I recently returned from speaking at the annual meeting of the Chin Baptist Convention in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The Northwest Baptist Convention of churches, which I serve, includes about 140 churches that worship in languages other than English, including the Chin Burmese language. It was through one of these churches that I received the invitation. I knew nearly nothing about Chin Baptists in Myanmar, but to preach in the nation where the first American missionary, Adoniram Judson, served over 200 years ago made this invitation particularly intriguing. What I did not know was that the evangelization of the Chin people is one of the great mission stories of the past century, and it’s a story few know.
My wife and I flew to Yangon, Myanmar, which is a Buddhist city. About 90 percent of Burmese people profess Theravata Buddhism as their religion, and Yangon has hundreds, if not thousands of Buddhist pagodas, the largest of which is the Shwedagon Pagoda. At 325 feet in height, it is covered in an estimated nine to sixty tons of gold. In addition, millions of dollars in gems are set in the orb and vane atop the pagoda. I’ve never seen anything like it. The relic that such wealth honors is eight strands of hair from Gautama Buddha. Ugh!
From Yangon we flew to the ancient city of Mandalay, another Buddhist city in which scores of pagodas are visible from almost any location. From Mandalay we drove 14 hours to Hakha, the capital of the Chin state. The road was tortuous and rough, probably the worst I’ve ever travelled over that distance. During the first several hours Buddhist pagodas were the dominant feature. Then, at the border of the Chin state, we witnessed an amazing transformation in the religious architecture. There was a cross on a hill, then a church at the high point of a small community. When we reached Hakha we discovered we had entered a territory in which churches were the dominant feature, especially Baptist churches. The Chin people are overwhelmingly Christian, with more than 90 percent claiming Christ as Lord.
So how did the Chin people, who were animists and wholly illiterate, come to faith in Jesus Christ in such great numbers? I don’t know the full story, but it started when American Baptist missionaries, A.E. and Laura Carson, arrived in Hakha in 1899. It took over six years before the first Chin person received Jesus Christ. He was baptized on Jan. 1, 1906. Rev. Carson died the following year of appendicitis, but Mrs. Carson continued her ministry until 1920 when ill health forced her to leave. A few other missionaries came, with the last one being expelled from the country in 1964. The Chin state was then closed to all outsiders for over 50 years. Because of persecution they were allowed to come to the United States as refugees, which explains the large number of Chin people in our country. Only recently has the national government of Myanmar allowed outsiders into the Chin state and my wife and I were among the first to travel there.
The Chin Baptist Convention that invited us has 64 churches and was formed in 2012. They have broken away from the larger group of Chin churches over theological liberalism and they want connections with Southern Baptists. To my amazement they were familiar with the Baptist Faith and Message. They have researched our beliefs and they know of our commitment to missions. They feel a kinship with us and they want to know us better. One thing I was impressed by is their own commitment to reaching the other peoples in Myanmar. Although they are a poor people, they have sent seven missionaries to unreached peoples in their own country. They have also started a theological college that provides three years of training, including two years of Greek study. Their commitment to educating their teachers and pastors is strong. They want American pastors and professors to come and supplement their teaching with one or two-week intensive classes.
I must say, that in all our years of ministry, our experience with our Chin Baptist brothers and sisters was among the best and most humbling experiences we’ve ever had. Never have we met a more generous, gracious people. It was overwhelming. One leader told us, “We know that the hotel and food we have for you are not up to American standards, but we have given you our best. We are trying to do our best.” I don’t think my wife opened a door, or carried a package, while we were there. I thought I was a gentleman, but the Chin men showed me I could do better.
One man summed the Chin people up quite well. He said, “In the Chin state we have no natural resources. We have no factories or manufacturing. We have no seaport and we have no airport. We have only one thing – the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what we have … and that is the best thing.”
The Chin people are still largely isolated in the mountainous, western part of Myanmar. It’s difficult to get there, accessible only by roads that are quite treacherous. During three days of our 5-day stay, the city was without electricity, though generators were plentiful so we didn’t go without much. So troubled were our hosts about us not having hot water that each morning someone delivered water in canisters which had been heated over a wood fire. Indeed, they did their best. In every way, they did their best. And their best was plenty.
My wife and I are planning a return visit next year. We want to help them get books for their theological college. We want to advocate for them in whatever ways might strengthen their work in reaching the people of Myanmar. And we want to see our friends again. On one occasion when their leadership was apologizing for what they could not do, I said to them, “We often look at ourselves and see what we are not. But when I look at you I see a people of courage, perseverance, generosity and deep faith.” Those weren’t just words. They are an apt description of an isolated and persecuted people, who have so effectively shared Christ across the villages in the Chin hills, that they are more Christian than almost any people, anywhere, in the entire world.