Myanmar Reflections, Part 3 of 3: Take Off Your Shoes

Take Off Your Shoes: The Beautiful and the Not-So-Beautiful

In my entire life so far, I have never taken off my shoes in public as much as I did during our two weeks in Myanmar.

In the Bible, removing one’s shoes is a sign of respect, an indicator of a sacred encounter, a movement into a holy place. The most prominent example is found in Exodus 3, when Moses encounters a bush that is on fire, yet not burning up. The Lord called to Moses and spoke his name, and Moses replied, “Here I am.” The Lord then commanded Moses to remove the sandals from his feet, for the place on which he stood was holy ground. With his bare feet in the dirt and sand, Moses received the instructions of a lifetime, the call to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and into a new land of promise and freedom, and into new relationship with God.

Like the wilderness of at the foot of Mount Horeb, Myanmar is a land filled with holy places and sacred spaces. Deeply rooted in Theravada Buddhism, it is hard to walk a few blocks without finding a temple, pagoda, monastery, a Buddha monument, or another house of religious practice. During our two weeks in this country, we visited these many of places and before crossing the thresholds we always removed our flip-flops and stepped onto dirt, cool marble, or a wooden floor alongside other seekers, visitors, or pilgrims. At first it seemed strange or even unsafe, but soon I realized that not only was everyone else also in their bare feet, but the floors and the ground where were walked were usually very clean, because no one ever tread upon them with dirty shoes.

In addition, I soon recognized that the sensation of walking around a temple or another public place with no shoes actually made me even more fully present and aware of how special and auspicious these religious sites were. When we were walking around the market or eating at a restaurant we could keep our shoes on, but when we arrived at a place where we were asked to remove those sandals, we knew we were entering a place that was different and holy.

One of the most important places that we visited barefoot was the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Completely covered in gold, this is one of the most significant places of Buddhist reverence in the country. Legend has it that this 2,500 year old monument contains relics of 4 previous Buddhas who attained Enlightenment. We arrived at Shwedagon after sunset, because we wanted to see how beautiful the gold shines in the nighttime. We left our shoes in the vans, walked barefoot across the gravel parking lot, into the lobby, and up the elevator to the walkway at the South entrance of the pagoda. We turned the corner and were met with an explosion of sights, sounds, and smells.

Panorama of Shwedagon Pagoda

Panorama of Shwedagon Pagoda

The air was warm and dense with the aroma of incense and flowers. Shwedagon towered 326 feet above our heads and at the base of the pagoda we saw row after row of smaller Buddha images with golden coverings. We slowly made our way around the circumference of the pagoda. All around us we could see people of all ages and experiences: monks walking slowly in their saffron robes, parents chasing giggling children, teenagers huddled in small groups and taking pictures, elderly men and women kneeling on the ground in front of the Buddhas. Lining the walkway shone rows of flickering candles, and behind the candles we saw families pouring cups of water over Buddha images, symbolizing their reverence and respect. As we passed a pavilion we heard a group of women chanting prayers in Pali, only to be drowned out by the deep echo of a gong and the twinkling of tiny chimes high above our heads. It was as if each of my senses had been heightened to take in as much of this experience as possible. And all the while, my bare feet padded along the cool, marble floor. Even though I am not Buddhist, I knew that something holy was happening here, for these families and the monks around me. In case I momentarily forgot, my bare feet reminded me.

The pagoda, unfortunately covered up for repairs

The pagoda was unfortunately covered up for repairs but the experience was still remarkable

As the days passed, we visited more sacred sites: a gargantuan marble Buddha measuring 37 feet tall and weighing over 600 tons; a massive reclining Buddha that was more than half the length of a football field from head to toe; the Sule Pagoda near city hall in Yangon, neighboring a mosque and a church. At each of these places we left our flip-flops at the entrance. And this was just in Yangon. During our three days in the Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center, we removed our shoes to enter the building where we meditated, as well as outside of the dining hall along with the other monks and nuns.

