Three years ago we were in Loikaw, a town in Kayah State in the east of Burma, chatting to Phillips. Phillips told us an extraordinary story.
In the 1870s his ancestors were working in the vegetable patch outside their house, when a pair of terrifying ogres approached: their faces were transparent and ghostly, they had long white beards and most frighteningly, no toes, just black stumps beneath their robes (...shoes!). They acted quickly, wielded their sickles and chased them into the pigsty. After watching them cautiously for a few days, they posted some bananas through the side of the sty, and were astonished to see the ogres peel them and eat them like humans. They let them out, heard what the ogre-missionaries had to say, and fast forward 150 years, there are over 3 million Christians in Burma (6% of the population).
This is a missionary from New Zealand called Thomas Rillstone, photographed with parishioners in Myitkyina in the 1960s. Myitkyina is in Kachin State, right up in the north of Burma. Most of Burma's Christians are in the more remote, rural regions, missionaries having found more sympathetic ears in the ethnic minorities than in the majority Buddhist population.
Burma's most famous missionary, an American called Adoniram Judson known as Sayar Judson (teacher Judson), had arrived in Burma in 1813, spoke fluent Burmese and translated the bible. Bible studies were therefore able to be a big part of the work of subsequent missionaries. This is John Kuhn with the Lisu tribe on the Chinese border in the 1940s, deep in a bible school session.
Being a missionary in Burma was a tough gig though. Many died from dysentery and pulmonary complications. The climate, diet, severe lifestyle and language barriers in remote areas proved a real struggle. Added to which, both missionaries and the Christian populations they fostered suffered from persistent persecution from the 1920s onwards, and particularly following independence in 1948. Any remaining missionaries were expelled in 1966.
Now accepted as part of the religious makeup of Burma, Christianity is enjoying a largely untroubled existence. The Pope even came for an official visit in 2017.
This is Bishop Sotero Phamo, the current Bishop of Loikaw. Loikaw was one of the last areas of Burma to open up to tourists just a few years ago and is enjoying a mostly peaceful period for the first time in recent history. Below is his beautiful church which will be alight for Christmas Eve tomorrow night.
And with that, we're signing off for the rest of the year! See you in 2021. There are lots of exciting plans on the chalk-board, and we can't wait to get going. But until then, feet up, fire on and pigs in blankets.