It was a “burning bush moment” that got Marian Hooge Jones of Rosthern (Sask.) Mennonite Church started on her lengthy involvement with the sponsorship of refugee families from Myanmar (formerly Burma) living in refugee camps in Thailand. While glancing through a church bulletin one Sunday, she read that refugee sponsors were urgently needed by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
“Those were God’s words to me,” says Hooge Jones, “so I invited some people over to pray and talk together about this need. An older couple advised us to approach the Rosthern Ministerial Association to broaden the sponsorship base and to spread the workload. Their wisdom affirmed my burning bush experience.”
In the fall of 2007, Hooge Jones asked the ministerial’s congregations to join in bringing refugees to Rosthern, and Alliance, Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran, Mennonite and Seventh Day Adventist churches agreed to work together for this cause, which, she says, was “God’s doing.”
An inter-church refugee committee chaired by Hooge Jones was established, with all donations going through the ministerial’s treasury. And together with others, including MCC Saskatchewan and translators in Thailand, the committee dealt with the immense amount of paper work needed for each family. “But every effort is worth it, despite the long wait for their arrival,” says Hooge Jones. “It’s always a miracle that the door opened a crack for even one family to get through.”
Now there are four families of Karen ethnic background from Myanmar who call Rosthern home, including eight adults and 23 children.
Last year, some of the Karen children sang at two of MCC Saskatchewan’s 50th-anniversary celebrations—first in Regina, where they sang at Peace Mennonite Church, and in October at a musical evening in Saskatoon. For that event, they learned a medley of Karen children’s gospel songs off the Internet and added verses to “Don’t Be Afraid.”
“I wanted to bring more children that evening,” says Hooge Jones, “but only six were able to attend because volunteer drivers were busy with Halloween activities.”
Hooge Jones is a strong advocate for “her” children, wanting to give them experiences that Canadian kids have, so she applies for grants for music, art or dance lessons. She also encourages them to play soccer, learn how to swim and skate, and attend summer camps and Vacation Bible School programs, and to be involved in their schools.
Nowadays, her main connection with the refugee children is through literacy programming. Several years ago, the extra language help that their school could provide seemed inadequate. When she heard about the Canadian Bible Society’s “Mission: Literacy” program, she felt that was God’s timing. The Bible Society provides free books, manuals and training. The local school gives free photocopying and Rosthern Mennonite Church provides space in its education wing. All these are reasons to praise God, she says.
Last fall, when Hooge Jones shared frustrations about insufficient volunteers for ongoing literacy needs with Dana Krushel, the MCC Saskatchewan refugee assistance coordinator, she responded, telling Hooge Jones, “I can get some volunteers for you: Bethany Bible College students.”
And sure enough, several students came to Rosthern for two hours every Wednesday evening to assist with language activities, including singing, word games and homework help. “I thank God for these committed young people,” says Hooge Jones. “They’re a gift from God.”
Hooge Jones is encouraged when people tell her, “Don’t let anybody stop you in this work.” She says she continues to be in it for “the long haul because it’s God’s kingdom work,” and she gives thanks for burning bushes; the support of Rosthern churches, schools, library and community; and MCC Saskatchewan.
Because of this, program needs are being met, and refugee families are gradually becoming independent and integrated. “In every part of this story, God is to be glorified,” she concludes.
Naomi Unger is a member of Hoffnungsfelder Mennonite Church, Glenbush, Sask., and is a former member of Saskatchewan Women in Mission program committee.
Karen children—refugees from Myanmar—sing at a Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan event last fall. (MCC Saskatchewan photo)