A Discussion with Rev. Katharine Babson, Episcopal Minister, Bailey Island, Maine
With: Katharine Babson Berkley Center Profile
March 6, 2019
Background: Rev. Kitty Babson has traveled to Burma/Myanmar over 30 times, over 25 years, witnessing the life of church communities in remote areas of the country and also its political and social transformation. This discussion with Katherine Marshall (by phone) on March 6, 2019 was prompted by WFDD/Berkley Center research work on Myanmar/Burma that explores religious roles and approaches to development work. The conversation thus focused on her experience over the years in Myanmar. Among the highlights of the exchange are Rev. Babson’s forceful impressions of rural poverty and the challenges of living under the shadow of an authoritarian regime. She comments on the situation of Christian communities and on interreligious relationships. Striking is the role of personal relationships in the gradual opening of the society. She emphasizes the vital importance of developing a new generation of leaders, for churches, as for all of Myanmar’s institutions.
How did you come to be an Episcopal priest and how did you become so involved in Burma/Myanmar?
I had always had a spiritual interest from when I was a child, but at the time I was growing up, the Episcopal Church—of which I was and am a member—did not ordain women. So instead, I focused on teaching. My interest in both international and interreligious topics began early—in college at Williams, I spent a semester in India and was intrigued by the role that spiritual factors played.
A period of reflection during a time when my husband, Brad, was traveling constantly for the World Bank and I was at home in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. with two small children took me into ministry. I spent time working in the community but finally decided to go to Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS). It was becoming clear at the time that we were destined to go to Asia—my husband was posted to Thailand in 1993, then to Vietnam in 1994 to open the World Bank office there. Thus, I followed a remarkable program at Virginia Theological Seminary that introduced me to many aspects of religion in that part of the world. I was ordained as a priest at the Washington National Cathedral two weeks before we moved to Asia.
While the American Episcopal Church was by then ordaining women, this was not the case in Asia where some in leadership were adamantly against women’s ordination. Christ Church in Bangkok was then its own independent Anglican church, a rare red dot on the map of the Anglican Communion; during WWII, it had turned from Hong Kong to Singapore for apostolic oversight because Singapore was more accessible by way of the natural land bridge down the Malay Peninsula. Christ Church had invited/called me to serve there by the right of its unusual independence—independence that came as a consequence of being in Thailand, the only country in Asia never to have been colonized and settled by a European power that subsequently claimed that power's church (as Southeast Asia under the French colonialists was claimed by Rome). However, in my case, Christ Church capitulated to Singapore's claims of ecclesiastical hegemony because its governing board did not appreciate its unusual origins as a church gifted by King Chulalongkorn the Great and the fact that Thailand's non-colonialist history gave it unusual and unique authority to choose which bishop under whom to serve its ministry. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury at that time, allowed Singapore's claim because he did not want to contravene what he saw as Singapore's cohesive leadership in the region, notwithstanding Moses Tay's specious claims to having legitimate primacy in Southeast Asia. I suspect that Carey had little detailed information about the case. Leaders in Anglican dioceses neighboring Singapore—notably Sri John Savarimuthu, Bishop of West Malaysia, a personal friend of mine—was one of several who were disheartened by Canterbury's wholesale decision because they were ethnically non-Chinese and believed that Singapore had held sway primarily because it had money. Canterbury's decision did not go down well in the region, but it was a fait accompli all felt they had to live with, ecclesiastical authority being what it is.
Thus, during my time in Bangkok, with support both from my colleagues in the U.S. and in the region, I served the interdenominational International Church of Bangkok. Later, I was able to found a kindred church, the International Church of Hanoi.
My Anglican connections did eventually lead to my involvement in Burma/Myanmar. I reconnected the fall of 1993 with a young man who was two years ahead of me at VTS, a Karen. As a result, I was invited to go to his consecration as Anglican bishop of Taungoo, one of six diocesans. Thus, I visited the country for the first time, in 1994. I was a novelty at the time, the first woman priest they had encountered.
What were your impressions of Burma at the time?
