Myanmar – Day 5 & 6

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I realize this post is two weeks overdue, but I have two excuses for my tardiness:

  1. First, I was exhausted from my return travel, was sick for 4 or 5 days right after getting back, and had to put all writing on hold for a bit to recover.
  2. More importantly, I’ve needed more time to process these experiences. I felt like I couldn’t respond as well as I wanted on here, so I put it on hold for that reason too.

But here I am, two weeks later, ready to share with you all what went down on my last two days in Yangon before embarking on our 9 million hour trip back home. Let’s talk about days 5 and 6. If you need to, here are the past posts from my pilgrimage:

Pilgrimage to Myanmar & Thailand
Bangkok – Day 1
Bangkok – Day 2
Myanmar – Day 3
Myanmar – Day 4

If you’ve read these posts, you know that my most recent responses haven’t been entirely positive. The culture had me really down in the dumps. It felt hopeless, lost and confusing. I was really caught up in the thought that the kids there were being pushed into Buddhism because it was the cultural norm, and they weren’t given an opportunity to choose their faith (or lack thereof) for themselves.

On Thursday – Day 3 – I saw teenagers “worshipping” at Shwedagon Pagoda, adopting a Buddhist way of life.

On Friday – Day 4 – I saw little kids playing while their parents were kneeling before a giant Buddha, creating a sad juxtaposition between how much ope there is for kids, yet how little I find for many adults.

Saturday and Sunday changed everything.

The entire week I was searching for ways where God was at work in Myanmar. In our class debriefs each evening, we would practice Ignatius’s exercise of consolation/disconsolation – where we saw God at work, and where we saw God grieving – and I am excited to share that the areas of consolation were way easier to report on these last two days.

Both days were spent at Ywama Baptist Church in Yangon, and I can tell you that hope abounds at YBC.

On Saturday we spent an hour playing with street kids. Many children in Yangon are expected to sell things on the streets to help provide for their families. Ywama Baptist Church began an outreach program to these kids, providing them with a place to play, laugh, sing and dance for just an hour or so each weekend. They also provide them with a place to shower and clean up because hygiene is not a priority for these kids.

I spent my time with the kids making goofy faces and teaching some dance moves – Gangnam Style is universal apparently. – while they covered my face with makeup and made fun of my inability to break dance. Typical language barrier activities.

It’s nothing huge, but it’s a place for kids to connect and feel like they belong. Which is actually a way bigger deal than it sounds. Belonging to something positive is hugely important for kids. Especially for kids growing up in such bummer circumstances. And while Buddhism attempts to transcend suffering through achieving “enlightenment”, the Church enters into suffering as a change agent. It’s hope for the hopeless.

They also have a health clinic that provides affordable doctors and dentists to the rest of the public. How incredible is that?! The Church in Myanmar, it turns out, is vibrant and full of life!

This was most evident on Sunday morning, when we had the opportunity to worship with hundreds of Burmese people at YBC. I was blown away by the number of people gathered for worship that morning. They had a choir and a orchestra group to play along with them. There was such joy and excitement in that space, and I felt like God was doing significant things both within their church, but for the Yangon community at large.

It was a powerful day. And I left Ywama thinking about how powerful a place like that was for a community with so many needs both physical and spiritual.

Days 5 and 6 were the best of the pilgrimage. I appreciated the immersion into Buddhist culture, and I’m going to be continually trying to unpack these experiences for years to come, but my greatest moments were the ones full of joy, life and love at Ywama Baptist Church.

God is at work in Yangon. Sounds obvious, but it took me a surprisingly long time to notice it. And it was an honor to observe, learn from and participate in his work in my short time there.

-apc.

Myanmar – Day 4

Today (Friday) was my birthday. Moving on.

We visited another pagoda this morning with another buddha sitting in the center. I’m already desensitized to seeing pagodas and buddhas. I’m certain I’ve seen hundreds of both in the two days I’ve been here so far. I mean, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen em all, right?

While we were at the pagoda, I wasn’t very interested in observing more people kneeling and praying at the feet of another buddha, so, instead, I walked to the edge of the area and watched a group of small children chasing each other around. They were giggling and playing and squealing and laughing and doing all the things that children do.

It felt surprisingly normal.

Kids are kids wherever you go. Whether in Myanmar or Kansas City or Europe or Uranus, kids are always the same. We all start the same. We giggle and play and squeal and laugh and do all the things that children do.

It felt right and unbroken.

I may have even shed a tear.

