Coming full circle: Great Commission Christians - Word&Way

Coming full circle: Great Commission Christians

Two hundred years after the first American Baptist missionaries arrived in Burma, American Baptist Churches USA and the Myanmar Baptist Convention look forward to a new chapter of cooperation and collaboration in an altered missionary landscape.

Coming full circle

Yam Kho Pau, general secretary of the Myanmar Baptist Convention, recently invited American Baptist International Ministries to renew its 200-year-old ministry in Burma interrupted since the 1960s by political unrest.

“This gathering is the renewal of a relationship between ABC and MBC,” Pau told reporters at the recent ABCUSA Mission Summit in Overland Park, Kan.

Young Adoniram Judson, the son of a Congregationalist minister in Massachusetts, set sail for India Feb. 19, 1812, with his wife of seven days, Ann Hasseltine Judson. They were appointed by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, America’s first foreign mission society, formed by New England Congregationalists in 1810 and today part of the United Church of Christ.

While doing translation work during the four-month voyage, Judson became convinced immersion was the mode of baptism in the Bible. After arriving in Calcutta, he severed his connection with the American board and decided to cast his lot with the Baptists.

Alarmed by the influx of American missionaries, the British-run East India Company ordered the Judsons back to their own country. Instead, they traveled to Burma, laboring six years before baptizing their first convert in a Buddhist land many thought impermeable to the gospel.

With a missionary couple dropped into their laps, the scattered and independent Baptist congregations in America coalesced to organize the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions — called the Triennial Convention because it met every three years — in 1814.

Today called American Baptist Churches USA, the oldest Baptist denomination in the United States is reaping seeds sown by missionaries two centuries ago, as thousands of predominantly Baptist refugees being resettled in the United States are spawning new churches and revitalizing older congregations previously in decline.

“We have said that we are receiving the full circle of mission,” ABC/USA General Secretary Roy Medley said of renewal prompted by mass migration of persecuted Burmese resettling in American cities.

As situations unfolded in Burma, especially with the recent turn toward democracy, Medley said, military actions targeting ethnic minorities forced the Karen people to flee to refugee camps in Thailand and many Chin people into either Malaysia or to India.

Several years ago the United States government agreed to resettle 20,000 people a year from the refugee camps.

“As a result of that we’ve had a large influx of refugees from Burma who are predominantly Baptists,” Medley said. “One of the great blessings of what is a horrible situation — the diaspora of citizens being forced out from their home — has been that we have over a hundred new congregations that have been formed, and we have countless existing congregations where the refugees entered in and became part of those churches that are being revitalized.”

Medley said a prime example is First Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minn., home to the largest Karen refugee population in the United States. About 3,000 Karen people live in St. Paul. Most arrived in a 2003 resettlement wave.

Medley said the historic inner-city church had shrunken in size. Two years ago he was there for First Baptist’s Christmas observance. “It was packed,” Medley said, “huge sanctuary packed — children all over the place.”

Burmese Baptists owe American Baptists a debt of gratitude for introducing the gospel, nurturing their newfound faith and building institutions like schools to benefit the people, Pau said.

That relationship ended abruptly when all Christian missionaries, including American Baptists, were expelled from Burma in 1966 during early decades of military rule. The country’s name was changed to Myanmar in 1989.

The religious liberty of Baptists in Burma was sharply curtailed, but the faith continued to prosper. Today, Myanmar’s population of 48 million includes 1.6 million Baptist Christians in more than 4,700 churches.

Since Myanmar’s shift from a military dictatorship to a fledgling democracy two years ago, things have taken a more favorable turn for the country’s Baptists. Burmese democracy leader and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly praised Judson for good done to the Burmese people.

Prior to the Mission Summit, Pau presented his 10-year-plan for missions and evangelism to the Inter-national Ministries board of directors. He ended the presentation by reading a letter stating Myanmar Baptists believe God is opening the door for American Baptists to once again join them as co-laborers in Myanmar.

“Because of (political) changes, our mission work was forced to stop,” Pau told reporters. “We, the remaining churches — Baptist churches — we were not able to do anything in terms of mission, in terms of evangelization. We were not free. We were not allowed even to construct a building.”

“Now the door is open, since two years ago,” he said. “The door is open for the second revitalization — a new step for the relationship, fellowship and the renewal of cooperation, and a renewal of our collaboration in God’s mission.”

With reporting by American Baptist International Ministries.