Our Conference demographic has just experienced a change of no small significance. The Tennessee Carolina Kentucky District has recently welcomed a vibrant group of young refugee families whose passionate Christian faith has enabled them to endure the throes of transition from Burma to Malaysia to the US.
The Chin are a large minority people numbering about three million, found mostly in the Chin State located in western Myanmar, but also in the eastern Indian state of Mizoram and in Bangladesh. Their homeland, the all but inaccessible Chindwin valley, serves as a border between these three countries. There are many different mutually unintelligible Chin dialects and sub-cultures, one of which is Mara. Hundreds of thousands of Chin people have been granted asylum in the US and Canada, as they have fled the double blows of religious and ethnic oppression under Burmese’s militant Buddhist rule. They tell stories of being under a stranglehold of neglect, forced conscription, and sexual violence. They have lived with much armed conflict and are seeking another way.
Their journey began to intersect with ours in early 2013 when Gene Miller, Conference Minister of New York Conference connected me, Skip Tobin, with Pastor Jehu, a respected Christian leader to Chin people in North America. Pastor Jehu asked me to help a group of Mara Chin believers in Halethorpe, Md., find a meeting place and to encourage them toward a Mennonite relationship. I met with two leaders from the Halethorpe congregation. These leaders explained their family relationships to Chin Mennonite congregations in Buffalo, N.Y., and Kitchener, Ont. They expressed clearly that they would like to pursue relationship with Mennonites in the United States.
Their interest led them to send a delegation of over a dozen committed church members to Harrisonburg later that spring where they had the opportunity to meet Ervin Stutzman and several conference leaders. Realizing among ourselves that the Maryland Mara group is located quite close to Lancaster Mennonite Conference bishop Glenn Kauffman’s area, I followed up by introducing the church leadership team to Glenn. That congregation has since been incorporated as the Mara Christian Church and is a full member of Lancaster Mennonite Conference (LMC).
However, within a few short weeks, I was being called upon to meet and visit a sister group in Charlotte, NC. They wanted to know what it might mean to be Mennonite as well!
At that point, the Charlotte group, the Maryland group and another sister group in Indianapolis met together in Charlotte for a leadership resourcing time. A Canadian Mara Chin Mennonite pastor named Joseph was their resource speaker. I was encouraged to be present so that there would be a local Mennonite connection; I fielded the many questions that came my way about who Mennonites are, what Mennonites believe, and how these fellowships might relate to Mennonite Church USA. Prominent in their hearts is the question of how they can engage missionally with other Chin refugee groups to plant new churches and how God can use them to bring the gospel to the Buddhists in Burma!
The TCK district and Virginia Conference relationship has continued to strengthen over the last two years, thanks to the keen attention shown by District overseer Chuck Hostetter and regular warm connection with Charlotte residents, Dan and Lois Yoder. When a tragic accident took the lives of several wage earners in their community, TCK District responded with an outpouring of financial assistance; we were on hand to join over 3,000 Mara Chin who traveled across the country to show solidarity with their Mara brothers and sisters.
Our visits to the Charlotte church take Carol and me back to our days in Asia – the long services where you don’t understand a word but are nevertheless invited to preach, the inscrutable music – some obviously ethnic and some faintly reminiscent of a century old hymn, the women in their colorful sarongs with their babies slung on their hips, and most notably, the fervor of the Spirit in their prayer. We come away enriched by their uniqueness, … feeling like we have been in the presence of God.
We are in awe of what has already come from this small thread of connection. But more is to come: There are other groups of Chin people who are in the process of affiliation with different Mennonite conferences —in Atlanta, New York, and Texas. Let’s be sure that we give these dear brothers and sisters a heartfelt welcome into our circle of fellowship!