Walking on Stilts with the Karen

Recently, we attended the third anniversary of the Karen Community of Amarillo. This organization has built a strong coalition among various Karen communities in Amarillo, and is now seeing incredible success (including receiving recent grants from Tyson Foods and Amarillo Area Foundation). This was an opportunity to celebrate their success, and also to honor the recent Karen graduates from local high schools and colleges.

As I (Ryan) sat in the crowd listening to songs and speeches, I began to get a picture in my head of what it was like to walk on stilts as a child. Strange, right? I thought about how challenging it was to overcome my fear from an early fall, and to learn to walk forward confidently. “Why am I thinking about stilts right now?” I thought to myself. Then suddenly I realized that I had never seen the event’s program. I started to worry that I might be in the program. “What if I am scheduled to give a speech?” I motioned to my neighbor to find me a copy.

As I looked down the long schedule of speeches, I jumped when I saw my name. “Oh! Number 14! I’m three speeches away. What am I going to say?” I thought again about the stilts. In that brief moment, I asked my neighbor for the Burmese word for stilts, and quickly committed the phrase to memory. Ignoring the next two speeches, I couldn’t stop thinking about stilts. I prayed for something meaningful that would bless these people I love so dearly…

“Next, we invite Dr. Ryan Pennington to the stage,” the emcee announces. I walk up the steps, still with only the vaguest idea of what I might say.

“Good afternoon everyone! I’d like to tell you a story about my childhood. I want to tell you about walking on stilts.” The interpreter looks over at me confused, and I tell him the Burmese word for stilts. He laughs, with an understanding smile growing across his face, and interprets the rest of the sentence. “How many of you walked on stilts as children?” I ask. Almost every hand raised. “Wow,” I thought, “Stilts are a big part of their culture!” At this point, the entire room is animated. We’ve connected over this shared experience.

Stilts on the cover of a literacy primer written in the Karenni language of Myanmar.

Pulling one microphone stand close to me to represent a stilt, I explain that the first stilt represents education. “Education is very important, but it cannot get us very far by itself. We fall down unless we have the second stilt.” I pull the second microphone stand next to my other leg. “The second stilt is community support. We need our families, our parents, and our communities. We cannot succeed by ourselves. We must depend on one another. We cannot accomplish our goal without both education and community support. Together, they help us to make progress. We can succeed.”

“But do we still fall?” I ask. Everyone in the crowd nods. “Yes, of course we fall! The journey is difficult. When I was a child, I remember falling, and I remember becoming too afraid to look down. But my father knelt in front of me, urging me to continue. ‘Come toward me,’ he said. So I fixed my gaze on my father and forgot about my fears. Still though, I fell. I wasn’t perfect. And my father rushed toward me and helped me back up again. He encouraged me to keep trying, and to fix my eyes on him again. He watched me compassionately and rushed to me every time I fell.”

I explained that I believe we have a Spiritual Father who does this for us too. Yes, we need education and community support, but we will still fall. We’re not perfect. I believe that we have Someone who cares for us. He invites us to walk toward Him. He rushes to us when we fall, and he holds our hands as we try again. He never gives up on us. He wants us to thrive and flourish!

After the speech, I was given the privilege of handing out certificates to each of the college graduates. I beamed as I celebrated these young people who have taken so many steps toward their goals, overcoming every obstacle with the support of their communities.

As I passed out the certificates, I reflected on how God orchestrated this day. I had almost decided to stay home, but here I was delivering an unplanned speech and honoring graduates. So often, we just don’t know how God will use us. Are you willing to extend kinship to the displaced? How might God want to use you to bless the refugee communities of this city?

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