Young Evangelists in Mountain Village of Myanmar – Mary Yuen
25 September, 2005 Climbing mountains, crossing rivers, providing informal education to village children; sharing faith and teaching children catechism; taking care of the sick…all these are common experiences of the five young zetamans sitting in front of me and the zetaman sisters (the word “zetaman” is Burmese, meaning sending the apostles or serving others).
In spite of the young age of these lay zetamans who are in their 20s, they have already served in the village for two to three years. Some of them just came back from village, after taking a break they will go back to the village again. Some have finished their term of service and decided to join the zetaman sisters after discerning their callings. Although they serve in different places, they are asked to join a short course on Bible, English, basic computer skill and health care being conducted by five of us from Hong Kong in the Zetaman sisters Formation Center in Taunggyi in August 2005. Thus, I have the chance to know them, learning their stories and experiences of meeting God.
Follow Jesus and Do Some Small Things for the Poorest
Serving others requires skill and knowledge. Thus, all zetamans have to attend a three-month course before starting evangelization. They need to learn bible, catechism, music, basic health care knowledge and how to take care of the sick. However, going to a place far away from home and living with the villagers who are strangers to them demonstrate that these zetamans are not merely volunteers or social workers. Willing to serving in the village for years cannot just depend on sudden and temporary passion or emotion, although sometimes it is a must. What motivates them is the strong sense of mission, following Jesus and living with the poor, and bringing Jesus’ love to others.
“I want to spread the good news to the poor like Jesus,” Jeromena said firmly. “In order to do God’s way, I have to become a follower of Jesus,” Stella, another zetaman in her early 20s said. Agatha who has been working in a village in Loikow shows her eagerness to share knowledge and faith with children in village who do not have chance to receive formal education. Some years ago, Sr. Bibiana, the superior of the formation centre, even escaped from home and walked to the Zetaman Centre in Mobye for two days, in the hope of fulfilling her wish in serving the poor. “My wish is very simple, that is to serve the church, to do some small things to the poorest.” Although this wish looks simple and small, without firm conviction and strong will, no one can imagine that this eloquent sister was a “rebel” and insist to achieve her goal in spite of the objection of her parents.
Along the Border of Life and Death
Full of passion and faith do not necessarily mean everything goes smooth. Like ordinary people, the zetamans have experienced many difficulties and frustration. Geographically, Taunggyi Diocese is vast in scope, many villages are located in isolated areas. Although zetamans usually station in one place, they have to visit various nearby villages too. Nearby villages may require one to walk several hours to half a day. In rainy season, it is more risky as the zetamans need to walk on slippery trails of the mountains. Several zetamans said that they fell down several times when traveling from village to another. Another one said she and her partner were almost drown when water level rose suddenly when they crossed a river. She still felt scary when sharing this experience. Luckily they got over it.
Many zetamans got malaria when they worked in villages. With the lack of medicine and appropriate care, some were sick for months and some cannot get totally cured. They are still suffering from it and get sick from time to time. In fact, this is an unavoidable experience to almost every zetaman. In the past, eight zetamans died of malaria during their service. One can see how risky it is to serve in village.
Apart from natural risk and illness, zetamans have to lead a harsh life. When they decided to join the zetaman program, they already know they have to live with villagers in poor condition, thus, sometimes they may not have enough food to eat. However, they do not bring money but only some medicine with them, hoping to lead the same life as the villagers no matter it’s happy or difficult. However, reality may not be the same as what one wishes. A zetaman shared with me an unhappy experience. In the village where she served, villagers hope that the zetamans could take care of the sick and the children. However, when the zetamans got sick and had nothing to eat, the villagers refused to help. She was so sad, frustrated and disappointed at that time. What she could do was to comfort herself, thinking that as a servant of God and follower of Christ, she must insist and continue the service.
Myanmar is a Buddhist country with a majority of the population as Buddhists. Many of them are kind and friendly to the zetamans. However, some of them are hostile. In the village where Sr. Bibiana worked for two years, she experienced two small bombings and once being attacked by a guy with a knife in hand in the house where the zetamans lived. They felt so frightened and dare not went out alone and late at night.
