Mingalaba! (Hello!) It has been a little over a week since we returned from Myanmar and I am so excited to share my experiences. Our two weeks in Southeast Asia were intense, filled with beauty, hospitality, and intentionality. There is no way that I can adequately describe the fullness of our trip in a few blog posts, and I am positive that some experiences can never be completely recounted, even though I will try my best. For the purposes of this blog, I have decided to write three separate posts around different themes that I found to be important and recurring. These posts are in no way comprehensive. I have so many more stories and I have learned so much beyond what I can share here. If you’d love to hear more, I would love to talk to you personally! Let’s find a time to talk on the phone or in person.
Before I begin, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank each person who prayed for our group while we were traveling. Your prayers were felt! And I especially want to thank each person who made a donation to my fundraiser to afford the cost of this course. I am so deeply grateful and humbled by your generosity, and I quite honestly wouldn’t have had this unique opportunity without you. Thank you!
Part 1: The Myanmar Church
A mere twelve hours after arriving in Myanmar, our group of 13 Andover Newton students, faculty, and friends began our educational journey with a first hand look at what the Church looks like in Myanmar.
We first checked into our hotel around midnight on Saturday, and after a grateful night’s sleep we were warmly welcomed into Sunday morning worship at Ywama Baptist Church in Yangon. As we hopped out of the vans that transported us from the hotel to the church, we were ushered into a small room filled with medicine cabinets, chairs, and a desk. “This is the Charity Healthcare Clinic of the Ywama Baptist Church,” one of the church elders explained, who introduced herself as Dr. Mary. This congregation has been running a free health clinic for their community since 2003. There are several doctors and nurses in the congregation, and there is not adequate health care available in Myanmar, so anyone who walks through the doors of the clinic receives treatment, regardless of religion or ethnic group. According to a brochure about the clinic, about 9,000 patients are treated every year, and the congregation provides this outreach out of a deep conviction about the importance of Jesus’ healing ministry. If Jesus was a healer, why shouldn’t his church be in the healing business as well?
After a short tour of the clinic, we began to hear organ music, and I realized I was hearing old familiar hymns, such as How Great Thou Art. I immediately felt a connection to this community that I was visiting for the first time. Isn’t it amazing what music has the power to do? We were guided into a few rows toward the front of the sanctuary and I snuck a look behind me. The church was packed! There were hundreds of people filling the rows, and that was just the center room. To the left and the right of the main worship area I saw side porches with pews that were also filled to the edges. At the front of the church sat the choir, a pianist, an organist, and a small band comprised of a few teenagers playing flutes and violins. The service was conducted mainly in Burmese. One of the pastors of this church, Rev. Dr. Maung Maung Yin, is dear friend of one of the ANTS professors on the trip, Dr. Brita Gill-Austern. He introduced his guests from Andover Newton Theological School, adding in a few English sentences here and there so that we guests knew what was going on. We sang hymns such as Spirit of the Living God and All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, the congregation singing in Burmese and us singing along in English. And boy, can that congregation sing! I kept thinking of churches in the United States where you can hardly hear any folks in the pews. Not here! The joyful bellows from this congregation made my heart swell.
Our two ANTS professors, Dr. Brita and Dr. Mark Heim, gave words of greeting from Andover Newton and from the American Baptist Churches. During the sermon, a few church elders sitting next to us passed us notes (in English) describing the main points of the message so we wouldn’t feel too lost. Finally, to conclude the service, Holy Communion was served, Baptist-style (also, I would add, Brethren style!). It was a beautiful moment to partake in the bread and the cup, the symbols of Christ’s love and passion, across languages and across cultures, while still sitting at the same table of fellowship and faith.