At the meditation center, outside of the dining hall

At the meditation center, outside of the dining hall

Following our meditation retreat, we had a little less than a week left in the country, and we spent our remaining days in two remarkable yet distinct places: beautiful Inle Lake and the ancient city of Bagan. At each place we marveled at both places of worship and the beauty of nature. We removed our shoes at a temple on Inle Lake with four small Buddha statues that have been covered with so much gold over the years that they now resemble four round balls (seriously!). In Bagan, we left our flip-flops at the bottom of the ancient grey and white Shwe San Daw Pagoda and proceeded to climb a series of tiny, steep steps. When our toes reached the top of the pagoda, we were rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of ancient brick pagodas lining the horizon, a view that hasn’t changed much since the height of Bagan’s Pyu Empire in the 9th-13th centuries. In the days that followed, w left our shoes behind as we visited beautiful and architecturally brilliant temples, temples that were believed to be cursed and left to ruin, and pagodas shining along the bank of the Irawaddy River.

Shwe San Daw Pagoda

Shwe San Daw Pagoda

While it is true that our feet tread on many holy and mysterious grounds, and while I found many of these experiences to be deeply spiritual and wonder-filled, I wouldn’t be completely honest if I left out one sole-full story. (See what I did there?)

It was our second to last day in Myanmar. That morning it was raining as we drove about an hour away from Bagan to an inactive volcano called Mount Popa. To the southwest of Mount Popa lies Taung Kalat, a volcanic plug that formed from the flowing lava of Popa’s most recent eruption, around 2,500 years ago. Believed to be a place of great spiritual power, a monastery was built at the top of Taung Kalat. The summit has also been an important site for nat, or spirit, worship. It has become a popular pilgrimage site and there are 777 steps that one must climb to reach the top. So despite the fact that it was raining that day, we decided to climb it. When in Myanmar, right?

View of Taung Kalat from Mount Popa

View of Taung Kalat from Mount Popa

Our bus traveled to the foot of Taung Kalat and stopped at the bottom of the covered stairway that would take us to the summit. “Just a few things to keep in mind,” our guide told us before we exited the bus. “On your way to the top you will see some monkeys. They hang around this mountain, so just be aware. Don’t get too close to them since they will try to take your cell phone or reach into your purse. Also, just be careful as you walk that you don’t step in monkey urine or poop.” Noted.

The stairs were covered with a tin roof, but because of the rain the steps had still become wet. About a quarter of the way up we were, as usual, asked to remove our shoes, and we continued on our way. However it soon became apparent that this would be no ordinary climb.

Our guide had told us to keep a look out for monkeys. Well, there was not a monkey here and a monkey there. There were monkeys…. everywhere. Hanging from the rafters to our left and our right. Sitting in groups on the stairs watching us. Running along the top of the tin roof above our heads. Climbing down the handrails, sometimes running directly over our hands. And yes, there were cute little babies. But there were also huge, intimidating, heavyset mothers staring at me with such intensity that I purposely avoided making eye contact. We didn’t need to be told to keep a distance, because we instinctively knew that we wanted to. But they were still everywhere.

The only picture that I took of the monkeys. These were very far away.

The only picture that I took of the monkeys. These were very far away.

And there weren’t a few monkey droppings here and there. There was poop…. everywhere. There was urine… everywhere. And add in the rain and the mud… it was hard to tell for sure what was what. Let it suffice to say that it wasn’t a matter of whether you would step in monkey poop, it was more a matter of how much poop were you going to step in. And just in case you forgot…may I remind you that we were all in our bare feet?

At the age of 26 years old, I have been very fortunate to have had many opportunities to travel and experience the world, both in the United States and internationally. I have parasailed in Mexico, I have gotten lost on the streets of Rome, I have survived an attempted burglary in my apartment in Athens, I have eaten alligator in New Orleans, I have drank potent liquor for breakfast in Hungary, I have hitch-hiked for rides on the Greek islands. During this trip alone, I spent 3 days in a Buddhist monastery on silent retreat, I used toilets that were literally holes in the ground with no toilet paper in sight, and I ate some kind of meat during a meal in a poor remote village without knowing exactly what it was. In short, I have done a lot of things that were strange, out of my comfort zone, and made me a little (or very) nervous. But climbing these slippery, feces-filled steps to the top of Taung Kalat in my bare feet with monkeys staring at my every move…this was the most uncomfortable experience I can remember! Cringing with each step, I kept thinking, “The view at the top better be worth it!”

When we reached the temples at the summit, and finally got a good look at the panorama through the rain, I admit that it was a nice view. However, the thought that was the most prominent in my mind was, “But now we have to go back down!”

