About 300 Baptists from nearly 50 nations trekked to Bangkok, Thailand, this week for the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance.
Meeting in a predominately Buddhist nation, global Baptist leaders learned from Thai Baptists and offered encouragement to Baptists in the region.
About 94 percent of the nation’s 68 million people identify as Buddhist, with less than 1 percent claiming Christianity. According to BWA statistics, Baptists in the member bodies there total less than 60,000 in less than 350 churches.
Paul Msiza, president of the Baptist World Alliance, told EthicsDaily.com that the annual gathering’s location gives Baptists an opportunity “to be in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in this part of the world.” He noted that “there’s so much suffering” in the region in terms of religious oppression.
“Our presence here is to say to our dear sisters and brothers, ‘We are with you, we want to hear you, we want to fellowship with you and we want to understand your challenges,'” Msiza explained.
“It is also a moment of affirming them. When you come into somebody’s house, you say to the person, ‘You are part of me and that’s why I can come into your home and break bread with you and have fellowship,” he continued. “So, our coming here really affirms our oneness, our unity with the Baptist family here in Thailand and also in neighboring countries.”
Msiza also noted that given the minority status of Thai Baptists in a Buddhist nation, the BWA’s presence can “encourage the local Baptists.”
He added that Baptists from other contexts can “come and really appreciate that our sisters and brothers are standing and they are witnessing for Christ in a country where they are a very small minority but their witness is as strong – even stronger – than those of us who are in countries where Christianity is the majority.”
For the first time, the BWA’s Commission on Interfaith Relations devoted time to sessions focused on relating to Buddhists.
Roy Medley, the commission’s chair, said they wanted “to reflect this part of the world” by focusing on Baptist life in this region. Two Baptists shared during the session about Baptist-Buddhist dialogues.
Graham Walker, a professor at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, talked about the translation work of Adoniram Judson, who served as the first Baptist missionary in Burma. Now known as Myanmar, the country borders Thailand and is also overwhelmingly Buddhist.
He explained that as Judson translated Scripture, he relied on Buddhist concepts and terms to explain Christian concepts. Walker believes this situates Baptists in Myanmar to relate well with Buddhists.
Walker said that when the two faith communities dialogue together, “both communities benefit” since “you gain by being in the company of others.”
These sessions can be particularly beneficial, he added, when people adopt the attitude of “you believe in your convictions, I believe in my convictions; what can we do together?”
Aye Min, a professor at the Myanmar Institute of Theology (a Baptist seminary), talked about the work of Baptists in the nation to hold dialogue sessions with Buddhist monks.
They have held several sessions since 2013, with many of them as a joint effort between Min’s school and the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University, also in Yangon, Myanmar.
Each annual conference co-led by the two schools focuses on a theme and includes Baptist and Buddhist speakers. Topics explored have included building a more harmonious society, lovingkindness and reconciliation.
Min mentioned some other dialogues also held, including one on mixed marriages featuring Buddhist-Christian couples.
Given the minority status of Christians, he added that this type of marriage occurs “a lot in the churches” and thus people need help on “how to live together as one family.”
Both Min and Walker used the metaphor of a zayat to describe Baptist-Buddhist dialogue. In Myanmar, a zayat is a meeting place where one can escape from the heat, gather with others and have conversations.
Min said the dialogue sessions with Buddhists are “a kind of zayat, a kind of free dialogue space.”
Min added that Judson built the first Baptist zayat in Burma, and now nearly 200 years later Baptists in that nation are doing that again through their dialogues.
Another BWA group, the Commission on Creation Care, practiced the concept of dialoguing with Buddhists as they trekked an hour westward to visit an organic farm run by Buddhists.
During the dialogue, Baptists and Buddhists who care about creation, sustainable living and wholesome lifestyles shared philosophical ideas, farming techniques and good food.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.