Following worship a few members of the church led us to another building where we could hear the echoes of children chattering before we even reached the door. In addition to their free health clinic, another outreach of the Ywama Baptist Church is the Sharing Love Program, which serves children from the lowest and poorest neighborhoods in the area. We stepped inside the building to see a group of 60-70 children sitting on the floor listening to a story that a teacher was reading to them. Chatting with one of the younger female teachers beside me, I learned that the children of the Sharing Love program hear Bible stories, are taught lessons about health, hygiene, and moral values, learn songs and play games, and receive a meal. That morning, we had brought a suitcase full of children’s books that we had collected from the States, and when the teachers announced in Burmese that each of them could select a book to take home, they murmured excitedly and snuck us curious glances and shy smiles. Suddenly the teachers began singing a song, and the children all stood up and began to sing loudly, adding hand gestures and movements to the music. One of the songs they sang was one that we Americans immediately recognized: the Hokey Pokey! We began to join in, singing along in English and putting our left foot in, putting our left foot out, until they started to giggle at their silly guests! We couldn’t speak the same language but we could still shake their tiny hands and give each other great big smiles.
Ywama Baptist Church is just one example of the incredible witness of the church in Myanmar. Throughout that first week we also spent time at two different seminaries in Yangon: Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT for short) and Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary. In Myanmar, Buddhism is not just the majority religion; it is also the state religion. Furthermore Christians in Myanmar are not only religious minorities, but they are also usually ethnic minorities as well. One of the most important identity markers in Myanmar is your ethnic group: Chen, Kachin, Karen, Lisu, etc. The Burmese comprise about 45% of the population and are the largest ethnic group in the country. Most Burmese people also identify as Buddhist. Therefore, if you are a Christian in Myanmar, you are likely to be a member of both a minority religion and a minority ethnic group.
These ethnic and religious factors pose unique challenges and opportunities for the mission and work of the Church in this country. I admit that prior to meeting and getting to know the Christians of the Ywama Baptist Church, as well as the students and administration at MIT and at Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary, I expected to meet very conservative Christians with negative attitudes towards their Buddhist neighbors. After all, it was the work and mission of individuals like Andover Newton graduate and Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson that brought the gospel to the “heathen” peoples of South Asia in the early 19th century, so I anticipated finding a similar mindset among the 21st century descendants of those first Christian converts.
Yet it was quite the opposite. The Christians of these churches and theological schools were thoughtful, open-minded, justice-oriented, and committed to engaging critically with their neighbors and their society. When we talked with church elders and seminary students about mission and evangelism, we didn’t hear talk of conversion, sacrificial atonement, and the need to save their Buddhist neighbors from eternal damnation. (Now I’m sure there are Christians in Myanmar who would talk of those things, but I’m just sharing my interactions.) Instead, we heard talk of both interfaith dialogue and evangelism as storytelling. To evangelize and to witness meant sharing stories of the ways in which being a follower of Jesus has changed your life, and to engage in interfaith dialogue meant asking your Buddhist or Muslim neighbor to share their stories of the ways in which being a Buddhist or a Muslim has changed their life. At Ywama Baptist Church we saw outreach and mission take the form of providing basic human needs like education, health care, and childcare for all, without an expectation that those benefiting from those services accept Jesus as their personal savior. In the classrooms at MIT we heard talk of “God’s preferential option for the poor” and Gustavo Gutierrez’s liberation theology, which takes on a whole new meaning in one of the poorest South Asian countries.
Overall, I was inspired and deeply moved by the witness and mission of the Church in Myanmar. And if I’m honest, I can’t help but notice how Christianity in Myanmar is different from Christianity in the United States. It is clear that being a religious minority in a country will change your approach to doing and being the Church in the world. (Here are my Anabaptist, anti-Constantinian, post-Christendom roots shining through…I recommend reading Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith.) Even though the United States does not have an official religion like Myanmar, Christianity is still pervasive and is still the dominant religious framework in our culture. Has our majority status and our privilege affected our ability to be faithful disciples of Christ, healing the sick and feeding the hungry? Have we become more about self-preservation than about turning the world upside-down with the radical and counter-cultural love of Jesus?
I propose the Church in the United States has much to give thanks for and much to learn from the Church in Myanmar. Our sanctuaries may be bigger but their pews are fuller. Our organs may be louder but their songs are sung with fuller hearts. Our churches and theological schools may have more committees about “mission” and “evangelism,” but their churches and seminaries are out there in the trenches, living out their mission. May we be inspired and encouraged by our brothers and sisters in Yangon and in every small Christian village and town. Christ is alive, present, and at work through the busy hands and feet of the Christians in Myanmar.