I was forcibly struck by the country, the people, and the level of poverty. It was far deeper than I had witnessed during a semester I spent in India during college, in 1971-1972. Certain foods were in short supply—milk, for example, because there was no steady electrical supply to keep it safely refrigerated. Roads and bridges were severely deteriorated. There were few cars, even in Yangon. The general poverty was everywhere apparent. I realized that I could be a connector to the outside world, not just as a Christian, but also as an Anglican.
The Anglican Church had some challenges, as it was associated with a colonial past. There was also a severe shadow cast by being identified as part of what were seen as the “3Ms” that were integral parts of colonialism (merchants, military, missionaries). Church of England missionaries came from England specifically to serve the two previous groups. Unlike the Baptists, Church of England missionaries were, amazingly, forbidden to work among the native peoples. So the Anglicans were severely hobbled by this history—the fact that they were agents of the colonial power who were understood not to have come to better the lives of the people, but only to serve themselves. The Baptists, who had strong support from Americans, were booming, but the Anglicans were doing far less well.
The hand of the military junta was so obviously severe that I was shushed in a public market when I openly asked a question about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. People feared they would be arrested and sent to prison for engagement with a foreigner in possible seditious behavior. Christians and Muslim minorities were obviously extremely careful not to offend Burmese Buddhist sensibilities. The glass ceiling on opportunity for these groups was very low; several people told of being ousted from their government and military positions because they were Karen Christians.
You were able to go back quite often?
After my initial visit, I was able to travel back and forth. I am not sure why it was not more difficult, but I surmise that my movements might have been easier because of my marriage to an official of the World Bank. There was intensive scrutiny of who came and worked there, including with Israeli surveillance. The government knew who I was, but decided that they were not going to hassle me. I also believe that coming in from Hanoi instead of from London, for example, simply meant there was less automatic scrutiny—and though I was a priest, I was also an American. It was quite easy to get to Burma from Hanoi, through Bangkok. Thus, I visited two or three times each year.
What was the core of your work in Burma during those early years?
Those early days were punctuated by the increasing partnership travails of the Anglican Church of the Province. Correspondence was closely monitored. Some church grants did come through, specifically the annual grant from USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the oldest mission society in the Anglican Communion) to the Province. But the grants processes were hobbled by the mail and by surveillance. If an application arrived, it was often after the due date had passed. I began to carry applications out, helping to direct what was needed and where it had to go, providing photographs and on-the-ground descriptions to support applications.
There were always activities and ways to help. One major activity over the years was helping to find graduate theological school placements for worthy young Christians, and once accepted, to assist schools on this side [the U.S.] about how to procure visas for them. Always a fraught and costly process, given Burmese exit visa requirements, I also often ran into refusals on the U.S. side because of the concern that the young women, in particular, might be victims of trafficking because their ages and relatively poor family (Christian) backgrounds raised all those red flags. I often had to intervene and argue their cases with the Burma Desk Officers at the U.S. State Department in D.C., and to help Virginia Seminary, the most common destination for study, connect with consular officials to attest to the legitimacy of their fellowship offer. This always involved helping VTS understand the Burmese Embassy's requirement that the students receive what was officially called a "salary," but was in effect a tax on the value of the scholarship that went to supporting the operations of the Burmese Embassy itself. The list goes on.
Practically, I introduced Episcopal Relief and Development to Myanmar’s six dioceses. I raised funds to build church-based preschools, youth hostels, and medical clinics; to develop seminary library collections; and to pipe safe, clean spring water into isolated and war-afflicted mountain villages.
What about the relationships with other countries at that time?
Overall, from the U.S. side, truth be told, Myanmar/Burma was not on the map of the American mind, because we had had little to no history in Burma, save for the little known accounts of the Flying Tigers flying the hump into China. Nor was Burma part of the Episcopal Church's worldview, also because Burma was really part of England's colonial history and church history, not that of the United States or the Episcopal Church's. Most Americans, even today, do not know where Burma is. Add to that the official Burmese name change to Myanmar that further shrouded it from Western recognition. I often reentered the U.S. through customs inspections where the officials queried me about what I was doing in Thailand—my segue stop into Myanmar—but they obviously had no idea about Myanmar, which should have provoked the most questions. If it wasn't indicative of such ignorance, it might have been funny. As to the Episcopal Church, if I had had connections into Sudan instead of Myanmar/Burma, I would have been able to garner more support. But again, Burma has never been on the map of the American mind, except briefly in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and, for a few years, because of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest. But even then, when I spoke about my work there, I often received the question, "Is that where that woman is kept in her house?" Even after Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, the political circumstances of that situation eluded most people here.
