At one point during her high school years in Mandeville, Louisiana, Grace Dumdaw was attending three church services every Sunday. There was the morning service at First Baptist Church, the main church in town where most of her friends went. Then there was the afternoon service at the Burmese Baptist Church, where Christians of various ethnic minorities from Myanmar gathered. And then there was the evening service at the Canaan Kachin Baptist Church, founded by her parents in 2011, which began at 8 p.m. and lasted until 11 p.m. every week.
“It was a lot of church,” said Dumdaw, who moved to the United States from Myanmar as a child and is currently a sophomore at Swarthmore College. Eventually she had to choose from among the three churches. Or, more accurately, between the other two. “It was mandatory that I went to Kachin church with my parents. I was the only one there my age and had nobody to sit with, but church is where you connect to the community and learn the language.”
The services at Canaan are largely held in Jinghpaw, the lingua franca of Kachin State in northern Myanmar, and include Jinghpaw translations of the American hymns first taught to the Kachin people in the early 1900s, not long after American Baptist missionaries arrived in their homeland. These hymns continue to form a core part of all Kachin Baptist services, both among the 30-plus Kachin churches in the U.S. today, and the Kachin Baptist churches in Myanmar, where more than 90 percent of the roughly one million Kachin identify as Christian. For Dumdaw, Canaan was about committing to her ethnic heritage, and First Baptist Church was about growing in her Christian life.
As more Kachin people emigrate to the U.S., spurred on by growing hostilities in Myanmar, new questions have begun to emerge about Kachin identity and Christian faith. As an oppressed minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, Kachins often view being Christian as part of what makes them Kachin, like their language, traditional fabrics, and ritual manau dance. Now, as they settle in Christian-majority states like Texas and Florida, many Kachin Americans are considering anew what it means to be Kachin outside of the church, and how to pass on their ethnic heritage outside of the homeland.
AS A SMALL ETHNIC MINORITY in Myanmar, also known as Burma, the Kachin people have a reputation for military prowess, ongoing armed resistance to the Burmese military, and unusually close-knit social ties. The Kachin fought alongside the allies in World War II, where they were formally recognized by the U.S. military for their bravery in guerilla warfare. Historically, they practiced animism, organized around ancestor worship and local lore, and there remain pockets of animist communities in the modern Kachin State.
In the late-1800s, the American Baptist Missionary Union began in earnest to target the Kachin people, sending the Rev. William Henry Roberts to lay the groundwork in 1878 (he succeeded his predecessor, who had died from an illness a month after arriving). Roberts remained until 1913, founding a Kachin School and reaching remote villages. In 1890, he was joined by the Rev. Ola Hanson, who remained for 37 years, and then in 1892 by the Rev. George J. Geis, who remained until his death in 1936. By 1895, Hanson had created a written system of Jinghpaw based on Roman letters, which he used to translate the Bible—a process he finished in 1927—and which remains the alphabet of Kachin, which until then had no written alphabet. Hanson also translated scores of hymns, which are still used in worship services.
The spread of Christianity was swift, once the missionaries gained a foothold: The Kachin are considered to have had the highest conversion rate of any group in Southeast Asia. The success of these missionaries, their wives, and others who joined them cemented the centrality of the Baptist tradition among the Kachin, though other Christian groups, especially the Catholic Church, established their own churches and schools in the area by the 1930s.
Meanwhile, the political situation in the region grew ever more precarious. In 1948, Myanmar gained independence from the British, an agreement which many ethnic minorities hoped would include a provision for self-governance. That was not the case, and the Kachin began organizing for political independence. By 1961, the civilian Kachin Independence Organization and its military counterpart, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), were founded, dedicated to self-rule and self-protection.
