Church fosters welcome for new neighbors from Burma

Church fosters welcome for new neighbors from Burma

Photos and story from Church World Service

Ar Le, a refugee from Burma, was born profoundly hard of hearing.  With help from St. Peter's United Church of Christ and Church World Service in Lancaster, Pa., Ar Le was fitted with his first hearing aid. "He told us what it meant to hear his son's name for the first time," CWS's Sheila McGeehan said.  Photo by Barbara Witmer.

U.S. Rep. Joseph Pitts (PA-16), left, welcomed the growing Burmese community to Lancaster at an April 2008 potluck organized by St. Peter's and St. Luke's churches.  The Rev. Bonnie Hollinger is at right.  Photo by Jared Hankee.


"If the knock is on the door, open the door!  How can you not love your neighbor?"  That is how the Rev. Bonnie Hollinger responds to anyone who asks her, "Should I get involved with refugees?"

Pastor Hollinger and members of St. Peter's United Church of Christ (UCC) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, have helped Church World Service welcome 10 newly resettled Karen Burmese refugee families to their city during the past year. 

Most of the Burmese are living within a few blocks of the church, which is located near Franklin & Marshall College.  "It's a nice neighborhood with affordable rents," said Sheila McGeehan, Director of the CWS refugee resettlement office in Lancaster.  "Lots of apartments became available last year when the college began requiring its students to live on campus."

St. Peter's has become a sort of community center for its new neighbors from Burma.  Volunteers teach English on Sunday afternoons and an array of "how to" classes during the week.  Children come by to use the playroom, and adults drop in for help reading a bill, filling in a form, rehearsing for a job interview, or just for a cup of coffee and a chat. 

What's more, St. Peter's other neighbors have noticed the new bustle at the church.  Several have stopped by to ask what is going on and have gotten involved as volunteers.  "As a result, people who have lived near the church for 25 years are meeting each other for the first time," Hollinger said.  Twice-monthly potluck suppers draw church and community members, including the Burmese, along with CWS staff and volunteers from other Lancaster churches that are cosponsoring refugees.

"It's everybody!  It's chaotic!" Hollinger exclaimed, adding that, at the suppers, "we note who needs a ride to a doctor's appointment or job interview, who needs medicine, money, a kitchen table, chairs, a sewing machine, and I put an email out and get it."

St. Peter's gets its "knock on the door"

St. Peter's received its "knock on the door" last June from McGeehan, a few days before the five-member Ja Mar Din family was scheduled to arrive in Lancaster.  Another congregation had been considering cosponsoring the family, but had just decided it was "too soon," McGeehan said.  "I asked Bonnie, 'Can you help at all with the family?  They'll be living right across the street.'"

Hollinger replied, "We can be neighbors to them."  St. Peter's picked up some dishes and food for the apartment and installed an air conditioner.  Then once the family arrived, "we took them to medical appointments, helped them open a bank account, just integrated them."

Noticing that the parents didn't have many things for their baby, St. Peter's and its sister congregation, St. Luke's UCC, organized a baby shower and picnic.  "It also was a way for the congregation to get to know the family without putting them on display in front of the church," Hollinger said.  Since the family is Muslim, St. Peter's also invited people from the local mosque. 

       Another of St. Peter's' new neighbors, Ar Le, was born
       profoundly hard of hearing.  A refugee from Burma,
       he grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand and joined
       his brother in Lancaster in September 2007.  With 
       help from St. Peter's  and CWS/Lancaster, Ar Le
       was fitted with his first hearing aid. 

"He told us what it meant to hear his son's name for the first time," McGeehan said.  St. Peter's has hired Ar Le as a custodian.  He, Hollinger (whom he greets by yelling "Bah" for "Bonnie"), and St. Peter's administrative assistant Linda Hess are all studying American Sign Language so that they can communicate better with each other.

As more Burmese arrived, St. Peter's started offering English and other classes, among them how to get a driver's license, crochet, pay bills, and balance a checkbook; power tool basics for men and women; bicycle repair; home safety; dental hygiene; nutrition; health insurance basics, and drumming.

Every Sunday, congregation members bring in diapers for the infants and toddlers of their new neighbors and of single mothers living in a group home down the street.  (St. Peter's also readily gives a sandwich, a ride, clothes, or some money to longer-time Americans who come by with needs.)

Hollinger continued, "We are getting a loom fixed now, because the Burmese weave these beautiful cloths.  My husband is minister of music here.  He showed the Burmese how the church organ works, and is giving piano lessons to a nine-year-old with great musical promise."

The barber across the street from the church gives the Burmese free haircuts, and a local businessman goes with them to job interviews.  One volunteer bought soccer balls for the children, another took them to the museum, another arranged "Y" memberships and takes them swimming. 

In Hollinger's view, all this is just "what neighbors do" – and what Christians do, saying, "Don't look at the budget.  When Jesus said, 'Give to those who ask and turn no one away,' I believe he meant it.  I see my congregation living that way.  The men will hop to it and get a shirt or a cup of coffee for someone who needs it.  We have only about 50 on Sunday morning, yet these people live their faith and love their neighbors as themselves."

"It's been a rich experience for us," Hollinger added.  "It feels just like family."