How did you experience the situation as political changes began to take place?
Things began to move, but gradually. There were constant difficulties, for example, in the ways in which exchange rates were calculated, to the disadvantage of the local congregations. Overall, I was able both to witness and to provide at least some help, for example, carrying in books on theology, cash (as far as that was legal), medications, etc. Indeed, I was very careful to adhere to U.S. legal requirements. I was also in some cases able to help with medical needs, for example, for someone who needed a kidney transplant. There was a tremendous need for drugs.
I gathered anecdotes and also preached in both Baptist and Anglican churches in the U.S. I was able to travel widely to many areas and to hear stories and accounts of people’s lives. I came to understand how the Christian background and faith helped people to articulate their feelings but also the sources of resentments and hard feelings. Young people were discouraged and depressed. This was particularly true in Kachin State and upper Burma, which were not Burmese ancestral lands. The Burmese interest continued to be about its profitability for them, with little concern for cultural heritage. The Chinese and military cronies were active in the timber, water, and mining enterprises (especially jade), but the government paid little attention beyond that. General David Abel was influential in the areas where my work focused (he died about six weeks ago). He was a devoted Christian, a Roman Catholic, who generously supported Christian needs and activities, founding a hospice in Yangon, for example. He was placed under house arrest when General Khin Nyunt was deposed, but had enough clout that he continued to operate and consult nevertheless. I understood from him why the military has little concern for upper Burma, nor for their ancestral heritage. Mandalay and further down was what they cared about. Kachin and the Anglicans who lived there suffered terribly, and they still do.
Everywhere I went, Christians were very open about how careful they had to be about their work with me. That I understood meant that I could not come home to the U.S. and talk very openly, even in church. That was difficult because the topic of Burma was of interest.
What changed when you moved back to the United States from Asia?
When we returned to the United States from Hanoi, I considered applying for a position at St. Albans (which is right beside the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.). John Danforth was active in the congregation, and Burma was a hot topic. I would have needed to be in the thick of advocacy and controversy, and I realized that if I took that route I would not be able to continue my work in Burma. So I did not even venture it.
Instead, I continued my quiet ministry, focusing above all on supporting new leaders. Bishop John Wilme, the first bishop of Taungoo Diocese, just retired in January. I know his successor. Thus, we are seeing a new generation of leaders. I myself am part of an older generation, and I see the need to nurture a new generation. This takes place largely through Virginia Seminary, where for a time I led an immersion course that involved travel to Burma, not unlike one I experienced at Williams College. I take people there and make sure not to shelter them. They are exposed to a wide array of problems and directly to Christian brothers and sisters, but also to Buddhist sangha, political leaders, and others. Participants gain enough confidence not to make stupid assumptions. The program has been pretty successful.
Are you still teaching?
I have recently had to give it up. Family illness has been part of the reason, but I have also wanted to pass on the responsibility to a new generation. One who is involved is Professor James Farwell, the likely future leader of the program. He will lead a group to Burma in 2020. His approach may differ from mine, centered around Mandalay where he has connections. The independent monastery there has a very bright, astute abbot who is engaged in interfaith dialogue with the Anglican Bishop of Mandalay, David Nyi Nyi Naing, with whom he enjoys a warm friendship. I introduced James Farwell to Bishop David, and through him, he met the abbot; they are only acquaintances, but the signs of a future friendship are good.
How have you witnessed interfaith work and relationships? What is your sense of the state of intergroup relationships, especially for the Christian minority?
Christians in Burma get the importance of interfaith relationships and concrete efforts to advance them. They know well that they have to be savvy and careful. The military for many years was watching closely, especially in the central regions. In the more remote areas, relationships tend to be more open, in part because daily life depends on mutual dependence. Thus, there seem to be fewer tensions in interfaith relationships in daily life (business, markets, etc.).
