Rev’d Geoffrey Farrar writes:
It was great pleasure and privilege to be asked by the World Church Department of the British Methodist Church to spend a fortnight working with Methodists in Myanmar just after Easter this year. Like many others, I had no idea that there even were Methodists in that country!
It was a place I had only heard about through the writings of George Orwell and the frequent news reports about the oppressive military regime there. I was delighted to discover, therefore, that Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has a small but thriving Methodist Church of around 18,000 members in 160 churches, which has a very friendly and long-standing relationship with its British counterpart.
My main role while out there was to help lead local preacher training sessions, building on my experiences as a teacher overseas and a trainer in the UK. As in Great Britain, such preachers are a vital part of the Church’s life and ministry, and lead much of its worship. We now take for granted that they will receive continuous support, training and encouragement to develop. This has simply not been possible in Myanmar (as in many other countries), though, owing to the lack of resources and expertise. However, in an initiative led by the Myanmar Theological College (MTC), based in Mandalay, this was about to change!
Working with Dr Khwasiama, the principal of MTC, we led two training sessions: one in Mandalay and the other in Tahan, in the north-west of the country, near the Indian border. At both, I encouraged the preachers present to reflect on their calling, and how they both challenged and comforted their congregations through their leading of worship. We looked at familiar texts together, and reflected on their experiences, both in small groups and all together. Dr Khwasiama had the much harder job of translating everything I said. In Tahan, this was especially difficult as he had to translate it both into the national lingua franca, known as ‘Myanmar’, and the locally-spoken language, Miso Chin. I am not sure if I sounded better in translation or not!
On both occasions, I was deeply impressed by the commitment of the preachers to attend the event and their willingness to participate. This was one of the first such events many had attended and a number travelled long distances, often by overnight sleeper bus or even boat, to be with us. They came from big cities and tiny, remote villages. My favourite participant was a 94-year-old gentleman who had served with the Indian Army during the liberation of Burma in 1944-45 and who had been commissioned as a local preacher in 1953!
When not training local preachers, I was delighted to be able to meet Methodist ministers and congregations in busy Mandalay and rural Tahan and Letpanchaung. A particular highlight was participating in the Tahan District youth weekend. Tahan is situated in one of the most Christian parts of the country. It was inspiring to see so many teenagers and young people gathering at the huge meeting hall in Kalaymayo to worship together. The power and energy of their singing is something I shall long remember.
Perhaps my most abiding memory, though, will be the universal friendliness and kindness of the people I encountered in Myanmar. While the actions of the government there continue to cause alarm, from the ordinary people of Myanmar experienced a warmth of welcome and hospitality that quite overwhelmed me, and which made my fortnight in the country an exceedingly happy one. I sincerely hope that I will be able again to visit a place where I truly was, “a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).