Remember how I started this post, describing the beauty of walking barefoot in holy places? Remember my last post about Vipassana and mindfulness, recounting the intentionality of walking meditation? …yyeeaahh. I was not very mindful as I climbed up and then back down that monkey mountain. I couldn’t wait for the experience to be over and to have the opportunity to wash off my feet and my legs and my hands… and really just my whole body for good measure.

Or, maybe you could say I was actually being super-mindful, super aware of my surroundings… “lifting, pushing, dropping into poop… lifting, pushing, dropping into poop…”

Either way, this was definitely an experience that pushed me out of my box, way out of my comfort zone. And since then, my personal challenge has become this: in my bare feet, could I still, somehow, find holiness in this adventure? All around us were Myanmar tourists and pilgrims, who were not afraid of the monkeys, who didn’t seem to mind the poop, and who traveled to the summit for a religious experience. Couldn’t I find God in this place too?

I firmly believe that God shows up in the places that we love and inhabit frequently and with familiarity, but that God also arrives in the places we least expect, where we are the most vulnerable and uncomfortable. What we are first asked to do is take off our shoes, feel our toes against the dirt (or the marble, or the wooden floor, or…whatever else happens to be on the ground), maybe get a little uncomfortable, and notice that we are in a special place, and that something holy is happening. All I know is, I will never think of the instructions, “Take off your shoes,” in the same way again.

Myanmar Reflections, Part 2 of 3: Return To Your Breath

Return to Your Breath: Immersion into Vipassana Meditation

On January 10-12, our cohort spent 3 days quietly immersed in the practice of Vipassana meditation. We were guests at Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center in Yangon. Vipassana, mindfulness or insight, meditation is a practice of Theravada Buddhism. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had spent about 6 weeks of the fall semester practicing this mediation as part of my Spiritual Practices class. Furthermore while we were in Myanmar, during the week leading up to our retreat, every morning one of our classmates would lead us through about 20-30 minutes of insight meditation. It was helpful to have had this background and not start with a completely blank slate, however the retreat was still challenging!

At the entrance to the meditation center

At the entrance to the meditation center

Before I get into details, I should explain the practice of Vipassana meditation itself. Overall, there is a pretty clear reason why Vipassana is also called insight or mindfulness mediation. According to a small booklet of guidelines we were each given at the center:

“Vipassana or insight meditation is, above all, an experiential practice, based on the systematic and balanced development of a precise and focused awareness. By observing one’s moment-to-moment mind/body processes from a place of investigative attention, insight arises into the true nature of life and experiences. Through the wisdom acquired by using insight meditation one is able to live more freely and relate to the world around with less clinging, fear, and confusion. Thus one’s life becomes increasingly directed by consideration, compassion, and clarity.”

The way to develop this clarity, mindfulness, or awareness is to pay attention to your breath. Specifically, this could mean noticing your abdomen rising and falling with each in breath and out breath, or noticing the air going in and out through your nostrils. The breath is perhaps one of the most important concepts in meditation, and from what I understand, many people who use this practice would say that’s because the breath is the one thing that you always have throughout your life. Breath is, in fact, life. (Actually, this concept is deeply embedded in Christian theology as well. In the creation account of Genesis 2, God breathes life into the nostrils of first human being. Our breath is the life and breath of our Creator.) So to boil your attention down to just your breath, the source of life, is a simple yet profound act.

Now obviously, just paying attention to your breath is a lot harder than it sounds. The mind wanders, you begin to day dream or to get distracted. “Rising… falling… rising… falling… rising… I wonder how everybody else is doing with their meditating… has it been 10 minutes so far or only 5?… I think I’m getting hungry…” It’s really not that hard to realize that you’re no longer focusing on your breath. But here’s the beauty of Vipassana: that’s okay. The mind starts to wander, starts to think, because that’s in fact what it was designed to do! The mind is just doing its thing. So when that happens, the key is not to scold yourself about it or feel guilty or frustrated, but rather just to notice it, to become aware of it. Notice that you are thinking. Notice any object of awareness that might arise, like feeling hungry, or becoming cold or warm, or hearing a sound. Label those: “thinking,” “hearing,” “imagining,” etc. Then return to your breath.