Christian denominations differ significantly in terms of openness and leadership styles. The difference between the Anglicans and the Baptists is most striking and telling. History is at the root of these differences: while the Anglicans are the contemporary descendants of the Church of England and hence carry the burden of its colonial history, the Baptist churches were founded by the American missionary Adoniram Judson, who fled from Calcutta and found his way to Rangoon because he had crossed the British red line of proselytizing to India natives instead of keeping to service of English colonials. Judson worked among native Burmans, translated the Bible into Burmese, and became the bedrock of a flourishing church primarily financed by Americans. That financial underpinning and democratic ethos remains true of the Baptist churches in Burma today, while the more autocratic, authoritarian, patriarchal, and top-down structures typical of the Anglican Communion still rule the structure and color the ethos of the Church of the Province of Myanmar (CPM). The current archbishop of CPM is a staunch ally of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) and GASCOM, that, like Singapore, is very much of the patriarchal set. They believe that women should not be ordained, though there are many who aspire to ordination and await a time when this will become possible for them.
My experience is that there are many highly educated women in the Anglican Church who apply themselves to their studies with great discipline and achieve significant excellence, but who remain, for the most part, deferential, that being the cultural norm and now the expectation of the archbishop. Unlike the Anglicans, Baptist churchwomen are not so constrained, probably stamped by their more American democracy-supported church history, and by modern American expectations and contemporary models of women in leadership. Overall, the contrast between these two church models and their repercussions are striking.
Christians are careful everywhere not to draw attention to practices that might threaten Buddhist leaders’ fears of being "replaced" in number by non-Buddhists. Baptisms are celebrated quietly, wherever possible, especially if a new Christian was a Buddhist. Most baptisms are of animists. New laws, as of about two years ago, require a Christian woman who marries a Buddhist to convert to Buddhism so any progeny will be born of a Buddhist mother—while any Christian man who marries a Buddhist woman may remain Christian. The fear of "replacement," to use the current language of extremist fear of others' numbers, is especially rabid in and about Rakhine. A Burmese Buddhist woman friend of mine fiercely defends the military's approach. Her argument is that the Rohingya do not belong and never have; they came in with the British, who brought them in as labor; that Rohingya who had land and citizenship papers bought them from corrupt and greedy local Burmese who simply wanted money; and that because Muslim men can marry multiple wives, their children are proliferating like rabbits, taking over Rakhine culture and violating its norms. My friend's passion about this is so powerful that I avoid the subject with her, while realizing that her voice is indicative of that which the government has nurtured in the populace and which the sanghas have also cultivated, these two powers not being now, nor ever, mutually exclusive.
These relationships seem to be a little easier today, especially in Burma’s central regions, but in some areas there are particular problems and severe challenges. In one instance, a monk who was handicapped and in a wheelchair was part of a group that came into a church compound and cut down trees. The group set out to build pagodas on the site. There was little that the congregation could do except to counsel peace and patience. One purpose of actions like this was reportedly a plan to build Buddhist pagodas as sentinel spots for military to have across the border from Thailand. There is also a wish to have access to what Christians are doing.
The southern border areas have always been more fraught with tension than the more northern ones. This is partly because the Karen population has always been mighty there—it is a heartland of the Pwo Karen, the largest and most powerful of the Karen people, still seen by many to be enemies of the Burmans. Acrimony goes back to the immediate post-colonial days when the Panglong Agreement, brokered by Aung San and the departing British colonialists, served as an understanding between the major non-Burman ethnic groups that for their willingness to sign off on the first state constitution, they would be guaranteed future federalist authority over their own ancestral territories after a trial period of ten years. That agreement was abrogated by the Burmans following Aung San's assassination, and the interethnic warfare between the Karen and the Burmans began in earnest and remains heated, flaring up in pockets throughout the country. As a consequence, the refugee camps over the Thai border are populated primarily by Karen, both Buddhist and Christian. It is notable, however, that the Christian churches in lower Burma are largely populated by Karen, hence the assiduous nature of the military's watch over these churches and the recent spike in anti-Christian activity in the southernmost Diocese of Hpa-an, where a Buddhist monk brought in followers to build a circle of minor pagodas around a prominent Anglican church that had been resurrected from the ash of a major post-independence battle between Burmese and Karen forces.
