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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

A Heart for Burma

By Scott Harrup
Aug. 26, 2012

Although the nation was renamed Myanmar in 1989, much of the world still refers to Burma when identifying Southeast Asia’s second-largest country. And Burma is a natural cognitive connection whenever Burmese refugees are the subject.

In the United States, the largest Burmese refugee community resides in Fort Wayne, Ind. By some estimates, about 5,000 Burmese live in the Hoosier State’s second-largest city (pop. 253,691). Their arrival, beginning in the late 1980s, mirrors a similar influx by other nations to the region.

For Pastor Ron Hawkins of First Assembly of God in Fort Wayne, the city’s ethnic shift is an answer to prayer. In the late 1990s, Hawkins began challenging his congregation to pray according to Psalm 2:8 — “Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance” (NKJV).

“Pastor Ron really felt that as we prayed, God would send our young people out into the world in a greater measure in missions, and that our missions giving would grow,” remembers Don Williams, former senior associate pastor. “But what we thought was going to be about First Assembly going out into the world was really about the world coming to First Assembly.”

Hispanic, Burmese, French-speaking African, and Chinese congregations now make First Assembly their home.

“There is an exploding international community here in our city, and there is an exploding international community meeting right here in this building in the various ethnic churches that meet every weekend,” Hawkins says.

About 70 Burmese gather for worship in the children’s auditorium each Sunday afternoon. They belong to the Zo, an ethnic minority representing some 75,000 of Burma’s total population of 55 million. About 50,000 Zo live along Burma’s border with India, with another 25,000 having emigrated around the world.

The congregation of First ZO Assembly of God enjoys a warm partnership with host First Assembly and is grateful for the use of the auditorium. The room’s bright colors and child-friendly layout meld perfectly with the Zo commitment to fully integrated family worship.

As I join families arriving for the 1 p.m. service, a group of children on the platform sing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” in Zo and then in English. Soon everyone joins in the energetic praise and worship. Children walk freely among the rows of chairs, but several also find their way to the platform steps where they are as focused as the adults in prayer.

The afternoon never loses its energy. Songs of praise periodically break for testimonies and an offering, before leading into the sermon by Pastor Meng Pu.

“I accepted Christ as my Savior four years ago,” one woman tells the church, as Paul Thang, sitting next to me, interprets. “If I had not come to the United States, I might never have come to Christ.”

Pastor Meng Pu preaches an impassioned message from Psalm 37:2-5. Verse 3 seems particularly appropriate to these families: “Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness.”

Though far from home, the Zo congregation is relying on God’s faithfulness in its adopted land.

Now the senior pastor of First Missionary Church in nearby Berne, Williams speaks warmly of the relationships he developed with the Burmese that led to the establishment of the Zo church six years ago.

“In the 1990s, Brenda Neuenschwander responded to Pastor Ron’s plea to pray for the nations, and she developed International House in Fort Wayne,” Williams says. “Brenda had been working with me on a neighborhood prayer ministry called ‘Houses of Prayer.’ The more immigrant refugee families she encountered in our neighborhoods, the more she saw the need for a ministry to them.”

International House offered a variety of resources, including lessons in English as a second language. Paul Thang came to those lessons, developed a friendship with Williams, and voiced his passion to establish a Zo church.

Williams helped Thang enroll in Berean School of the Bible, the Assemblies of God’s distance-learning ministerial education program. Thang studied hard, and the more he prepared for ministry the more he prayed that God would establish a leadership team. Meng Pu and Benjamin Mang accepted Thang’s invitation to join the church. The two now function as pastor and lead evangelist respectively. Both speak with me later of their powerful conversion experiences in Southeast Asia.

Meng Pu’s parents joined a Pentecostal church in his village. When they accepted Christ, they sensed God’s call on their son’s life to proclaim the gospel.

“Because of their prayers,” Meng Pu says, “I came to Christ and became a minister.”

Benjamin Mang accepted Christ as Savior in January 1999, thanks to the faithful ministry of a Christian in Malaysia, where he had gone to find employment.

“Even though we were living in a jungle camp doing construction work, I began to share the gospel wherever I could among my friends,” Mang says.

As for Thang, his own testimony is a genuine life-and-death saga. His parents and grandfather were committed Christians, but Thang left his faith as a young man.

“One day I became very sick,” he says. “I was sure I would die. I prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, help me. Give me my life, and I will give You the rest of my life.’”

Thang’s sickness reached a crisis point. He passed out, and his family took him for dead. He awoke to his relatives gathered around him weeping.

“I thank God for the life He gave me,” Thang says. “He saved me that day in 1992.”

The afternoon service concludes with congregational prayer for personal needs. A man and his young son come onto the platform. Pastor Meng Pu prays passionately for the boy’s healing.

As families leave, they seem refreshed and ready to face the week ahead. Many struggle to survive financially. But the church is strongly interconnected. People help each other.

Church leaders feel a growing bond with the U.S. Assemblies of God and a desire to see Burmese churches planted in other states (see sidebar, right).

“From the very beginning, all of these leaders have had a vision to see churches throughout the United States,” Williams says. “It’s been remarkable to see that kind of pioneering spirit.”

Scott Temple, director of the Assemblies of God’s national Office of Ethnic Relations, visited First Assembly on May 20 and was delighted with the five international congregations there. Temple describes the evangelistic fervor he sees across the spectrum of ethnic groups he serves.

“There are now 40 million foreign-born people living in the United States,” he says, “and many of them are our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and many of them are being called by the Holy Spirit to be a missionary to the United States of America.”

Pastor Hawkins wants to be an energetic partner in that endeavor.

“The truth of the matter is, we can open our building to immigrants — that doesn’t cost us much,” Hawkins says. “But what we really need to do is to open our hearts; we need to open our homes; we need to open up our friendships. We need to get to know those coming in and out of our building every day, not being afraid of the language barriers or giving in to historical prejudice, but renouncing all of that and saying, ‘God, change my heart today.’”

SCOTT HARRUP is managing editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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