I turned around and faced the buddha behind me and watched two different groups of people engage the statue. First, the parents of these kids were doing their rituals and chanting their prayers. Second, all the Americans who were there to sightsee were snapping photos and asking questions about what the heck was going on.

Two completely different sets of adults. Little in common. Drastically different beliefs, rituals, and values. Buddhism is technically atheistic – it’s a way of life and a philosophy, not a belief in the divine or spiritual – so there was a chasm of belief in a higher power too.

What a juxtaposition: kids being the same wherever you go, and adults who couldn’t be more different.

I felt like Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, not wanting the little ones to grow up. I wanted to protect them from losing their innocence. Keep them from moving forward into the way of life their parents were certainly going to teach them.

From the pagoda, we visited a Buddhist monastery around the corner. In Myanmar, once boys reach 7 or 8 years old, they are able to enroll in the monastic education. They leave their homes to become monks, and this brings great honor to their families back home. They memorize the Buddhist “scriptures” – basically just commentaries on the teachings of the Buddha, with perhaps some oral tradition involved as well – and when they’re 20 years old, they get to decide whether they want to take vows and become a monk for the rest of their adulthood.

So before they’re even teenagers, they decide to commit to a certain way of life so they can bring honor to their family. I mean, if I was a parent, I’d encourage my son to pursue a monastic life too. Practically speaking, Buddhism is all about merit. Doing good deeds to rack up merit in your earthly life. It’s not about the other. It’s about gaining honor yourself.

We got to “observe” the monk kids eating lunch together, which felt extremely uncomfortable – a bunch of Americans standing around snapping photos and taking video of these kids in matching maroon robes.

I noticed a couple of the youngest kids peeking at us during their prayers and gesturing to their Buddhies* and giggling under their breath. I was reminded of the kids at the pagoda earlier. It was a tiny glimpse of childhood shining through. But they weren’t kids anymore. They were monks and were expected to live a certain way.

* – Okay. This is hilarious. And potentially insensitive, but c’mon.

My friend Sylvester asked one of the head monks what they got to do for recreation. The monk responded that they spent their free time going to homes in their community to beg for food. They don’t get to play or laugh or chase each other anymore. Those things don’t bring honor to a family.

What is even sadder is that if kids don’t make it into a monastery, they typically end up street vending to help support their families. Tomorrow we are supposed to be going to a ministry that lets kids play for an hour a day to take a break from selling trinkets and be kids again. I am fairly certain it will be the highlight of my trip.

In youth ministry, I talk with my colleagues all the time about “faith ownership” – reaching adolescence and claiming ones faith for their own. It’s not the faith of the family or the pastor or friends – it’s their own.

Maybe the family values and cultural dynamics here don’t support that way of thinking. It breaks my heart to watch kids be removed from the life they experience as little ones only to be forced into a “religion” they didn’t choose for themselves.
Especially a religion that is atheistic and feels so jumbled and backwards.

Life is not about gaining merit for yourself. It’s about loving the Creator and loving others.

Life is not about emptying oneself in the present. It’s about living abundantly in love in the present while having hope in the future.

I see little Buddhist kids and I see all the hope in the world. And I see Buddhist teenagers and I see that hope fading. And I see Buddhist adults and I see little hope whatsoever.

Not to say that Christianity in America has it all figured out and is perfect in every way, but when a way of life is so blatantly opposed to God’s ways, it breaks my heart.

Hoping for a more hopeful tomorrow.

-apc.

Pilgrimage to Myanmar & Thailand

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Next Monday, I am traveling to Bangkok, Thailand, and on to Yangon, Myanmar (Burma), with my cohort at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Central has a partnership with the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon, and we will be pilgrimaging there to study cross-cultural ministry in a drastically different setting from our own.

As I understand it, the name Myanmar was given to the country when it came under military rule many years ago, but the people there continue to call it by it’s former name, Burma. So those names can be used interchangeably most of the time. For those who are not geographically savvy, Myanmar is situated east of India and northwest of Thailand on the north edge of the Indian Ocean. Here’s a map:

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I hardly know anything about this culture, so I’ll be learning and processing a lot of new information and experiences. Part of my course is to post a handful of blogs about my experiences and takeaways, so over the next couple weeks, you’ll see this space and all my social media outlets flooded with content about this experience.

So, if you’re interested in following along with me, be sure to check back here soon and follow me on Instagram/Twitter: @adampaulcooper.

Supposedly the Wifi is spotty over there, so we’ll see how that goes. Regardless, all my posts will probably come while everyone in the US is sleeping, so don’t be shocked if you wake up to a barrage of updates from me.

Please keep our whole group in your prayers next week. We return to the states on 3/17.

-apc.