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Ministry to Refugees Fulfills Childhood Passion
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“You are going to do what?! Why?!” was Shirley Finneman’s astonished response to Mike McKenzie, administrator of the City of Battle Creek Emergency Management/ Homeland Security.

“I am going to teach the Community Emergency Response Training to a group of refugees from Myanmar. It will be my first time to speak with an interpreter. You know there are about 2,000 Myanmar refugees in the city!”

“Myanmar… Oh, you mean Burma!” Finneman said. The word “Burma” brought a flood of memories to her. “‘Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Didn’t any one ever tell you?’ rang in my ears. These were my father’s favorite expressions to us children as we grew up, echoes of Eric B. Hare’s stories fresh from the jungles of Burma. These stories molded my life and, at age seven, I determined to be a missionary,” Finneman stated. About 60 years later, she is in the exciting position of starting a foreign mission station in the field of Battle Creek through Adventist Community Services.

The distress in a newly-arrived refugee’s voice as he prayed was evident even as he spoke a language Finneman did not understand. He had spent agonizing years fleeing from his country and living in another one, waiting for the opportunity to come to a free nation. Now, he was desperately struggling to learn a language that was baffling. “He had to get a job to be able to stay in this country, but even a greater concern was the welfare of his family. Through an interpreter, he pleaded with us to teach the family the alphabet. They were getting help with enough English to fill out forms and get a job in a factory, but he longed to understand more. He needed to know God was answering his prayers for his family when he could not see the answers,” Finneman said.

It was then when God reminded Finneman of the way she was introduced to foreign languages — through hymns. Finneman said, “On my way home, I took their precious well-worn Zomi hymnal and made a stop at a dollar store where I found a handful of simple phonics books. The next day we started a class with hymns in Zomi and English, children’s Sabbath school songs, phonics books and a white board. There was no interpreter this time — we were to sink or swim! Our earnest prayer was for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to speak to the families through the hymns that they had picked out and to encourage their hearts, bonding all of us together. We also asked him to open their minds to learn the language of the land where he had brought them.”

Finneman experienced the working of the Holy Spirit in a mighty way! Through the words of the great hymns, in their own heart language, Zomi, the Holy Spirit spoke of courage, comfort, hope and the many promises of the care of our gracious Redeemer. “Our eyes met as our hearts had been touched by the messages which we both could now understand. Looks, smiles, and songs crossed the language barrier aided by the Holy Spirit,” Finneman remembered. Those who were too shy to speak the English language would sing courageously instead in English. “It was an easier way to learn the sounds of the letters, sentence structures and the spiritual language,” Finneman said. “When we hit a challenge with the sound of ‘R,’ we sang ‘Redeemed.’”

Another surprise was when some Baptist neighbors heard about her class; they came to join the singing, delighted to learn Adventists sing some of the same songs they do. “We shared with them that Baptist missionaries had translated the Zomi language using the English alphabet. (We would have been lost trying to read the Burmese!) They also were surprised at what we believed — ‘Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb...’ We were witnessing through our hymns!” Finneman said.

This was just the beginning. There now are five teams going out into the homes with hymns, phonics and picture dictionaries. “In anticipation of needing Zomi-speaking workers to answer Bible questions, Louis and Carol Torres from the Mission College of Evangelism in Guam gave our first class of Bible instruction. Our hearts were thrilled as 17 native Zomi-speaking individuals along with others attended,” Finneman said. Evelyn Kissinger and Mary McNeilus (who previously helped Southeast Asia refugees), along with other health professionals, are helping to develop a medical missionary program to fit their culture and challenges. “The Adventist Community Service and outreach coordinators of the Urbandale and Marshall churches are joining us to look for ways to enable the ladies to work at home; sewing machines already have been donated! Others are experimenting with alternate ways to grow crops and work with different kinds of greenhouses to extend the growing season of food familiar to Burma. This is not only for better nutrition, but work without Sabbath conflicts,” Finneman said. Remember the class for emergency response for the refugees mentioned at the beginning? It never materialized. It seems that was God’s way of opening our eyes to the mission field he had been equipping us for at our very door step.

This interview with Shirley Finneman, a pastor’s wife, retired nurse and member of the Battle Creek Tabernacle, was shared with Justin Kim, then communication director, Michigan Conference and appeared in the Lake Union Herald, November/December, 2014. Used by permission. Since that time, Shirley has continued in creative ministry with her refugee friends and is having “lots of fun!”