Margaret Bywater, Tasmania Regional Meeting and Phnom Penh Worshipping Group

“ Is it easy to go to Myanmar from Cambodia?” Ronis Chapman asked me at a AYM some time ago.

Fred and Margaret 2

Fred & Margaret with members of Evangelical Friends, Kalay, Myanmar

Lal Thla Muana (Muana) of Kalay, Sagaing division, Myanmar, applied to Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) for membership under their International Membership arrangements. FWCC Membership Committee received Muana’s application, and appointed Margaret Bywater of Phnom Penh Worshiping group, a Member of Tasmania Regional Meeting, and Fred Ashmore, Member of Kingston and Wandsworth Area Meeting, Britain Yearly Meeting as visitors to meet with Muana on behalf of FWCC. At that time Fred Ashmore was living and working in South Korea.

Fred and I met in Yangon and travelled to Kalay on Sunday 3 August 2014. Leaving Yangon very early in the morning and flying via Napidaw (the official capital) and Mandalay where we changed to a smaller plane, we finally arrived in Kalay in mid morning. After the airport formalities had been completed we emerged from the small terminal into the sunshine to find a crowd of excited young people waiting to greet us under the shade of huge Rain trees (Albizia saman formerly Samanea samon). We were welcomed enthusiastically by Muana, and many of the congregation from the Evangelical Friends International Church, Kalay. Soon we were off all together, to enjoy a delicious traditional “breakfast” of noodles and vegetables. Over breakfast we spoke with the young members of the group who were eager to practise their English skills.

After breakfast we were taken to our hotel, and then to another welcome at Muana’s home where we met his wife and young family. This was so similar to a traditional wooden Khmer house in a provincial village, I felt immediately at home. We noticed with interest Muana’s collection of Quaker books, and photographs taken at various Asia West Pacific gatherings in pride of place in the living room dresser.

After a delicious lunch cooked by Muana’s wife, we attended the afternoon programmed Worship Service. The Friends Evangelical Church is a community of around 80 people of all ages. The service was held in the Chin language, and Muana provided translation for us as appropriate. Fred and I were invited to speak about the history of Quakers, about FWCC and the reason for our visit to their community. Muana again acted as our interpreter and invited us to hold a silent Meeting for Worship in that evening. Following the afternoon service we were taken to watch their local team play soccer on a muddy and somewhat water-logged playing field. The other team won, but no one seemed to mind.

Returning to the small church, we watched as large quantities of rice and roast pork and salads were prepared for the shared evening meal. This meal provided us with more opportunities to meet informally with the congregation and their families. Education opportunities, possibilities of travelling to find work in South Korea or other parts of Southeast Asia were among their concerns. One young woman had spent two years as a maid in Singapore, but returned because she missed her family and friends.

On Sunday evening, we helped local Friends to conduct their first silent Meeting for Worship. In spite of most participants’ unfamiliarity with this form of worship, we felt that the meeting was gathered, and comments afterwards were supportive. Around 25 Friends joined the Meeting for worship, Fred and I took on the role of elders.  It was a good gathered meeting, evoking warm responses from some members afterwards.  It does seem that silent Meeting for Worship speaks to some programmed Friends, just as programmed worship is valued by many Friends from the silent tradition.  Worship works for Friends.

We conducted the visit for Membership with Muana on Monday 4 August in his home. One of Muana’s first questions was to clarify that his application is for personal membership. We discussed the significance of membership in the liberal Quaker tradition, and admitted our ignorance of how membership is handled in other Quaker traditions. We also discussed how the way might open for applications from others in his church in due course.

Muana lives in a province which has a strong Christian tradition, and his family upbringing was strongly Christian. He was brought up in the Baptist Church, and studied theology at the Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology in Kalay. His local church decided in 2002 to become an independent church, separating itself from the American Baptist Mission. Muana was appointed pastor of the church. Muana decided to undertake further theological studies at Manila Theological College in the Philippines and travelled there for two years’ study. In the course of this study he was introduced to Quakers by Dr Jaime Tabingo of Pasig Evangelical Friends International Church in Manila, and found Quaker ideas of great interest. He and his congregation decided to adopt the discipline of Pasig Evangelical Friends International Church, and their church is now called Evangelical Friends Church.

Muana’s first experience of unprogrammed worship was in Manila during the FWCC gathering in 2011. He took part in several meetings in the course of the weekend gathering and found that the silent Meeting for Worship opened new paths for him to sense God’s presence. Muana also attended the Salt and Light gathering in Nairobi, Kenya in 2012 and greatly appreciated the gathering and worship. African style of programmed worship with dance and song opened another way of giving praise and worship, and the practice of starting other meetings with silent worship spoke powerfully to him. He had discussed membership with Valerie Joy, then Secretary of FWCC Asia West Pacific Section, and decided to apply for international Membership of Friends through FWCC.

For both Fred and me the experience of visiting Muana and his community was indeed a privilege. We left Kalay with the feeling that we had met a group of Friends whose great warmth, kindness and generosity who made us feel most welcome.  We hoped that they also felt our appreciation of the welcome and the hospitality and of sharing worship in different styles.  We will want to know what happens to this group!  There are many challenges for people in this relatively underdeveloped area, challenges of finding work, paying for education and supporting families. 

FWCC Membership Committee agreed to our recommendation that Lal Thla Muana be accepted into International Membership of Friends.

Exactly a year after our visit I heard news of devastating floods in Kalay and much of the Sagaing Division. However Fred Ashmore was able to reassure me that he had received an email from Muana to say that he and all his community are safe and well.

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