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Bridge in Myanmar

Mothers' Union in Myanmar

The Mothers' Union in The Diocese of Toungoo, in the Church of the
Province of Myanmar (formerly Burma)

06 Jan 2021

Historical Context

Myanmar is a Southeast Asian nation of more than 135 ethnic groups, bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand with a population of around 54 million. The Church of the Province of Myanmar is a member church of the Anglican Communion.  It was founded in 1970, has its headquarters in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and currently has around 70,000 members.  However, the Church of England has had a presence in Burma since the early 19th century, followed by many Missions over the years (including the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel from 1854).
There is mention of Mary, the wife of William Purser (a British missionary in Rangoon) beginning a support group among mothers in Kemmendine (west of the capital) in 1914.  Sadly all missionaries had to depart Burma in 1966, but it is recorded (in Wikipedia) that Daw Nelly was appointed the organiser of the Mothers’ Union at that time and their mission continued.  In 1973, the Mothers’ Union supported the commencement of the Samuel Project, which was to produce educated clergymen.  

MU in Toungoo

The Mothers’ Union in Toungoo was established in 1993 and now has around 3,400 members, with 87 branches in the 120 widely-scattered villages of the Diocese. Despite the significant distances between villages and the challenges of (the lack of) transportation, particularly during the annual monsoon season (June – October), the 75 or so leaders of the MU always manage to come together in Toungoo for their Annual Meeting (usually in February) when they establish and agree their priorities for the coming year.
Their current focus continues to be on training, whether it be for business, parenting, bible study, Anglicanism or health, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic (they have diligently been making masks and distributing soap, hand sanitisers and thermometers).  The leaders are trained and empowered to go back to their communities and share their knowledge with the villagers.

Joining a gathering in early 2020

2020 year was their 27th gathering and I had the privilege of joining them again, as I have done for the past couple of years. Through the generosity of friends and family in Hong Kong/UK and also the HK Chapter of Compass Rose, we have been able to donate some toiletries, gifts and necessities to them.
The President is Catherine (officially known as Nant Phyu Sabai Tun in Myanmar), wife of the current Bishop, Dr Saw Shee Sho and she assumed the role at the recent Annual Meeting.  Her mother is also a MU member and Catherine remembers, as a teenager, seeing her wear a dark blue longyi (sarong) with the MU logo embossed on it.  
After her mother attended any MU training (either led by The Diocese MU or overseas MU visitors), she always passed on the training to Catherine.  Once Catherine was married, she become an MU member too, and her mother passed her the dark blue MU longyi that she remembers so well!
Catherine’s predecessor was Elizabeth, wife of recently retired Bishop, the Right Reverend John Saw Wilme who had been at the helm for 25 years!  During that time they worked hard to develop a network and support structure.  It is a challenge having many of their members living far away from each other but luckily the development of mobile phone coverage around the country is making communications a little easier than it was, even 5 years ago! 

Lady Day Celebrations

Every March they celebrate Lady Day, when 500 - 800 ladies gather together. A host village is nominated and plans agreed as to how this number of visitors will be transported, accommodated and fed over the 3-day gathering.  The joy of sharing, learning, supporting, singing, dancing and praying is so important for this community.  You would think this would be a logistical nightmare but these ladies are brilliant organisers and are passionate about caring and finding ways to overcome adversity.
The Toungoo MU also liaises closely with other Diocesan Missions, for example:

-    Holding combined worship with the Men’s Association (at least 3 times a year)
-    Donating stationery to boarding hostel students (the Diocese has founded 6 hostels for around 150 students)
-    Awarding prizes and gifts to students who pass their Matriculation Exams
-    Supporting clergy widows, catechists (assistants to the priests, who live in the villages, with no stipend), St Peter’s Bible School students, the sick, elderly and those in need
-    For a few days every August, they have a prayer chain for overseas MU Partners 

Catherine feels so blessed that God granted her the opportunity to lead the Mothers’ Union in Toungoo. Ever since she has been a MU member, she has found that members have a strong spirit, and they actively participate in their local parishes. But she has also observed that there are certainly some challenges. 

Challenges for the future

The first challenge is that it is difficult to ask or persuade young mothers to participate in MU programmes. The second one is that practising for spiritual development is not sufficient. 

“We need to practice the faith and order of Anglican church in our daily lives and also must learn more about health, economics and politics in order to apply acquired knowledge in this modern age. This will not only help us to improve our parenting skills but also help us to achieve the MU’s missions more effectively and successfully”, says Catherine.
Whenever I have visited Toungoo and had the pleasure of spending time with MU members, I have never ceased to be amazed and inspired by their utter determination, genuine passion and complete faith. They are certain that by the will of God, they can work individually and collectively to improve the lives and hopes of the people of Toungoo, now and for the next generation.  
It is my absolute privilege to know some of the ‘Mothers in Myanmar’ and I am so happy to share my joy and passion with other MU members around the world.
Words by Debbie McGowan
Photo by Ban Yido on Unsplash