By Linda Ong
It took 16 years and the contribution of almost all its worshippers, but Myanmar Baptist Church now has a home of its own. Since its establishment in 1995, the congregation rented a Briarwood church in Queens. Three months ago, the congregation bought a three-story church on 78th St. in Glendale after years of saving donations.
“We are only 16 years old, and by God’s Grace, we got our own church,” said Rev. U. Myo Maw. “I am quite happy and I thank God for that.”
Minutes before a recent Sunday service began, the wooden pews of the small, rectangular church are almost full- around 100 people patiently sit as more continue to file in. As they search for a seat, the parishioners walk down the red-carpeted aisle that leads to the podium and stare at the brightly-colored stained glass windows that border the high wooden ceiling.
The new church and its decor is something that parishioners are still getting used to. The original church the congregation rented in Briarwood was much simpler in design, with low-wooden ceilings and little decor. In 1995, a group of pastors from Myanmar came to New York City to help establish the church. Since then, it has served as the primary place of worship for Burmese Christians throughout the city.
Woven in and out of the three-hour service, the parishioners sing “ghee-ma-yanh-uh-loe-tai-cun,” “jae-zu-shin-er-chin-oe-e-thu-doe-daw-shin,” and other lines from Burmese hymns of praise. Dressed in their Sunday bests, a mix of modern American clothing and the traditional Burmese costume, the longyi, they stand tall and sing joyously. As the hymns resonate across the room, the parishioners sway back and forth to the harmony coming from the keyboard piano, with their eyes closed, arms raised, and their palms open and facing the Heavens.
Three psalms and a sermon later, the congregation falls silent as they celebrate Communion. First, they quietly consume dime-sized biscuits, representing the body of Jesus Christ, and then a tiny cup of grape juice, symbolizing the blood of Christ.
Twenty-six-year-old Michelle M. Bacon, who comes to the church once a month says the church is important for Burmese immigrants.
“Newcomers, especially those from Burma, have communication problems when they come here,” she said. Bacon said that many new Burmese immigrants have difficulty learning English, since many have only spoken their native language of Burmese in Myanmar. This language barrier, alongside culture differences between Myanmar and America, leads many to seek comfort in Burmese communities, like that of Myanmar Baptist Church, to help adapt to life in America.
“A lot of people come here just because they know ‘there’s this one church in New York City with Burmese speakers, so we can go there,’” said Bacon.
According to the 2009 American Community Survey, there are approximately 5,400 Burmese immigrants living in New York City. While most of this population is Buddhist, Maw estimated that around 350 are Christian. Maw said that having a permanent church for the growing presence of Burmese Christians is vital.
“They need our spiritual help, they need our assistance,” said Reverend U. Myo Maw, the Pastor of the congregation. “They need our church.”
There are five Burmese temples located throughout Brooklyn and Queens, while Myanmar Baptist Church is the only Burmese church in New York. Maw said that the size of local Burmese Christians causes this disparity.
“We still have a small number of Burmese Christians in the area,” he said. Maw said that the size of local Burmese Christians, alone, makes it inefficient and unnecessary to build more churches in New York. “In other cities in the United States, this is also the case, yet they have three to four churches, some with only a 20 followers each. That is not right.”
Many Burmese Buddhists and Christians, alike, compare the religious freedom in America to the oppression faced by Christians and other minority religions in their home country.
Venerable Ashin Indaka, the chief monk at the Universal Peace Buddha Temple in Brooklyn, said that religion is Myanmar is a complicated issue.
“Burma is a Buddhist country and even there monks are killed,” said Indaka. “It’s not about if you are a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu- it’s about the government wanting control. It will take a long time to solve this.”
Recently, the U.S. State Department re-enlisted Myanmar as one of “countries of particular concern,” which condemns Myanmar’s restrictions on religious expression, association, and assembly.
Twenty-two-year-old Ye Wint, the youth group leader at the church, was born in Myanmar but spent most of his childhood in the U.S. Wint said that religious freedom is a privilege he never forgets.
“I think we shouldn’t take this freedom for granted,” he said. “What’s happening in Burma makes me really sad. It makes me wish I could do more to help.”
Many parishioners have focused their efforts towards not only to praying for those in need, but also to helping their community. Bacon said that when she first moved to New York five years ago, the church’s informal network helped her to adjust to life in America.
“The fellowship and youth group invited and welcomed me,” she said. “They helped me with going to school and going to different places… So, for newcomers, it’s basically the foundation of how to build up your life.”
For younger generations, like Wint, coming to church is more than just a way to practice his faith- it’s also to stay connected to his roots.
“Growing up in the states, I never really got to know Burmese culture, truly,” he said. “This is a way for me to keep in touch with that.”
For Maw, seeing younger generations connect culture and religion makes it all worthwhile. Maw said he hopes the new location will draw in more Burmese Christians and that he doesn’t have plans to expand the church any time soon.
“I think it is good for us to be one Burmese church in New York right now,” he said. “It’s in the hands of God.”