Brenda Forlines, a native of South Boston, describes her missionary work with refugees as a “calling.” Forlines accompanies ethnic Karen people from the country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, through the process of becoming US citizens.

Forlines teaches a class on the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship every Monday evening at his church, Friendly Avenue Baptist in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is a rewarding process for Forlines – to see refugees who have suffered persecution in their home country become citizens of a country they can claim as their own for the very first time.

“They are so, so happy to become American citizens. They feel so blessed. They never really had a country of their own,” Forlines said. “As Americans, we take that for granted.”

Refugees from the Asian country of Myanmar survived a lot even before they arrived in the United States, Forlines explained – persecution at the hands of a military-led totalitarian government and a difficult journey during which they had to go through a plane of water. to reach the refugee camps in Thailand.

Forlines shared that the Karen people were promised their own country, or state, at the end of World War II, but this promise was not kept and the country was given to the largest ethnic group, the Burmese, instead. The Karen people, one of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups, have been persecuted ever since, and the persecution has worsened since a military coup seized power in the country last year.

Once they arrive in America, the Karens face even more challenges: having to learn to speak and read English, adjusting to American culture, and learning multiple facts about American history and events in order to be able to take the test to become US citizens. This is where Forlines comes in, helping refugees navigate life in America and gain full citizenship status.

Forlines says she made many meaningful friendships with the refugees along the way, and her life’s work in the missions has been rewarding. Forlines first became interested in missionary work in the early 1960s, when he was a student at Halifax County High School and a member of a missionary group at First Baptist Church in South Boston. This missions group laid the foundation for Forlines’ life work as a missionary, sharing the love of Christ with others, outside the traditional confines of church walls.

South Boston native Brenda Forlines (right) works with Panama’s Carmela Phillips on a practice interview to obtain her US citizenship. Forlines has made missions her life’s work and more recently helped refugees become American citizens.

“I’ve worked in missions most of my life,” Forlines shared, adding, “I’m so grateful to have grown up in South Boston. It was a great place where I learned the value of community, the importance of family and hard work, and the joy of meaningful friendships.

After graduating from high school in 1962, Forlines left his hometown of South Boston to attend Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. While in college, Forlines got his first taste of missionary work, during a summer mission in Michigan. On that trip, Forlines said she felt a “very definite call” to the mission field and has been doing missionary work ever since.

Perhaps one of the most rewarding assignments Forlines has ever done is his current work helping Karen refugees at Friendly Avenue Baptist Church become American citizens. Forlines explained the long and arduous process refugees go through to become US citizens.

“They have to be in the country with a green card for five years before they can apply for citizenship,” she noted. “They have to demonstrate that they can read and write English, and there are hundreds of questions about history and all kinds of events that they have to learn. The citizenship application is 16 pages. It’s very difficult.”

Forlines is happy to see Karen refugees find gainful employment and move into their own apartments and homes after obtaining their US citizenship.

“They’re just thriving here,” Forlines said. “They are honest people and they work hard.”

Forlines began working with Karen refugees while working with the Florida Baptist Convention at a church in Jacksonville, Florida. While there, Forlines shared that she taught refugees how to speak English as a second language and how to “navigate life in America” by helping them open bank accounts, read mail and adapt. to American culture.

Today, Forlines said the refugee ministry in Jacksonville has grown from 15 or 20 members to 250 or 300, the largest refugee church ever established by the Florida Baptist Convention to date.

Forlines’ missionary work has taken her all over the world and the United States, from Ukraine to East Africa to downtown Philadelphia and Columbia, South Carolina. Wherever she goes, Forlines says her mission is the same – to venture outside the walls of the church to serve the community and share Christ with others.

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