When nearly all the missionaries were ordered out of Burma in 1966, many observers feared the worst. But the church in Burma is very much alive and is growing—evidence, perhaps, that the early missions efforts provided a solid base for the church to carry on with its own leadership. (The only Western missionaries left in the country today are a few Catholic priests and nuns; they will not be allowed to return or be replaced if they leave.)
It was 1813 when Adoniram Judson first reached Burma to begin his work under the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, and five years later he baptized the first converts. Today the Baptists are the largest Christian group in the country. Christians in Burma (including Roman Catholics) constitute about 3 per cent of the country’s estimated 30 million population. In addition to the Baptists, there are significant groups in the Anglican and Methodist communions. Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal groups are rather small but active.
Judson’s best response came from the tribespeople in the northern section of Burma. As a result, the greatest concentration of Christians today is among those tribes that ring the northern and eastern perimeter of the country—the Kachins, Karens, and Shans. Probably fewer than 15 per cent of the country’s Christians are among the Burmese, who are the country’s ethnic majority, live in the lowlands, and are principally Buddhist.
Ten years ago General U Ne Win ushered in a socialist government and isolationist policies after wresting control from then Premier U Nu. Since that time the country has deteriorated steadily on the economic front. Rice and teak exports have dwindled. Warring insurgents control nearly half the land area. Because of these and other factors, inflation has hurt Burma—and the churches—badly. Small churches have a difficult time paying a full-time pastor. Some pool their funds to hire one man to work on a circuit basis.
All the denominationally supported general-education schools were nationalized in the mid-sixties. However, the Bible schools and seminaries are still open, and more than forty Bible schools hold classes. The Burma Divinity School, just outside the capital of Rangoon, grants the Th.B. and B.R.E.
The churches suffer other hardships. There are tight travel restrictions. Meetings in homes are virtually banned. Since the government’s seizure of the schools, pastors find it almost impossible to arrange for a location large enough for a national pastors’ conference. In fact, Christian Council leaders have given up and now break down conferences into 100 or fewer just to fit into the limited facilities available.
Agencies in the West continue to help the church in Burma, mostly through financial aid. The American Baptists and several other denominational groups are helping. World Vision has provided for pastors’ conferences while the Chicago-based Compassion organization has recently begun a program of assistance to widows and other needy persons within the church.
As in some of the eastern European countries, Burma’s socialist government provides some unusual benefits for the churches. For example, a grant of approximately $5,000 per year comes to the Burma Christian Council (a tiny amount compared to the estimated funds given various Buddhist organizations in the country). Also, Christian leaders are given free transportation throughout the country when they travel by train and inland launches.
While Burma does not claim to embrace Communism, there are heavy influences and trends in that direction. Two main streams of Communism flow within government circles—the “red flag” movement that sides with Russia, and the “white flag” section that favors Red China. It is widely acknowledged that many tribesmen in the northern border regions have been—and are being—trained in guerrilla warfare in China. As is typical of Communist countries, the party membership in Burma constitutes a small percentage of the total population. There are approximately 78,000 members, 250,000 on probationary status, and perhaps 600,000 supporters. Thus the party can lay claim to a constituency about the same size as the Christian community.
For years Burma was practically sealed off from the outside world. Nowadays, a seven-day visa allows tourists to visit five or six areas of the country. Christian churches in Rangoon and other major cities are easily accessible and generally in good repair. Burmese church leaders and members give a warm welcome to visitors from the West, encouraging visits to the churches (visits in local homes are sometimes awkward because of regulations).
In interviews, Burmese church leaders said Christians are more aggressive than ever. Street meetings are still carried on, and Bible distribution is taking place. Radio scripts are produced in the country and shipped to Bangkok for production and later airing on Far East Broadcasting Company transmitters from Manilla. The Burma Christian Council provides assistance to local congregations in agriculture and animal husbandry. Christian youth hostels are being developed in major parts of the country to provide housing for young people coming into the cities for education. Leaders see these hostels both as a center for Christian fellowship and as an evangelistic base.
