It was late on a Friday evening when various texts began to emerge on my phone. A teenager, barely 18 years old, had been shot three times and was subsequently run over by the vehicle the criminals fled the murder scene with. His family was central to our Karen Congregation and ministry (Burmese refugees).
I visited the family the next day. Eighteen multi-generational family members lived in the small three-bedroom home. Bunkbeds were stacked throughout the main floor. There was only seating for five people, yet 40 people were jammed in small living space. Officers from Community Services were there. I spoke with them for several minutes, attempting to understand how I could help the family navigate a system they didn’t know in a language foreign to them.
Although I wanted to stand, I knew it would insult them, as others stood so I could sit. As the officers left, the family and friends who gathered, looked to me to offer hope. I pointed them to Jesus. Believing they would be targeted next, the family moved hundreds of kilometres away in two days.
Genocide of a People
I’ve had the privilege of working with the Karen refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma) since 2010. I am not an expert in refugee ministry and have made more mistakes than I thought possible while also learning some lessons.
The Karen people from Southeast Asia were forced to flee due to an ethnic cleansing by the military government of Myanmar. 1,000,000 people hid with 200,000 relocating to Thailand, where the Thai government reluctantly allowed them to live in refugee camps. There was no employment. They lived off the produce they could grow and were given a bag of rice once a month. Some of them lived in the refugee camps for decades.
Having been rejected by Myanmar and Thailand, they had no citizenship. Those without citizenship in our world live in the most deplorable conditions. When their children are taken from them and are sold into slavery or are trafficked, it is as if they never existed.
Governments around the world began to accept Karen people from the Thailand camps for resettlement. Five-thousand Karen were brought to Canada with 400 living in Hamilton. Family members and friends were scattered around our country and world. Thanks be to God that missionaries arrived in the refugee camps to share the Gospel with the Karen people. Many turned to Christ though their faith was shallow and mixed with an animistic syncretism.
Their Harsh Reality
Most refugees arriving in Canada find the transition to our country overwhelming. The Karen is a prime example. They knew no English. Shortly after arriving they were required to navigate a plethora of government forms. They were skilled agriculturists. They had lived without electricity, running water or sanitation until they arrived in Canada.
Imagine what your life would be like without these amenities. They were uneducated. Most of them never finished elementary school. Upon arrival, students are placed in the grade that matches their age regardless of their education level. 73% of government sponsored refugees and 69% of privately sponsored refugees have not finished high school when they arrive in Canada. [i]
Some would climb twelve flights of stairs, multiple times a day, because no one showed them how to use an elevator. They would walk several kilometres for appointments as they didn’t understand transit. They had never experienced winter. They thought they were moving to a Christian nation. Having been saved in the refugee camp, this was to be their paradise.
Their teens either learned English quickly or dropped out of high school. Those that dropped out were influenced by an ungodly crowd. Those that stayed were convinced by their teachers that God didn’t exist, and the Bible was unethical and harmful. They walked away from their faith.
Mistakes I’ve made
In 2010, they began to meet in the facility our church worshiped in. There were only a few conditions. We didn’t want them to pay rent. We wanted them to be a part of our ministry and contribute as they were able to. We wanted to work with them, to prayerfully identify someone from their congregation who could be trained to lead them. We would preach at their service once a month through translation.
Going to the services I heard ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ and ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer’ sung weekly. Someone would preach from the Word. Their pastoral prayer (which occurred after the sermon) was often 30 minutes (it was hard not to fall asleep when this was the third service I was participating in). I thought everything was going well.
I didn’t realize that they were theologically ignorant. Their messages had no depth. Their sermons were drafted by a well-intentioned Karen leader, from another part of the world, with no theological training. There was no Christian education at home. Their belief system created a new angle of legalism. It took me years to understand this. I should have asked better questions earlier. I should have listened more.
They were welcomed by the Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons. They were loved and cared for by these cults. We welcomed them into our facility, they welcomed them into their lives. When your English is limited, Trinitarian language is challenging. Seemingly, the enemy, the world and the cults were winning.
