Since Baptist missionaries arrived in Myanmar nearly 200 years ago, there’s been a minority Christian population among the Karen people.
In the aftermath of a devastating civil war, Karen Baptist churches have a mission to save lives in some of the country’s poorest communities.
The Karen people, the second largest ethnic group in Myanmar, have been connected to Baptists across the globe ever since missionaries first arrived in the 19th century.
Baptist Adoniram Judson was one of the first American missionaries to travel overseas.
Arriving in Myanmar in 1813, he remained in the country for the majority of his life and converted many Karen people to Christianity.
Judson planted the first church in Myanmar, established schools and even translated the Bible into Burmese.
Thanks to his work, some 15 percent of the Karen people are Christian today. Out of this group, the majority are Baptists.
But the Karen people have suffered heavily over the past decades. Since 1948, Myanmar has experienced the world’s longest running civil war, and ethnic minorities like the Karen have been hit the hardest.
In Myanmar’s Karen State, where the majority of Karen people live, many have been forced to abandon their homes.
During the conflict, villages have been destroyed and families have had their land seized, leaving them with nothing.
Millions have had no choice but to flee to neighboring Thailand, living in refugee camps, dependent on help from international aid agencies.
Through a resettlement program led by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), thousands of refugees living in Thai camps were able to make a new life for themselves in the United States.
Predominantly Baptist, these refugees are boosting congregations that were in decline and even planting new churches of their own.
The mission work in Myanmar led by Judson almost two centuries ago has come full circle, revitalizing churches in the very country he departed.
Baptists are still working hard in Myanmar today. The Karen Baptist Convention (KBC), a network of Baptist churches in Myanmar, is reaching some of the most vulnerable people in Karen State.
Beginning as a missionary organization, KBC has since expanded its mission. Supported by its partner Christian Aid, an international development agency founded by churches in the United Kingdom, it’s reaching the villages in the most need, helping them to lift themselves out of poverty.
In practice, this looks like teaching farmers how to grow new crops and families to rear livestock, among other things. Baptist churches are transforming poor communities.
For the poorest people in Karen State, feeding, clothing and housing themselves and their families are incredibly difficult.
Many can’t afford to send their children to school or to pay for healthcare in emergencies.
What’s more, a staggering 200,000 people remain displaced in the southeast of the country, and daily life is even harder for displaced people.
Once forced to flee their homes, many are returning to nothing. Now living in remote, hard-to-reach areas, they struggle to survive.
Executive officer of the Karen Baptist Convention, Dr. Gabriel, spoke about the project with poor communities and the situation in Karen.
He explained that as well as helping villages to overcome poverty, churches are doing all they can to help homeless refugees, giving them food and assisting them to build new homes.
But the ongoing legacy of civil war is making their work difficult. Although ceasefires are in place, the situation remains fragile, and the position of churches in Myanmar is precarious.
Historically, there’s been a negative perception of Baptists in the country, with Christians having sometimes been seen as an unwanted Western influence.
In this climate, the Baptist network is vital; individual churches can work with communities below the radar.
With 1,800 churches across the country, KBC has the resources to easily reach communities in great need.
Gabriel said the attitude toward churches has started to change in rural communities.
“In the beginning, they saw us as a Christian organization coming to their community for religious reasons,” he said.
Now, he said, they have worked for the community for many years, and people’s attitudes have changed.
They are starting to realize that the work of brother and sister Baptists is a witness of their faith.
The people who live in Yebu Village in Karen State know how important this work is.
KBC recognizes that handouts won’t end poverty, so Pastor Kudaloh, who leads the church in the community, formed a Village Development Committee, bringing Yebu together to take control of their future.
Recognizing that the community needed a sustainable income – and fast – the church donated 10 acres of land to establish a rubber plantation. The money it earns will become an education fund for Yebu’s poorest children.
Orange, who leads the church choir in Yebu, is dedicated to the rubber plantation; she regularly visits the plantation to do weeding and protects the forest from fire.
She’s seen how the village has been transformed. Everyone’s been united around a common goal.
“The plantation has created job opportunities and, depending on how much we make from it, we will use it for our community development, especially to help the children,” she said.
Joe Nicholson works at Christian Aid, inspiring churches to end global poverty. He recently launched Church Crowdfunding, a website that helps churches to partner with development projects in some of the world’s poorest countries. A version of this news article first appeared in The Baptist Times and is used with permission. You can follow Christian Aid on Twitter @christian_aid.