This is a very basic understanding of sitting meditation. There is also a practice of walking meditation, which is similar in its intent but slightly different because walking involves movement. In short, the focus of walking meditation is to notice the process of walking through every movement of the feet and legs. You stand up (“standing, standing”), you lift your right leg (“lifting”), you push your right leg forward (“pushing”), you drop your right leg to the ground (“dropping”). Repeat for the other leg. Obviously this is done very slowly in order to notice each of the steps. Also, I want to note that both my descriptions for sitting and walking meditation are for beginners. There are deeper ways to sharpen your focus and become more aware as things arise during your practice, however most of us were beginners at this practice and were not expected to reach the next levels. (I should also add that this has been my humble attempt to briefly explain a practice that is deeply rooted in a cosmology and a community of which I am not a part. For anything that is incorrect or simply unclear, I apologize and suggest one book that was helpful at least for my rudimentary understanding: Larry Rosenberg’s Three Steps to Awakening: A Practice for Bringing Mindfulness to Life.)

So Vipassana became our practice, at least for those three intense days. You might be wondering, well what exactly did those days look like? Did you just sit on a cushion for 12 hours a day or walk very slowly and mindfully without doing anything else? Well…here is what a typical day looked like.

A bell would ring to wake us up, 4 descending chimes, around ten minutes ‘til 4 in the morning. Yes, you read that correctly: around 3:50am. At that time, we had about 40 minutes to take an ice cold shower (or find some other effective way to wake up, but that usually did it for me!) and then make our way to the building that had been arranged for us to practice. We began our practice at 4:30am, and it was suggested to us that as beginners we alternate between 30 minutes of walking meditation and 30 minutes of sitting meditation. At 6:00am, the bell would ring again, and we would (mindfully) walk to the dining hall for breakfast, along with the other monks and nuns who were also on silent retreat. We sat on the floor, about 5 persons at each round table, and ate in silence (oh, did I mention that this retreat also included eating and drinking mindfully? To reach for your glass of water to take a drink: “moving, moving…taking, taking, taking…drinking, drinking…moving, moving.”) After breakfast, we resumed our practice of either sitting or walking meditation until a bell rang again at 10:30am: lunchtime. Again we ate our meals in silence, and very slowly. Personally, I made sure to fill up, because lunch was our last meal of the day. According to the precepts that we committed to observe during our time at the center, it was considered improper to eat between noon and dawn. So that 10:30am meal was pretty important. Following lunch we returned to our breath again through walking or sitting meditation. Around 4:30 in the afternoon we were allowed to have what our guide called “soft drinks,” which really meant some sort of fruit juice, usually papaya or lime. (We were also allowed to drink water at any time throughout the day.) Finally, our day would end around 8:30 or 9 at night. We would go straight to bed, because the first bell would be ringing in just a few hours to wake us up!

The building where our group practiced sitting meditation every day. We could practice walking meditation either inside or outside.

The building where our group practiced sitting meditation every day. We could practice walking meditation either inside or outside.

The meditation center's dining hall

The meditation center’s dining hall

That was a basic outline of our daily routine at the meditation center, however there are two other things I should add that were actually very important to our routine and our experience there. The first is that we received permission for our group to practice yoga in silence for half an hour, twice a day. This allowance was truly a gift, because after many hours of sitting quite still or moving quite slowly, the body can become stiff and sore! The yoga was so beneficial for us both physically and mentally. One of our classmates, Liz, has practiced yoga for over a decade and offered to lead us, so twice a day (at 4:30am and at 3:00pm) we moved and stretched our bodies in ways that helped us loosen up and recalibrate. The fact that we practiced yoga in silence was actually quite remarkable, and while it wasn’t strenuous exercise, it was definitely the most unique yoga I’ve ever done.

The second piece I should mention is that we were also gifted with daily meetings with the meditation center’s assistant abbot, a monk named U Nyana Ramsi. A typical expectation for participating in retreats such as ours is that meditators will meet with a teacher once a day for an “interview,” in which meditators report on their practice and raise any questions they have. The teacher will give suggestions or instructions in response. So each day around 5:30pm, our bhanti (a Pali word of reverence or respect, similar to “sir”) would slowly enter the room in his saffron robes, often with a junior monk or nun at his side, sit in a chair in front of us, and ask softly, “How is your practice going today?”

At first I think we were all a little nervous to speak up. But slowly we began to ask questions or bring up challenges and things we noticed about our sitting or walking meditation. Bhanti was patient and kind and so very wise. We were amazed at the wealth of knowledge that he drew from as he answered our questions. The way he spoke, softly yet confidently, and the way he moved his hands when he talked, gently touching his fingertips to list the eight kinds of suffering, or the three kinds of awareness…it was mesmerizing. Looking back I know we were very fortunate, as a group of mostly Christian seminarians from the United States, to have the opportunity to sit at the feet of this teacher and be treated like any other meditator in Buddhist Myanmar. I’m not sure how many Westerners can say that.

