By Jeff Brumley
Most pastors will attest the ministry isn’t anything close to a 40-hour work week. On top of sermon preparation, preaching, hospital visits and counseling, the leader of one congregation of Myanmar refugees in Jacksonville, Fla., has an additional duty most ministers don’t have: translator.
Pastor Zo Bawi regularly accompanies members of his Jacksonville Chin Baptist Church when they apply for food stamps, driver’s licenses, car insurance and housing. He also accompanies them to doctor visits, court appearances and jail visitations.
“Sometimes I have to be their driver, too,” he said, laughing. “I never get time off — even one hour.”
But relief is on the way for Bawi and hundreds of other Myanmar church leaders thanks to an agreement between two major Baptist groups, a seminary, a Kansas-based refugee ministry and a couple whose calling has been to serve in Myanmar.
Radically different culture
The deal was reached last fall between Central Baptist Theological Seminary, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, International Ministries of American Baptist Churches USA and the Bethel Neighborhood Center in Kansas City. It’s designed to offer a more intentional and coordinated focus on theological and pastoral training programs for Baptist pastors from Myanmar.
In part it will do that by providing a domestic missions platform for Duane and Marcia Binkley, two long-time ABC- and CBF-commissioned missionaries to the nation formerly known as Burma. Their focus now is on Burmese refugees, including ethnic groups known as the Chin and Karen, in the United States.
The Chin and Karen (pronounced ka-rin) and other Myanmar groups are already Christian thanks to about two centuries of Baptist mission work in Burma, Binkley said. But their pastors are overwhelmed helping their congregations adapt to a radically different American culture.
“They (are) dealing with situations and things that their training (in Myanmar) didn’t prepare them for,” Binkley said. “We were thinking it would be great to have some avenue to expand training for those pastors,” Binkley said.
Growing Myanmar population
It’s a challenge growing as rapidly as the Burmese refugee population is, Binkley said.
U.S. Census data shows that population surged from around 14,600 in 2000 to almost 100,000 a decade later. Most of that has occurred since about 2006.
According to Binkley’s web site, www.karenkonnection.org, there are close to 150 known Burmese Baptist congregations in 25 states. The largest concentrations are in Indiana, Texas, California and New York.
Connecting ‘larger body of the church’
The seminary’s role in serving that population will be to work with the Binkleys and expanding an existing program that provides rudimentary theological education and ministry training, said Robert Johnson, dean of the seminary.
That certification training will be held regionally for Burmese ministers unable to get to Kansas City, and will prepare them eventually to work on masters of divinity degrees, Johnson said.
The seminary also will bring its long-standing partnership with the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Burma. That relationship includes exchanges between the institute’s Myanmar students and Central’s American students.
That will support the school’s larger aim of contributing to the creation of “a church with a global view so as to connect the larger body of the church,” Johnson said.
‘Here we have way more room’
Van Thang gets that, the 12-year-old said as he watched younger children playing before a recent Sunday worship service at the Jacksonville Chin Baptist Church. In the U.S. since he was 6, Thang said he and his family attended Baptist churches in Myanmar, too, but it was mostly in people’s homes and in run-down buildings.
“The routine was the same but the buildings are different,” he said outside a Disciples of Christ church his congregation rents. “Here we have way more room.”
But there’s also way more of an uphill battle for Thang, his pastor and other Burmese living in the U.S., said Kyle Nelson, a Central seminarian and assistant director at the Bethel Neighborhood Center in Kansas City.
The ABC-affiliated center was established in the early 1900s to help immigrants, and has been working recently to help Myanmar refugees adjust to life in Kansas.
‘So much happiness’
There and across the country, Nelson said Burmese pastors face burnout as they help church members struggling with predatory lending, credit issues, crime and reluctance to challenge or even approach authority.
When their electricity or water isn’t working or they face cockroach infestations, “they don’t know to call the landlord to complain,” Nelson said. The center will be sharing its experience dealing with poverty and housing rights, among others, with partners in the Myanmar agreement.
What’s most striking to Nelson about the Burmese is that their faith and religious communities are sustaining them. He traveled to Myanmar and Thailand with a group in February, and found the same situation even in refugee camps.
“I didn’t expect so much happiness,” Nelson said. “It was very encouraging to see them in a difficult situation but still having a lot of joy.”