Those ousted missionaries needn’t have worried so much.
The staff of Religious News Service (RNS) in New York and a poll of the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA) differed on what was the top religious news story in 1972. RNS said it was the “widespread quest for personal spiritual experience,” as evidenced by an upsurge in evangelism, the growth of the charismatic movement, Explo 72, and the buildup for Key 73 with Catholic participation. The conflict in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, involving especially President J. A. O. Preus and Concordia Seminary head John Tietjen, received top billing in a poll of the RNA, whose members write for secular newspapers.
Other top stories listed by RNS: the religious involvement in politics, the abortion controversy, and the Viet Nam War. RNA gave second place to the “struggle of women in the church” and third to the United Presbyterian Church’s withdrawal from COCU. RNA also placed Key 73, parochial school aid, the Jesus movement, and campus evangelism high on its list.
Anguish In The Andes
“When we ran out of food, we thought of Jesus, and how at the last supper he divided his body and blood to all the apostles. Then we understood we had to do the same,” explained Alfredo Delgado at a press conference. He is one of sixteen Uruguayan rugby players who survived for ten weeks high in Chile’s Andes Mountains after their plane crashed. The men, all Roman Catholics, lived on the snow-refrigerated flesh of other team members and passengers who perished in the crash.
When rescuers first arrived on the scene, the anguished survivors refused to divulge details, although several said they’d done something “unspeakable.”
Later, a survivor explained, “We had enormous faith. When we got really low in spirits we said our rosary together, and we were overcome with such strong faith that it bubbled up inside us.” Not all had such strong faith, however. One husky man who survived the crash was reported as saying he could not morally accept the idea of eating human flesh. He died of starvation.
Catholic moral theologians largely have agreed that the flesh-eating was justifiable. Gino Concetti, who often writes for the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano, asserted that “if the facts took place as narrated by the survivors, even from the theological and ethical point of view the action cannot be branded as cannibalism.” Two theologians at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York concluded, “A person is permitted to eat dead human flesh if there is no feasible alternative for survival.” The theologians apparently have approved the survivors’ belief that “what we did was really Christian. We went right back to the very source of Christianity.”
Sergei Kourdakov, 22, the converted Russian sailor who jumped ship off western Canada in 1971 (see January 5 issue, page 44), often told friends that Communist agents were out to kill him. But in the end he was a victim of his own hand—and apparent foolishness—while reportedly playing a version of Russian roulette.
Kourdakov was a familiar figure on the church testimony circuit ever since his conversion in a Toronto Pentecostal church soon after Canada granted him refuge. Crowds thronged to hear him tell how as a Soviet naval cadet he had led goon squads on behalf of the secret police to break up Christian meetings and beat believers. Last September he signed a one-year contract to represent Underground Evangelism (U. E.), a Bible-smuggling organization in Southern California. The contract involved mostly speaking engagements and royalties from a forthcoming book on his life.
At year’s end, U. E. arranged for Kourdakov to spend a few days at a resort cabin in the San Bernardino mountains east of Los Angeles, ostensibly to work on papers petitioning for U. S. citizenship. He was there on New Year’s Eve in the company of a seventeen-year-old girl, a member of a family who had housed him during speaking engagements at a Glendale church. The girl told investigators that while they were watching television, Kourdakov partially emptied a .38 caliber pistol, playfully put it to his head, and said nothing would happen if he pulled the trigger. But the gun, which he had borrowed weeks earlier from the girl’s father, went off.
Early reports of the incident were unclear, giving rise to rumors that Kourdakov had committed suicide. The Toronto Star, in a front-page story, included an interview with Marta Wyszowska, 19, a student at George Brown College who had dated Kourdakov several times. She claimed a recent letter from the youth indicated he was sorry he got “into this [evangelism] business” and that death was the only way out. He was deeply disturbed lately, she said, and could not sleep without sedatives. She also alleged that Kourdakov told her he didn’t believe in God. “The twenty-one years living in Russia is too much to make you change,” she commented.
