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Myanmar

Myanmar is located in Asia, roughly between Singapore and India, about halfway around the world. The climate is a lot like Singapore’s—hot and humid. There is no winter and summer, only the rainy and dry seasons. The population is 55 million people, almost 2½ times larger than that of Australia. This is ironic, because we have all heard of the “Aussies,” and we know where Australia is located. But Myanmar? Who knows where that is?

Religion in Myanmar is primarily Buddhist at 89%. Christianity is 4% and Muslim is 4%, You may have heard of the Buddhist monks marching in silent protest in 2007, and more recently the clashes between the Muslims and the Buddhists. Myanmar was formerly known as Burma. If you look up the facts in the cia.gov. web site, you will have to look under “Burma,” because the US government did not recognize the Myanmar military government established in 1962. For 50 years the military has ruled the country with an iron fist. This is changing. The military authorities recently released Suu Kyi, the peoples’ choice for president, from roughly 20 years of house arrest, and is giving the people and Suu Kyi a small part in the government. Last November President Obama became the first US president to visit Myanmar, and he referred to it as “Myanmar,” thus giving the current form of government more validity in the eyes of the world. There are many interesting political reasons for all of this, but the most interesting fact is that all of this is divine providence for the gathering of his church.

Economically, the difference between the US and Myanmar cannot be more striking. The US is at the top of the economic ladder. Myanmar is nearly at the bottom. In the GDP per capita, the US is #14 in the world, at $50,700. Of the 229 countries listed in the CIA fact book, Myanmar is #206 at $1,400. Westerners can make $100-$200 or more a day. Jobs are available. Myanmar people make $2 a day, if they can find a job. I can describe the situation in words, quote facts, and show charts. But it does not sink in to our Western minds….. until you actually go there.

I relate the visit in November 2012 that Hank VanderWaal and I made to Myanmar. Hank had never been outside the US, other than a trip to Bermuda, so there is a Western level of expectation. Our Western minds do not comprehend the differences between the countries. Hank heard all the stories and knew things were “different.” How different? Upon our arrival, I’m explaining the country to Hank. I was actually surprised how much better things looked since the last time I was there 3 years earlier. As I’m explaining this to Hank, the sun is setting, the smog is thick, the soot from diesel fuel is sticking to your face and arms, the smells are overpowering, the noise is loud, the heat and humidity are oppressive, and the roads are full of bumps and holes. I glance over at Hank, and his mouth hangs wide open in shock and dismay. “John,” he says, “this is much worse than I ever imagined.” Welcome to Myanmar.

The main focus in Myanmar at present is our work with Rev. Titus. Years ago, he was given his first Christian instruction as a young man under the direction of the Presbyterian church from South Korea. He was a bright young man, and was selected for more training in Singapore. He left his family in Myanmar to study for 2 years in Singapore. While there, he came across a copy of the Standard Bearer in the library. The articles were very distinct, and the instruction was used by the Holy Spirit to tweak his curiosity. He wrote to the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (PRCA) asking for more information. When the PRCA learned that he was in Singapore, they recommended that he contact the Evangelical Reformed Churches of Singapore (ERCS), right where he was studying. There he first met Rev. Kortering. As you may recall, about 18 years ago Rev. Kortering was minister-on-loan from the PRCA to the ERCS. This man, Rev. Titus, became very interested in the Reformed faith as explained in the creeds and as taught in our Reformed circles. He attended the Presbyterian seminary by day, and spent the afternoons and evenings being tutored by Rev. Kortering. The two years were almost up for his studies in Singapore. He had many doctrinal questions for the Presbyterian Seminary in Singapore. Because of this, he was sent back to Myanmar and not allowed to graduate. There he began to teach the people with whom he had contact the truths as explained in the creeds we hold in the PRCA and in the ERCS.  He convinced two of the congregations to create the Protestant Reformed Churches of Myanmar. One of these congregations ordained him and sent him to Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, as a new church plant. Under the direction of the ERCS, and for a period of about 10 years, development continued. The ERCS taught the congregations about the proper work of the office bearers and other doctrinal positions well-documented in the creeds of the Reformed faith.  The ERCS helped Rev. Titus and the PRCM with necessary spiritual instruction and with financial assistance for teaching seminars and benevolence.

Counting Rev. Titus’ family, there are 12 families in the Yangon Protestant Reformed Church of Myanmar, and one orphanage. As you can see from the group picture, there are over 50 individuals. Rev. Titus has a home/church, where they meet for two services each Sunday and catechism lessons on week days.

With the work of the ERCS, and at its height, the churches in Myanmar developed into many congregations in various areas of Myanmar: two congregations in Irrawaddy Division (middle of the country) with a total of 15 families; one congregation in Yangon where Rev. Titus is the pastor, with a total of 11 families; five congregations in five villages in the Ra Khine State (at the border of Bangladesh) with a total of 65 families; and three congregations in the Chin State (border of India), comprised of 26 families.

When the ERCS dissolved in the summer of 2006, members of Hope’s diaconate became concerned that there could be benevolent needs in Myanmar, since we knew that the ERCS had helped the PRCM with benevolence.  The Contact Committee of the PRC recommended they contact Rev. Kortering, who had ongoing contacts in the East.  Rev. Kortering informed our diaconate of the urgent needs for benevolence in the PRCM.

Meanwhile Rev. Kortering was looking to relieve himself of various responsibilities that fell on him during his time as minister on loan in Singapore.  One of those responsibilities included supervising and managing the Special Projects Fund.  He returned to the USA with a request from Rev. Titus for a PRC congregation to take up the work that the ERCS had been doing – spiritual advising, teaching in the seminars, and various financial needs. After some investigation Hope’s council decided to take on all the work with the PRCM: benevolence under the deacons, and church operation with Rev. Titus’ support under the council.

Hope’s council also began making plans to visit Myanmar. However, in early May 2008, before we could visit, Myanmar was struck by Cyclone Nargis, which left over 138,000 dead and tens of thousands injured and homeless. Our visit plans were put on hold for almost a year. Thus our first visit was in March 2009.

The Myanmar Committee and deacons of Hope Church have regular correspondence with Rev. Titus. We find that email is the most reliable. We have progressed from Rev. Titus’ using an internet café to a broadband (sort of, anyway) brought right into the church/home. We can also contact him on his cell phone with Skype. Skype to his computer generally does not work reliably, allegedly due to the heavy filtering that happens at the Myanmar border. We can download documents and videos for instruction quite readily now. Our work right now is primarily using the internet to send instructional information. We also had Rev. Titus record his sermons on CDs for distribution to the churches in northern Myanmar. He recorded two years of sermons. Rev. Titus also produces a Sunday Digest weekly, and various RFPA books have been translated into Burmese. You will find this and other work Rev. Titus has produced on the web site of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland. See this work under Burmese at: http://www.cprf.co.uk/languages.htm, where Rev. Angus Stewart has likely the world’s most comprehensive multi-language collection of Reformed literature in over 100 languages.

The Church militant here on earth continues to develop. We can see firsthand that the gospel is going to all nations and languages. This is a requirement before the end of time. I would also like to make an observation about this. I find it interesting that PRCA westerners believe, for good reasons, that we have the truth. We also can see that we have the wealth. This puts us in an enviable and responsible position. I include myself. Certainly we would not trade positions with someone in Myanmar! My observation, however, is that the people in Myanmar are happier than I would have expected. As many of us know, when life is hardest, this is when you grow spiritually. Perhaps the saints in Myanmar are in the enviable position. Remember Rev. Titus and the saints in Myanmar in your prayers.