Journey to Thongwa
Thongwa is a rural township, located two hours by car from the heart of Yangon. You cannot find Thongwa on Lonely Planet.
I arrived in Myanmar on Saturday; I leave for Thongwa the next day. Once we finally get out of the jam-packed roads of Yangon, we drive past swathes of land. While cars are ubiquitous in Yangon, they are rare in the countryside. Bicycles and motorbikes, which are not allowed in the city, are much more common.
We pass by what seems to be a toll station, but we do not pay anything. “They collect money anywhere and everywhere,” my guide remarks.1
We also pass by people holding metal bowls, collecting money to build a pagoda. They seem to do this for a living.
On my return journey, my driver winds down his window, takes a few crumpled notes, and puts it into one of the bowls. I am reminded of a compelling defence of Nice Churches that Marc Barnes wrote: “The Church’s wealth comes from the poor.”
The Parish of Our Lady of Fatima
In Thongwa, I stay at the Parish of Our Lady of Fatima (the “Parish”). Unlike the Nice Churches of the West, the Parish has simple facilities. The assembly area is a patch of grass-trampled-into-sand in front of the main building. Class ‘rooms’ are any space that can hold tables and benches. Clothes dry on lines set up in an open area, beside a building where campers sleep on wooden boards. Two statues of Mary – Our Lady of Velankanni (Our Lady of Good Health) and Jeeva Matha (Our Lady of Expectation) – greet visitors.
Mass is celebrated in a hall on the second floor. The colours of the altar cloth and decorations are liturgical, the designs are cultural. Wooden plaques of the fourteen Stations adorn the walls. After every 5.30AM morning Mass, we turn to face each plaque as we pray the Stations of the Cross.
The congregation sits on a carpeted floor and blare out — roughly in tune — Tamil hymns. When I arrive in the late afternoon on Sunday, a part of the Mass is particularly rambunctious. I ask my guide what they are singing.
“The Creed,” he answers.
During Communion that Sunday, the congregation forms two lines facing one another, with an aisle in the center. The priests then go down the aisle, giving Jesus to the community.
This is a community comprising around 70 Tamil (mostly) families. Although the people in this community (and even their parents) were born in Myanmar, lived here all their lives, and speak Burmese (more fluently than Tamil, if they speak Tamil at all), they only hold a temporary citizen (green) card. Full citizenship is denied to them because of their ethnic ‘ancestry’.2
Out of these 70 families, only three live above the poverty line.
When we visit some of these families, we enter their wooden houses unnanounced. Later, the brothers who bring me around explain that if we had given prior notice that we were coming, our hosts would invariably prepare foodstuff for us. Whether it was tea, cakes, or even meat, they would spare little thought for their own expense to welcome their guests. Such is the extent of Burmese hospitality.
I think back to an occasion when one lady had insisted on offering us something to eat or drink. I had declined anything to eat, citing the excuse that we would be heading back to the Parish for dinner soon. But I had accepted tea. I had thought that it would be polite to accept something at least. I realise now why the brothers had been so apprehensive when I did — the lady would be giving from her two copper coins.
The Parish is run by Father Maria Soosai and Father Alexander Iruthayaraj. Both of them are protégés of one Father Singarayar, a diocesan priest whom the villagers venerate for his service to the people of Thongwa.
Beyond simply running a parish, Fr Singarayar had laboured for the poor in Thongwa. He had even built houses. Fr Soosai and Fr Alex, whose families still live in Thongwa, had been inspired by him, and subsequently, supported by him in their vocation journeys to become Servite priests.
Fr Singarayar passed away in 2010. His photo, alongside the Cardinal’s, hangs on the wall of the Parish’s side building and the walls of many homes, as testament to the many lives that Fr Singarayar had touched.
In 2012, the Archbishop of Yangon installed Fr Soosai as the parish priest for the Parish. Four years later, in 2016, Fr Alex joined Fr Soosai. They are supported also by several Servite nuns, who live in the Parish compound in a separate building.
