Our Anglican brothers and sisters in Myanmar
An adjunct faculty member at Virginia Seminary, in 2001, Kitty Babson (VTS ’92) was invited to design Virginia Seminary's first January-term mission immersion course for study in Myanmar. Kitty has also assisted the selection and difficult exit and US entry visa processes of six Myanmar students for education at VTS that has strengthened their leadership roles in the church in Myanmar. Kitty has also served on TEC's Standing Commission for World Mission, and as Chair of the now defunct Episcopal Partnership for Global Mission (EPGM). She is the author of the article on Myanmar in Oxford Companion Guide to the Book of Common Prayer, and co-author of the chapter on The Province of Myanmar in the Wiley-Blackwell Companion Guide to The Anglican Communion. Past Vicar of St. Matthias' in Richmond, Maine, she now serves the diocesan interim and supply ministry. She also leads conferences, teaches, writes and addresses the hope of the people of Myanmar in numerous contexts, both at home and abroad.
A fuller account will appear in the next VTS Journal.
Recently returned from my 35th visit to the church in Myanmar since my first visit 20 years ago, I was struck by how our Myanmar Christian friends trust that the nature and pace of change taking place in Myanmar since the 2011 national elections brought fledgling democracy to that country now serve their trust that they can take a different order of initiative than in the past.
The primary motivation for this year’s mission was to join the people of Toungoo Diocese in marking the twentieth anniversary of the consecration of their second bishop, Virginia Seminary’s own Right Reverend Saw John Wilme, M.Div. ‘89. I first met the bishop when he and I were students at Virginia in the late 80’s. After our graduation and his return to Myanmar in 1989, and my move to Bangkok, Thailand in early 1993, we reconnected when he sent me a telegraph announcing that his wife, Elizabeth, had received a rare Myanmar exit visa for travel to participate in a month-long Christian education conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. Given Myanmar’s restrictive exit policies at that time, she needed my help successfully to manage her time in Jakarta. When I met her in Bangkok when she was on her way, I gave her a Virginia Seminary class of 1992 cross as a gift to take back to Saw John.
Since then and through years of war, Bishop Wilme’s cross has heard accounts and been witness to horrific spiritual and physical scarring and degradation, loss of limb and life, war-driven deprivation of access to medical care for rampant malaria and tuberculosis, high infant mortality, flesh trafficking advantaged by poverty, people hiding in holes under their houses to avoid conscription by soldiers commanding free bearers. It has heard tell of people whose scant belongings had been pilfered by low-paid government soldiers taking advantage of their military power and authority. Most knew of others whose precious livestock had been stolen, and whose villages had been burned in retribution for their ethnic Karen loyalty. Fleeing for safety into the cover of jungle, some remained internally displaced (IDP’s) for years, complicating the bishop’s attempts at viable parish counts, and making the challenge to support his people an ever-shifting puzzle to complete with any lasting surety. Other faithful risked perilous land-mined paths though mountainous wilderness to find relative security, albeit a ghettoized way of life, in Thailand’s border camps for refugees. Grievously, some have never been heard of again, leaving behind charred silences that have never greened with news, nor rendered any idea of the hope of his people.
When preaching in Shwe Naung Bin, Toungoo on the first Sunday in Lent according to lessons assigned in the old 1947 Book of Common Prayer created for use in Britain’s South Asian colonies, it was impossible not to note how Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians 2 Cor. 6:7b-10 reflected that congregation’s own trial and faithful response during the war years. Yet today, while fire still threatens in some quarters of the province, and other severe challenges remain, overall, my conversations revealed the fruit of the Holy Spirit in all the churches. Newly elected young bishops in Myitkyina in the farthest northern diocese, and in Mandalay Diocese in central Myanmar, preach the gospel openly and boldly in confidence that their ideas for building a future unfettered by the past can take form, now uncensored and unrestricted. Even in Myitkyina, which is still afflicted by war between government forces and the Kachin National Army, where UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) housing built in parish compounds shelters women and children whose men are fighting at the war’s front, their bishop hopes to construct a sanctuary of future hope for the young within a six-story library stocked with texts in the many languages of Myanmar’s major ethnic groups. He aspires to have computers with links to the world-wide-web so youth can access the world beyond the war torn one they know, a world of connectivity that will strengthen their faith in a cross that speaks through death to the promise of life, and prepares the way for life to grow.
Evidence of hope’s endurance and vitality was apparent on Ash Wednesday morning when over two thousand men, women, youth and children filled the Anglican cathedral in Myitkyina to receive the sign of ashes and to receive communion. Afterward, my eager friend Samuel joyfully reported that the hope he had shared with me the year before was already being realized: he had been able to accumulate 300 books as the basis of a spiritual library to which all people could come to read for spiritual sustenance. Young Deacon David described the Anglican Youth Association’s transformation of an old diocesan building for use as an English language training center. Even with war still enflaming Myitkyina’s border areas and claiming the lives of many, those behind in the city press on to secure hope for whatever future will be theirs when peace comes.
Three weeks of visitation, uncommonly open conversations like these, and unreserved celebration for what is opening to them and their countrymen revealed how the fires of Myanmar’s past are giving way to resurrection. Virginia Seminary’s steadfast commitment in friendship for twenty of some of Myanmar’s most difficult and challenging years has strengthened her Anglicans’ confidence to begin to construct a new age.
As I departed Myanmar on my flight homeward, I could not help but remember Paul’s assurance to the church in Corinth that God had heard them: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you” (2 Cor. 6:2:a).
I remain thankful that the Myanmar Anglicans know that they have been heard, in large part because Virginia Seminary and more than 60 of its students and alumni have gone the distance to visit them over the past twenty years of their hardship. On our side, as we restore Immanuel Chapel’s fire worn cross for its new placement within a new chapel complex, and our friends in Myanmar lift up their cross from the fires and ash they have known for so long, together we may certainly celebrate that our presence one to the other has been of God and for God.