The coronavirus was first found in Wuhan, China, in November and December 2019. Since then, it has been transmitted to millions of people and killed millions of lives. In Myanmar, more than 130,000 people tested positive for the virus and more than 3,000 people died of it. On February 1, 2021, the military seized power and detained U Win Myint (the democratically-elected president) and Aung San Suu Kyi. More than 800 peaceful protesters have been killed, and more than 3,000 students, professors, teachers, doctors, and artists have been detained. Thousands of professors, physicians, and teachers who participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) were terminated from their jobs. People now suffer from both COVID-19 and military dictatorship. How should Christian churches in Myanmar respond?
CHURCHES DURING THE PANDEMIC
Churches in Myanmar struggle for their survival spiritually, economically, and socially. Christians cannot worship in churches because churches are closed to prevent the infection and transmission of the virus. They follow social distancing disciplines. Some Christian families worship in their homes. Some do not worship at all. Pastors visited their houses and administered the Lord’s Supper.
In Myanmar, a few pastors and evangelists defied the rules and disciplines and conducted a worship service that resulted in the transmission of the coronavirus to about fifty persons. For this disobedience, they were sued in court. Some rejected quarantine disciplines because they were ashamed of being affected and being quarantined. Some disliked being quarantined and being isolated because they believed they were not affected. Some felt that exposing their illness caused their family shame and a loss of honor.
During the Christmas season, some villages celebrated Christmas as usual while in city churches celebrations were muted. Last year, the Christmas celebration was a family Christmas. Before COVID-19, Christians celebrated Christmas at churches and had community meals together. But in 2020, Christians who celebrated Christmas shared packed lunches they brought to their homes and ate as a family. It was a difficult time for large fellowship gatherings.
Christian youth led by the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC) served at quarantine centers as volunteers. It was the Gospel in action shown to the community. Christians also served food to quarantine centers in Phaung Gyi and North Okalapa Hospital. Young people did not hesitate to work in these centers and hospitals. On April 27, 2020, the Myanmar Council of churches teamed up with a volunteer group. Many young people registered to serve. On May 19, 2020, youth from the Roman Catholic Church and other churches joined the volunteer team. In Pyay, churches provided food to people living in quarantine centers. Local churches donated masks, food, and other items to people who were affected.
From March to May 2020, the churches were closed. In June and July 2020, churches, Christian organizations and theological institutions realized that it was impossible to wait for the COVID-19 vaccine. They started to hold worship services, meetings, seminary training, and school classes via platforms like Zoom and Facebook Live. They also collected offerings in Zoom worship services. Online worship services became our spiritual practice and channel.
THE MILITARY COUP
However, on February 1, 2021, the military seized power and detained the president, ministers, and some political activists. They cut off internet connectivity and banned Facebook and Messenger. Churches could not hold online worship programs or gather via Facebook Live. Online classes and worship were interrupted. On February 3, the military junta allowed access to the internet only to cut it off again. On February 6, while I was teaching my students, just before it occurred, a message was received saying, “Military juntas would cut off the internet connectivity.” Many theological institutions and Christian churches (Roman Catholic Church, Myanmar Baptist Convention) released statements condemning the seizure of power and the military coup, but some were silent. As of now, we do not know how church gatherings and theological training will look going forward.
SPIRITUALITY IN THE CONTEXT OF COVID-19
Spirituality is a huge concept that can embrace many perspectives. It can be defined as the “motivating force driving people for religious quest, ethical activities, psychological wellness and even social transformation.” Another definition is related to people’s “thoughts and beliefs, rather than with their bodies and physical surroundings.” The last definition means a way of life.
“The ascetics pray for God’s forgiveness and transformation of the society. They practice ascetic life to heal the community spiritually. Ascetics are compassionate and empathic. We set ourselves aside in a peaceful attitude looking to God for guidance, understanding and acceptance. We do our best to love and recognize others, to see the likeness of God in them, learning to tolerate, even to accept, them in compassion. Prayer and silence are always inclusive; they never act divisively or exclusionary.”
St. Gregory the Great I (590-604) gave all his properties to the poor and practiced ascetic life. Later he became the pope of Rome and took on the role to repair the city. In his time, Rome faced “flood, food shortage, and plague. He provided food to the poor.” Despite being monastic and ascetic, they served the community. Epidemic context requires social isolation as much as it does in taking care of the sick. Isolation or staying home is a way of life in fighting against the coronavirus. The purpose of social distancing is to protect the community from the virus. Ascetic way of life supports social distancing disciplines when it serves the community in whatever way possible.
SPIRITUALITY AFTER FEBRUARY 1, 2021
Spirituality of churches and Christian organizations in February was evidenced by public demonstrations of protest and prayer for political stability. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of the Roman Catholic Church called for a peaceful transition of power, nonviolence movement, and for the release of President Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi. Some churches prayed for change in the country. Many families held worship every night specifically for this situation, praying for the release of the president and all the political prisoners.
Thereafter, every night after family worship service, we joined the taan–pone–tee (beating drum plates and trays) campaign, which traditionally signifies casting devils and demons. This also sent out the message and implied the belief of the protestors that the military dictator Min Aung Hlaing, who governs the military and caused the coup, is controlled by demons and devils. At our home, we too beat drums and trays at 8:00 p.m. to cast out devils. In other cities like Yangon and Mandalay, many Christian young people participated in demonstrating against the military coup and joined the people movement. I participated in it, and I saw some Christians join the demonstration in my city. This became one of our wider ecumenical movements in Myanmar.
As Christians, we need to pray to God for our country, and we also should be aware that obeying quarantine and social distancing rules is an expression of prayer and worship. At the same time, they need to participate in the movement of protest. We pray not only for COVID-19 patients, physicians, and nurses but also for political stability. Under the military coup, no longer could worship be conducted online. Instead, the family became the center for worship service. These are ways through which Christians are keeping their spirituality during COVID-19 and political instability.
Our future looks dark. We are like the person who is walking in darkness without any light. We do not know what the future will look like, but God is our hope, light, and refuge. Please pray for us and for our country.
 They Irrawaddy, “Myanmar Pastors Face Prosecution for Defying Ban on Religious Gatherings Amid COVID-19, The Irrawaddy, https://www.irrawaddy.com/specials/myanmar-covid-19/myanmar-pastors-face-prosecution-defying-ban-religious-gatherings-amid-covid-19.html.
 Description of International Conference on Spiritual Leadership and Social Transformation, Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Joint program of Asia Academy of Practical Theology, Divinity School of Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
 “Spiritual” Collins Coubuild Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, New 8th Edition.
 Norris J. Chumley, “The Compelling Spiritual Discipline of Asceticism,” Dec 06, 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-value-of-asceticism-t_b_806700. Chumley, is a bestselling author, Emmy award-winning executive producer/director, and professor. He has recently completed a feature film and book, “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer.”
 A Concise History of Christianity, 111-112.
For Reflection and Discussion:
- What benefits are there to families for homes to become the “center for worship”?
- The author sees the observance of quarantines and social distancing as expression of worships. What are your thoughts on this supposition?
- How will you stand together with the people of Myanmar in prayer at this critical time? Resources are available at BaptistWorld.org/myanmar.