When Jesse Phenow was a 20-year old college student, he became an Arrive Ministries volunteer because he wanted to help welcome a refugee family to the United States.
After being paired with a Karen family of 8, it didn’t take long for Jesse to realize that he was the welcomed, and it would be his life would be impacted forever by this relationship.
“they didn’t need my help as much as they appreciated my friendship.”
“The realness of the situation hit me soon after I stepped into that space. Many people today have preconceived notions of people they have no proximity to. That was me. I thought I would ‘do a good thing’, but once we had close proximity, those notions evaporated. This family, first and foremost, doesn’t need me. They are capable and savvy. Of course I can be a resource, but they didn’t need my help as much as they appreciated my friendship,” says Jesse.
Jesse’s volunteering increased from one day a week to two, and grew exponentially into a “life-changing kinship,” as Jesse calls it.
The Karen family always welcomed Jesse in and shared their space and food; the younger boys wrestled with Jesse like an older brother.
“I was a broke college kid who knew I could find a warm meal. The relationship is symbiotic,” he says.
A Vital Perspective
Jesse speaks very humbly and passionately about the posture he believes we should have towards our neighbors.
How you posture yourself going into a cross-cultural relationship will be what you get from it. If you posture yourself as a learner, it will blow your socks off.
“Posture is everything. How you posture yourself going into a cross-cultural relationship will be what you get from it. If you posture yourself as a learner, it will blow your socks off. You will be so enlightened and glad you did. If you posture yourself as some sort of hero or do gooder, you’re missing out on the beautiful things that come from real and equal friendship. If you think you’re a hero, then you’ve elevated yourself and probably don’t think you have much to learn. Posture is everything. Being a listener and a learner is crucial in stepping into this space.”
Travels to Gain Understanding
Jesse’s early experiences with the family piqued his curiosity to truly understand who they are and where they came from. He was so moved that he bought a one-way plane ticket to Thailand– not to volunteer, but to listen and learn. He stayed a month in southeast Asia near the biggest refugee camp in Thailand. Coincidentally, a man named Ku was living in that refugee camp at that time, a famous Karen singer who would later become Jesse’s future best friend.
When Jesse returned to the states, he felt compelled to join in the Karen and Karenni community’s effort in advocating for the rights of their people.
Founding Urban Village
A generous supporter of Jesse floated the possibility of seeding a non-profit organization in collaboration with the Karen and Karenni community. Thus, the founding of Urban Village, which now stands in St. Paul as a gathering place for events and activities that enrich the lives of the local Karen and Karenni community and its neighbors. The Urban Village is a tribute to the history, culture, and community for local Karen and Karenni people.
Ku was able to immigrate to Minnesota following his time in the refugee camp, and currently lives in St. Paul where he now leads as the Co Executive Director of The Urban Village.
“what we do and have at Urban Village represents our history and our culture. We can use this place to speak up and let other people know about Karen people.”
“This place is very special for the Karen community because what we do and have at Urban Village represents our history and our culture. We can use this place to speak up and let other people know about Karen people,” said Ku. “You see all these paintings that represent our culture, important leaders, and the landscape of our homeland. This place means a lot to me.”
Today, Jesse shares a duplex with the Karen family that adopted him.
“I have a community and a job because of them. All they got out of the deal was a roommate.”
“People will interpret it how they want to, ‘a young white Christian dude living with a family, but this isn’t a charity case. This family was gracious enough to take in a lost college kid. Their kindness, hospitality, and love is astounding. I have a community and a job because of them. All they got out of the deal was a roommate,” remarked Jesse.
Recent article about Jesse Phenow and Ku Hser that aired on MPR News on December 8, 2021:
Minnesotans travel to Myanmar region to support persecuted Karen