Baptists saving poor communities in Myanmar
Since Baptist missionaries arrived in Myanmar nearly 200 years ago, there’s been a minority Christian population amongst the Karen people. In the aftermath of a devastating civil war, Karen Baptist churches have a mission to save lives in some of the country’s poorest communities – and now UK Baptists have an amazing opportunity to support them
The Karen people, the second largest ethnic group in Myanmar, have been connected to Baptists across the globe ever since missionaries first arrived in the 19th century.
Baptist Adoniram Judson was one of the first American missionaries to travel overseas. Arriving in Myanmar in 1813, he remained in the country for the majority of his life, and converted many Karen people to Christianity.
Johnson planted the first church in Myanmar, established schools, and even translated the Bible into Burmese. Thanks to his work, some 15 per cent of the Karen people are Christian today; out of this group, the majority are Baptists.
The impact of the civil war
But the Karen people have suffered heavily over the past decades. Since 1948, Myanmar has experienced the world’s longest running civil war, and ethnic minorities like the Karen have been hit the hardest.
In Karen State, where the majority of Karen people live, many have been forced to abandon their homes. During the conflict villages have been destroyed and families have had their land seized, leaving them with nothing. Millions have had no choice but to flee to neighbouring Thailand, living in refugee camps, dependent on help from international aid agencies.
Through a resettlement programme led by the UN Refugee Agency, thousands of refugees living in Thai camps were able to make a new life for themselves in the US. Predominantly Baptist, these refugees are boosting congregations that were in decline and even planting new churches of their own. The mission work in Myanmar led by Johnson almost two centuries ago has come full circle, revitalising churches in the very country he departed.
How the Karen Baptist Convention is reaching communities in greatest need
Baptists are still working hard in Myanmar today. The Karen Baptist Convention (KBC), a network of Baptist churches in Myanmar, is reaching some of the most vulnerable people in Karen State. Beginning as a missionary organisation, KBC has since expanded its mission: supported by its partner Christian Aid, it’s reaching the villages in the most need, helping them to lift themselves out of poverty. In practice, this looks like teaching farmers how to grow new crops and families to rear livestock, amongst other things. Baptist churches are transforming poor communities.
For the poorest people in Karen State, feeding, clothing and housing themselves and their families is incredibly difficult. Many can’t afford to send their children to school or to pay for healthcare in emergencies.
What’s more, a staggering 200,000 people remain displaced in the South East of the country, and daily life is even harder for displaced people. Once forced to flee their homes, many are returning to nothing. Now living in remote, hard to reach areas, they struggle to survive.
Executive Officer of the Karen Baptist Convention, Dr Gabriel, spoke about the project with poor communities and the situation in Karen, and explained that as well as helping villages to overcome poverty, churches are doing all they can to help homeless refugees, giving them food and assisting them to build new homes.
But the ongoing legacy of civil war is making their work difficult. Although ceasefires are in place, the situation remains fragile, and the position of churches in Myanmar is precarious.
churches are doing all they can to help homeless refugees, giving them food and assisting them to build new homes
Historically, there’s been a negative perception of Baptists in the country, with Christians having sometimes been seen as an unwanted Western influence. In this climate, the Baptist network is so vital – individual churches can work with communities below the radar. With 1,800 churches across the country, KBC has the resources to easily reach communities in great need.
Dr Gabriel said the attitude towards churches has started to change in rural communities. ‘In the beginning they saw us as a Christian organisation coming to their community for religious reasons.’
Now, he says, they have worked for the community for many years, and people’s attitudes have changed. They are starting to realise that the work of brother and sister Baptists is a witness of their faith.
Building a sustainable income
The people who live in Yebu Village in Karen State know how important this work is. KBC recognises that hand-outs won’t end poverty, so Pastor Kudaloh, who leads the church in the community, formed a Village Development Committee, bringing Yebu together to take control over their future.
Recognising that the community needed a sustainable income – and fast – the church donated 10 acres of land to establish a rubber plantation. The money it earns will become an education fund for Yebu’s poorest children.
Orange (pictured), who leads the church choir in Yebu, is dedicated to the rubber plantation – she regularly visits the plantation to do weeding and protects the forest from fire.
She’s seen how the village has been transformed. Everyone’s been united around a common goal: ‘The plantation has created job opportunities and, depending on how much we make from it, we will use it for our community development, especially to help the children’, she says.
Support these projects directly
Baptists in the UK have an amazing opportunity to support the mission of fellow Baptists in Myanmar
The Karen Baptist Convention is saving communities from poverty, but many more villages like Yebu struggle to survive.
Christian Aid has launched Church Crowdfunding to support Baptists in Myanmar through KBC, providing a way for churches in the UK to directly fund this project.
Dan Doherty, Baptist church planter and Christian Aid worker, is excited by the prospect of a direct link between churches in the UK and Myanmar.
‘It’s amazing to be linked directly to Baptist churches doing such great work in rural Myanmar. KBC have a vision of God’s love for the world’s poor, helping communities to free themselves from poverty.
‘Baptists in the UK have an amazing opportunity to support the mission of fellow Baptists in Myanmar. By raising money over the next few months, we can bring hope to poor communities. I’m especially excited to get regular updates from the project and to have an authentic link to the people we’re supporting.’
Christian Aid is asking Baptist churches to prayerfully consider supporting KBC’s project. With only a few months left to reach their goal, KBC need help from Baptists in the UK. With the funds you raise, many more communities in Myanmar will be able to thrive, lifting themselves out of poverty.