I had an amazing Monday. Usually this time of year an “amazing Monday” is my day off, spent tangling with Lake Michigan salmon on light spinning gear at a favorite hot water discharge. However, the past Monday was a “work Monday” meeting with a Chin pastor, wife, and church elders in Knoxville, TN. The Illiana classis home missions committee was contacted by denominational officials that a non-English speaking Burmese refugee church and pastor had interest in joining the Christian Reformed Church. Would our committee please make the contact? We were on it.
Pastor Jeff Bulthuis of Munster CRC, chairman of the CHMC, and myself connected with Pastor Siang and headed 500 miles southeast. We met Siang and wife Thawng at their modest apartment and got to know them. Pastor Siang and most Burmese refugees of the Chin people came to the USA with the blessing of our state department after religious persecution in Burma. The Chin people are a small subset of Burmese and are 98% Christian. They are simple, poor, hardworking people. Most do not speak English. The Knoxville group work for $10-12/hour wages at local companies to support their young families.
Pastor Jeff and I heard their stories. Pastor Siang came to Christ through his Christian family at 12 years of age. He began to street preach in Burmese villages soon thereafter with the support and accompaniment of his mother. Yes, he was preaching as a 13 year old. He eventually brought the gospel to Buddhists in different villages and was challenged by their tough questions. He attended Missionary Bible Institute in Yangon, a Reformed Church school, and Presbyterian Theological Seminar in Dehradum, India. He holds a Masters of Divinity and is ordained as a minister of the word in the Covenant Reformed Church of Myanmar.
In 2008 he moved to Mobile, AL to serve the Burmese refugees here. He was one part social worker, one part preacher. He preached from the word at worship services and interpreted languages at the Office of Refugee Resettlement Program, and provided transportation and translation for health screening and other appointments.
Later he moved to Indianapolis and served as translator for the large 14,000 Burmese community there while affiliating with the Falam Baptist Church of Indiana in Indianapolis. Here Siang developed a wide range of contacts in the Burmese community before taking a 2 year call to Knoxville, TN to serve as pastor of the Knoxville Myanmar Christian Fellowship. There his work continued as one part minister and one part social worker. Now the work includes negotiating with an American company to gain higher wages for his people. A $2/hour raise was rewarded. The company has requested more Burmese workers, because of their respect and appreciation for their work ethic. So, a pipeline for new immigrants exists between a Burmese Christian community linked to an automobile parts manufacturer.
It is Siang’s vision to church plant amongst the Burmese and Chin throughout the USA. Currently there are 146,000 Burmese refugees. Most live in cities near other Burmese, work low income jobs and speak little English. Siang hopes either to remain in Knoxville and pastor that congregation and begin a network for Burmese people and church plants, or return to Indianapolis and plant a Burmese church there. His gifts include a hearty ability with languages. He speaks Burmese, English, and a number of the Chin dialects. He has a merciful heart and an entrepreneur’s vision and passion. He loves to preach and teach the Word of God.
Siang’s wife Thawng shares Siang’s heart for the Burmese people and passion for Christ. She is eager to grow her English ability through English as Second Language classes, and then study theology so she can teach the scriptures to Burmese women. She has the gifts of helps and intercession.
Following the sharing of stories, Jeff, Siang, Thawng, and I knelt for prayer around their small coffee table. Siang prayed in her native tongue. The rest of us prayed in English. The prayers were intense and passionate. We were one in Christ, but new to each other. And we just had shared stories of how Christ was in each of us. After prayer 3 elders of the church arrived to accompany us to dinner to discuss becoming a Christian Reformed Church. They had many questions. First, they wanted to make sure we were not a Reformed community that would bless gay marriage. Next they asked what help might be available to bury a family member, if a death should occur. While this sounds like a money question, it was really an immigrant question of not knowing how to proceed in a new land to which most had come in the last 5 years. They knew funerals were expensive, and didn’t know how they could find enough money to pay for burial of their dead. We discussed how to go about that, and what help might be available from the Illiana churches. Third, they asked about ministry quotas. Most denominations who they held membership discussions with expected an exact % of church offerings. We explained the CRC ministry share concept with its suggested assessment, but “pay one’s bills first” plan. Questions continued over a wonderful meal of Asian delicacies. They were eager for what we had to say. I sensed they liked us and are growing in trust.
Following dinner we visited their rental facility. It was an old building but very well suited to their needs. The Knoxville church has roughly 100 people, many of them children. The church is made up of believers from Presbyterian, Baptism, Catholic, and Assemblies of God backgrounds. They do evangelism by befriending other Burmese, and inviting them to worship and fellowship.
At the end of the evening we closed in prayer. I invited each to participate in one’s own language in a popcorn prayer. Siang translated the prayer instructions. I thought we would take turns. No. The moment I began to pray, they all began to audibly pray in a course of languages based on differing Chin dialects. IT was so sweet! Prayer ascended to the throne by believers of differing ethnicities, but one in Christ and new friends with each other. WOW! When the amen sounded, we stood and hugged. As we stood I noticed the youngest, most athletically bodied young man needed help up. I thought, “He’s too young for that.” But then I recalled, they were a persecuted people in Burma. Perhaps he had had cane therapy administered to his knees to correct his faith in Christ. Oh how much I take for granted living in North America and serving where my faith costs me little. What a Monday! Praise God for His work amongst the Chin.