Also addressing the attendees at the New Wineskins Conference on Missions was Stephen Than Myint Oo, Archbishop of Myanmar and Bishop of Rangoon.
He began by saying that Myanmar (a/k/a Burma) is made up of about 96% religions other than Christian. Neighboring nations are Thailand and Laos to the East, Bangladesh to the West, and China to the North. The government does not distinguish between nationality and religion, ethnic and political difficulties. Therefore the church is marked by suffering and converts are treated as traitors. Even so missions have much success.
Archbishop Stephen then shared some of the recent history of the nation. After the Japanese invasion [WWII] the number of priests in Burma dropped to seven, who had to minister to all their congregations on foot. They had to hide their Bibles and the sacrament — if discovered carrying these items they would be killed. After the Japanese era, in 1948 the country became independent of Great Britain and established a democracy based on Buddhist teachings – Buddhism became the religion of Burma. In 1962 there was a military coup d’etat and there has been civil war ever since.
Under the socialist military government schools, medicine, etc have been nationalized and there are no options for Christian schools. Christians have essentially been cut off from the outside world; but thanks to missionaries the people have the Gospel, schools and medical help, and evangelization continues. The church values unity but not uniformity; piety; community; and honesty.
Priests in Myanmar currently look after seven villages, living on $25/month and walking six hours from one village to the next. On their journeys they must avoid land mines and constantly be listening for gunshot. An already difficult economy is made worse by the global monetary crisis and economic sanctions. Archbishop Stephen points out that development projects can be very helpful in spreading Christianity but acknowledges they often become compromised.
Archbishop Stephen spoke of a need “not for church-shaped mission but for mission-shaped churches”. Churches must be active in evangelism, making converts and disciples. Current goals for the church in Myanmar are economic and theological self-reliance; education (both theological and secular); development of good leaders; and Bible reading and prayer. He noted that the Myanmar church tends to be “silent spiritually” because they are by nature a quiet people. Still, they are ready to serve even though they face dangers from exposure to HIV-AIDS, drugs, and military actions. “We are ready to die with Christ,” he said.
The Karen people particularly have suffered greatly from the civil war. The Karen have been wandering in the jungle for ten years, and the priests and catechists have gone into exile with them. If they are found they will be killed — pray for them.
Archbishop Stephen closed by saying, “these dark years have become the foundation of our mission. We have nothing but we are ready to face anything.” “Pray for us.”