It’s been hard
One of their young men ended his life at 21. Several abandoned the faith. Many were persuaded by the cults. Numerous youths struggled with anxiety and depression. I led the funeral of an 18-year-old who’d been murdered. The entire ministry has taken place through translation where we’ve had misunderstandings and misgivings. Sometimes I’d send an email to clarify what we had agreed upon, after a three-hour meeting, to receive a reply that would request, “This is not what we understood at the meeting, can we meet again?”
God’s Call on our Lives
Deuteronomy 10:18-19 states, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Zechariah proclaims, “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” (Zechariah 7:9-10). Hebrews 13 reminds us to show hospitality to strangers.
Like the Karen refugees, some of the refugees coming to Canada are brothers and sisters in Christ. All the verses in Scripture that apply to the church are relevant to the way we interact with them. We are to look to their interest before our own (Philippians 2:3-4); love them (Romans13:8) and serve them (Galatians 5:13). In 1 Peter 4:8-11 Peter writes that we are to love each other, be hospitable to each other and serve each other. This includes refugees who are brothers and sisters in Christ.
God is at Work
God raised up a godly man, Klosay, when he was 48, having only completed Grade 7 (in the jungle) to begin studies at Heritage College and Seminary. He’s completed just over one year of his bachelor’s degree. To do this, James North brought him on staff and pays for his education. Heritage has excelled in working with him. He is a godly man that we thank the Lord for.
The staff at James North began to preach at the Karen service twice a month and we prayed diligently that God would save a few key people who would be influencers. God saved a young man on the brink of suicide, one Sunday, under the preaching of the Word. He had been baptized 30 times for the dead by the Mormons.
He was gloriously saved and began to speak into the lives of the Karen young people. Our young adult ministry welcomed the Karen young adults—not just to the events but into their lives. He was invited to be part of the young adult leadership team with McMaster and Redeemer students. Our youth and children’s ministries did the same.
We’ve been training their elders and core leaders in the areas of hermeneutics, Old and New Testament survey courses, systematic theology, and church leadership. They have been growing in their understanding of God, the gospel, and His Word. We also started Bible Studies with their young men and women.
God’s Saving Grace
In the last two years we’ve baptized 12 people from the Karen congregation. Some of the young men and women were living common law. When God saved them, one of them would move out until they were married.
I recently met with three young men from the Karen congregation to hear the testimony of God’s work in their lives and how he used others from the Karen community as well as brothers and sisters from James North to point them to Jesus. They will be baptized in a few weeks. Their testimonies filled my heart with joy.
One of the young men, Htoonay, who is 22, spoke of his substance addiction. He was profoundly affected by the suicide of a Karen young adult when Htoonay was 15. He turned to drugs to numb the pain. Several months ago, his grandfather passed into the arms of Jesus. His grandfather prayed for him faithfully and through his addiction, never gave up sharing the love of Christ with him.
Shortly after his grandfather’s funeral, God saved him and freed from his addictions. He said, “I never realized how fulfilling the gospel is. There’s nothing better than Jesus.” I’m thrilled to baptize him.
Prayerfully Consider what you can do
Our government has just announced that they plan to invite 500,000 immigrants and refugees to live in Canada yearly.
- Get to know your neighbours who have migrated to Canada and pray for them.
- Share the love of Christ with those who don’t know him. Be hospitable. Listen to their story so you know how to engage them. Most of them have a strong belief in a higher being. Let them know He is our Triune God.
- Welcome those who are brothers and sisters in Christ.
- Disciple them. Find out what your brothers and sisters believe and begin to show them the basics of our faith and teach them sound doctrine. There is a theological drought in most of the regions where refugees flee.
- Intentionally reach out to the immigrants and refugees living in the parts of our cities that most of us avoid through programs and ministries with your local church. Use the programs and ministries as a platform to invite them into your life and share the hope of Christ.
God is saving people from every nation. Join him in his great work. In Revelation 7, the Apostle John writes: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”