Published December 6, 2018
ATHENS—On Oct. 13, the joy was visible on the faces of seven couples, the women clad in the colorful, traditional sarongs of their Karenni culture and the men in their native vests or in the coats and ties of their adopted American culture.
Deacon Jim Gaudin of St. Joseph Church, Athens, had prepared seven couples, who came to Georgia from Thailand, for the sacrament of matrimony. The deacon presided at their weddings on the same October Saturday.
The older children of the couples joined in the celebration while the youngest ones were cared for by volunteers in the nursery of the church. The couples were united through the sacrament of marriage, a desire that they had each expressed to Jennifer Drago, a St. Joseph parishioner. Drago and her husband have ministered to the Karenni families who have made a home for themselves and live as a close-knit community in Comer, 30 miles east of Athens.
Most of the couples arrived in Comer after living in refugee camps for years as persecuted minorities.
Their move to Georgia five years ago was facilitated by Jubilee Partners, a residential Christian community in Comer that works in the resettlement of immigrants from Central America, Bosnia, Thailand and a number of other areas. The decision to the United States and leave their native land and culture was motivated by conflict, violence, discrimination and poverty.
The Karenni community in Comer numbers about 75 people. Most of them are Catholic, having been baptized in Thailand while living in camps. A few of the community members have been driving to Athens on Sundays for Mass at St. Joseph for several years. The Catholics and those from other Christian denominations meet each Sunday morning to pray, sing hymns and to read and discuss the Holy Scriptures to sustain their faith. Their desire to be married in Catholic Church prompted seven of the couples to ask Drago for help. Most of the couples had been living together as husband and wife for several years, and each has been blessed with two or more children. Three of the couples had been married civilly, while four had not. None of them had previously been married to other people.
Drago contacted Deacon Gaudin concerning the process of preparing the men and women to receive the sacrament. Deacon Gaudin previously presided at a communion service in one of the Karenni homes and at two funerals. He informed Drago about the process and the necessary forms to be completed prior to the celebration of the sacrament. She worked for several months with the couples to complete the necessary forms, obtain the documents to verify their baptisms in Thailand and to identify witnesses for each couple for the marriages.
The task of marriage preparation was difficult because only three of the couples speak English. Deacon Gaudin acquainted Drago with the online “Prepare/Enrich” pre-marriage assessments and preparation program and put together simple handouts on the basic theology of marriage and the vows. Although the couples had limited understanding of the assessment instruments, Jennifer coached them through the completion of the instruments with the help of the couples who spoke English.
The deacon met with the couples as a group and individually to instruct them about Christian marriage and discuss the results of the Prepare/Enrich assessments. The English -speaking couples assisted those who did not speak English to understand the instructions and the results of their assessments.
The assessments indicated strong, positive relationships with good communication, role flexibility, openness to change and mutual sharing of tasks and responsibilities by the individual couples.
The Catholic Karenni community has happily made a home for themselves in Comer. They are self-supporting through the employment of the men in the chicken processing plants nearby. They meet regularly as a group in their homes on Sundays and other days to share meals and friendship and to support each other. Many study and attend ESOL classes at a local elementary school, where classes are taught by volunteers, including the Dragos.
St. Joseph welcomes the new parishioners to add to the already active multi-cultural community and anticipates welcoming the newlyweds at Sunday Mass. The next task is to baptize the children of the couples and to enroll the older children in religious education classes or provide materials to aid the parents in the instruction of their children in the faith.