One Day in Myanmar (Kachin IDP Camps)

By Gail Aita

This is the second of two posts by Gail about her sojourn in Myanmar (Burma) in early 2017. Click here for the first post.

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After spending four weeks at Myanmar Institute of Theology teaching, my husband Paul and I traveled to Kachin State and then to the Chin Hills. Both were adventures in and of themselves. We were greeted at the airport in Myitkyina by both Ja Ing and Ja Nu, two wonderful Kachin women who came to the American Baptist Women’s Ministries’ Conference in Washington, D.C. in 2016. We were then treated to a very fine dinner out with the women representing the Women’s Development Department of Kachin Baptist Convention.

The day started out with a visit to an IDP camp in Myitkyina, Kachin State. It was heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time: Heart-breaking to see the faces of the men, women, and children who have lost all worldly belongings: yet, uplifting because their spirits are filled with God’s love and His grace. Just look at those faces……and remember to pray for their safety, their health and their welfare.

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We listened to their stories, sang with them and prayed with them.

We visited three IDP (IDP = internally displaced persons) camps that Saturday.

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This was the smallest camp we visited. Their electric bill was 70,000 kyats/month (roughly $50 US at the current exchange rate) and they had to collect 2,000 kyats ($1.50) from each family which was, more often than not, difficult to do.

At the last camp, Waing Maw, which is the largest in the greater Myitkyina area, we were told to sit in the back of the van because we had to cross a bridge with a border check and westerners were not supposed to be going to that camp. While we were there, workers were putting up tents donated by the UN because they had just received 350 new refugees, many of whom were “double displaced persons” because the camps they had been in were also destroyed by the Burmese military in the fighting. There were well over 3,000 people at this camp.

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One of the ministries that I have been involved with at home has been teaching some of the Kachin women in the greater Seattle area how to sew, in particular “pillowcase dresses” and “self-binding baby blankets”. I have had help from a number of other American Baptist women in the area.  For two months prior to our leaving for Myanmar, the Kachin women have come to my home and have made 40+ dresses and 15 baby blankets. I also had some dresses made by women from other churches in the area. I had the privilege of being able to deliver those dresses and blankets to the folks in the camps. It was a gift of love from the Kachin women in Kent to those in the camps, and I was blessed to be the delivery person!

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Saturday was a long day filled with mixed feelings: despair and hope, tears of pain and tears of joy, but always an awareness of God’s love and God’s grace. Please continue to pray for the plight Kachin people and for peace in Myanmar.

Gail Aita serves as coordinator of the Western Section for American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

For earlier posts about the Kachin IDP camps, click here and here.

The Journey Begins Again

By Gail Aita

January-March, 2017

One of the reasons Paul and I wanted so much to return to Myanmar this year was to have some sense of closure. We have been going to Myanmar as voluntary missionaries and serving as Special Assistants to Southeast Asia and Japan since 2000. This was our ninth time going to serve and for eight of those trips we have taught at Myanmar Institute of Theology (M.I.T.) as well as the Pwo Karen Seminary in Yangon. We have both turned 70 this past year and have begun to slow down a little. In 2015-2016 Paul had five hospital visits dealing with kidney stones and complications from the surgeries. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time praying that we would be able to once again return to Myanmar, but knew from the outset that it may be our last long-term stay. (However, after having been there, we found ourselves often being asked to come back to teach and saying “If God wants us to return, He will give us the strength to do so!”)

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At M.I.T., the classes included not only English Literature and Poetry, as well as grammar, but also classes at the seminary concerning Ministry with Youth, Partnering Young Adults and the Elderly, Christian Education, and a class on Teaching Those with Special Needs and American Sign Language.  At the Pwo Karen Seminary, the students were most interested in learning English so we did a lot of role playing and singing.

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Unlike previous years, this year Paul and I had the opportunity to visit schools in the Kachin State and in the Chin Hills. We spent a little more than two weeks visiting and teaching at the Kachin Theological College and Seminary (KTCS) in Myitkyina and at the Chin Christian University (CCU) in Hakha.

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At each school, Paul and I both became reacquainted with those who were our former students. What a blessing it is to meet those former students who have gone on to become servants using their God given gifts to teach others.

And as a last note for now, I would like to share about a young teacher at KTCS by the name of Naw Din. Naw Din and his wife have three children of their own including a newborn baby just three weeks old. He and his wife have taken in twenty (yes, 20!) orphan children from the IDP camps. He does not run an orphanage. He and his wife have actually taken them into their home. They feed them, clothe them, send them to school, pray with them and, most of all, love them. They depend solely on the gifts from generous friends.  They are amazing.  I had the joy of spending a day with them, teaching them some English, some sign language, and some songs. We had such fun. I was truly blessed.

