Choosing faraway places and love for the poorest are the characteristics of a community of Christians who live, as Pope Francis says, “at the ends of the earth”.
Fr Elizeo Hla is a small dark man with a permanent smile. He wears threadbare jeans and a cardigan of no particular colour. He wears his straw hat low over his suntanned face. He is standing outside the parish house with a rifle slung over his shoulder: the mid-day sun is scorching in Lonke, a small village in the mountains of the state of Shan, in eastern Myanmar. Life is hard here in the mountains, several hours journey from the nearest town. The priest has to fend for himself and a rifle can be a very useful weapon. He is a good hunter and the forest is full of prey. A wild fowl brings a special taste to the scant and unvaried food.
The Sisters live next to the parish and they, too, take advantage of the hunting skills of Elizeo. Today he brought back some wild fowl and Sister Dominic has prepared an excellent meal.
In Faraway Places
The Sisters of the local congregation of Zetaman have adopted the goal of being present in the most distant places. Mission and development are two closely connected concepts. Their journey is in the forefront of preaching “The Good News to the ends of the earth”.
In the nineties, the bishop of Taunggyi, Mgr Matthias U Shwe, invited some young women of the villages to bear witness to the faith by serving the poorest. He called them “Zetaman”, which means “messenger”. Today there are dozens of Sisters and Lay Missionaries scattered throughout the most remote places of Myanmar.
The bamboo hut where the Sisters live at Lonke have neither running water nor electricity. Even so, they call it their “convent”. The dining room is nothing more than a shack of wood en boards. For the children who take their meals of rice there, however, it must be a wonderful place. They are all orphans and they have been welcome d by the Sisters. They feel safe, protected and loved. They also have the chance to learn.
Sister Bibiana came to Lonke in 2002 when the parish of Saint Paul Manna had just been opened. “There were no roads then”, the religious Sister explains. “The bishop brought us here that first time”.
The Sisters live together with a group of orphan girls whom they care for. The Sisters often have to walk a day’s journey to bring the comfort of medicine and food to the sick.
Each evening, the wooded peaks of Palong are shrouded in fog only to emerge from the mist in all their glory the morning after. “Life in the countryside – says Sister Bibiana – has not yet been affected by the fast growth taking place in the great cities. The country way of life led by the indigenous peoples leaves them poor and simple. People live on what they can manage to glean from the land, laboriously cultivating it by hand: rice, maize, millet and some vegetables”.
Once a week, the Sisters have a meeting with Mary Phone and Lucia Hta, two lay missionaries who live about 20Km from Lonke, in a village of only 100 people. They belong to the Kayen ethnic group. “There is no water or electricity here either so we just sit in the dark”, says Mary.
The two women missionaries sleep on straw beds and the furniture of their house consists of a small, low table and a pedestal with a statue of Our Lady. Their rucksacks and clothes are in a corner; a few pictures of a singer grace the walls.
The only connection with the rest of the country is the road that runs close to the village and leads to Naypyidaw, the new capital that was built from scratch by the old military regime and still remains something far removed from the people and the country.
Traditionally, children would stay in the villages with the old people while the adults went to the fields. However, due to the presence of Mary and Lucia, the small local chapel has come to life. The two missionaries use it to gather the children and teach them. The children, from five to seven years of age, follow the lessons with great interest. Sometimes they may be distracted by their younger siblings but none of them would dream of missing school. For these little children, the school is a new and exhilarating experience and a real privilege. The government schools are too few and too far away and many children have never even seen one. They would be doomed to be illiterate without ever breaking out of the vicious circle of poverty and illiteracy. Like other generations of children before them, these will learn to survive one day at a time, struggling against hunger, malaria and other diseases caused by the damp.
The two missionaries teach mathematics, geography, music and history. They are aware that practice is more important than theory and that learning the basics of hygiene is essential.
“I like being with the children” says Mary, remembering the days she first came there. At first she felt lost and insecure but soon learned that the people there had a deep respect for her. Those who live in these villages lost in the mountains realise that the faith behind the options of the missionary women has a good influence, not only on their children but also on entire villages.