Featured Stories, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

SeAM — 30 years in the community fabric

For 30 years, members of churches in the Saint Paul Area Synod (ELCA) and members of the St. Paul community have ministered to the needs of refugees coming to the area. Many have carried out this ministry under the auspices of SeAM (Southeast Asian Ministry), housed in the basement of Christ Lutheran Church on University Avenue, near the State Capitol.

Over those 30 years, the tasks have changed a bit; the faces have changed a lot. Early on, Vietnamese refugees came from camps in Thailand. They came carrying bags with little in them, with no family contacts in the Twin Cities, and most were unable to speak English.

SeAM’s Employment Services clients participate in a cooking class sponsored by the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Here Dalton Johnson (chef) demonstrates how to knead pizza dough to Karen employment clients. Photos provided by SeAM

Elders from any culture tend to get left at home to care for little children or because they lack language skills or confidence to ride the bus to get anywhere.

They were soon followed by the Hmong, hill people from Laos, who had assisted American soldiers during the Vietnam war. Some of them were eager to come to Minnesota, because they had helped soldiers from Minnesota who had said they would be welcome here. Cambodians came at about the same time.

The biggest need for these groups was practical items: beds; furniture; clothing and food. Christ Lutheran generously provided space for an ever-growing collection of items. The donation room closed in 1998 because the need was less acute and the congregation needed the space. Arrivals at this time were joining families or were second-migration immigrants (coming from another part of the country). These individuals had time to accumulate some of the “stuff” of living and would usually live with family members for a time.

New generations of New Americans

More recently, SeAM has been helping the Karen, from Myanmar (formerly Burma). Their numbers are particularly high in the northern part of St. Paul and in Roseville, a St. Paul suburb.

“Minnesota has one of the highest populations of Karen refugees in the U.S.,” says SeAM Director Jennifer Schneider.

Many refugees need help speaking and writing English. Capitol Hill English School, run by SeAM and the Ronald M. Hubbs Center for Lifelong Learning (also housed at Christ Church) offers classes several times a week and serves students from the above populations, as well as students from Eritrea, Ethiopia, China, El Salvador, and Mexico.

Elder programs are a highlight for many. Elders from any culture tend to get left at home to care for little children or because they lack language skills or confidence to ride the bus to get anywhere. Once a week, Cambodian elders meet at Christ Lutheran, where they enjoy social activities, health education, and a culturally appropriate meal at SeAM’s weekly Elder Program.

On another day of the week, Hmong elders meet at First Lutheran Church (ELCA) on the East Side of St. Paul. There, church volunteers organize similar activities and learning experiences. On one field trip, the Hmong elders went to the Capitol to see, among other things, the draperies in the governor’s office that were embroidered by Hmong women. In addition, the church provides gardening space for the participants. SeAM’s Hmong parish nurse, Douangta Vang-Sitcler, provides health teaching and blood pressure screening.

Students study together and with mentors at Capitol Hill English School, run by SeAM at Christ Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill.

SeAM board members or Elder Program volunteers regularly recall their own immigrant roots a century or more ago — usually from Northern Europe. For some, working with new arrivals has given them a new understanding of the issues their great-great-grandparents faced.

Celebrating old and new

Birthdays can creep up on a person. SeAM’s 30th birthday did the same. To celebrate, a public party and fundraiser will be held April 30, 2011, at 5:00 p.m., at Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, 1669 Arcade Street North, near Phalen Lake. The celebration will include a social hour, silent auction, authentic Asian dinner, entertainment, and interviews with refugees who have received service from SeAM.

The fundraising goal for this event is $30,000. Money raised will support SeAM’s ongoing ministry, including the parish nurse program, Christmas friendship program, Capitol Hill English School, refugee employment services, elder programs, quilt distribution, and the Hmong handwork consignment shop Pan Dau. Tickets are $30, $15 for students.

To register online, go to www.seam-stpaul.org or call the SeAM office at 651/293-1261. To watch the videos of SeAM clients, go to www.seam-stpaul.org. For more information, contact Jennifer Schneider at seam-stpaul@hotmail.com or 651/293-1261.

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