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Please pray for all the seminaries and colleges in Myanmar, that they will continue to teach God’s word and produce Christian leaders. Also pray for Naw Din and his loving wife and family as they share God’s love in the Kachin State.

**I would also like to mention that the opportunity to volunteer to teach at seminaries and colleges in Myanmar is a real possibility for anyone who is interested. You can contact International Ministries for more information.

Gail Aita serves as coordinator of the Western Section for American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Why I Marched

By Virginia Holmstrom

Virginia Holmstrom at Women’s March

I first heard about the proposed Women’s March on Washington soon after the U.S. presidential election in November 2016. I admit . . . my first reaction was to forego getting involved. The people had voted. Let’s get on with life in an America that had, in my opinion, taken some giant steps backward. Everything will self-correct in the next election cycle, I assured myself.

My phone rang that very evening; one of my daughters shared her excitement about the planned Women’s March on Washington. “You’re going, aren’t you? Do you want to come with me and my friends?” I declined. A thunderstorm-sized cloud of guilt gathered over my head and pursued me into the night and the following days. “How can I lead a ministry organization that affirms God’s purposes for women and men alike and not march?” I sulked in weakness. Two weeks later, a friend invited me come along with a busload of women and men to D.C. for the March. I said yes. The relief was instantaneous, completely releasing me from my miserable self-doubt.

The “busload” filled two buses. The two busloads became a link in a long chain of buses heading down Interstate 95 toward Washington D.C. on the morning of January 21. I’ve never seen so many buses headed in the same direction. I multiplied the numbers of buses coming from exponential directions.

It’s a miracle we arrived on the Washington D.C. Mall before the day’s end, the roads were so flooded with traffic and people. I stuck like glue to five women from my busload and we slowly and methodically wormed our way about 25 feet into the edge of the crowd. We were still blocks away from the stage from which speakers’ voices were amplified and their images made visible on large screens that ran the length of the mall. I stood on tip-toes to catch an infrequent glimpse of the nearest screen, hidden by the crowds in front of me.

With one ear catching the wind-driven voices coming from the amplified speeches, I turned my attention to the people—primarily women—that were now my nearest neighbors for the next three hours. Surrounding me were women (and men) of all generations, some wearing pink knitted hats, some wearing hijab head scarves, most wearing something over their heads to stay warm. I read the hand-held homemade signs and posters that bounced above the heads in the crowd. The signs reflected no single issue, but a wide range of concerns held by women: affordable health care, gender equality, reproductive health and choices, religious freedom, equal pay, gay rights, representation in Government . . . . The issues were as plentiful as the faces in the crowd.

So, what were my issues? Why did I choose to march? I stood in support of the hard-earned advances that women have made in recent years, thanks to a growing coalition of women’s voices worldwide. I marched to quell my uneasiness that those slowly-won advances could disappear in the wake of election promises that had mocked and denigrated segments of our nation’s citizens, including women. I marched to protest the over-night removal of information from the White House website: information that had been helpful resources for persons with disabilities, for immigrants pursuing the American Dream just as my great-grandparents had done, and for gay and transgender persons. I marched toward a vision of the inclusion of all voices– respected and valued for their perspectives and giftedness and wisdom — that truly make America great. I marched on January 21.


Virginia Holmstrom is executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

This post is appearing on March 8, International Women’s Day. For more information about International Women’s Day, visit http://un.org/en/events/womensday. For more information about continued advocacy through the Women’s March, visit http://www.womensmarch.com.

 

Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges–Post #2

By Rev. Mary Beth Mankin

This is the second of two posts on Debi’s Journey, “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges.” The Georigan word debi means “sisters.”

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Rev. Nikita McAlister with a new Muslim friend who is wearing the stole of American Baptist Women in Ministry

While on Debi’s Journey, a spiritual sisters’ adventure in the Republic of Georgia in August, we became acquainted with several women from Georgia and we caught glimpses into their lives—their hopes, dreams, and their struggles. Our group of eight women from the U.S. included four who had been to Georgia before, so we new ones had some experienced guides for this continuing series of friendship building.

As part of our cross-cultural, interfaith experience of “Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges,” our primary hosts were Georgian Baptists from the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. We were also hosted by Muslim families who have become friends of the Baptists in Georgia, through the compassionate support of Baptists when the Muslims were victims of unlawful discrimination.

