- Associated Press - Saturday, February 14, 2015

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - In the early days, when Jim Keller committed within himself and to his family that he would remain in Fort Wayne to help needy Burmese residents, the pastor would often venture out into the city to find his flock. But before he did, his son Peter, 3 years old at the time, would send up a prayer.

“My wife and kids would load up, and we’d go to the south side of town to the Asian markets and look for Burmese,” Keller says. “And my son would pray, ‘Dear Jesus, please let us meet a Burmese person.’”

Sure enough, Peter’s prayer would be answered. Except there was one minor drawback. “We’d meet the same guy every time,” Keller says with a grin.

Eventually, in the 16 years since he began his service in 1999 and surrendered his young man’s ambition of being a minister overseas, Keller has not only found Burmese in need of his help, but they have sought him, as well. Peter, 19 now, along with his mother, brother and seven sisters, helps his father with what has become a family calling.

Keller - a 1984 graduate of Concordia Lutheran High School, where he was a two-time city wrestling champion - has not only cemented his own Fort Wayne roots as senior pastor of New Life Lutheran Church, he oversees a separate Burmese outreach organization, Lutheran Agency for Missions to Burmese (LAMB).

Keller, 49, likes to say LAMB is a 2 1/2-person staff - himself, Taylor Htoo Aung and part-time helper Kyaw Sann, who is paid for 20 hours but often works 40. And then there is the rest of the Keller brood, all the way down to his 7- and 5-year-old daughters, Elizabeth and Anna.

“The younger ones will play with the other kids, and they pray for a lot of people,” Keller tells The Journal Gazette (https://bit.ly/1zSSw3B ). “At the church, they lead and help with our Sunday school hour. They’re active in different youth groups that we run.

“The one at our house on Saturdays, we have about 40 kids come for Bible study and fellowship. They’re almost all Burmese. But our kids are active that way, by sharing their toys and their space.”

Keller was still a student at Concordia Seminary and a field worker at the New Life church when he was shown a newspaper article about Fort Wayne’s increasing Burmese population. “These people need to hear about Jesus,” he was told by a friend.

“So the church asked if I would explore the possibility of working among the Burmese, and they paid me a small stipend during the summer between my first and second years (of seminary).”

He studied the language, familiarized himself with the culture and listened to their needs. No longer did he have to seek Burmese to attend his 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. services - the latter given in their language by an interpreter, even though Keller’s Burmese was improving. Many of the local Burmese population were now coming to him, seeking his friendship and guidance.

“He does almost everything for people when they’re looking for help with anything and everything,” says Peter Keller, who doesn’t recall his youthful prayers. “He helps with their legal problems, and getting used to living in America, and their doctor appointments. They really respect him.

“I’ve heard of people that have told their relatives about him, and that some people when they come to the United States, the first time they see him, they knew him from the camps (in Myanmar). People show them pictures and stuff. That’s kind of interesting.”

LAMB was founded in 2003, mostly through Keller’s persistence. There is some corporate sponsorship, but the organization is funded mostly through private donations.

“We run our center at the (Autumn Wood Apartments) complex 2 1/2 days a week, and people come with all kinds of problems,” Keller says of LAMB. “They know when we’re there, and they just come. If we can help them, we will; if not, we try to find out who can.”

From health care forms to job application forms to notes from their children’s schools to medication prescriptions, Keller says there seems to be an endless train of paperwork to complete for many Burmese who have difficulty with the English language. Keller and his staff assist in obtaining food stamps for the needy. They help with getting green cards and assist with U.S. citizenship tests. They find caregiving for the sick and the elderly.

Until the hours became too long and volunteers grew weary and stepped aside, Keller says he and his family would tutor high school students until 2 a.m.

“Many of their parents didn’t have much of an education, so they didn’t know how to help their children with advanced math or science,” he says. “They didn’t know anything about U.S. history or government. That was what we did. We worked with them when we first started doing this.”

Still, his ministry continues, often six days a week. But even on his day off, he admits he can’t ignore his cellphone when it rings. Somebody needs him. Somebody wants his help.

“If you don’t meet the need at the time, there might not be a long-term relationship,” Keller says. “Part of it is equipping them to be able to do more on their own so they don’t always come to us and say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ You’re always going to have some who can’t, but we’ve had a lot that we’ve worked with over the years that, as we’ve helped them and they’ve seen how to do it, are able to help others.”

At one time, he had dreams of going to Asia to be a minister. Or maybe Latin America. The world was his to imagine.

Now he is nearly 50, with wire-rimmed glasses and thinning hair - far removed from the Concordia wrestler who won city championships in the 126- and 132-pound weight classes.

“I really had my heart going overseas, not going to the south side of Fort Wayne,” he says. “But once that decision was made, there was a great peace.

“I’m pretty happy. I’m pretty content.”


Information from: The Journal Gazette, https://www.journalgazette.net

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