What is the most important thing we can do in our lives?

Like many of you, we’ve been moved by the Church’s efforts, launched by President Burton, to aid refugees. We plan on continuing to highlight these efforts. Please visit I Was A Stranger and prayerfully consider how you can help.

Maryan Myres Shumway is currently an expat, living in the Middle East. She plays cello in the Doha Community Orchestra, and chronicles her travels and thoughts at trekingonward.blogspot.com.

With the recent announcements from the First Presidency and Sister Linda K. Burton, General Relief Society president, to launch an effort to serve refugees, my heart leapt with joy. In the 1980’s I worked in three different refugee camps–in Thailand, the Philippines, and for a short time in Palestine/Israel. Their faces, sometimes bewildered, but often times surprisingly happy, still reverberate within me. Many of their examples and stories continue to tutor me when my heart needs to be mentored or turned. Sister Linda K. Burton voiced her plea to help those who are displaced in the world when she asked us to reflect, “What if their story was my story?”

I clearly remember many refugee stories–people who are some of my beloved friends. But I also thought of a visionary man, Elder Marion D. Hanks, a man who has a remarkable story of his work with refugees. In the early 1980’s, he observed perilous conditions in Southeast Asia where he was serving as an Area Authority in Hong Kong. He too yearned for the church to become involved in the refugee effort of that decade (specifically in Southeast Asia) and thus, a few of us were called, as missionaries, to teach and work in refugee camps. However, we were absolutely not allowed to proselyte or even mention the church in any way. I was a missionary, but was strictly forbidden to talk about the church. Yet many hundreds would look up the church later in their sponsored countries.

We developed an agency within the refugee that helped the refugees as they waited for their sponsored countries to allow them to come. Working with other agencies like Catholic Relief Services, the Red Cross, and government and UN officials, we learned how to build a program that was highly respected. We were young, mostly inexperienced, but no one told us we couldn’t do anything. And Elder Hanks gave us all the confidence and support to make it happen. Within the space of about ten years, thousands of refugees were taught temporal and practical skills in Thailand, Hong Kong, and two camps in the Philippines.

As Elder Marion D. Hanks, who instigated missionaries to work in refugee camps under the auspices of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) taught us in the 1980’s: “Serve with no strings attached–without looking for any credit. Our purpose is to serve in a way that exemplifies pure religion. As you teach and visit with the refugees, you are sitting in proxy for the Savior.” Elder Hanks further instructed, “You are on a historical errand, and God is depending on you to give solace, comfort,and love to our brothers and sisters who have gone through a refiner’s fire.” None of us would ever be the same. How could we be?

We taught them English, but also practical skills to hopefully assist and benefit them in their sponsored countries. We had fun together, and tried to help them forget their current circumstances–with staged fashion and community shows, fairs, and mock job and bank interviews. There was a lot of comic relief. We reviewed the lesson with our translator before we presented it to the class; there was a great trust we developed together. We tucked in jokes, songs, stories to entertain as we taught them about how to apply for a checking account or how to use a vacuum cleaner. Sometimes as I would teach, I unintentionally would say something that would open a flood of emotion, and then just like dominoes, several rows of faces would be dripping with tears. They would talk, and I would listen, and my tears would stream with them. Most of us had not graduated from college yet, but we handled caseloads of psychotherapy every day.

One day we pretended to have 335 Vietnamese refugees on a plane, with me as their attentive stewardess (of course, none of them had ever been on a plane and it generated many roars of laughter as they all sat in their designated rows). We taught, with our translator, holding microphones, in large pavilions or sheds, with only a roof and a cement floor. Sometimes there would be 1000 students at one time, sitting on their mats, waiting for me to teach them with my translator. Women breast fed babies, and brought their children to listen too. Men, with anxious faces, tried to grasp a new language and imagine the country they were bringing their family to. I taught Buddhist monks who invited me to their self-made temples in the refugee camp. Older people, who had never held a pencil in their hands, were my students too.

We visited their make-shift homes, which were large sheds with three sides–several families living together. Hammocks blowed breezily, as children played and ran in the dirt around them. I loved teaching the refugees in those big sheds, but the best visits were often times when we sat one-on-one, and they could bear their soul or just talk about their dreams. I visited hundreds of those homes, hearing of how they had experienced Pol Pot’s genocide or their experiences on the open seas. We spoke to them through translators that spoke Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong. I could speak Mandarin Chinese to them, if they were ethnic Chinese.

