CLAY YOUTH CENTRE is situated in the Diocese of Myitkyana, which in turn is in the most northern part of Myanmar, in the Kachin State. The Centre is committed to Youth Ministry and to sharing our Columban missionary spirit. I would like to introduce my friends who are working with me in this ministry by calling each one by name: Pan Aung, Dominic, Ah Dee, Columban, Rosa, Seng Hkawn, Elis, Seng Pan, Ja Dim, Nan Htoi, Ja Ja, Roi Hkowng, Ze Naw, and Mong Myit Tu. Many of these friends have been working in CLAY CENTRE since it was formed six years ago. Before that they were faithful volunteers in youth activities in the diocese.
Every month we in CLAY YOUTH CENTRE organise some training or activity for the young people of Myitkyana diocese. This is done especially during the months of March and April which is the time for the summer school vacation here in Myanmar and so is a good opportunity for us to meet many of the young people in the summer camps which are held in the various parishes of the diocese. We call this our Summer Outreach Program. Among the topics shared with the different groups are Creative Liturgy, Hygiene, Awareness of the dangers of Drugs and HIV/AIDS, Ecology, Creative Drama, Leadership, and Personal Development. Last year, 2014, we had eleven of these programs in nine parishes in the diocese, during which we met more than three thousand youth and children. We divided into three groups so that we could reach more areas. We were very happy too that we could go to places further away from the Centre, something we could not do the previous years because of the civil war situation. Even still it was difficult to travel to some of the outlying areas. This was largely due to lack of public infrastructure, on-going political conflict, as well as navigating dangerous routes through the jungle, or coping with unseen currents in the rivers. These hazards had made it extremely difficult for the young people in these areas to join in our sessions in the Centre and this was one of the main reasons we wanted to go out to meet them in their own parishes.
The first group went to one of the camps for internally displaced people (IDP) called Laizar, which is near the border with China. There they met with one hundred and fifty participants aged from three to seventy-three. The area where the camp was situated had been torn by Civil War and thus there were many refugees. The group were pleasantly surprised by the response of the people in the IDP. Despite the range of ages, all participated. While they were in Laizar another IDP camp heard they were there and sent word asking that they be given time as well. Obviously this had not been planned and time was scarce, but the group was willing to go to them, at least to meet them, as they knew that IDP camps did not often get this opportunity. Indeed so eager were they to benefit from the visit that they braved a very strong storm one night to attend the night session. Indeed the staff of CLAY were very touched by their faithfulness and by their desire to learn.
The second group, of which I was a member, went to a faraway mountain area which took two days to reach by a small wooden boat, travelling against the Irrawaddy river-flow. This area is under the control of the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) which is at war with the Burmese Government at the moment. It was a big risk to travel at this time due to the low water level in the river, and my companions took an even bigger risk bringing this naïve foreigner with them and having to negotiate with both the Burmese and the Kachin army check points. By the grace of God we reached the place safely, where we were expecting to have about eighty participants. Instead the number had reached two hundred and ten by the end of the first day. Many of these young people came from a faraway mountain area which for most of them involved a two-day journey walking through the jungle.
Rather than say: “Go back home, we have no space for you”, the Camp Committee started to build more bamboo huts to accommodate them. It was important that we do this as the summer camp is not available every year in this remote area and it might be some time before they would have the opportunity again. Indeed most of these people have very limited access to water, electricity, not to mention education and social communication. There was not enough space for group work and the session hall was like a “steam pot”, but we had a great time with them. As we wanted to introduce them to Taize prayer, we made a big Cross and candle decorations with bamboo. It was pitch dark as we lit the candles one by one, One of our staff led the prayer, as the beautiful Kachin Taize songs were carried up into the night sky. We continued this for two more nights.
The third group from CLAY went to a mining area. Most of the mining areas in Kachin State have problems with the use of intravenous drugs which in turn leads to HIV/AIDS infection. But, despite this, many young people want to go there because they can earn big money. Because of this situation, our group wanted to stress the value of life and the importance of making the right choices in life. Ecology was also a topic on the agenda. It was difficult to lead discussions in the camp but they did their best to encourage the young people. Their task was made even more difficult as every night during the sessions there was gunfire all around the camp. To the sound of the guns they said the creative rosary together, praying for peace in Kachin State and for the many young people who by falling victims to drug abuse have lost their dreams of a future.
Back in the centre in Myitkyana town, members of the staff of CLAY YOUTH CENTRE who had remained there during summer, were invited as resource persons to many of the summer camps in the local parishes. Among these was a Music Training course in the Center which was attended by seventy participants. Indeed we were so busy we hardly saw each other during that whole time. However we felt that we were very closely united in prayer.
At the end of the Summer Outreach Program we took time out for evaluation and reflection on our experiences in each of the areas we visited. I was very much impressed by the sharing and by the missionary spirit that was evident among the staff. It was very honest sharing too. For some, even though the risk at the beginning was daunting, they were very happy that they had taken that risk. They had learned a lot and many of them expressed how their faith in God had been renewed. We smiled as we looked at the colour of each other’s skin and how it had become ‘weather beaten’. We were tired physically, but in spirit we were full of enthusiasm for mission. We were affirmed in what we had to offer and were happy that as members of CLAY YOUTH CENTER, we had a vision and a passion for youth. For next year’s outreach program, we have prioritized faraway and marginalised groups where, because of dangerous travel and difficult living conditions, very few other Church groups go. These are our places to go. These people represent Jesus who is waiting for us.
We offer our joy, fear, gratitude, difficulty, enthusiasm and buckets of perspiration, to God who is among us and gives us strength to grow in his love.
By Sr. Enda Im, missioned in Myanmar since 2012 up to the present.