“You know,” the young man across the table said, “American Christians are oppressed, too.” When I asked him to explain he simply said, “By your culture.” Then he picked up his chopsticks and returned to his bowl of rice and chicken and vegetables.
He, his wife, and I were sitting in a modest Chinese restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar–a city better known by most Baptists as Rangoon, Burma, the first landing of famed missionary Adoniram Judson. I had come to Rangoon in hopes of catching something of Judson’s spirit, trying to glimpse what led him to the mission field early in the 19th century and, more importantly, wanting to know what it was that kept him in Burma for nearly all of the last 38 years of his life.
Excuse me, but I have gotten ahead of myself. Twice.
During the 2004 spring semester I had the gift of a sabbatical leave from my teaching responsibilities at Mercer University. With the help of Graham Walker, associate dean of Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology and former missionary professor at the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary in Baguio City, I was to spend three months teaching for the Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary. My adventure would take me to the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore–three of the several places where ABGTS students go for doctoral studies. Along the way I also would have the freedom to explore some of Southeast Asia’s rich culture and traditions.
Once I knew that I would be in Bangkok, Thailand, for part of my Asian adventure, I began to work on a way to slip into Burma and at least visit some of the places that still bear the influence of Adoniram Judson, that Baptist who launched the modern mission movement among North American Baptists. Also I was interested in meeting Burmese Baptists of this generation who live the gospel under the shadow of what the United Nations has identified as one of the most oppressive governments in our world.
In the middle of February I boarded a plane for Burma, noting that it also was mid-February in 1812 when Judson and his new bride, Ann, boarded a ship bound for India and on to Burma. In less than two hours I was on the ground in Rangoon, musing that the Judsons required months to arrive in their day.
Over my short, three-day stay in Burma I glimpsed much more than Judson’s spirit and evidence of his passion. I arrived with hopes of touching history. I left with hope engendered by the remarkable people I met.
One of my hosts in Rangoon, the general secretary of the Myanmar Baptist Convention, walked with me around the campus of what was known as Judson College, before the current regime seized the property and renamed the school Yangon University. As we walked in the heat of the day I asked what it was like to live the gospel in such an oppressed environment. My new friend looked me in the eye and said, “Oppression makes us strong. It helps us know what the gospel is.” We walked on in silence for some time.
Later we visited the Unaw Memorial Baptist Church, named for the first Burmese convert Adoniram Judson claimed in 1819, six years after he landed in Burma. I was surprised to find a good-sized congregation engaged in vibrant worship in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. All around there was evidence of more than worship: education, feeding the hungry and more. Strong, indeed.
Near the end of the day I found myself in the company of a graduate of the Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary on the campus of the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. She and her husband had heard of my visit to Rangoon and were eager to show me their hospitality.
Sitting in that modest Chinese restaurant the young woman and her husband helped me make sense of all that I had seen and heard over two days. We talked about the plight of Baptists in Burma: the restrictions they face, the now-and-again violence from the government, the smoldering civil war that some, including some Baptists, wage with the government, the grinding poverty and the challenges to provide theological education on Burmese soil.
That is when it happened. “You know,” the young man across the table said, “American Christians are oppressed, too.” When I asked him to explain he simply said, “By your culture.” Then he picked up his chopsticks and returned to his bowl of rice and chicken and vegetables. I did the same, wondering how likely it would be that any American Christian could or would say, “Oppression makes us strong. It helps us know what the gospel is.”
I’m still wondering.
Richard Wilson is professor of theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
Columbus Roberts professor of theology and chair of the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion in the college of liberal arts at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.