The Servite Order, also known as the Order of Servants of Mary, is a mendicant order (like the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, etc). The members devote themselves to Mary, the Mother of Sorrows, adopting her virtues of hospitality and compassion as the order’s hallmarks.3
These virtues were on full display during the short time I was there.
When I arrive, Sister Christa goes into full-on grandmother mode, and tries to feed me – tea or coffee, snacks, fruits, sweet desserts – basically, everything that she has available. Over the next few meals, the fathers and sisters try to pry out all my food preferences. Every meal is abundant – in both amount and variety. Their normal fare cannot be this extravagant.
I learn also that I will be evicting Fr Soosai from his room. He gives me the key, asks for it whenever he needs to get something, and knocks on the door at 5.00AM to change into his vestments for Mass. It is the best room in the Parish compound – resplendent with a locked door, an electric fan, a proper bed, an attached toilet, a showerhead, and even a toilet bowl. I say this as sincerely and as gratefully as I can: this is luxury.
A Summer Camp for 100 Children
I am hardly the only beneficiary of Servite virtue.
During my stay in Thongwa, the Parish happens to be running a summer camp for children from around 10 to 16 years old. The camp lasts for 40 days, and its theme is ‘Rise & Shine’. A bulk of the program focuses on teaching the children Tamil and English.
When the Servites started this program in 2013, there were only 30 children. Now there are 100. Running the camp for this number of children costs US$170-200 per day. For a country whose meals in local restaurant cost around US$2-5,4 this expense is exorbitant.
But the Parish and the Servites bear such costs without complaint. Most of the children cannot afford to pay anything.
The children come from Thongwa and beyond. There are even some non-Christians living nearby who attend. The girls go home every day; the boys who live too far sleep in the Parish compound. These boys also do the chores. “This is life training,” Fr Soosai tells me.
Together with the Servite priests and sisters, a troop of pre-novitiate brothers facilitate and teach the children. These brothers have passed their 10th standard matriculation exams (equivalent to the O levels), and are now in college. If all goes well, they will then become Servite novices. The oldest among them is 21 years old.
From 5AM to 10PM everyday, the brothers accompany the children in a regimented schedule. There is a fixed time for Mass, for assembly, for classes, for presentations, for meals, for play, and even for physical training. The brothers take turn to lead yoga or static exercises. They also carry around a cane to enforce discipline. But the brothers’ affection for the children is obvious. And the children’s balance of studiousness during lessons and rowdiness during play suggests that such enforcement is very prudent.
Then again, the true discipline master is Fr Soosai. Although Fr Alex is the head of the camp, it is when Fr Soosai enters that there is a hush among the children.
Options for the Poor
“Evangelisation through education, no?” Fr Soosai points out over a cup of milk, referring to the vision of the camp.
In the afternoons, Thongwa (and actually, all of Myanmar) burns in a 40°C heat under a cloudless sky, so the priests and I retire to a nearby family’s home after lunch to drink milk and tea. I had asked a question about the temptation to be humanistic amidst such pressing social issues.
His answer is far from inane. When I take a class of ten girls for an English lesson, I ask them what they would like to be when they grow up. One wants to be an engineer, one wants to be a doctor, one wants to be a an artiste, two want to be teachers. The remaining five want to be nuns.
Later in the evening, during a visit to Br Arun’s house and family, I ask him and Br Anthony why they want to become priests. It is a question that gives them pause, but they reach the same conclusion: to help the people.
The day that I leave Thongwa, I tell the children during their mass assembly to feel free to ask me any question. The floodgates open. I tell them my age, my (former) occupation, my siblings’ age, my parents’ occupation, and more.
A boy asks the final question. He cannot be more than 14 years old.
“What is your…”
Fr Alex struggles to find the correct word in English.
“Life purpose,” a brother translates.
I am stumped. I rush to think of an answer that respects the realities of these people’s lives without patronising them, and yet one that accounts for my wariness towards activism, and also one that highlights the primacy of seeking God. I end up with a platitude: “To love God and to build His kingdom.”
But I am equivocating, and children can tell. So I amend my answer to something more honest: “I’m still figuring it out.”