In Myanmar, Christians comprise only five to seven percent of the population, with Anglicans representing about two percent. Earning an average of 40 cents per day, a priest often serves six or more parishes, sometimes wandering the mountains looking for parishioners displaced by military and resistance fighting. Bishops worry about malfunctioning trucks and malaria in their travels throughout the dioceses.
In January 2007, a team of seven seminarians from Virginia Theological Seminary joined missionary the Rev. Katharine Babson in Myanmar for more than three weeks. Seminarian Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly shares a personal account of her experience of Myanmar, whose people, she says, nurture a sense of hope about the future, despite living in such challenging circumstances.
One of the Anglican Communion's 38 Provinces, the Church of Myanmar was formed in 1970, nine years after the declaration of Buddhism as the state religion and four years after all foreign missionaries were forced to leave. Today, Archbishop Samuel San Si Htay serves as the Primate of the Church of Myanmar, which has six dioceses.
Nearing the end of our stay in Myanmar, we were eager to visit the working elephants outside Toungoo. A small, weary pick-up pulled into the hotel driveway, so full with passengers that we were unsure how it would accommodate seven seminarians. However, with some creativity, we were on our way!
After riding through the countryside for an hour, the driver stopped the truck. While none of us spoke Burmese well enough to understand what was happening, we knew something was wrong. The group disembarked onto what seemed to be someone's front yard. One of the Burmese passengers explained that the brakes were failing, and the driver had decided to consult a mechanic. Looking around, we saw that the "shop" had no lift and only few tools. Nevertheless, several men began working on the problem.
Our guide, Dr. Chan, recommended taking a walk. With nothing else to do, we decided that a walk would do us some good. We strolled alongside Buddhist monks, oxen carts, and bicycles, attracting the local residents' full attention.
We approached a rice paddy beyond the heart of the village. Although the team was content to observe from a distance, Dr. Chan recommended crossing the dikes to get a closer view. We found this offer shocking. We worried about trespassing, encountering swarms of mosquitoes, or falling off the dikes, which appeared quite tenuous.
Most of the team looked at the sturdy ground on which we were standing and decided that we should not test the swampy paddy. When Dr. Chan realized we were not following him, he came back to the place where he jumped to the first dike. First, he pleaded with the group as a whole. Then, he called me by name.
"Jennifer, please come with me. It's okay. You can trust me."
I looked into his dark brown eyes, and saw a sparkle of adventure and joy. I looked back at the dirty -- but dry -- road wistfully. Then I turned back toward Dr. Chan. His smile conveyed a sense of confidence and encouragement that warmed my heart, and I found myself jumping across the water to the dike.
It took plenty of coaxing, but one by one, we all braved the paddy to get a closer look. The paddy was much more quiet and peaceful than the road. The air seemed clearer, and we were able to see the lush, green rice shoots. We came close to a group of six women standing in knee-deep water. The hot sun beat down on their backs as they hunched over to plant one shoot at a time. We found ourselves exhausted just watching them. On the way back to the truck, Dr. Chan told us that the women work seven days a week and earn about $.80 each day for their labor.
Our experience on the paddy with Dr. Chan was a metaphor for my experience in Myanmar. It was an invitation much like Christ's invitation to take another way. It is an invitation to travel to a place halfway around the world, that the U.S. Government has sanctions against, that refuses to allow democracy to rule, whose military junta creates a sense of fear and anxiety, and whose food, culture, and dress is foreign.
As with Jesus, if you are open to becoming completely vulnerable, you will find a place of deep joy. I found that place in Myanmar. It is a place where hospitality is redefined -- where food, gifts, and laughter are abundant, despite economic scarcity. People open their homes and lives to you. Christians have a deep and abiding love and excitement for Christ that they share readily. And, somehow, they nurture a sense of hope about the future.
For further information about the Anglican Church in Myanmar, joining a mission team to Myanmar, or to offer financial support to the Church, please contact Myanmar missionary the Rev. Katharine Babson at KatharineBabson@aol.com.