|Monday, January 14, 2013|
On January 4, the people of Burma (Myanmar) celebrated the 65th anniversary of their independence from Britain. Independence gave way to five decades of authoritarian rule and human rights abuses, from 1962 to 2011. Now, for more than a year, the country has been in the midst of rapid political reform and social change ushered in by the current President, U Thein Sein. For Americans, these changes culminated in the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations and President Obama’s historic visit to Burma in November – the first time a sitting American President has visited that country.
Burma’s Independence Day coincides with the start of a remarkable journey by eight students from Virginia Theological Seminary. The students are in Burma for a month-long course that will expose them to Christianity as it is practiced in a country with deep Buddhist roots and a recent history of rule by a military junta. They will engage with religious leaders, theology students, NGOs, and local villagers. They will study local and international efforts to address social justice issues. They will see elephants at work and visit church-supported camps for persons displaced by ethnic conflict. For some of these students, this will be their first time in a developing country. It is not an easy place to start, but it will open their eyes to many things and be of tremendous value to them in the years ahead.
The trip is especially important for them as future leaders in the Episcopal Church and worldwide Anglican Communion. In Burma, religious groups provide vital health, education, and other services. Susan Hayward, Senior Program Officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, writes, “In the absence of adequate government services over recent decades, the religious sector has stepped up to fill the gap: providing health services, alternative school systems, and humanitarian relief to the population. Their understanding of community needs and their ability to organize, mobilize, and respond to those needs is significant. It is my prayer that as Burma continues to move forward, the religious sector will continue to use its powerful capacity to unite its myriad communities and to advance peace.
The course is led by a VTS alumna, the Rev. Kitty Babson, who has longstanding ties to the Church in Burma. VTS is proud of the overseas service of its alumni and of the study abroad opportunities the Seminary provides for its students. This is an outstanding example.