Making the most of religious freedom in Canada

stained_glassIt means a lot to be welcomed and embraced

by Sandra Reimer

Indiana Salai Cungcin prayed to God from the depths of his heart for the first time while driving to Thailand. Soldiers were firing a rocket launcher at the convoy of cars he was travelling with—two women had already been killed.

After 15 or 20 minutes, the launcher inexplicably jammed. God spared Cungcin.

In 1988, after further political unrest in his native Burma, Cungcin fled to Thailand as an illegal refugee. While there he was baptized and discipled. A Winnipeg church sponsored him to come to Canada in 1997.

An estimated 260,000 immigrants arrive in Canada each year. A number come from countries where people are unfamiliar with Christianity or where Christians are oppressed. Some like Cungcin are making the most of the religious freedom they have in Canada. He is thankful that in this country, “We can be talking about faith in public without fearing.” In Burma, the Buddhist majority persecutes both Christians and Muslims. Gatherings are limited to just 10 people at a time.

Currently Cungcin works part time as an associate pastor at City Community Church, a multi-ethnic congregation in Winnipeg. He provides practical support to newcomers, prays with them and helps them understand the Canadian mindset that can be so different from their own.

Cungcin also works half time for Vision Ministries Canada (VMC), a leadership development and church planting organization affiliated with about 140 mostly Brethren churches. Through VMC, he leads the Chin Christian Fellowship of Canada—a network of congregations made up of Burmese believers from the Chin tribe.

One day Cungcin hopes to develop the Burmese Christian Fellowship, an association of churches comprised of Christians from eight tribes that often fought back home in Burma. He has already begun building relationships with leaders from the other seven groups that are living in Canada.

VMC executive director Gord Martin strongly believes in resourcing ethnic leaders. “We have people coming to Canada from other countries in large numbers—not to engage them seems almost criminal.” VMC financially and practically supports the work of several ethnic leaders in Canada, including those from Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iran and China.

“When we brought our network of 26 church planters together, five of them had at one time lived in a refugee camp. They are now shepherding congregations in Canada,” says Martin. With the help of a North American mission agency, one of those leaders creates radio shows in his mother tongue. The shows are broadcast twice weekly in his nation and neighbouring countries. Though Protestant Christians are persecuted in his homeland, hundreds of listeners eagerly and discreetly learn about Christ through his broadcasts.

Vishal Masih also appreciates his religious freedom. Born in the Punjab province of India, Masih came to Canada with his parents when he was 14. They were teachers in India and wanted a better life for their children.

With a Hindu background and nominal Christian influence, the Masihs believed all paths led to God and that no religion was any better than another. But Vishal became a Christian as a teenager after receiving prayer and being healed of severe migraines at a church service. He and his parents, two sisters and brother were all baptized in 1984.

Masih says God told him, “I have given you the language, the race, the colour, the name for a reason.” When Masih asked God if he was to return to India as a missionary, he says the Lord told him, “No, I have brought the nations to Canada.” Masih was assured he would be working in the Greater Toronto Area.

Today Masih is the pastor of Behta Darya Community Church, which serves South Asians from countries like India and Pakistan who are living in the GTA.

Masih says Indians are more open to the gospel when they come to Canada because they are not as fearful about what their families will think. In India, if you live in a village and visit a church, everyone knows about it. Through interacting with Canadians at work and school, Indians are more open to looking into Christianity—though many of them still think Jesus is the white person’s God. That’s where Masih and his congregation make a difference. They speak the language (Masih speaks Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi), understand the culture and worship Jesus.

The church-planting arm of the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (OCMBC) supports Masih’s work. OCMBC’s financial support made a big difference. “With a church full of immigrants we never would have been able to minister full time,” says Masih. He also appreciates the prayer and personal support. “Mennonites became our family. We felt like there was someone with us—we were not alone.”

While ethnic leaders have cultural and language “keys” that allow them to more easily reach out to people from their countries, they often need resources.

“Ethnic leaders desperately need connections,” says Martin. Among the most important things Canadian-born Christians can offer newcomers are their formal and informal networks. Whether we like it or not, says Martin, “the whole world is coming to our country and our neighbourhoods.” He adds, “It means a lot to them to be welcomed and embraced by the citizens of this country.”

The article above was featured in the March 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.