Our bhanti, assistant abbot U Nyana Ramsi

Our bhanti, assistant abbot U Nyana Ramsi

So at this point you may be wondering something important. What does it mean for seminarians or for Christians in general to practice Buddhist meditation? A few thoughts here.

This course, “Walking the Path of Nonviolence in Myanmar: Buddhist and Christian Approaches,” by its very nature was an interfaith experience. In our curriculum, this course is designated as a Border Crossing Immersion. At Andover Newton, all Master of Divinity candidates are required to complete 3 credit hours of a Border Crossing immersion that engages students with communities and persons of different social, cultural, ethnic, racial, economic, national, and/or faith identities other than their own. So in this particular class, not only were we crossing an international and cultural border, we were also intentionally crossing a religious border.

Furthermore, as I’ve already mentioned, Buddhism is not just the majority religion in Myanmar, it is also the state religion. It would be impossible to begin to understand the culture, society, and politics of this country without learning about Buddhism and Buddhist practices. And we can learn and read all we want about Theravada Buddhism and Vipassana meditation in a book or online, but we won’t really understand it until we’ve lived it. This concept of personal experience is also deeply embedded in Theravada Buddhism. The monks say, “You can only learn from your teacher up to a point. You cannot benefit from another’s practice. It must be your own practice that transforms you.” Likewise, we can only learn about the Buddhist practice of vipassana mediation by practicing it ourselves.

From my perspective, the practice of Vipassana meditation is not antithetical to my identity as a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus, who modeled a Kingdom of God-oriented life of nonviolence and compassion. Vipassana meditation is a practice that, alongside regular prayer, worship, and service to others, can only serve to increase a Christian’s compassion toward themselves and others. Furthermore, meditation itself does have its own place in Christian history. Also described as contemplative prayer, this ancient spiritual practice has been reclaimed in recent decades by Benedictine monks such as Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton. In her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthia Bourgeault describes how these monks have reintroduced meditation as a Christian practice and how the gospel of Jesus aligns with the goals of meditation, inner awakening, insight, or mindfulness. “Wake up!” John the Baptist proclaimed. “The Kingdom of God is near!” Might meditation help Christians awaken to the ways in which the Kingdom has arrived, and the ways in which it has not yet arrived? Might meditation help us live a little more attentively to the ways in which we might usher in the always new, in-breaking Kingdom of God?

Return to your breath. This is a common instruction and reminder in insight meditation. As a Christian, this is also a reminder to me: return to one who gave you breath. In my mind I hear the old haunting hymn:

“Breathe on me, Breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love what Thou dost love
And do what Thou wouldst do.”

As I meditate, may this also be my prayer. With each in breath and out breath, may I be reminded of my Creator and Sustainer who gave me life and continues to give me life each day. With each thought that crosses my mind and takes my attention away, may that be one more opportunity to return to my breath and return to my breath giver.

IMG_2253

After this intense, 3-day immersion, and now after returning to the United States and continuing a practice of daily meditation, I am curious about what role, if any, meditation plays in your life. A secular version of mindfulness meditation has been growing in popularity over the past 1-2 years, and researchers have praised its psychological, physical, and emotional benefits. People of faith, and especially clergy, emphasize the importance of individual spiritual practices such as prayer, journaling, reading scripture, or yoga, and meditation certainly falls into that category. So, do you have a daily meditation practice? If so, what kind of meditation do you practice? I am especially wondering about my clergy friends and if meditation aligns with your theology and your personal spiritual practices.

As always, thank you for reading, and stay tuned for my final Myanmar reflection, coming soon!

Myanmar Reflections, Part 1 of 3: The Church in Myanmar

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!

So…we begin.

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?

Dr. Mary telling us about the Health Clinic

Dr. Mary telling us about the Health Clinic

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.

Ywama Baptist Church

Ywama Baptist Church

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.

Mark, Maung Maung, and Brita

Mark, Maung Maung, and Brita

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.

Children of the Sharing Love Program listening to a story

Children of the Sharing Love Program listening to a story

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.

Students of Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary dressed in traditional ethnic garb

Students of Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary dressed in traditional ethnic garb

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.