Take off your shoes … Whether it was a rickety bamboo platform shelter in the midst of a Yangon slum, the stunning grounds of the golden Shwegadon Pagoda, the quiet hall where we spent days in meditation, or the platform of the Baptist church where we worshipped, this simple gesture of respect was a common entry ritual. It became second nature for the 11 Andover Newton students, faculty, and staff who voyaged to Myanmar in January on a Border Crossing seminar. The thresholds crossed carried us into Buddhist monasteries and Christian villages, ancient temples and modern political debates.
Almost exactly on the opposite side of the world from Boston’s winter, our group was welcomed with balmy skies and the warm hospitality of Andover Newton graduates Maung Maung Yin (DMin ’02) and Soe Thiha (STM ’02), leaders at the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) and the Pwo Kayin Seminary. Over 15 intense days, we explored Buddhist practice and tradition, Buddhist-Christian dialogue, theological education, and the role of Christian and ethnic minorities in the emerging Myanmar democracy.
MIT faculty member Mana Tun travelled with us. He became a 12th member of our group, making our bus rides and meals a rolling seminar on everything from how to wear a longyi to the continuing tensions between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s newly elected party. At the Judson Center for Peace Studies at MIT, we discussed the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya community that is a current flashpoint within Myanmar, as well as the peace process that attempts to resolve the multiple civil wars that have raged in parts of the country over decades.
We were inspired to see the work being carried out by churches and seminaries: a free medical clinic, a school for Yangon’s poorest children, a growing university program to provide an education that a shattered governmental system cannot yet offer. We were equally impressed by the socially engaged Buddhism we encountered in our stay in a monastery that has built a thriving village school system, fostered interfaith discussion and respect, and developed a new, ecologically sensitive management of its beautiful forest lands. We were challenged by our days in the retreat center, with walking and sitting meditation and an introduction to the traditional practices that are so precious to the Buddhists of Myanmar.
It was deeply appropriate that we took off our shoes at so many entrances along this journey. For we stood often on holy ground, experiencing the presence of God’s spirit in our little community of learning and support, and meeting it just as powerfully in the grace and wisdom of those who taught and cared for us along the way.
Who went? Diana Smith, Marty Pelham, Nancy Lois, Ron Baard, Gloria Cater, Shelly Moses, Mary Canavan, Rose Nilson, Patricia Boyle Wight, and Melissa and Mark Heim. Brita Gill-Austern, the head of the Border Crossing program, took a leading role in planning this trip and was with us every step of the way in spirit.