Melbourne Immanuel Baptist Church meets in Bayswater on Saturday evening and Heathmont on Sunday afternoon. Its 400 or so members are from Myanmar.
Also known as Burma, Myanmar is a mountainous Southeast Asian state, sharing several borders with China, as well as Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India. For many decades it was ruled by an oppressive military regime, which handed over power to a civilian government in 2011. The Burmese people are made up of approximately 135 different ethnic groups, who speak their own languages or dialects. The congregation of Melbourne Immanuel Baptist Church are Chin. Most came to Australia as migrants or refugees. The church has a few international students as well.
Like other churches, Melbourne Immanuel Baptist Church has moved their services online. Pastor Kam, the main church pastor, reflects that it has been challenging operating remotely because they lack knowledge in the area of technology. For them, “live streaming is very new” so preparing the services “takes a long time.” They are persevering because they don’t really have another option, even though they are finding few and fewer watching the live stream each week.
The lockdown has had quite a big impact on members of the church because gatherings are such an important part of Burmese culture. “Whatever we do we do together,” Pastor Kam said. “We are in love with meeting together. We gather during times of happiness, we gather during bereavement, we gather to worship…” Now, “the people are lonely. They miss their friends, they miss their church service,” he said. The COVID-19 situation has really highlighted for them how valuable meeting together is.
The lockdown is also affecting the church’s leadership team, a group made up of the two pastors (one full time, one part-time), 12 deacons and 18 committee members. Usually, they would meet together to make decisions for the church but they are reliant on Zoom for the moment. Some of the leadership team had never used Zoom before the lockdown. They have had to reduce decision making to only six office bearers to make the remote meetings a bit easier to manage.
As a leader, Pastor Kam has been working closely with the church community to support and encourage them to follow the government guidelines on gatherings. It has been a struggle for many, Pastor Kam mentioned, especially having come from a country where they had lived under oppressive conditions.
One of the positive things to come from the lockdown is that the church’s funds are in surplus. Most of the congregation are still in work, in factories or in aged-care, so they haven’t faced the widespread job losses many communities have experienced. Their membership has also grown in past months, in part from a spate of congregational births. Since their activities have decreased, the church is using the time to pray more and to draw closer to God.
Families are also taking the opportunity provided by the lockdown to read the bible in their own language and to develop their own spiritual routines at home. Pastor Kam says the leadership team were very worried about having to put on hold their Sunday school program. Sunday school is a place where they not only teach the children about God but also teach their culture and language. Parents feared that since they cannot meet the children will start to lose their connection to their culture, especially since most of the kids prefer to communicate in English. “Since we started life here as migrants, we are worried they will forget our culture, forget our language. This is also the reason for our children’s ministry,” said Pastor Kam. He wonders whether the children will want to come back once restrictions are lifted.