In 1962, the Burmese military staged a coup and overthrew the civilian government of Myanmar, plunging the country into a period of isolationism and brutal rule. All foreign missionaries were expelled, along with most foreigners in the country, and all private schools were nationalized, making it effectively impossible for ethnic minorities to teach their languages in schools. Christianity was widely seen as evidence of Western influence. Kachin villages were targeted by the Burmese military, and many were displaced or pressed into service. Enrollment in the Kachin Independence Army sky-rocketed, though smaller linguistic Kachin groups remained uneven in their support, concerned about sweeping demands of loyalty. The KIA is mostly made up of Kachin Baptists, and faith became another form of resistance, another way to distinguish themselves from their oppressors.
“They don’t feel Christianity is a foreign religion,” explained Masao Imamura, a Japanese scholar whose doctoral dissertation explored the role of Protestant missionaries in forming Kachin national identity. “When the missionaries were expelled in 1962, the Protestant faith strengthened, and became more Kachin. They brought back the manau dance, and other rituals, which had been condemned by the foreign missionaries as pagan. They wanted to be traditional and Christian at the same time.”
American Baptists churches continued to send messages and support throughout the period of military rule. Literature in Jinghpaw was disseminated on a printing press gotten from the U.S., and the network of Kachin Baptist programs kept up a steady supply of Kachin-language material. In 1994, a ceasefire between the KIA and the Burmese military finally brought an end to the violent fighting begun in 1961, and it was brokered by the Kachin Baptist Convention.
DESPITE THE CEASEFIRE, tensions remained. Civil war resumed in 2011, bringing horrific reports of military violence against the Kachin and displacing close to 100,000 Kachin people. In the past decade, Christians from Myanmar—which include several ethnic groups—have been the largest group of admitted refugees to the United States. Kachins also arrived in the U.S. in greater numbers, though they are a small portion of this overall influx from Myanmar.
“I got more aware of what it means to be Kachin, after the civil war,” said Nawring Lashlabya, 27, who moved to the U.S. at age 5. “Suddenly, generals and others were coming to speak to us about the situation back home, and I realized we have a choice, to be Kachin here, and I have to make that choice.” For him, speaking Jinghpaw, retaining Kachin forms of kinship address, and attending Kachin Church all amount to choosing his Kachin identity.
But for many Kachin, the relationship between their homeland and their American religious identity have been put in tension. Five years ago, the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) in Myanmar moved to make the Kachin Baptist churches in the United States directly answerable to their headquarters in Kachin State, where the assignment of pastors and financial support would be overseen by the KBC. The churches that accepted the designation, most of which were recently formed immigrant churches, became known as KBC-USA, while many of the Kachin Churches which formed earlier continued under their designation with the Kachin American Baptist Association (KABA), and often often held affiliations with other U.S. Baptist organizations. For a community long defined by their political struggles for independent rule, the decision of various American churches to not affiliate solely with the homeland was seen as traitorous to some. Overnight, a chasm opened between the two designations.
“Suddenly, one of my uncles wasn’t coming to church anymore,” said Bura Jap, 24, who grew up in a KABA church in Jacksonville, Florida, and is currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Myanmar. “He had his own church, which was so strange. People weren’t going to one another’s weddings, and which camp you attended became a big thing.” Kachin youth camps of one designation no longer welcomed Kachin youth who belonged to a church of the other designation. For the next generation, the split is often seen as an obsession with allegiance that should not survive emigration. But for those raised resisting the Burmese military on behalf of their homeland, the wounds remain fresh.
IT’S ABOUT 4:30PM on a Sunday in Oakland, California, and there are 31 worshippers at the San Francisco Kachin Baptist Church. A few older women are dressed in traditional longyi wrap skirts, in the vibrant reds, yellows, and purples distinctive to Kachin dress, and some men wear traditional patterned scarves around their heads. Younger worshippers run the spectrum from jeans and sneakers to suits and ties. About two hymns in, the pastor calls for the children, and a dozen under age 10 emerge from a side room and gather on the steps to the altar. For the first time in the service, English is spoken as the Rev. Naw San Dee KD takes them through a Bible lesson and asks them to repeat words in Jinghpaw. They smile, giggle, and are soon enough led off stage, where the congregation continues in their native tongue.
