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Pastor William outside the church (Photo by Russell Board)

Help and hinderances

Missions | A U.S. team in militarized Burma assists a church despite government interference

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

Two cars and a truck rumbled to a stop on a dirt road in a village on the outskirts of Rangoon, the capital city of Burma, also known as Myanmar. The vehicles carried a volunteer team coming to hold a medical clinic at the village church. Pastor William, in his 40s but looking younger, walked out to meet the team members and lead them over the dirt path to the church building. He was wearing a white, long-sleeved dress shirt together with a lunghi, the traditional skirt-like wear for Burmese men. Along either side of the path were wooden shed-sized homes with roofs of tin.

Arriving at the church, the team gathered for prayer, then began to set up in the dim and cramped building. They quickly arranged five stations, each consisting of a table and three chairs: one for the doctor or nurse, one for the patient, and one for the interpreter. Against the wall were two more tables on which were cough and cold remedies, pain relievers, stomach medications, antibiotics, skin creams, vitamins, and a few other drugs.

The team from the United States had obtained nearly all the supplies through donation or at a discount, and purchased additional vitamins and some malaria medicines in the city. Team members adjusted to shopping with stacks of the local currency, as the largest banknote is 1,000 kyat, which is worth less than one U.S. dollar.

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Outside the building, 20 or so plastic chairs lined up across the front and around the shaded side already were occupied by patients waiting for the clinic to open. Working steadily from morning to late afternoon, the team was able to treat nearly 250 patients, predominantly elderly men and women, and children brought by their parents. Coughs and respiratory ailments were common, and the team dispensed many antibiotics. Malnutrition also was much in evidence, weakening immune systems and leading to generally poor health.

This was the first time Pastor William had hosted such a clinic, and he was excited at the boost it would give to his church in the eyes of the community. "We are pleased to offer this service to the people as a practical demonstration of the love of Christ," he said.

Pastor William was a construction engineer by training and trade. But several years ago he felt God calling him to give up his job and become a pastor. "I finally gave in and listened to what God was telling me to do. Now I'm glad to be serving God and His people."

Pastor William's church was founded and built by his father, Pastor Heku, a former soldier. As a young man, Heku heard the gospel from a traveling evangelist and gave his life to Christ. He was the only convert in the village. Ostracized by his relatives and neighbors, Heku joined the army and left. He remained faithful to the Lord through years of military service.

Upon his retirement at age 60, he had a great desire to serve the Lord, so he went to Bible college and studied for three years. His former military colleagues granted his request for a tract of land on which to build a church, which he pastored for 16 years. Now approaching 80, Heku remains on the scene but has turned primary pastoral responsibilities over to his son.

A solid block structure, the church served as a place of refuge for several families whose flimsy homes were destroyed by cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Brick walls are now being built in preparation for expansion, as the congregation has surpassed the 100 mark and is outgrowing the facilities.

The ruling junta allows Christians to practice their religion, but the government imposes strict restrictions on religious activities and flexes its muscles from time to time to assert its authority over believers. Churches routinely have difficulty obtaining permission to build new places of worship or repair existing ones. In January of this year, the ruling junta issued orders forbidding Christians in the capital city to gather in house-church meetings, and in February many churches in the city were ordered to stop holding services. (The ruling junta changed the official name of Rangoon to Yangon, but the United States does not formally recognize either Yangon or Myanmar as official names.) The persecution waxes and wanes according to the whims or temperaments of local officials.

Around mid-morning, two gov­ernment officials stopped by the clinic to observe. Pastor William was on good terms with the village authorities and had informed them about the clinic. But these officials were from the district immigration office. They collected passport information (names, citizenship, passport, and visa numbers) from all the foreigners, and left without incident. A couple of days later, the team drove out to a different village to hold another church-based clinic, but this time local authorities refused permission. The team tried to change the venue to the pastor's home, but the authorities issued a directive forbidding anyone from the village to visit the foreign doctors.

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