Interview by Ilse Vandermeulen as published in Clarion. Reprinted here with permission.
|George van Popta, wearing a traditional Karen shirt he received on his birthday (the day the photo was taken), and Semula Horlings (front row, third from right) with the Providence-Hamilton participants of the online Bible course.
HAMILTON - Semula Horlings is a member of Providence Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton and interprets an online bible course for Karen people taught by emeritus minister George van Popta through ZOOM. Two unlikely candidates, one a former refugee and one facing serious health concerns, called by God to share the Reformed faith with a growing group of young believers in several parts of Canada and beyond. In 2006 Semula arrived in Canada with her mother and two brothers as a refugee. Hiking along one of the rivers in the beautiful forests of her homeland Burma (now officially called Myanmar) is something she would love to do one day again. “There are lots of beautiful white lilies there, and many different kinds of orchids especially in the rainy season”, she recalls. Spring time in Canada, when everything turns green after a long winter, reminds Semula of her country of birth, which she fled when she was 17. She is not sure if she will ever be able to see Burma again, but what she is sure of, is that Jesus Christ her Saviour carried her through every day of her turbulent life. Burma is ruled by a military dictatorship for over seventy years. Since 1949 the country is in a civil war where the military tries to control several ethnic groups, especially the Karen people (pronounced Kuh-rèn). “The Karen were the first people in Burma, like the native people in North-America”, tells Semula. “It’s a long history of persecution by Burmese kings and now the military.” The Karen’s traditional religion was animism -the belief that objects, places and creatures possess a distinct spiritual essence-, but by the grace of God, in 1813, Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson landed in Burma from North-America to share the gospel.
Refugee Semula’s father was an evangelist, and at age 3, her parents took Semula and her two brothers out of their village because of killings, forced labour and torture of Karen Christians. “We were running as they burned down the houses. In thirteen years, we moved to 5 different locations”, tells Semula, who ended up in refugee camps in Thailand when she was 10 years old. At age 17 she lost her father who was killed while helping others escape. “We lived in constant fear and it was like a prison to me,” she says looking back to those days in the camps. In 2005 Semula and her family were offered an opportunity to come to Canada, a new, lonely and cold country. Semula was proficient in English and took on the role of translator for her family and many other Karen refugees as they had to navigate finding work, health care and the social system. The Immigration Working Centre in Hamilton asked her to interpret as a volunteer and she was able to attend college. Streetlight Semula longed for communion and worship with other Christian brothers and sisters in her new country. She found Streetlight Ministry in 2007 and started to attend Bible study. It was at Streetlight that she met her husband, Richard, whom she married in 2011. The couple now attend Providence Church after being at Streetlight for over ten years and have a daughter and a little boy. Semula: “Coming to Canada and having a faithful church is such a blessing to me. My identity is in Christ and that is how I connect with other fellow Christians, regardless of social status, education or possessions.” The catechism teaching made a deep impression on Semula. “It is the core of the gospel. I learned so much from the catechism and wanted to share that with my people. Many became Christians, but they have a lack of Biblical knowledge for several reasons. They are first generation believers. The Bible is not just a moral teaching, but the truth that makes us new.” Semula requested consistory to make catechism teaching available for a new immigrant Karen family and retired minister George van Popta was found willing to take on this task. At age 25 and still in seminary, reverend van Popta heard he had Multiple Sclerosis. “The first decade after my diagnosis I had many relapses and remissions; essentially it went quiet, but then the symptoms came back. The chronic pain was the most debilitating”, he says about his struggle with MS. In 2016, at 58, reverend van Popta decided to retire early from his congregation in Ottawa. “It was difficult. I loved the pastoral ministry and my congregation.” But he adds: “Little did I know that I would still be called to do mission work!” Old Testament After Rev. van Popta systematically went through the catechism Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, he continued with teaching the Old Testament, starting in Genesis. “They knew the stories”, he notes of the participants, “but they had learned them in a moralistic way, not in a redemptive historical and Christological way.” The group grew with Karen people whom Semula invited to church. Others started to join by Facebook video chat. Reverend van Popta: “And then it was 2020 and with Covid everything came to a halt… But we were already online and we said: why don’t we continue with our video chat?” It opened up opportunity for relatives and friends from other parts of Canada to join as well. When the group exceeded the video chat capability, it moved to ZOOM and by now a group of fifty regular Karen attendants meet three times a month. The group did not shy away from the book of Leviticus. “We are at mount Sinai at the moment and we went through the five main sacrifices in the first chapters. After that I turned the attention to Leviticus 23 to explain the seven festivals.” Reverend van Popta says that the most common response from the group is that they never heard the Bible explained this way. The minister: “I am nothing special, but I have something they don’t, and that is our Reformed teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ in everything. He is clothed in the pages of all of Scripture, including the Old Testament.” The retired minister thoroughly enjoys his task of teaching. “I am profoundly thankful every day. I always had a heart for newcomers and people from different ethnicities. I was drawn to the Karen people who came to our church. Being retired, I had good opportunity and I feel the Lord brought me to this at His time.” Pastor or ‘Grandpa’ George and his wife ‘grandma’ or ‘mother’ Dora also very much enjoy getting to know the Karen people and their lightheartedness and joy. “As a people, they are family oriented, love laughter and social gatherings.” The minister stresses that it is important that the course should not be an end in itself, but that the participants need to connect to faithful churches in the areas they live. “The harvest is plentiful”, adds Semula, who is also in contact with Karen in Thailand. “It is such a blessing that we can share the gospel as Reformed churches with others, even in other parts of the world.” Reverend van Popta: “God can take something which we really dislike, COVID, and use it for the good progress of the gospel. The Lord Jesus is on the throne.”
Grandma Dora and Grandpa George with their five Karen granddaughters Semula, in her own words (YouTube).