U. E. head L. Joe Bass, suggesting that Miss Wyszowska’s remarks were part of a plot to discredit Kourdakov, said that the co-ed is a campus radical whom the Soviet youth had tried in vain to convert. In interviews, some of Kourdakov’s American friends portrayed him as a fun-loving person who was devoted to Christ, knew the faith, and enjoyed his work. Several pastors said they saw no signs that he was distressed or had trouble with sleep.
Kourdakov lived recently with a Christian community in Washington, D. C. While he was there, a congressional staffer took him to visit a Russian-speaking Orthodox congregation. It was love at first sight—and sound—on both sides. This month the members donated a burial plot in a nearby cemetery and gathered for a sad homecoming.
EDWARD E. PLOWMAN
MERCY FOR MANAGUA
Everyone in the missionary community escaped serious injury in the pre-Christmas earthquake that struck Managua, Nicaragua, according to initial reports. An unconfirmed report says that only one national pastor was among the thousands of persons who perished in the city that was once home to 300,000. The death toll among church members and workers may never be known. All of the churches in the central region of the city were demolished. These include the six churches that are related to the American Baptist Churches, five churches affiliated with the Central American Mission, and several Pentecostal and Seventh-day Adventist churches. Their congregations were dispersed to outlying refugee centers and elsewhere throughout the land, perhaps never to reassemble intact.
The Seventh-day Adventist mission headquarters was badly damaged, the buildings housing the Baptist seminary were seriously damaged, and the American Baptist hospital was said to be 80 per cent destroyed. Miraculously, all of the hospital’s patients were safely evacuated before the building collapsed. The Central American Mission’s residence facility and Bible institute near the edge of town suffered only light damage, and mission personnel promptly transformed it into a temporary refugee center, a source said.
Government, church, and other agencies around the world responded almost immediately with a massive relief effort, supervised by the Nicaraguan government. Catholic Relief Services already had hundreds of tons of food on hand in an undamaged warehouse in Managua, and shipped in thousands of tons of additional food, clothing and other supplies. Church World Service, relief arm of the National Council of Churches, sent goods valued at $500,000. Medical Assistance Programs of Wheaton, Illinois, rushed in $400,000 worth of vaccines. Many church agencies dispatched representatives to survey needs.
Catholics and Protestants in Nicaragua formed Comidados Volontarios, an ecumenical coordinating committee for voluntary relief agencies. Seventeen denominations and groups organized the Evangelical Committee for Earthquake Victims to help channel aid, led by prominent Baptist lay missionary Gustavo Parajon.
Compared to monumental U. S. government and Catholic donations, some church aid is a case of the widow’s mite: small but significant. The American Baptists dug into reserves for $5,000; their relief fund had been depleted by other aid projects. Everett Graffam of the National Association of Evangelicals World Relief Commission borrowed $7,000 to split between the Central American Mission, the Assemblies of God, and Baptist International Missions; he hopes to raise $50,000 more for the “early stages” of the crisis. Southern Baptists have no work in Nicaragua but earmarked $5,000 with promises of more.
World Vision’s W. Stanley Mooneyham, who traveled to Managua with $15,000 from U. S. and Canadian contributors and $10,000 from The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund of England, said immediate needs were being well met by government aid. Evangelical assistance will now focus on long-term needs of refugee care, resettlement, and rebuilding, he said.
Relatively few were injured in the quake, thus many doctors and nurses who volunteered their services were told to remain home. Meanwhile, church and mission agencies are lining up other volunteers to help local believers rebuild their facilities when time and place are determined.
Death At The Bridge
The holiday week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a favorite for church youth outings. That’s why the Southern Baptist conference center at Glorietta, New Mexico, was booked solid months in advance and the young people of Woodlawn Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, had to settle for a resort near Glorietta instead. They never got there.
