If you were holding a bottle of Old Sailor hot sauce — which would be unlikely, as only a couple hundred are produced a year — but if you were, you’d be holding a powerful story. A tale of fear and faith, friendship and starting over. And hot sauce.
Ye Win is the hardest-working man at the Sunday service at All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna. Win translates line by line the sermon by Randy Hoover-Dempsey, including soccer references and jokes, into Karen, a minority language from Southeast Asia that lacks punctuation or conjugation. The jokes must not translate well, because the only people laughing in the congregation are Anglos.
Who are decidedly outnumbered by Karen. Traditional Protestant congregations have been dwindling for decades, including the Episcopal denomination, which has been rocked by controversies over gay clergy and same-sex marriage. All Saints’ active Sunday attendance hit a low of about 37.
And then the ethnic Karen arrived. Resettled in Tennessee from refugee camps in Thailand, the early arrivals searched for a church home. They sent a representative to All Saints’ vicar (a kind of traveling priest) to say a group would like to join All Saints.
And then they just kept coming.
The Karen are very spiritual, very religious people. How religious? The early arrivals lived in apartments a couple miles from All Saints. They walked to services in their traditional flip-flops, even in winter, down roads without sidewalks, crossing busy Lee Victory Parkway, to attend a service in a language they didn’t understand. The pews are packed — some services are standing room only. Between 40 and 60 children are in the nursery during services. A second service was added, but the Karen “all want to see each other and socialize,” said a church member, and no one attended the “other” service. Now they organize among themselves a kind of alternating schedule of attendance.
The Karen complained that the service was not long enough, so they organized a Sunday youth gathering, held in one another’s homes. They attend the funerals of Episcopal church members they don’t even know in other parishes, just because someone they care about knew the deceased. Perhaps most tellingly, Karen attendance doesn’t fall off in the summer. It’s around 150 each Sunday, sometimes peaking at 170. Right now, there’s a waiting list of Karen families wishing to join All Saints.
“The Karen,” one Anglo parishioner explained, “they have nothing, but they are so, so happy.”
It was a dramatic reversal of fortune for All Saints. Before the Karen arrived, there was talk of selling the building and meeting at a school. The church stepped up its efforts to embrace the new members and, frankly, to keep them from drifting to other denominations (coughBaptistcough) that were offering assistance. A food bank opened, and congregants helped with job searches.
A big, fertile patch of bottomland on the church property was disked and irrigated for the Karen to grow the long green beans and sour leaf they missed so much. Parishioner and farm manager David McGee taught them about Tennessee soil, introduced them to weeding and how to grow Tennessee vegetables like okra and tomatoes. They learned how bottomland floods (twice this spring) and how to distinguish Tennessee snakes.
Sour leaf will grow in Tennessee and not many other places in the U.S. Called gongura in India, it’s a highly prized vegetable among the Karen, so a bumper crop in 2011 earned the farmers a pretty piece of profit.
Paul Adams, former Navy man and nonbeliever, was having the devil’s own time giving up cigarettes. His wife Merry suggested he visit clergy at her church, All Saints, for support and encouragement. One thing led to another, and Adams allowed as how he had taught adult literacy and had taught Khmer immigrants English as a second language. He was drafted to help the Karen learn English.
The Karen already had some knowledge of Western ways from a century working alongside the British in multi-ethnic Burma, and from the missionaries who converted approximately 15 percent of Karen to Christianity. The Karen teamed up with the Brits again in World War II to repel the Japanese.
Burma was granted independence in 1947, but Britain declined to get involved in creating a Karen state or ensuring Karen representation in government. A decades-long persecution of the Karen ensued, sometimes erupting into violence and bloodshed that seem calculated to rid Burma of Karen.
Bah So Wah remembers napping alone in his family’s home when government soldiers came to his village. His mother was across the river getting food, and his father and brother were away. When the shooting started, he ran out of the house. He was tempted to hide in a water barrel, but instead jumped into a bunker built for just such an occasion. Helluva thing to have to teach a 3-year-old.
As many as 350,000 Karen fled to Thailand, and about 50,000 were living in refugee camps when resettlement to the U.S. began. The Karen will tell you — there are Karen everywhere in the States: Oregon, Minnesota, North Carolina.
So here they are, on their third home in two decades. There was so much to learn. First things first, though: Tennessee is a place where people have to drive cars to get around. Adams taught the Karen about foreign topics such as intoxication and over-the-counter meds so they could pass the written driver’s license test.
His students asked for classes on ATM use. A Smyrna police officer attended a class to explain that in America, police help is available to anyone. Some classes turn into sessions of “What do Americans mean when they say ... ?” Adams had to explain what Tennesseans mean when they said “fixin’ to,” because the Karen thought something was broken. He taught a class on the American names for chicken parts to help Tyson plant workers.
The children needed homework help and immunizations; the adults needed access to jobs, Social Security and TennCare. They all needed an attorney occasionally — Adams recruited one to counsel Karen clients, who, among other things, couldn’t have imagined that it’s illegal to fish with a net.
Then Adams hit on the idea of getting the Karen involved in one of his occasional hot sauce cooking sessions. See, he had once whipped up a batch of spicy chicken wings for his poker group, and they couldn’t stop talking about the sauce. “I didn’t have a recipe, really just kind of had a guideline, because I never intended to make it again,” he says. He’s been making a couple batches a year for 18 years since the famous Night of the Poker Wings.
Sometimes a few people show up to cook, sometimes a lot. Things start with a prayer to work with God’s hands. The measuring and boiling begin, then it’s time to eat.
Sisters So and Cho have brought Karen coconut rice balls. They’re sticky, chewy, salty and sweet, a perfect snack. I ask, “Are they breakfast, snack or dessert?” “Yes!” answers Cho.
There are also hot dogs and a movie. Lots of immigrants point to television as an essential tool in learning English and picking up American customs. The previous evening, a group had watched the movie Lincoln.
The hot sauce bubbles on the stove. People come and go — the Adams home is pretty much open to visitors. They consider some of the Karen teens as practically their own children.
For the July session, they planned a double batch of regular Old Sailor, a touch hotter than the regular hot sauce from the abundant pickled jalapeños, but with a deep umami flavor from a little butter, a little beer and a little soy sauce. Then they worked up a batch of “Mean n’ Nasty,” Adams’ three-alarm sauce based on a habanero hot sauce, also enriched and flavored up. Then Adams mixes up a batch of Sweet Heat, a combination of Old Sailor and honey (which is crazy-good over ice cream.)
Adams is teaching All Saints teens — including So Paw, Cho Paw, Thaw The Bwe and Sierra — to sell the sauce, thereby earning a sales commission, another American concept. They used the money to buy a rug for the nursery one month. Last month, they donated the profits to Nashville Rescue Mission, along with a few jars of hot sauce.
“See, I taught them to be Americans, and they taught me to be a Christian,” says Adams. “I defy you to spend any time with Karen and not come away blessed.”
When the sauce jars were sealed and labeled, it was time for Cho’s coconut salad, and everyone was excited. Maybe I was the most excited of all. Would it be Asian style, maybe slivers of fresh coconut without a little lime and cilantro, maybe fish sauce and cool rice noodles? Nope. It was good old Tennessee coconut salad with pineapple, a can of tropical fruit and whipped topping, beloved from Memphis to Bristol, homegrown and always welcome at any gathering.
To order a jar of any Old Sailor sauce, email Adams, firstname.lastname@example.org. Be advised, he only makes it when he makes it.