Every day my heart was ripped out, as I heard their tales of trauma and torture–of how they had seen their families slaughtered before their eyes or their women raped on the seas. But we also laughed, long and hard, even forgetting momentarily where we all were: in a refugee camp. We sang, with glee and even happiness–they showing to me as a young 22 year old what it means to survive and go forward when life looks drearily bleak. I was their “teacher,”–a revered position in Asian culture. Although I was young, naive, and mostly ignorant of their struggles, they loved me anyways. However, if I were to be honest, their stories, lives, examples have fueled me all these years. Actually, they were my teachers–on how to forgive, garner courage, generously give (they frequently gave me their bananas from their food rations or invited us to dinner with their meager provisions), and to gloriously laugh. Often we unconsciously stopped time with our jokes. As I look back on those times, laughter was one of the most important things we gave each other. We needed it.

Recently I returned to Southeast Asia, after being gone for three decades. But their stories and faces have never been too far from my heart. Some of them I tracked down later in the US, curious to see how they were faring in their sponsored country. A few months ago, while in Southeast Asia, I visited a prison and killing fields where Cambodians were tortured and killed before their family and friends. I swayed on the same open seas around Vietnam where my friends had experienced abuse and neglect of every kind as “boat people.” The trip made me confront images of my mind, their stories–the experiences of refugee faces that have never been too far away. As one Cambodian refugee said, “It would take a river of ink to tell our stories.”

I am grateful that for a short time, at least, I was able to be in the presence of some of the most wonderful people I have ever known–in refugee camps. After I recently saw their killing fields and the places they had fled, the memories of our laughs and tears streamed together. Many faces and stories unravelled–reminders of their tutoring me on how to be human when others have forgotten how. Whether they knew it or not, they helped me grow up. Because of them, I am comfortable with women who wear burqas or men in Buddhist robes. They taught me that no one is a stranger because I know both of our stories need to be intertwined.

Elder Hanks’ vision to rescue the Southeast Asian refugees altered my life, and has given them a refuge in my heart and homes all these years. When I heard Elder Patrick Kearon speak a few days ago in General Conference, my old friend’s voice intermingled in his recent talk. Elder Kearon ended with a probing thought, “The moment of being a refugee does not define them, but our response to them will help to define us.” Elder Hanks was teaching the same principle 36 years ago in the April 1980 General Conference when he said, “There are others, nearer at hand, who struggle with problems with which we must also be concerned. . . . We must have “individual concern for the strangers among us, resident or passing through.. . .” In other words, refugees can be far away in remote places, but they can be in close proximity too. It is for us to discern how to help the strangers around us.

At the end of Elder Hanks’ life, I called his dear wife, Maxine, and inquired if I could come visit him. I was coming from out of state, and had heard he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. He had always been larger than life: eloquent, wise, inspiring. She gently cautioned me, “He may not know you. Sometimes he is lucid, and other times he is not. But I am sure he would like for you to come.”

As I walked into his hospital room that day, I could perceive as I looked into his eyes that he indeed did remember me. We spoke, with nods, and me filling up the conversation. At the end of our visit, I asked him because he had always been my teacher (and I had some of my teenage boys standing next to me), “Tell me, Elder Hanks, what is the most important thing we can do in our lives?” In his true sage-like way, without missing a beat, he looked at me with his penetrating eyes, and said, “You already know. Service.”

Here is a picture of my Cambodian grandmother, Meek Chy. She is 81 in this picture, and I called her Jidon (meaning Grandma in Khmer).

Meek Chy

Meek Chy

She was one of my dearest friends of my life, illiterate, but gifted with a sense of humor that could make a class of 1,000 Cambodian refugees roar with laughter. Every day she sat on a mat in the front row of the open-aired shed that was our classroom. She held a pencil in her hands, the first one she had ever held in her life. I still have her school work that I treasure where she wrote her name, some words, and numbers. She was bequeathed with a sense of wonder and intrigue about learning, and was captivated about the prospect of being a student for the first time–in a refugee camp, of all places. She acted like a small child who is proud of their first drawings or written letters–always running to find me to show me her work.ll have her school work that I treasure where she wrote her name, some words, and numbers. She was bequeathed with a sense of wonder and intrigue about learning, and was captivated about the prospect of being a student for the first time–in a refugee camp, of all places.

