It was a whirlwind weekend that seemed driven by the winds of the Spirit whom the church of Jesus Christ celebrates as arriving this weekend in Jerusalem nearing 2000 years ago. God was, is, and will be at work through Word and Spirit.
Pastor Siang and I touched down late afternoon in Albany and were met by a four man, Burmese delegation who whisked us to a blue collar, 1930’s vintage upstairs, 3 bedroom, apartment home in central Albany. The next we knew, we were sitting with a pastor representative from Classis Atlantic NE and eating from heaping bowls of Burmese food, traditional Burmese soup, and a splash of the hottest condiment known to Asia. We partook, then gathered with the 12 including children in the living room for prayer. The prayer was a chorus as we all called out to the Lord in a blitz of audible, passionate prayer in English and Chin Fulam dialect. Twelve voices were raised at once unto the Lord. It reminded me of the audible voices in various languages at Pentecost. Then we were off to the next home to pray. This home too was an upstairs apartment in a blue collar Albany neighborhood. This time we met with a widow who came to the states 7 years ago with her husband and 2 children, Nee 16 years old and a son 18 years old. Within a year her husband died from cancer, leaving her widowed in her mid-30’s in a new land without the ability to speak English. However, she had a deep love for the Lord. This was instantly apparent at our prayer meeting that evening. We asked her how we should pray for her. Siang translated our desire. She responded that she first wanted to praise the Lord for His goodness to her. She also celebrated that her son and daughter-in-law recently gave birth to a granddaughter, and her longing was for a safe trip to see them in Indianapolis the next weekend. Then she asked that we beseech the Lord for the souls of her brother and wife who are Hindu, and newly moved in with her. They recently acquired permanent visas and would now look for work. Meanwhile they sat 3 feet from her as we asked the Spirit to convert their hearts. They too couldn’t speak English. Again we offered up a chorus of prayer out loud in English and Burmese. Most of us kneeled. The others sat or stood. I’m convinced it was a sight and sound pleasing unto the Lord. Around the corner was the third home. This was a woman and her 2 children, 5 and 3 years old. Her husband, the chairman of the church board, was at work that evening at his $11/hour job. But she wanted prayer and was a gracious host serving us Burmese delights and telling us about her children. Before praying we sang songs together with the girls giving a duet of "Jesus Loves Me" and "Jesus Loves the Little Children" in Chin Fulam dialect. Then we prayed again, out loud, all together. At the end of the visit she gave to both Siang and me envelopes, and explained that it was a Chin custom. “When one has been blessed, one gives to those who have brought the blessing in the knowledge that God will bring even more blessing.” I was very uncomfortable with this custom. I was there to receive only as my heart united with these beautiful people. Here she had handed me a gift that I suspected was money. “She is poor. I have so much. I shouldn’t take this,” I thought.
However, I forced myself to be a gracious recipient. I’ve had to learn that other believers’ customs and traditions must be honored, even if it doesn’t fit my tidy Christian world view. I accepted what amounted to several hours work for her husband. Siang did the same. Later we talked of my discomfort. Siang said it was important that we received this return blessing. “By responding to our prayer blessings in gratitude,” Siang explained, “she was sure God would bless her even more richly. This was her act of faith.” After our 3rd home prayer meeting we settled into our hotel room at 11 PM exhausted after travel and an evening of prayer and new friendships, but grateful for an encouraging beginning. We had been embraced. And we felt close to the Albany church already.
