Steve and Latdavanh (pictured above flanking a local Karen family). When they were assigned to the Rockford Tabernacle seven years ago, they were told it was a predominantly Laotian congregation, a logical fit for this couple originally from Laos. But when they arrived, they discovered that the community had shifted. Only one Laotian family remained; many of the remaining congregation of about 100 were Karen. And their needs soon became apparent.

Major Steve explained that another organization helps these refugees get settled initially with a home and a job. But they only assist for the first six months. A few other local organizations and churches offer English classes to the Karen people. The Majors Kounthapanya fill in the many gaps.

“We help them apply for benefits and social security, register their kids for school, apply for citizenship,” Major Steve said, adding that he and his wife tutor many Karen for the citizenship exam and have attended many naturalization ceremonies, always a proud day. “We help people get established. Our job is to take a family with low status and to help them get to a status equal to everyone else.”

This is more challenging than it sounds. Not only have the members of this community been traumatized by the loss of their homeland, but many also came from a more agrarian lifestyle and don’t have the experience or education to get well-paying jobs. Most wind up working manual labor, drawing hope from the fact that their children will get the education and experience needed to secure a brighter future.

Navigating a New World

In the meantime, Major Steve helps them with the day-to-day struggles of navigating a different system, culture, and language. Every Sunday when their church service is done, he is bombarded with Karen carrying various documents – letters from teachers, notes from doctors, court papers. “’Here, pastor,’ they say to me, ‘Explain,’” Major Steve said.

This explaining, which Major Steve does not just at his church but also in government offices and school buildings, is also more challenging than it sounds. He speaks English, Laos, and Thai. This community speaks Karen, a language with several different dialects, and very minimal English. So Major Steve always has an interpreter with him. The DHS officer or other government official speaks English to Major Steve, who translates that into Thai for the interpreter, who translates that into Karen for the client. “That’s our routine every day,” Major Steve said. 

Though it’s a challenge, Majors Steve and Latdavanh find the ministry rewarding. A recent refugee family from Myanmar with five kids had next to nothing when they first met them. The Majors helped the family register the kids for school, get their green cards, apply for benefits and social security. After a few years, the family recently purchased their second car. “They have everything they need now and are living a normal life,” he said. “And we played a part.”

Perhaps the real testament of how important their work is to the Karen community is that those in their congregation keep attending services even though they don’t understand any of the three languages in which Major Steve preaches. “They receive love from us,” he said. “And love has no language.”

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