In Georgia, religious freedom is provided in the constitution, but where 89% of the population affiliate with the some form of Orthodox Christianity, the Georgian Orthodox Church (at 83.9%) enjoys a privileged status in terms of legal and tax matters and property disputes. There have been numerous incidents of harassment and persecution of minority religious groups and interference with their worship activities. Muslims and Baptists, as well as other Protestant groups, have faced opposition to building houses of worship as they wish.

During our time in Batumi where we were hosted by the Georgia Muslim Union, we met Gvantsa, a young lawyer who does research on human rights, including women’s and religious rights. Describing the situation of many women in Georgia, she noted that women are victims of discrimination in their everyday lives because of religious and cultural traditions: a man is the head of a family or business and is seen to have authority over women. Although the Georgian constitution grants equality to women, the cultural norms seem to have a greater effect on what actually happens.

Gvantsa told us that domestic violence and sexual harassment are significant problems, but women tend to believe that they deserve what they get or that a man has the right to control them. One of 11 women report such problems, but since women are shamed by their family or community if they take an abuse or rape case to court, most will not bring charges. Other challenges were noted: early marriages with insufficient income generate frustration and anger; an unemployed husband may be resentful if his wife is employed and try to show his power over her; and, typically, religious leaders tell women to stay with their husbands, even when there is abuse. Divorce has a bad reputation, and women are unlikely to divorce.

Unemployment is a challenge for young adults in Georgia. One educated, unmarried woman we met finds it difficult to get a job that will support her. In our air travel to Georgia, I met three young adults who had left Georgia to find work elsewhere.

The government is working to improve the conditions for women. There are five shelters for victims of domestic violence in the country. To protect minors, there is a law preventing marriage before the age of 18, even with parental permission, if the court does not grant permission. Sexual harassment in the workplace is now a criminal offense, and the government can help a woman sue a boss who is found guilty. Family law cases are private.

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Rev. Dr. Patricia Hernandez, Director of American Baptist Women in Ministry

As I reflect, I realize that many challenges women face seem to be universal. As followers of Jesus, who treated women with respect and dignity, we are called to help women throughout the world gain equal rights for religion, education, health care, employment, and protection from harm. May we, too, find ways to break the barriers of fear and misunderstanding between religions and ethnic groups, and build bridges of friendship and understanding—of education and action for justice and peace. Our hurting world is crying out for us to make the grace and love of God’s kingdom present and alive wherever we go!

American Baptist Women’s Ministries (ABWM) and American Baptist Women in Ministry (ABWIM) have been invited by the Georgian Muslims Union and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia to bring another group of American women to Georgia in November 2017. Watch www.abwministries.org for more information!

Interested in learning more about Baptist Muslim Dialogue? Save the dates for AB Women’s Ministries virtual mission encounter “See Me As I Am,” May 8-12, 2017. Visit www.abwministries.org/vme for more information as it becomes available.

mary-beth-mankinRev. Mary Beth Mankin is a retired pastor, living in Boulder, Colorado. She recently completed her term as president of American Baptist Women’s Ministries of Colorado.

 

Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges–Debi’s Journey to the Republic of Georgia

By Rev. Elizabeth Congdon

This is the first of two blog posts on Debi’s Journey. The Georigan word debi means “sisters.”

“Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.” Galatians 6:1b, 2, 3 (The Message)

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Participants in Debi’s Journey in the Peace Cathedral

A Ministry of Reconciliation. The Menorah in front of the cross at the Peace Cathedral is distinctive. It was a gift to remember that Jesus was Jewish and to celebrate our Jewish roots, we were told. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili described the years of interfaith work that the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia has pursued. For years the church has worked to find common ground in mutuality and humility and increase tolerance and understanding between those of other faiths, especially among Jews, Muslims and Christians. He described the work as wanting to help Jews be better Jews, Muslims be better Muslims, and Christians be better Christians. During our short stay in the Republic of Georgia, we too lived out the call to a ministry of reconciliation referenced in 2 Corinthians 5:18b. We were building bridges between American and Georgians, between Baptists and Muslims.

A Ministry of Healthcare. Time with the Georgian Baptist Saint Nino Sisters—deaconesses who are health professionals—gave us opportunity to learn of their ministry among the poor, old, disabled, and refugees in the community.  These deaconesses serve people in need, whether they are Georgian Orthodox (dominant in Georgia), Muslims, Baptists, or other faith traditions. The Saint Nino Sisters visit in homes and bring care, medicine, and companionship. They make medical appointments for those in need. They serve in the church. They are such dedicated nurses, doctors, social workers, physical therapists, mental health workers, and aides. It is amazing that these Saint Nino sisters assisted by 80 volunteers currently serve over 440 people in 30 stations throughout Georgia. They bear one another’s burdens.