Traveling at night along a two-lane stretch of U. S. Route 60 near Fort Sumner, New Mexico, the two school-type buses carrying the teen-agers and adult sponsors suddenly came upon a narrow bridge at the same time a loaded cattle truck approached from the opposite direction. The lead bus got through, but the truck jackknifed across the highway in an apparent panic-stop attempt, and in the next instant the second bus slammed into it.
Up ahead, driver John Roberts saw the other bus’s lights “flash and go out” in his rear-view mirror. Youth minister Ron Killough hurried back to investigate. Roberts told the others in his bus, “You’re going to see something you’ve probably never seen before in your life. If you can’t stand to see your brothers and sisters mangled and possibly killed, don’t get off the bus. Just pray.”
Fourteen youths and five adults died in the wreckage. Fourteen others were injured, some seriously. The dead included the wife and daughter of the 1,500-member church’s minister of education, along with driver Jerry Estes and his wife, newcomers from San Antonio who had agreed only a short time earlier to help out on the ski retreat. Their son, 18, was hurt.
Baptists in nearby Clovis helped to look after the group’s survivors until air transportation home was arranged. A mass funeral service later at the Austin Municipal Auditorium was attended by 5,000, including former President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife.
Meanwhile, it looks like New Mexico authorities will finally replace that narrow bridge, scene of a number of earlier accidents.
BACK ON HIS FEET
The doctors said he would never walk again, but E. Stanley Jones, 89, the venerable Methodist missionary-author (he served for fifty years as a missionary in India), is on his feet again. He suffered a crippling stroke a year ago and spent five months in a Boston hospital. Using a cassette recorder, he worked his way back to normalcy of speech and even began to “write” a book on tape. But the paralysis persisted.
At his request, his son-in-law—Methodist bishop James K. Mathews of the Washington, D. C., area—took him to the Himalayas in India for further recuperation. When Jones asked his family and friends to pray that he might walk, they mounted a round-the-clock prayer vigil. Mathews fitted braces and walking devices, enabling Jones to take a few assisted steps each day. After reading Acts chapter three one day, Jones insisted that he be awakened daily with the summons, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”
On Columbus Day, Jones wrote to Mathews, saying, “I walked 1,492 steps today.” He has even been preaching on occasion lately. “I haven’t had a blue moment yet,” he wrote recently. Reader’s Digest will soon publish an account of the healing miracle he experienced. The title of the book he started in that Boston hospital: The Divine Yes.
Big Sister Is Watching
America’s television networks and stations had better watch out, because a large new group of amateur monitors is watching them, with an eye to fading out violence, vulgarity, crime, and sex. Emergence of the group, known as Leadership Foundation, comes at a time when video morals are more permissive than ever, accompanied by frequent profanity on the audio track.
Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish women’s leaders who addressed a kickoff luncheon attended by 750 in Washington, D. C., last month left no doubt that they intend to exert the strongest possible pressure on television officials and sponsors to clean up their formats. The speakers included Mrs. Ted Dienert, twenty-two-year-old daughter of evangelist Billy Graham; Mrs. George Romney (“we are going to be active, not passive, in fighting for … decent television shows”); Federal Maritime Commission chairman Helen D. Bentley (“let’s turn television around and make it a force for good rather than evil”); black attorney Ruth E. Hankins (“we are not going to bow down before the great god Baal of television”); and Mrs. Pat Boone.
“Actresses come to me with tears in their eyes, saying they simply cannot accept the scripts that are being offered them,” said Mrs. Boone. “They do not want to waste their dramatic talents on the vulgar, indecent shows that producers insist are demanded by today’s television and motion picture audiences. Let’s back up the decent people in show business by demonstrating that there is a demand for something better.”
