Each March I travel to Myanmar where my school has a collaborative doctor of ministry program. This partnership evokes new perspectives on the global church and reminds me of the power of a faithful religious minority. It was not the predominant Burmans of the land (the preferred ethnicity) that accepted Christianity, but the tribal groups in the hill country. They found the gospel to be a liberation from the fearful existence that is endemic to animism.
After completing teaching at Myanmar Institute of Theology, I traveled north to Inle Lake in the southern Shan State. This is new territory for me, and I greatly enjoyed learning a bit of another culture in this land of contrasts. There are 135 ethnicities in the land, and finding unity is difficult — except through a common experience of colonial and military oppression until recent years.
Water people populate the region of Inle Lake. One only visits a neighboring village by boat. Unique villages are anchored in the lake: floating vegetable gardens, the habitats of fisherman, villages given to the craft of weaving the strands of the lotus plant that grows so abundantly in the lake, and silversmith workshops. You go to market by boat; you farm by boat; you commute to work by boat; and you sell your handicrafts by boat, paddling up to passing boats.
Everywhere we went, I witnessed a culture of helping. It is not possible to pull up to a dock, tie up, get your passengers out, and create space for the next vessel without the assistance of those at the destination. Little boys as young as 7 or 8 skillfully guided boats into port, kept them from banging into one another, and assisted passengers with their gear. Some would swim under the boats and help turn it around so it could navigate more easily. This was all done without pay; it is simply how people help one another.
We are living in a time in the United States when helping seems to be a zero-sum game. If we tend to the well being of others, we are somehow diminished and our economic security is compromised. The erosion of compassion leads to a spiritual death, and the ability to inure ourselves to the needs of others threatens the common good. Witness the ongoing health care debates.
Where can unity be found in our fractured nation? It might be the realization that a common vision for human flourishing requires a heightened culture of helping. My church, Prairie Baptist Church of Prairie Village, Kan., is devoting resources to Syrian families in our larger metro area. Using the simple theme of “Meet Your Neighbors,” members of our congregation are seeking to welcome and assist the “strangers” in our midst.
Too often Euro-Americans require persons of color to cross the racial and ethnic barriers, yet the power of invitation to a shared meal creates a new reality. The willingness to enter the space of others needs to flow both ways, and we must humbly learn to be guests, also. It is too easy to fall into the role of benefactor, which implicitly places one in a superior position.
I am always acutely aware of white privilege when in Myanmar. Children and adults alike talk about pale skin as beautiful, when it is really the opposite. Their sun burnished skin glows with the vibrancy and distinctive ethnicities of the land, yet the colonial history of serving persons from the West lingers, and they portray a measure of subservience, which is uncomfortable for me. Yet helping is endemic in the culture.
I have been called “Mum” and “Momma” a great deal on this trek to Inle and Bagan. Perhaps it is the silver hair (and the apparent years), but more likely it is the honorific offered to the guest in the land and the great desire to please by smoothing the way at every turn. Opening doors, carrying luggage, ordering at restaurants, and accommodating special requests, drivers and guides put themselves at the disposal of those sojourning in their land. This kind of service is seductive, and one needs to keep perspective about the joys and pitfalls of tourism for Myanmar.
I always return to Kansas City with a deepened appreciation for the gentle ways of the people of Myanmar, yet concerned for their unique challenges. They are remarkably resilient, and their courage to persevere against a history of domination is empowering.
I appreciate the culture of helping, but I will feel better when the disparity of privilege is narrowed and greater mutuality ensues. As many refugees from Myanmar make their way into the United States, Baptists have a unique opportunity to befriend and make welcome our spiritual kin, extending the culture of helping they so ably demonstrate.