The name Karen is given to a number of ethno-linguistic people groups who originated from Myanmar (Burma) or Thailand. More specifically, they originated from two Myanmar states (Karen state and Kayah state) or from refugee camps in Thailand.
The various Karen peoples include ...
Sgaw Karen - their homeland is the highlands of the Karen state of Myanmar. A majority profess Christianity with a minority being heterodox Buddhists who profess strong animist beliefs.
Pwo Karen - their homeland is the lowlands in the Karen state of Myanmar. A small minority profess Christianity with a majority being more orthodox Buddhists.
Karenni - also known as the Red Karen, Kayah or Kayahli (meaning "red human"). Their homeland is the Kayah state in Myanmar. The majority are Theravada Buddhists mixed with animistic beliefs and practices.
To understand the Karen peoples means to understand their historical journey to North America. They sought for independence from the Myanmar regime. As a result, hundreds of thousands had to flee to refugee camps while many others were internally displaced persons within the Karen state or killed. The refugees were concentrated in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. According to refugee accounts, the camps suffered from overcrowding, disease, and periodic attacks by the Myanmar army. Many Karen people lived for years in such conditions before making their way to North America.
When the Karen peoples started resettling in North America, they had problems fitting in and adjusting to their new country. One reason for this difficulty was because they moved from living a rural agricultural lifestyle to an urban metro environment. Or, some grew up on a refugee camp knowing very little outside a refugee camp. Moreover, a large majority did not speak English or French on their arrival making their transition difficult.
Many initially settled in Nebraska, southern California and central New York. However, now they are seen in many metro areas throughout North America.
The Karen languages consist of three mutually unintelligible branches: Sgaw, Pwo, and Pa'o. Karenni (Red Karen) and Kayan belong to the Sgaw branch.
Even though many Karen claim Christianity, animism is still alive among Karen peoples. Karen animism is defined by a belief in klar (soul), thirty-seven spirits that embody every individual. Misfortune and sickness are believed to be caused by klar that wander away, and death occurs when all thirty-seven klar leave the body.
A good percentage of Karen peoples in North America are Christians, especially among the Sgaw Karen. However, even among some Karen Christians, animism is still alive or they are in name only Christian. This is especially true among new generations of Karen people in North America.
Pray God will work in the lives of Karen Christians as they share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pray they will see beyond their own grouping to reach other Karen peoples.
Pray God will send revival among Karen Christians, especially newer generations, reviving their zeal and commitment toward a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Pray Karen Christians will cross-cultures to share the Gospel with the least reached peoples in North America.
"After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb." (Revelation 7:9, NIV)