Naw San Dee grew up in Kachin State, the son of a Baptist pastor, and his church was a founding member of KABA, though after the controversial split, it became an American-affiliated church with the American Baptist Churches USA, which is the denomination that ordained him. In his church, he emphasizes cultural knowledge such as Kachin wedding rituals and the meanings of different food gifts (salt, sugar, and sticky rice all carry specific messages and blessings in Kachin culture). He wants the children raised in his church to know how to eat from a banana leaf, as is common in Kachin State, but he also wants the Kachin in the United States to create “a community which can persist in the long run.” He said, “Sooner or later, we’ll speak English. But we have to find out what it means to hold on to being Kachin.”
The kinship system is hard to escape when discussing Kachin culture. Each Kachin person is born into a larger family or clan, belonging to one of six Kachin linguistic groups. Each clan has one of three relationships to the other, and these relationships dictate specific forms of address between two clan members. The clan structure is intimate: Children of the same clan would consider each other siblings. This kinship system allows Kachin people to know one another’s tribe and family connections within moments of being introduced. “This is what has kept the Kachin people together, in this order,” said Masao Imamura, the Japanese scholar. “The system of kinship address, the shared language, and then, and only then, the church.” Somebody who fits into this tribal system would be considered Kachin, even if they did not speak the language and were not Christian.
But despite this rich cultural history, Naw San Dee, like many Kachin I spoke to, cannot imagine a viable Kachin identity that is not rooted in Christianity. “That is our entire origin story,” he said. “Without the missionaries, we would have been lost.” Dumdaw agreed. “The missionaries, or the colonizers, are such an ingrained part of our culture that they kind of created what Kachin people are today,” she said. “I could not imagine not associating the Kachin people with Christianity.”
Many Kachin homes in Myanmar hang up posters on their walls with photographs of the missionaries. The Rev. Ola Hanson’s grave in Omaha, Nebraska, is decorated with two traditional Kachin manau poles, and is a regular pilgrimage stop for Kachin visiting the United States, who will take photos with the grave of the man they credit with bringing them their faith.
For younger Kachin Americans, this emphasis can seem misplaced. “We idolize white people,” Bura Jap, the Peace Corps volunteer, said. “Every time we have Kachin camp, or whatever, they’ll do a whole back story on the missionaries and how they came and what they did, and obviously I’m grateful to them because otherwise we wouldn’t have the faith, but sometimes it’s confusing if we’re worshipping God or just putting the missionaries on a pedestal.”
For Jap, growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, the cultural purpose of Kachin church felt counter to the purpose of church in general, and the ethnic emphasis of Kachin Church sometimes got in the way of spiritual progression. “When my sister and I started going more to First Baptist Church and learning more about the gospel and what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be saved, that’s when these two identities started to split for me,” she said, of her Kachin and Christian identities. “For me, going to church is about finding God and building my faith, and 80 percent of the time I went to Kachin church, the stories I would hear would be military victory stories, where we had only so many men, and the Burmese army was after us, and then we somehow beat them in battle with the help of God, or stories about the suffering in the refugee camps.”
Jap doesn’t discredit the significance of these stories, which establish ethnic pride and instilled within her a sense of solidarity with other Kachins. Her work now in Myanmar among other ethnic minorities has put into perspective the ways in which her Kachin identity feels much more stable than her American identity.
“That whole experience made me realize how important hearing my own language is, and how good it makes me feel to be heard in my own language,” Jap said. “It’s just knowing I belong to a group. A small group, and we have our own culture, and our own language, and a shared past, and a location where we all came from. And it makes me feel unique, that I’m part of this.”
Shira Telushkin is a religion reporter based in New York, and a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where she studied ancient Christian monasticism. Her writing focuses on global religious trends, pop culture, and the intersection of fashion and theology. She also writes a weekly Jewish advice column for Tablet Magazine, called Thou Shalt.