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From Refugee to Seminarian

In recent years, about 6,000 Myanmar (formerly Burma) refugees have sought new lives in Fort Wayne, Ind., as their home country transitions to a democracy. Many of the city’s churches, like Southwest Lutheran, have been stepping up and playing an integral role in caring for these refugees. The church provides ministry for the youth and children of the Christian families of the Karen ethnic group and it was this ministry that brought Soe Moe to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and started him on the journey to pastoral ministry.

Soe is now a first-year student in Concordia Seminary’s Ethnic Immigrant Institute for Theology (EIIT) Program, a specialized distance education program for men and women who want to serve immigrant and English as a Second Language (ESL) communities as pastors or deaconesses in North America.

Soe tells his story:
“Because of the civil war, we had to leave Burma for our safety. Before we moved to a refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Burma, we stayed at some other local camp sites. I was three when the Burmese military came into camp and burned all our houses and farms. All the people in camp had to run away and couldn’t take anything with them. Staying in the jungle was hard because we didn’t have anything to eat or drink. Some people died with high fevers. After a few weeks we couldn’t live in the camp anymore. People just started to walk out of the camp but they had no idea where they were going. It was horrible to see people crying and looking for their children. My family decided to move out because we knew God would be with us all the time, no matter what. We started to walk around the jungle and saw a small camp site and saw some soldiers. We thought it was the Burmese soldiers so we got scared. But then they started to call us to come up to them. We went closer and they were Thai soldiers. My mom speaks Thai so she talked with them, and the soldiers took us to a camp where some other Karen people lived. After a while there, some people from the United Nations moved us to a new camp far away from Burma. The camp was beautiful, surrounded by mountains and rivers. People were really kind and nice to each other so they didn’t mind my grandpa building a church in the camp. We had a lot of people come and join us at church and worship together. After more years of living in the refugee camp, the United Nations wanted to give us the chance to choose a better life in another country. It was going to be hard but we knew God would always be with us and protect us. Our parents made a choice and now we are in America. It was really hard to start a life here again but we knew we were going to be OK.”

While some family members connected with the Fort Wayne Baptist Church in town and others remained Buddhist, Soe became involved with the youth programs at Southwest Lutheran Church and later become a member of the church.

Southwest Lutheran member Laura Burger works with the church’s youth and is called “Mama” by many, including Soe, who she considers to be a “heart son.” She says: “There has always been something special about him. He’s got an amazing heart for the Lord and a heart for other people.”

Many refugee teenagers, once they graduate from high school, get jobs or join the U.S. military. Soe considered joining the military, but when he tore his ACL in a sports injury, it became clear the military was not going to be his calling. Through encouragement from Burger and others at Southwest, Soe volunteered at Camp Lutherhaven in Indiana, a Lutheran camp that is part of the National Lutheran Outdoor Ministry Association (NLOMA). This experience changed him and his perspective.

“I am a child of God. He created me, He put me here and He will be and always is taking care of me.”
— Soe Moe

“I got a job working in the kitchen at Camp Lutherhaven in the summer of 2016,” he says. “After working with the children during ‘All Nations Outreach’ week, I felt more and more moved that those young people need to hear about Jesus. I shared my testimony with many people and my story touched lives. [The summer of 2017], I was a counselor at Lutherhaven, and that changed me even more. My eyes opened up, and I felt God’s calling.”

After working at the camp, he said he started praying, asking God for help as he applied to the Seminary’s EIIT Program. His passion for faith and ministry grew. Rev. Joe Ferry of Southwest Lutheran Church, Soe’s pastor and EIIT mentor, has watched Soe’s gifts develop and unfold. Ferry was with Soe on the Seminary campus in August for Orientation week and was there when Soe received his assignment as an EIIT vicar.

“He’s really excited about Lutheran theology,” Ferry says. “He gives me energy! He has a passion for people who are where he was. Because he knows Jesus, he was delivered from so many things that could have been. He has people pouring into him.”

Burger sees in Soe the characteristics of a good pastor. “He’s young, but he’s respected,” she says. “He has an influence on not only his Christian friends, but his non-Christian friends as well. He has a way of loving without judging. I literally see him grow almost day by day. He’s an inspiration for so many of us.”

The EIIT Program isn’t easy, but Ferry believes Soe will not only do well but excel in his preparation to be a pastor. “It’s about attitude and confidence. He knows his pastor, his church and the Seminary have confidence in him,” Ferry says.

As Soe continues this journey, daily discovering the answer to the question, “What will my life be?,” he trusts his heavenly Father.

“I am a child of God. He created me, He put me here and He will be and always is taking care of me,” Soe says. “When I was 9 or 10 years old, I was wondering what I would be doing when I got older. Living in the refugee camp — is this it? Isn’t there anything better out there? This life I am living now is more than a dream come true. I can share my faith and share the love of Jesus anywhere I go.”

Rebekah Lukas is a second-year Deaconess Studies student at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.