What is happening now seems to be a familiar pattern of bread and circuses. That means efforts to provide some goods to people as a way to restrain their opposition.
How do you see the role of social media as a force for change (good and bad)?
Facebook is a tremendously important, including as entertainment (part of the bread and circuses). There is a degree of comfort that comes with that. In general, Christians do not feel as much at risk as the Muslims.
How have you witnessed that challenge?
Muslims have always been at risk, all over country, not just in Rakhine State. In 1997, when we were leaving Hanoi, we travelled in Taungoo at a time that it had just suffered pogroms against Muslims. We drove through blackened villages. We saw town lots where some Muslim homes and businesses had been torched and burned to the ground, with some loss of life. By the time we arrived, those lots had been cleared and swept, leaving a telling residue of cinder and ash. The main mosque in the town was padlocked shut and remains so today, now overgrown with trees and brush. At that time, the suspicion was that those dressed as monks were not necessarily so, but were government agents. There has always been the suspicion that at times of financial stress and pressure on the government, outbreaks against Muslims are fomented to distract from government failure to deliver. The real identities of the “monks” were never revealed, proven, or disproven.
It was a sobering time in Taungoo. Naypwidaw was being built and there was considerable vigilance. The construction of the new capital required the military's wholesale removal of many upland Karen villages. The decision to protect, with significant use of landmines, the eastern flank of the construction site from Karen living in the eastern mountains led to much loss of life and limb, though the southernmost borders have always been troubled.
I was once part of a gathering in Taungoo of the Anglican community, with representatives from all over the world, including England and Malaysia. We foreigners were not allowed to go out into the village where the actual ceremony was being held because the military feared that we were spies. So we stayed in our guesthouses and tried to have a parallel event to the real one that was happening ten kilometers away.
Are you still cautious about how you speak about the communities you know in Burma?
Yes. I am influenced by an event toward the beginning of my visits there. The Episcopal Church presiding bishop at the time (1998), Edmund Browning, visited Burma. I was invited by the Myanmar Church's Archbishop, Andrew Mya Han, to join the visiting Episcopal Church delegation as a member experienced in both Myanmar and in its Anglican churches, as well as in the Episcopal Church, being an Episcopal priest, but decided to decline what was sure to be a very public situation. The visit included meetings with many leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. A young journalist from Columbia wrote a piece that was published in the New York Times, naming church leaders and reporting what they said, specifically criticisms of the military. Myanmar church leaders were upset to have statements attributed to them by name. That was how careful I had to be—the objective is not to put friends in the country at risk.
What is the line, in your view?
In my discussions with the office of religious affairs, the observation was that it was important not to cross the line between religion and politics. Crossing the line, that is, venturing into political matters, was clearly crossing the line.
What about the role of women in the communities where you worked? And in the church hierarchy itself?
Patriarchy is strong in Burma, and congregations have been reluctant to take women as pastors. But women are flocking to theological colleges. Of the 4,000 students enrolled in theological colleges run by mainstream Protestant churches, more than 50 per cent today are women. Interest in theological institutions has risen, at least in part in response to the government curbs imposed on secular colleges after pro-democracy student protests in 1988. The government relocated many secular colleges from cities to remote areas of the country and cut class hours back in an attempt to prevent students from uniting in further protests. In addition, students have been attracted to the new subjects many theological colleges have added to their curricula.
After military rule was imposed in 1962, the government nationalized all educational institutions. Those run by the churches, however, are not subjected to the same level of government scrutiny as secular ones. Graduates of the theological colleges are considered 'better educated' than their counterparts from government-run secular colleges.
Have you experienced tensions around proselytizing?
The Anglicans in Myanmar do not proselytize, but simply receive people who see the work of the churches in serving all people regardless of religion or ethnic background. An excellent example of this is the church-run preschools where all children are welcome. Even though non-Christian families know that the curriculum and educational songs sung in these school are Christian, the excellence of the programs and loving care of the children make them very desirable, so they are burgeoning all over the country.
How active are Anglican/Episcopal Church and its schools and hospitals?
Most dioceses have small medical clinics in their diocesan compounds and welcome anyone to come to them. However, all the hospitals that were founded and staffed by the British in their time have long been nationalized; it’s the same for the middle and high school