Standing with Those Who Are Persecuted.  “I kept hearing that the Americans are coming,” Peace Corps volunteer Stanley Bizub told us when we arrived in the mountain village of Chela. He stepped inside the village mosque to listen with us to stories told by the imam and members about the

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At Chela mosque

time when the mosque’s towering minaret had been torn down by the solders, verified as “public officials” in a 2013 Report of the Public Defender of Georgia on the Situation of Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms in Georgia.  On 26 August, 2013, Georgia’s Revenue Service dismantled the minaret without legal basis, alleging that the minaret had been imported from Turkey with incorrect categorization of imported goods at the customs service. With the minaret removed, further persecution ensued. A group of Orthodox Church members blocked the road to the house of prayer, the mosque, making it impossible for the Muslims to gather there for prayer. When the Muslim community protested the damage, employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs had brutally treated those who confronted them. We stayed in the home of a Muslim man who had been beaten during the protest. Prior to that, Public Defender’s Report  cited evidence that the “protests of the Orthodox majority was against the religious building of the minority and were followed by the manipulation with legal procedures by the public officials in order to cause the situation favored by the Orthodox majority.”

As we sat in the mosque absorbing this information, the Imam told us, “We have chosen peace.”  They did not respond with violence. They began a long legal process to once again place a minaret at their mosque; it stands today as a testament that this is indeed a mosque.  I remembered that just days before we had learned that although the number of Muslims is significant among the 20% of the non-Orthodox population in Georgia, no Muslims hold public office locally or in state government. Most are entrepreneurs.  Georgia’s constitution assures religious freedom; however, persecution against the Muslims continues.  The words of 1 John 4:21 spoke to me.  “The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.” I John 4:21 (The Message).  I felt like I was standing on holy ground in solidarity with my Muslim sisters and brothers.

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Participants in Debi’s Journey

Different Together. We were breaking barriers and building bridges with our diverse group of eight women. Lay, clergy, Muslim, Baptist, black, and white, we were the visiting Americans. People of color are an anomaly in the Republic of Georgia. Georgians would ask to take pictures with our African American sisters. Virginia Holmstrom, Executive Director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries, and Rev. Dr. Patricia Hernandez, National Director of American Baptist Women in Ministry (ABWIM), co-led the group of Americans coming from New Jersey, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Colorado, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Kansas, which included Connie Eigenmann, Esmat Mahmoud and Reverends Sarah Hicks, Mary Beth Mankin, Nikita McCalister, and Elizabeth Congdon.

In breaking barriers and building bridges amongst one another as well as with Georgians, we met many people from different lands. For example, at a restaurant in Mtskheta, Georgia, we got acquainted with Akbar Moghaddazi, a Rumi scholar, visiting from Iran with his family. At the mosque in Batumi, we met a father and his five daughters visiting from Saudi Arabia on holiday in Georgia. We crossed paths with them again on the iconic Peace Bridge in downtown Tbilisi; this time, it felt like a chance meeting with old friends.

It is difficult to recap the variety of our experiences. We enjoyed generous hospitality at the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia’s Beteli Centre in Tbilisi and homestays with Muslim families while guests of the Georgian Muslims Union and the Georgian Muslim Women’s Union.  We were curious tourists in Batumi on the Black Sea, and in the capital city of Tbilisi, and especially as we meandered along the narrow, curving, climbing cobblestoned streets of Old Tbilisi. Visiting mosques and visiting the Mtskheta-Mtianeti Orthodox Cathedral during worship were unique experiences. Communicating with Georgians with the assistance of our delightful interpreters was unforgettable. Being in the Caucasus Mountains was breathtaking. The Batumi ferris wheel and numerous cable car rides afforded us amazing vistas. Visits to Gonio Fortress, Batumi botanical gardens, Zarzma Monastery, museums and other interesting sites afforded us opportunities to learn more of the history and people.

American Baptist Women’s Ministries (ABWM) and American Baptist Women in Ministry (ABWIM) have been invited by the Georgian Muslims Union and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia to bring another group of American women to Georgia in November 2017. Watch www.abwministries.org for more information!

Interested in learning more about Baptist Muslim Dialogue? Save the dates for AB Women’s Ministries virtual mission encounter “See Me As I Am,” May 8-12, 2017. Visit www.abwministries.org/vme for more information as it becomes available.

liz-congdonRev. Elizabeth Congdon is a retired American Baptist pastor and active in interfaith dialogue.

