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A letter from Mary Nebelsick and Paul Matheny in the Philippines

April 6, 2009

Dear Friends,

Photo of Mary Nebelsick and four students seated around a table with their notebooks open in front of them.

Mary teaching students from Myanmar.

From the beginning of our time in the Philippines many students from Myanmar have been studying at PCU/UTS (Philippine Christian University and Union Theological Seminary). In Myanmar, formerly called Burma, a strong and growing Christian community is thriving despite very oppressive circumstances. In short, the government persecutes Christians. In the aftermath of World War II, Burmese Christians, especially the Karen, have been the target of violent suppression. Many Christians have died in the longest continuing civil war on the planet.

The government itself is administered by one of the largest standing armies in the world. The civil service has virtually vanished, and the economy is now run by the military and the former communist party, today acting as traders in opium. Profits from the sales of natural gas, found in rich supply there, pay the costs of governance, replacing the need for taxes and elections. Universities other than those run by religious institutions have been closed for years. Education is not valued by the government, which values dirty political gaming over professional skill and critical ability. This, however, has never been true of the Christians here, who have valued education from the earliest years of their foundation.

Christianity in Myanmar has long held its independence from the mission organizations that worked to share the gospel there during the early decades of the 19th century. Most mission efforts then were by American missionaries, especially the American Baptists, and not the British, who had annexed the country at the end of the 19th century. Their work centered on Bible translation and education. From the first contact with Christianity until today, the Christians of Myanmar have been led by their faith to understand more about their God. Theological education mattered to them. It was not seen as an extra, meant to force them to accept American religious patterns and beliefs, although the government has portrayed it this way. Propaganda against Christianity is a pillar of the government’s campaign for dominance.

Mary and I have been teaching and mentoring Burmese students now for almost a decade. They have impressed us with their passion to know more and to understand. Their resolve to return to Myanmar to teach and preach is striking as well. You’d think that few would return once the chance to escape to a safe place was offered. Yet I know of only one or two students who have stayed, and I think they will return soon. They work hard and well, given their limitations forced by their cultural isolation and poverty. They return and become leaders of their churches, colleges and seminaries.

The communities of PCU and UTS have been fortunate and blessed to have so many students from Myanmar. We can offer them a safe haven from persecution and new skill and valuable resources for strengthening the Christian community there. They have become a witness to the need for compassion in the face of dehumanizing neglect and violent oppression.

Not long ago our students held a benefit for the victims of the recent typhoon. They are poor and a long way from home, but they felt that they could not sit quietly while their families and homelands suffered. They have had many reasons to feel this way recently. We joined them for the benefit and supported them in our small way. Our prayers and their dances of solidarity seemed to fit together. Some day the suffering will be over. For this we can only wait upon change and the power of the Spirit to lead us to a new day. Perhaps the day has already begun, and we do not know it. Perhaps the change has begun already in our students who can know and taste hope, because they are free to do so among us.

Please pray for them. Their hour of suffering takes place every day.

Paul D. Matheny

The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 126

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