A SHARED HISTORY
Rev. Dr. Mark S. Caruana
Pastor, Tabernacle Baptist Church - Utica
In recent months, Americans’ attention has been drawn to a forgotten corner of the world: Burma (also known as Myanmar). In September, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democratic leader who has spent much of the last decade and a half under house arrest, made a seventeen-day tour of the United States. “The Lady” as Suu Kyi is popularly known, is now a member of Burma’s recently formed parliament. Her historic visit included an address to Congress and a presidential welcome to the White House. Following his re-election, President Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Burma. During his brief visit, the President paid a call on Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon.
Aung San Suu Kyi and President Obama’s visits dramatically symbolize the important, yet very initial, and tentative democratic reforms made under current Burmese President Thein Sein. Prior to Thein Sein’s election in March 2011, the military junta that ruled Burma for much of the previous half-century was one of the world’s most secretive, brutal and repressive regimes. The nation’s ethnic minorities (particularly the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Chin, Kachin, and Rohingya) have been targets of the Burmese military’s genocidal tactics. As a result, hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, fled to nearby countries, or are resettled as refugees in nations around the globe.
Since the late 1990’s, many refugees from Burma have been resettled in communities along the New York State Thruway corridor. Currently, ethnic peoples from Burma number in the thousands in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica; and in the hundreds in the Capital District and Ithaca. Many of our new neighbors from Burma (especially the Karen, Chin, and Kachin) are Baptist believers. They are the fruit of seeds first planted in 1813 by pioneering Baptist missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson and the generations of Baptist missionaries who followed in their footsteps for next 150 years.
Baptists from the United States and Burma share an intertwined history. The same movement of God’s Spirit that carried the Good News to Burma also birthed the first the national organization of Baptists in the United States. American Baptists first came together across our nation out of a common commitment to support mission in Burma. Two hundred years after the Judsons brought the gospel to Burma, Baptist believers fleeing oppression in Burma are now arriving on our shores. They may come to the United States as displaced people, but they also come as missionaries.
Across upstate New York, new Karen and Chin Baptist fellowships are forming. Some ABC/NYS congregations are hosting immigrant congregations from Burma in their facilities. Others have been reborn as they have welcomed their new neighbors from Burma into their church family. Associations are mentoring and guiding fellowships of Baptist brothers and sisters from Burma as they form churches. ABC/NYS recently welcomed two such new congregations into the region and a third congregation’s application for regional membership is pending. A few weeks ago, the region hosted a one-day event for pastors and leaders of fellowships serving our new neighbors from Burma. This well-attended event was an effort to build relationships and introduce our new partners in ministry to some of the resources offered to American Baptist congregations by ABC/NYS, ABHMS, MMBB, and International Ministries.
Perhaps you would like to learn more about the shared history that binds American Baptists and Baptists from Burma together. There is no better place to start than by reading Rosalie Hall Hunt’s engaging biography, Bless God and Take Courage: The Judson History and Legacy (Judson Press: 2005).
Another option is to visit Burma. In December 2013, The Myanmar Baptist Convention will honor our shared history in a significant way. December 3-8, 2013 Baptists in Burma will celebrate the Bicentennial of Adoniram and Ann Judson’s arrival in Burma. Thousands of Baptists from across Burma and around the world are expected to attend. International Ministries is sponsoring a trip to Burma for those wishing to participate in this historic event. More information is available at the International Ministries website (www.internationalministries.org – click on “get involved”).