A Summer to Connect

By Merletta Roberts
0726161404_resized croppedIn early summer my husband and I were on our way to an evening event when we stopped at a fast food restaurant to get a bite to eat. As we were starting to leave, a young man in a long robe and with what seemed to be a concerned look on his face hesitantly approached us and asked, “Do you believe all Muslims are like those who recently bombed Paris and London?” We shared with him our belief that not all people are alike, no matter what their faith; that we do not believe all Muslims are terrorists. I watched as a big tear rolled down his cheek and his face seemed to relax. Together we smiled and went our separate ways. In that brief exchange something powerful happened. We went through all the layers of assumptions and we connected; connected as human beings each caring for the other

In mid-July in the Washington D.C. area, I attended the national American Baptist Women’s Ministries board meeting followed by the national conference for women and girls, “3D” (“Dwelling, Discovering, Discipling”), and after- events. The after-event I chose was Connecting Faithful Women: Experiencing Baptist-Muslim Dialogue. This event was co-facilitated by Virginia Holmstrom, executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries, and Rafia Sayeed, the founding chairperson of Bridging the Gap, Connecting the Faithful.

Twelve American Baptist women and five Muslim women met for two and a half days to explore what it means to be Muslim and Baptist, sharing our faith stories and getting to know each other. Rafia shared her story of developing “Bridging the Gap, Connecting the Faithful” out of her desire to do something constructive after 9-11. Her belief is that when people really get to know each other, they begin to see each other and relate differently.

As women of faith we shared our stories, our struggles, our joys, our concerns, and our celebrations. Interfaith understanding was certainly at work. The more we shared the more the group seemed to move closer together, talk more softly, and connect in a deeper way. As we respected each one’s uniqueness we found it easier to hear each other and to share more.

When we visited a Muslim Community Center we were warmly welcomed. It was clear that the Center’s focus is on the whole person at all ages. We were privileged to witness their afternoon prayers and to experience the strong connection they have with the surrounding communities.

As we said our goodbyes and shared email addresses and so forth, I realized a strong connection had occurred; that in a relatively short time together we had moved from “us” and “them” to “we.” We had plowed through the layers of assumptions and were real with each other. Wow! Again I realized that in our connecting, we cared for each other as human beings.

Merletta Roberts headshotMerletta Roberts is president of the American Baptist Women’s Ministries of the Pacific Northwest.

United Nations “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”

 

2016-03-15 13.33.28 HDRThe United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is “the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women,” (www.unwomen.org). Each year in the early spring is a two-week colloquium that brings world leaders together to assess progress on targets and goals addressing these issues. During UNCSW, there are parallel events organized by NGOs (non-governmental organizations), free and open to the public, on a wide variety of topics. By attending the parallel events, you gain a deeper understanding of issues with impact on women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, as well as hearing about exciting initiatives and meeting inspiring leaders. Additionally, there are creative, moving ecumenical worship services each morning to bring women of faith together and bathe the experience in prayer.

American Baptist women frequently attend at least part of UNCSW. In 2016, AB Women’s Ministries national coordinator of Mission with Women and Girls, Bonnie Sestito, executive director Virginia Holmstrom, associate executive director Rev. Sandra Hasenauer, and national director of American Baptist Women in Ministry/Transformation Ministries, Rev. Dr. Patricia Hernandez, attended several days of the event. These participants learned about pornography and its connection to sex trafficking and violence against women; the vulnerability of refugee and stateless women to violence and trafficking; how women in disadvantaged communities are working together towards peace and justice; opening doors through interfaith dialogue, and more. Through conversations at the end of the day, they came to the conclusion it was imperative they share what they were learning with the wider audience of American Baptist women.

SDGs_poster_new1In 2015, the United Nations assess the progress that had been made on it’s 15-year Millennium Development Goals initiative begun in 2000. Although significant progress had been made in many areas, there is obviously still more work to be done. Therefore, the UN launched “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” The 2030 agenda has 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all,” (www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/).

Although many of these issues may seem overwhelming and, in some cases, “far away,” there are many ways that congregations or women’s and girls’ ministry groups can become engaged in the betterment of our global neighborhood. To that end, American Baptist Women’s Ministries has posted information on our website about the SDGs and has ideas or other resources available to help you think through how you or your faith community could work on these issues locally as well as globally. (Lose this link? Just go to http://www.abwministries.org and hover your cursor over “Mission Focus.” It’s one of the options in the drop-down list that appears.)

May God bless our efforts to care for our world and all who inhabit it. Amen.