This is my favorite picture because it shows how she could roar with laughter, and lighten the air for everyone around her. Everybody always wanted to hear her upbeat comments and jokes. She could have given any comedian a run for their money. Her clever wit was a gift for all the Cambodian refugees. I was in Thailand with her, and then she followed me to the Philippines when I worked at a refugee camp in Bataan. I tried to look her up in Brooklyn, NY when I got home, but I never saw her again. Her face, and especially her smile and laugh, always bring a flood of happy moments to me.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you for this.

  2. This is deeply moving, Maryan. Thank you for writing down your story to share with us, and for inspiring my heart to expand even more.

  3. I wonder, as I re-read this, what kind of impact it would have if we retooled our Missionary program for, say, two years, and sent every one of them to do refugee work like you did. I kind of cant even imagine the extraordinary change that could be worked… on the world and on us.

  4. A Happy Hubby says:

    I am having mixed feelings on the conference and the urge to help refugees. I am excited that we had the theme of the women’s session along with a great talk in general conference. It was touching how touched the usually completely composed Elder Uchtdorf struggling to give simple instructions after that talk. Now we are hearing that many are responding. All GREAT stuff.

    But it leaves me feeling like this should be the norm – not the first in my 50+ years in the church – and months behind the Pope asking each Catholic Parish to adopt a refugee family.

    I wish that we had our leadership full of those in the mold of Elder Hanks.

    I wish my kids could go on the mission you had. I would pay double to allow them to just serve. Instead I get letters saying how hard-nosed the mission president is mainly pushing “absolute strict obedience” and common phrases of, “I feel like I am wasting my time here Dad!”. My guess is Maryan that you didn’t send letters home saying that you were wasting your time. I assume the very hardest part of your mission was leaving. I imagine that hurt like hell.

  5. “I feel like I am wasting my time here Dad!” How strikingly similar to young Elder Hinckley’s exasperated complaint to his father.

  6. True religion. Thank you.

    We should all strive to be so changed. It’s always been our goal to retire early for missions, I hope by that time these opportunities are available.

  7. This is such an amazing and wonderful post! Very important perspective — this kind of missionary work is very similar to what I had in mind a couple of years ago in this post: https://bycommonconsent.com/2014/01/13/toward-a-more-productive-fulfilling-and-successful-missionary-program/

    It’s great to get a glimpse of what it is like to experience that kind of missionary service.

  8. Angela C says:

    It’s far too easy to imagine that refugees are not like us or that they somehow are less than or deserve their fate. Why does luck so often reduce our empathy? I hope we will all be more attuned to the fact that what happens to us isn’t who we are. As a church, we really do struggle with the prosperity and ease of middle-class living that we believe we have earned.

  9. As a church, we really do struggle with the prosperity and ease of middle-class living that we believe we have earned.

    Such a true observation. “If only he’d been more righteous, he’d be blessed like we are.”

  10. Oh wow, what a beautiful piece of writing to accompany such moving experiences. Thank you for both writing and being an example of service. I’ve struggled to know how and where to serve, and this is a good reminder to just start. My most beloved experienced from my own mission were also in the orphanage type homes for children and teens. I do remember so much laughter there.

  11. Rosalynde Welch says:

    Love you, Maryan! I feel so privileged to know you and to have worked with you for a short time. You nurtured refugees in Thailand, and you nurtured hearts seeking refuge and rescue in St Louis for many years. And you continue your ministry around the world. Thank heavens for Maryan Shumway!

  12. kristine N says:

    Beautiful stories. Thank you for sharing.

    This is the kind of mission that would have drawn me into the mission field.

  13. isacarrot says:

    My goodness, what would I give for the rest of my life to be spent just like that… Thank you for your eloquent and moving article.

  14. It’s important to note that my parents, President Garry Mitchell and Jean Mitchell of the Hong Kong mission initiated the refugee programme. My father says it was actually Bruce Opie’s idea to institute it (he was a Director of Temporal Affairs for the Church at the time), my mother set it up and ran it, my father organised missionary support for it, and then Elder Hanks took the programme to other parts of Southeast Asia.

  15. A Happy Hubby says:

    Megan – That is great that they were able to get it started. I sure wish it was expanded and grown from that time where we as a church wouldn’t have had to have the call to action in the conference since we were already been fully involved.

  16. This is the kind of mission that I would like to serve. Thank you for sharing your story.

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