LANCASTER, Pa. — Eastern Mennonite Missions worker Sean FitzGerald finds himself deeply impacted by his recent service among and ongoing relationships with Karen refugees from Myanmar, formerly Burma, living in Lancaster.
“What I have learned and continue to learn from my friends is this: We are not perfect; none of us are,” FitzGerald said. “So come as you are, and we will love you regardless.”
The Karen people are an ethnic group from southern and southeastern Myanmar. Many Karen people have fled due to armed conflict and violence.
FitzGerald’s mission journey started when he contacted EMM to see how he might use his Emergency Medical Technician training in missions. In December 2011 he began serving with EMM in a medical clinic in the West African village of Catel, Guinea-Bissau. While FitzGerald excelled in his role at the clinic and loved many people, he didn’t feel a strong heart connection to the people there.
“Over the years I have heard people say, ‘God has given me a heart for these people,’ when speaking about those they were serving,” FitzGerald said. “I did not feel that in Guinea-Bissau. I had many wonderful friends and was blown away by the beauty of the country, but I approached my interactions with a ‘let’s do this task’ attitude.”
After serving eight months in Guinea-Bissau, FitzGerald experienced health issues that brought him back to Lancaster on medical leave. FitzGerald met with EMM staff to discern how he might serve in the U.S. They considered an invitation from Habecker Mennonite Church to serve the Karen people gathering with the congregation.
Karen Sensenig, Habecker’s pastor, said Sean’s gifts were a good match for the needs of the rapidly growing church.
As Karen refugees were arriving from Thailand, she said: “By word of mouth they were finding a spiritual home in the cornfields of Manor Township. We needed more people to support these newcomers who did not have sponsoring churches.”
Learning to drive
After interviewing with Sensenig, FitzGerald accepted the church’s invitation. He began by teaching his new Karen friends how to drive.
“I quickly found out that teaching driving is not my niche,” FitzGerald said. “I was used to aggressive driving from riding in an ambulance as an EMT: do what it takes to get where you need to be. I was not a good match for new, uncertain drivers.”
He soon began accompanying the Karen through their relocation process. He assisted them in navigating the U.S. medical and legal systems and listened and prayed with them as they shared their often trauma-filled stories.
“Sean has a natural ability to go into new places and make friends. It wasn’t long until the Karen people trusted him,” Sensenig said. “Sean quickly learned the social services system and how to connect newcomers to those services. He is also alert to spiritual as well as physical needs. Soon Sean was alerting me to people who could use some pastoral care.”
Throughout his service, FitzGerald has taken the posture of a both a teacher and a learner.
“One day as I was trying to learn the Karen language with several Karen 4- and 5-year-olds, a young Karen girl walked over to me, looked at my hands, and then removed my pencil from my left hand,” FitzGerald said. “She placed it in my right hand and said, ‘Now, Sean, you can learn Karen. The problem is you were using the wrong hand.’ ”
As FitzGerald’s love for the Karen people grew, he took a trip to the Myanmar-Thailand border, where many Karen refugees live in camps. There he met family members of many of the Karen people he walks with at Habecker Mennonite Church. He relayed messages between family members and gave comfort to Lancaster-based Karen, who did not know whether their family members were safe.
Although his assignment with EMM ended in February, FitzGerald continues to walk with the Karen in Lancaster. He married a Karen woman, Lwei Ray Moo, in April, and feels an ongoing calling to show Christ’s love.
“The first time I met some of my Karen friends, I felt a very strong sense that the people of Burma are who God intended my heart to be for,” he said. “He wanted me to serve them and for them to teach me as well.”