Prayers give Strength to Face All Difficulties
Another difficulty is language problem. There are many tribes in Taunggyi, speaking different dialects. When zetamans first arrive the villages, they may not fully understand the villagers and take time to learn how to communicate with them and know their needs. Furthermore, children are sometimes distracted from learning and being disturbed by the noisy environment. Newly baptized adults do not understand the teachings of the Church and zetamans must explain to them patiently. Vicentiate, one of the zetaman said that sometimes she cries when facing these difficulties. Since she lived alone when serving in the village, sometimes she felt lonely and sad. During this time, she would told herself she need to be patience and asked for God’s help. Jeromena always use the words of the bishop when sending her to evangelize to encourage herself, that is, never give up and pray hard. Sr. Bibiana also stressed that prayer gives her strength to face whatever difficulties.
Every Christian knows the importance of prayer, but in times of concrete difficulties, sometimes one may have doubt and feel weak. However, because of faith and the mission of serving others in mind, most zetamans put everything in God’s hand and can overcome difficulties one by one.
In fact, although the zetamans face difficult kinds of difficulty, they all love their service in village very much. Joy is much more than worry or sadness in the mission of evangelization. This is especially true when they meet kind and friendly villagers, willing to share a little bit food with them; live in harmony with Buddhists and even sing Christmas carol together; pray, study and share with children in villages…all these vitalize their life of evangelization and bring joyful hope to them. This in turn strengthens their desire of sharing faith and love with others.
Bearing Witness Through Action, Integrating Prayer with Moral Life
After hearing the sharing of these zetamans and zetaman sisters, I am deeply impressed by and admire their strong faith and sense of mission. They are not just young girls sitting in front of me, but courageous evangelists and witnesses of Christ. They practice their faith through bearing witness amidst the poor villagers, especially helping children to develop and taking care of the sick. They transform their faith through action, spreading the power of prayer through sharing the treasure of faith. This is exactly the objective of the lay zetaman program and zetaman sisters: evangelization and total human development, that is, to work for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the people, especially the poor, the sick and the marginalized so that they may live a full and decent life as human being here and to attain salvation hereafter. This makes me understand the in-depth meaning of the motto of the lay zetaman program more: go into the deep (Luke 5:4), to serve and to bear witness of the love of God through simple and humble ordinary acts among the Buddhists and pagans. Although we stayed with these young zetamans for only two weeks, all five of us agree that they are serious and sincere in learning and sharing. I think this attitude is highly related to their eagerness in sharing faith with others. No matter in time of learning, sharing, playing games, watching movies, singing and dancing, they involve their whole self wholeheartedly. This touches me deeply.
They are still very young and their path of life is long. They still have lots of things to learn but their life experiences are extraordinary. This deserve us who used to the living style of Hong Kong and take material goods for granted to learn from them, especially their willingness to share, abandoning everything and following the footsteps of Jesus to serve the poorest and the marginalized. From their face, I see the face of Jesus!
Notes: The Lay Zetaman Program was started by Fr. Sotero and Fr. Matthias (now they are bishops) of the Taunggyi Diocese in 1987 (now it is divided into Taunggyi and Lailow dioceses). At that time, they observed that with the vast area of the diocese, priests and nuns might not be able to go into every corner. Thus, they wanted to recruit young people as evangelists to contact and serve the villagers. In 1987, they started the recruitment and gave the name of “zetaman” in 1988, meaning sending the apostles. There were 12 young evangelists for the first batch and then the numbers increase gradually. In 1996, there are about 180 zetamans. At that time, some lay zetamans requested Bishop Matthias to set up a religious congregations for them so that they can devote their life totally to God. Finally, the bishop approved and chose seven from the thirty or more applicants. Sr. Bibiana is one of the first batch of zetaman sisters and will profess her final vow on October 5, 2005.
(Last modified: 07-02-2020)