For many years, the Karen people from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) tried to escape violence and persecution at the hands of the Burmese military by fleeing across the border to refugee camps in Thailand.
In 2007, after the Canadian government pledged to sponsor hundreds of Karen refugees, approximately 100 Karen Christians, many of whom had lived in camps for as many as 10 years, made their way to Edmonton, Alberta. Since then, Maranatha Christian Reformed Church has been the church home for approximately 35 of those families.
The road has not been easy as they struggle to adapt to life in a modern city. Learning to speak English is daunting. Learning how to use public transit and do banking is a challenge. “They do not come with degrees, education, and skills that translate very well to Canada,” explained Maranatha’s pastor, Art Verboon. “Most have picked up janitorial jobs. Many work at the Edmonton Recycle place; others work as laborers in factories.” Whatever the challenge, Maranatha CRC is fully engaged and committed to helping the Karen people learn and adjust.
Every Tuesday morning and evening, individuals from the Karen community meet at the church with Maranatha volunteers to practice conversational English, make various shopping trips, visit the library, cook “Canadian style” food, participate in beginner English Bible studies, sing from the Psalter Hymnal, prepare for Canadian citizenship and driver’s license exams, or get help with taxes and the like. “We just started a Homework Club two months ago,” said Verboon, “after realizing that kids are struggling with math and reading.” Volunteers help guide the Karen with big purchases such as cars and houses.
More and more, the Karen are involved in church life. Every other week, they worship in the sanctuary with the rest of the Maranatha congregation. Other weeks they worship in their own language. Described by Verboon as great singers and musically gifted, several participate in Maranatha’s praise and worship teams. One of the Karen, Wah Man, has been ordained an elder. He is entrusted with the task of visiting and serving his fellow Karen.
Brenda Paszek, one of the leaders of the “Karen Connection,” exudes enthusiasm and love for the Karen families. Paszek feels blessed to have this opportunity for outreach, to show God’s love, to embody God’s Word as it is found in Matthew 25:35. “Through all of these times,” she says, “we have forged friendships with these very kind and grateful people.”