Four years ago, when Van and Sung Hmung (pronounced “muhng”) fled their home in the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma) to a refugee camp in Malaysia, they didn’t know that God was already preparing a table for them in a far-off place called Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And when Dan and Sharon Houck accepted a church-planting assignment with the Atlantic Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church, also four years ago, they didn’t know that their congregation-in-the-making would one day help in resettling a refugee family from Southeast Asia.
But one warm evening in July 2007, the Hmung family and The Table Community Church came together beside the baggage carousel at the Harrisburg International Airport.
Dan can chuckle about it now, but as he and Sharon waited for the Hmung’s plane to touch down, he was fighting a serious case of the jitters. “We couldn’t speak their language, and they couldn’t speak ours. But there we were, ready to welcome into our home a family we had never met,” Dan recalls. “We didn’t know what we had gotten ourselves into.”
However, within minutes of greeting Van, Sung, and their beautiful little girls, Emanuel and Mary, Dan’s apprehension gave way to excitement.
“I’ll always remember laughing at one another as we tried to understand each other’s language,” Dan says. “I have learned a lot about myself and our culture by watching Van, Sung, and the children. Everything was stacked against them succeeding in this country. Without an advocate, it would be nearly impossible for a family to resettle in Lancaster. Yet, they put their trust in us and in God, and we’ve had the joy of watching them find their way.”
Having grown up as Christians in the ethnically Chin region of northwestern Myanmar, Van and Sung Hmung know what it means to suffer for their faith. Their homeland has a long history of human rights abuses, and the military regime that has ruled the country since the early 1960s has made Christians a particular target.
Not that it’s ever been easy to be a Christ-follower in Myanmar. Adoniram Judson, the first protestant missionary to Burma in the early 19th century, spent a good part of his 40-year tenure in the country locked in a jail cell, and, ever since, Burmese converts to the Christian faith have faced persecution and economic hardship. But the past thirty years or so have been a particularly difficult time for Myanmar Christians, and thousands of believers, including Van and Sung Hmung, have fled the country in search of a better life and religious freedom.
Initially, Van left Myanmar alone, traveling first to a refugee camp in Thailand and then to one in Malaysia. After three years, he had saved enough money to partially pay a driver to bring Sung and Emanuel to join him in the camp. (Van continues to pay off this debt to this day, for fear that if he does not, family members still in Myanmar will be harmed.)
While the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the U.S. Department of State researched the family’s background to see if they would be candidates for receiving refugee services, the family faced police brutality and discrimination in Malaysia. At one point, Van was thrown in prison for nine months because he was caught by a Malaysian police officer and didn’t have the money that the corrupt official demanded of him. Van’s family had to work to pay the $200 fee demanded by the police force to free him.
Despite the difficult of their situation, Van used the time in Malaysia to his advantage, picking up basic skills as an electrician. At last, in the summer of 2007, the family, with its newest member, baby Mary, was told to pack up their belongings and prepare for the move to North America.
Meanwhile, half a world away, Dan Houck’s vision for planting a “real, relevant, and relational” church in the city of Lancaster had taken root as The Table Community Church. “We wanted The Table to be a place where people experience hospitality, extending it to all, especially those new to our community. We wanted it to be a place where we welcome our guests and treat them as family,” he explains.
And it was this vision that brought The Table to the attention of Eric Kennel, the site director for Lutheran Refugee Services (LRS), a faith-based social ministry organization that provides refugee resettlement assistance through a contract with the U.S. Department of State. With more than 120 refugees passing through the doors of LRS each year, Eric is always on the lookout for friendly, generous congregations and individuals to act as sponsors. “The Table seemed like a place where all are welcome, so it looked like a good fit for this kind of ministry,” he states.
As a young church, however, The Table didn’t ave the financial resources to support a family all on its own, so the congregation was paired up with the Mechanic Grove Church of the Brethren in nearby Quarryville, Pa. The Mechanic Grove Church would help with finances, and people from The Table would handle the day-to-day tasks of settling a new family into the community.
At last, in late May 2007, Dan received word that a family was on its way and would be arriving at the Harrisburg airport in just 10 days. All at once there were a thousand things to be done, or so it seemed to Dan, Sharon, and the rest of the welcome committee. They needed to collect clothing, furniture, appliances, and other household items so that when the family arrived, everything would be ready—down to the last diaper. “Emails were sent, calls were put out, and announcements were made at church. Everyone felt the urgency and stepped in without hesitation,” Dan recalls enthusiastically.
Then, all of sudden, there they were—an anxious, middle-aged Pennsylvania pastor and his wife and an exhausted young family from Myanmar, standing together in front of the baggage carousel in the Harrisburg International Airport. They didn’t speak the same language, so they smiled and hugged, and then they went home.
The Hmung family lived with the Houcks during their first week in the United States while last-minute work was completed on the house that the church had found for Van, Sung, and the girls. “When they finally saw their house, I thought they were going to cry,” Dan says.
Over the next few months, volunteers from The Table helped the family with everything from finding their way to doctor appointments and navigating the city bus system, to opening bank accounts and enrolling Emanuel in school. There was a trip to Maryland, where Van and Sung met with relatives from Myanmar who had also been resettled in the area. And just in time for their first Christmas in the United States, a small group helped Sung and the girls decorate their home for the holidays.
The Hmungs are quick to show appreciation for the kindness of the folks around The Table, although at times the generosity has almost overwhelmed them. “They live simply,” Dan explains. “When people try to give them things, their typical response is, ‘Too much, too much.’” Even before they could say the words themselves, Van and Sung asked relatives who know both English and Chin to express their thanks for all the church has done for them.
As for Dan, his heart hasn’t been the same since that night at the Harrisburg airport. Just like a doting grandfather, Dan’s face lights up when he describes Emanuel darting out to greet him when his little yellow car pulls up to their house. “She runs to me with her outstretched arms, and I scoop her up and carry her to the porch and talk about her day,” he shares, smiling.
Dan also recalls with pride what happened when he sat with Van during his first job review with Lapp’s Electric. The human resources director described Van as one of the hardest-working and most well-liked men at the company. With tears welling up in his eyes, he commended Van for achieving success against all odds. “It was very emotional,” Dan says.
Today, Van and Sung are reaching out to other refugee families with the same missionary zeal that they grew up with in Myanmar. In addition to participating in The Table, Van and Sung host a fellowship group for other Chin Christians in the Lancaster area. More than 15 people regularly attend this gathering.
Strangers no more
When asked if The Table would consider sponsoring another family, Dan refers to the “something wonderful about working with refugees.” What began as a sponsorship between a church and refugee family quickly blossomed into friendship, and no one seemed to notice when the four months to which the congregation had committed were up.
“They came to this land seeking freedom and safety. We had the opportunity to be the church family who welcomed them to our city and helped them with their basic needs,” he says. “Too often, churches get so lost in planning, programming, and publicity that we forget there are real people with real needs who need a friend to walk with them,” Dan continues. “Sometimes I leave a meeting wondering if anything significant really happened there. But I never feel that way when I am driving home from the Hmung’s house.”