The following article was shared with the Institute by its author, Brother Javier Hansen, who is currently in the novitiate of the Christian Brothers in Chicago, Illinois. Brother Javi (SMC, class of 2013) and fellow novice, Brother Joseph Wright (SMC, class of 2012), spent the summer working in Myanmar.
A Reflection of the most memorable parts of my time in Myanmar
While I was living at Jeremy House, the regional postulancy (community of men testing the life of the Brothers) in Philadelphia, one of our many guest presentations was by a duo of Brothers who had spent a good amount of time in Africa. The point of this seminar was to introduce the idea of working in the missions. One thing stood out to me: when someone spends a significant amount of time in one place, especially doing missionary work, the country ceases to be a name on a map but a location to which the person develops a personal relationship. One of the two Brothers said he couldn’t read a news blurb of something happening in Africa and not feel for the people there. Our relationship to the whole world should be one in which we feel physically connected to everyone. This is how I felt when I left Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) this summer after a whole month of teaching English to the Aspirants (young men considering the Brothers) in that country.
The day before we boarded China Airlines for our final destination in Myanmar we had received the habit of the Brothers of the Christian Schools officially acknowledging our welcome into the Institute. Two days later we were walking the busy streets of the former Myanmar capital of Yangon in pouring rain learning Myanmar words with a couple of boarding students.
We arrived at the Brothers’ residence in Yangon, which was the former district headquarters for the Brothers in that country. The building now serves as a boarding house for students who attend the Brothers’ English and Business Learning Center and a residence for the Scholastics (student Brothers who have finished the Novitiate). When we first arrived the Scholastics were on a family visit. Our official ministry was going to be teaching the Aspirants who lived in a different city in the middle of the country.
We headed next to the Catholic cathedral where the cardinal lives and where the Brothers used to run a school. Now a small community of Brothers lives there. The cathedral is called Saint Mary’s and outside the large edifice is a recent monument commemorating the five hundred year presence of the Catholic Church in Myanmar. Another stop we made in Yangon was the Business and English Center. When we arrived we were steered to a classroom where we were left and told to have the students ask us questions. We ended up having a discussion on American politics and what qualities make a good teacher and then played a few rounds of Pictionary.
After two days the time had come for us to move from the comfort of this newly acquainted community to our new residence, a city in the middle of the country which we would reach after a ten-hour bus ride overnight. The bus was very luxurious and I was able to get lots of sleep but both Br. Joey Wright and I were in an odd state when we arrived at five in the morning in the town of Maymyo two hours northeast from Mandalay. Maymyo was up in the mountains and significantly cooler than Yangon. It was actually cold in the morning on some days! We were told our most important task while we were there would be to bond with the Aspirants, our future students, as much as possible.
In Maymyo, which is praised as an educational hub of sorts, the Brothers run a boarding house for students who come from different parts of the country to study. Across the street from the boarders is the former Novitiate of the Myanmar Brothers, which now serves as a house for the Aspirants we would be teaching. The Brothers in Myanmar have not been able to run their own schools for the last fifty years. In 1965, under the dictatorship of General Win, all foreign missionaries were asked to leave the country and the government repossessed all private schools. The schools are now known as government schools. The main apostolate of the Brothers is running boarding houses for students who would like to attend government schools in certain cities. In the boarding house program, the students have a place to sleep and eat, and they follow a regimented schedule that includes prayer, work, and mass. It was surprising to see how disciplined these students were. They all wanted to be in school and to receive the privilege of an education. We found the boarders to be very kind to the Brothers and hospitable to us.
After a week of teaching the Aspirants we were joined by another large group of students from a town called Kalaw (pronounced Color). These students made up another one of the Brothers’ ministries in Myanmar called the “Come and See” Program. Started a little over a decade ago, it is program where students who might be interested in the Brother’s life receive classes in English, religion and technology. There are about ten students every year.
There are many more stories to tell, but hopefully one can see that our adventures were well spent. We are extremely thankful to all who made this trip possible and I definitely do not think it was the last time I will visit Myanmar or the last time I will see the many friends we made.
What did the experience teach me about the Church?
This was my first time traveling to a different continent, though I have traveled to Mexico a dozen times. I knew we belonged to an international Church but it really did not resonate with me until visiting Myanmar. I was moved by the faith of the people in Myanmar. In a country where being Christian is not something to take for granted, I found a lot more personal devotion. The Church in Myanmar is celebrating more than 500 years of presence.
What did it teach me about the Brothers?
When we arrived in Myanmar, Br Joey was shocked to see the Brother who picked us up was wearing the same shirt as him: a 2011 Lasallian East Asia District shirt. I quickly realized that even though we are separated by a large ocean and many different cultural customs, I was interacting with Brothers very similar to the ones I had come to love in America.
What did it teach me about myself?
This trip taught me to reflect more on my personal journey. After hearing the stories of many young Brothers in that country, I was touched. Also, the role we had of forming what I hope will be future Brothers was very special. It made me have a lot more respect and awe for the work of my own Brothers who formed me.
What message would I like to send to students and alumni of Saint Mary’s?
I would say always be open to the opportunity to travel, especially to places that people rarely have opportunities to visit. When you visit somewhere for a good length of time you form life long relationships and a deep love for the place you visited. You will not be able to hear the name of the place and not feel for the people there.
Photos by Brother Javi Hansen.