Two sobering warnings came from U. S. Surgeon General J. L. Steinfeld: a study found that the most “violence-drenched” programs were the cartoons specifically designed for late-afternoon and early-Saturday viewing by children, and that children spend 80 per cent of their viewing time watching programs designed for adult audiences.
“What they see on those programs gives them their first concept of adult life,” said Steinfeld. “We feel there is a definite impact on youthful psychology in constantly seeing violence as a natural daily event of adult life, a frequent solution to all sorts of problem situations.” TV never shows the real consequences of death, he added.
Veteran radio and TV talk-show personality Martha Rountree was elected president of the new group. She and her associates are already distributing millions of little forms that can sit atop TV sets. By filling in the blanks, viewers can list the program’s name, its sponsor, and the time and station on which it was shown, and state their specific objections to its content. Copies of the form can then be sent to the offending stations, sponsors, and—through the organization’s Washington office—to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). (Viewers are also encouraged to send in forms praising good programs and listing the commendable elements.)
The women can conceivably wield considerable clout. While producers may not care about what some viewers think, sponsors couldn’t care more. And the mere mention of the FCC is enough to set off tremors in many TV management offices. Indeed, FCC commissioner Robert E. Lee urged the women to speak up (“the loudest squeak gets the oil”), both to broadcasters and to the FCC. “We,” he assured them, “will listen.”
Sharing The Pews—And Bills
A historic agreement signed recently in Toronto provides for joint use of a worship center by Roman Catholics and Presbyterians. A $300,000 building will be constructed in the growing Flemingdon Park area of Don Mills, a Toronto suburb. The area is a melting pot for scores of nationalities. Both the Roman Catholics and the Presbyterians have used makeshift facilities for several years.
The two churches will split the expenses. The congregations will share the physical facilities, and each “will have the right to keep its congregational life and program separate.” The agreement provides that “sharing may be undertaken as a result of voluntary arrangements.” It was signed by Archbishop Philip Pocock of Toronto, moderator Homer McAvoy of the Presbytery of East Toronto, and other church leaders.
Pickets paraded in front of the building when the inter-church agreement was signed. They carried placards and distributed leaflets calling upon Presbyterians to repent and separate themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. The leaflets bore the imprint of Toronto’s sole Bible Presbyterian Church, pastored by H. F. MacEwen.
DECOURCY H. RAYNER
The Rabbis Speak Out
The war of words over evangelism and the Jew is heating up. Rabbi Nissam Wernick of Dallas, Texas, accused Texas Methodist Reporter editor Spurgeon Dunnam of declaring “spiritual war upon the Jew.” Dunnam had editorialized against Jewish criticism of Key 73 (see December 8 issue, pages 29 and 45, and December 22 issue, page 37) in his newspaper’s December 22 issue. He charged that Jewish critics were in essence asking Christians to negate their faith by calling on them not to fulfill the commission to preach to all the world, and insisting that they “lay off” evangelism.
Wernick said in a letter to the Reporter that Dunnam’s editorial was another “attempt to convert the Jew.”
Meanwhile, acting on suggestions that Jews look inward, Rabbi Charles Sheer, chaplain at Columbia University in New York, called for increased education programs for Jewish students on college campuses. He told a conference that Jews were “overreacting” to evangelism plans.
Taking a similar stance was United Synagogue Youth, an Orthodox organization representing 25,000 students. At its twenty-second convention in Boston delegates approved counter-evangelism plans under the slogan: “Meet the missionary at your door with an understanding and knowledge of our own unique Jewish identity.” A sixty-four page pamphlet, similarly titled, was distributed among delegates. It outlines steps to “answer the enticements of the missionary in terms of what Judaism offers, not what it rejects.” Rabbi Paul Freedman, national director of the youth commission of the United Synagogue of America (publishers of the pamphlet), cautioned the delegates against calling evangelism and its proponents “anti-Semitic.” Evangelism is a campaign of proselytization while “ours is a counter-campaign campaign against proselytization,” he said.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more