The next morning we met the group back at the 3 bedroom upstairs apartment to talk about the CRC and how this independent group of believers could find a firm foundation with us. Their questions were many. How can they start a Christian school? Is there assistance available? Does the denomination require ministry dues? They are poor and barely able to provide for their families. However they are hard workers and industrious people. Over time they will do well economically in America, but right now they are in survival mode. We discussed ways that they can pay funeral expenses by taking a monthly offering, negotiating expenses ahead of time with a local funeral home, and using that agreement and funeral home fund at their time of loss. We explained in a limited degree the CRC church order affiliation process, and described this as the “getting acquainted” phase to be followed by mentoring and orientation. Affiliation is the final step, should they choose to walk with us. They wondered about denomination letters of certification to help them get a pastor from Burma who speaks the Fulam Chin dialect. Must he be Reformed? They were used to believers only baptism, so we consulted Bible passages about why infant baptism is the new circumcision. This was new teaching to some, but they received it well. Another Classis Atlantic NE delegate joined us and promised to follow up with the CRC denomination to encourage a letter to USA government officials to move ahead a visa request for Pastor Sum, a Fulam Chin pastor in Burma who is willing to come to the USA to pastor a Burmese congregation in Syracuse, and possibly to help with the Albany church as well. It was 4 hours of intense discussion, translated by Siang. We began with 20 adults, but the ladies and some of the men headed out to, as I discovered later, prepare more food. After the meeting Siang and I took a break, and our Classis Atlantic NE representatives left for home.
Siang and I reconvened with our friends that night in the apartment for a worship service. There were 25 of us including the children. We sang hymns and praise songs accompanied by keyboard and guitar. Our friends are joyful worshipers. They sing with smiles on their faces and clap along to some songs. I preached on the ascension of Jesus Christ and His intercession for them at the throne using Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 49. It was a new teaching to many. Siang translated. As we closed, I blessed them, individually touching each forehead. The children looked up wide eyed with wonder. The adults bowed their heads reverently and expectantly. It was a special evening again guided by the Spirit. We did not share a language, or even yet—for most—a joint national citizenship, but we are one in Christ and that foundation united us powerfully.
Sunday morning five Albany church delegates, Pastor Siang, and myself attended a local Reformed Church. We prearranged with the pastor a meeting following worship to talk about renting a space for the young Burmese church to worship. The Reformed congregation was old, but they joyfully announced during worship prayer time that for the first time in years, they would need nursery attendants. A young family with children had begun to worship. Child care assistance was needed. The congregation giggled and applauded the announcement. I smiled inwardly at the thought of that aging church gaining Burmese children too through sharing their facility. If one or two children brought such a response, 11 kids would overwhelm them in joy. After worship we shared coffee and sat with pastor and 3 elders to discuss a possible rental arrangement. The church loved to bless other groups and had a long history of allowing NA and AA groups to use the church. Of course they would welcome this young, small Burmese refugee group. They would make sure the rent price was low. After all, this was God’s church, not theirs. They needed to share. “Would the first Sunday of July be suitable to begin?” We left with ginormous smiles and praise to God. At the Sunday afternoon worship service back at the Burmese house church apartment, the same lady who handed me the envelope with money told me that she would always remember us every time she worshiped in their new building. Inside myself I wondered if this was the return on the blessing she craved as she handed me that gift of gratitude.
After the Reformed Church visit and another large meal, this time Vietnamese soup which is more meat and vegetables than broth, we finished our time together with another worship service in Fulam Chin dialect. We sang together. Pastor Siang preached and hosted communion. I led the congregational prayer asking for the Lord’s blessing on this young church, and for a joyful union of CRC with our new Burmese friends in Albany, NY.
The weekend ended as it began. We were whisked to the airport by our male delegation. There were handshakes, hugs, smiles, and “God bless you’s.” We were now friends. And Siang and I jetted back to Indiana having communed with the Spirit and our new Burmese friends.
Pray that God will bless ongoing discussions between the Albany church and Classis Atlantic NE. Pray that Classis Atlantic NE will enfold and love this immigrant group. Pray that joint use of space between the Reformed church and the Albany Burmese church will be mutually beneficial. The CRC would be an ideal home for this young church. We understand coming to a new land not knowing a language, but having strong faith and industrious spirits. God has blessed us in the land. Our new friends can bless us with their sincere, humble, simple faith, and industrious spirit. I believe this is a marriage made in heaven. May God be praised!
*Pastor Siang Hup and Pastor Joel Zuidema travel to Burmese churches throughout the United States seeking affiliation with the CRC. They are sponsored by Classis Illiana of the CRC.