Dennis Sang – New Intern at Trinity United Presbyterian Church, Indianola

From Indianola Advocate – October 3, 2021

Sometimes a leap of faith is more like a global expedition.

Such was the case for Dennis Dawt Lian Sang, 24, the new pastoral intern at Trinity United Presbyterian Church.

He grew up in Myanmar in Southeast Asia and “did not dream of coming to United States.” But a persistent tugging at his spirit had other plans.

“I received God’s call that I can’t ignore,” he said. “I was 18 at the time. … ‘I have to do this.’”

“This” was going into the Presbyterian ministry in the United States – not a common endeavor in Myanmar. While the country is said to include more than 100 ethnic groups, they’re mostly united in their practice of Buddhism.

“We are very diverse. We have our own cultures and religions,” said Sang. “Christianity is only six percent. But Buddhist is 90-something.”

But then, Sang’s family was already part of the minority. His father is a Presbyterian minister and, like Sang, now lives in Des Moines. Sang’s maternal grandfather was one of the founders of the Evangelical Free Church in Myanmar.

Still, Sang’s first ambition wasn’t religion, but law. In his home country, he’d faced hardships ranging from unfair to horrific.

For instance, Sang wasn’t allowed to speak his native language in school, he said. There are 50 dialects in his home state, but he had to speak Burmese, using an English-based alphabet created in the past by British missionaries.

“The church tried to figure out how to learn our own language,” added Sang, who is fluent in six languages, having added English in 2019. “In the summer, our church will invite some teachers to teach us our own language.”

Then, in the political unrest that ultimately led to a coup last February, Sang’s friends were killed.

“I’m afraid to go back, honestly, because some of my friends pass away because of the political situation, the military,” he said. “When I talk to my (surviving) friends, they say, ‘You are very lucky because you are in the United States.’”

Lucky perhaps, but still grieving.

“I never feel happy,” he said, his voice catching. “Yes, United States is good country, but in my heart, I am never happy because of the political situation (in Myanmar).”

And so, he leans into his faith, and focuses on his work.

After high school, which ends with 10th grade in Myanmar, Sang first traveled to India to earn his bachelor’s degree. Next he followed his father’s footsteps to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, a Presbyterian campus that specializes in cross-cultural training.

He found his new home to be a wonderland. A place of freedom, cheeseburgers and snow.

“One of the funny stories is, when I arrive at United States, it is snow!” he said “My roommate was Korean, and I said, ‘Why don’t we play?’ To see snow is beautiful. I don’t like the cold and freezing, but I like snow.”

This year, Sang and his father both continue to learn remotely at McCormick due to COVID-19. The elder Sang pastors a church in Des Moines while pursuing doctoral studies. Meanwhile, Sang started his internship at Trinity in September, which will continue through next semester.

The Rev. David Endriss, pastor at Trinity, is mentoring both men. While his church has hosted interns from Simpson College before, it’s a first to have a seminary student – at least in Endriss’s 20 years there.

“We were aware that Dennis here was studying, and part of the requirement for every seminary student is to do some internship,” Endriss explained. “I kind of said, ‘I need to talk to my church friends, but maybe you can do it in Indianola.’”

The congregation welcomed him in turn. Sang introduced himself, and Myanmar, via a slideshow a couple of weeks ago and described their response as “very nice. The hospitality is good. They welcome me and are very comfortable.”

Now, Endriss and Sang are collaborating with the congregation and seminary to create a “learning covenant” that will cover four areas: worship preparation, worship leadership, pastoral care and spiritual growth.

The goal isn’t to create another Pastor Endriss, or even a younger version of Sang’s father.

“I’ve told this to Dennis already: Yes, I’m his supervisor, but part of this learning experience is to discover his own style, not mine,” said Endriss. “And to wrap that in his own culture.”

And Sang’s work is already making an impact in Iowa. This year, he earned a Governor’s Volunteer Award for his work with fellow immigrants from Myanmar.

“He won’t brag or crow,” Endriss said. “He’s done a lot of work, particularly during COVID.”

For Sang, it’s just his latest calling. The same faith that sustained him in Myanmar, he said, “absolutely” directs his new life in the States.

“A lot of their children can speak English, but other people cannot speak English,” Sang explained of families from Myanmar. “If I could be ordained in the United States church, I think that would be helpful for my culture.

“I want to lead them. That is my hope. Faith helps me.”