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Interview: Mai Ki priest, educator, and environmentalist

02 May 2014

'Whenever I had to pay cash for school fees, I used to take the teachers rice'

I live in Lailenpi village, Matupi Township, Chin state, Myanmar. I belong to Mara Evangelical Church (MEC).

I used to pray to be a priest from my childhood, because there was no woman priest.

My question was why can a woman not be a priest while Jesus's mother was a woman? I had to find the way to become a woman priest to prove that women are holy priests of God as men are. The second reason was that if I were a priest, I would be able to work for the Mara people all my life.

The third reason was that my illiterate mother always urged all her children, saying: "I serve God without education, and you have to serve with education to fill all the gaps I have."

I became the first ordained, married woman pastor in the 99 years of the Mara Evangelical Church.

Our Church is everything to the Mara community, because of its extraordinary remoteness in every way.

Politically, the Mara community is divided between Mizoram state in India and Chin state in Myanmar. Even in Chin state, the Mara community is divided by three different townships. Today the Mara people have no town. We are extremely remote, with a lack of transportation, community facilities, electricity, and information. We do not hear or see what is happening in Myanmar, let alone around the world.

My basic belief is that men and women are two wings of the same bird, and women need to be empowered as much as men. This is why I founded the Rural Women Empowerment Program (RWEP). The main contribution the RWEP makes is the conceptual change about the importance of women. Every human is closer to mother than father, and every human stays with mother longer than with father in childhood. Therefore women have more opportunity to influence the philosophy and theology of a child.

A woman can do whatever any human can do, but it is wiser to do what is more important. In our Family Development Committee, we focus on teaching life skills that can provide an income for the family, such as weaving. We also set up self-help groups, which meet weekly to support and strengthen the women.

When I grew up, we always had extra people living with us. These childhood experiences deeply convinced me that no one is born out of choice: they are born according to God's choice, and they are God's special children. Therefore I call them "Differently Abled Friends". I want them to feel God's love through us; I want them to taste the atmosphere of heaven in earth. I really would like childless parents to feel we are one family of God.

I set up the Shalom Unit in 2007 to help the Differently Abled Friends and Old Aged Childless People. My mother's citation in our kitchen in our childhood was "You have to be a child to a childless parent," and"If you have eyesight, you have to use it for you and for the blind. If you are healthy, then you have to use your health both for you and for the unhealthy."

When I studied theology, I learnt about the importance of the environment and a sustainable livelihood. My people are slash-and-burn farmers, and I started re-reading the Bible where it talks about humans tilling and keeping the land. But my people told me: "We have no option for survival except cutting and burning the forest for cultivation."

Together, we decided to construct a road and a bridge, so we could import goods and skills to the land and maintain and protect our environment. Now we could start growing a cash crop with sustainable agriculture. My main priority is to help people to understand more about caring for the environment.

It was not accepted at first. If we served them with hand-outs it was easy; but if we said: "You are the most important person for your self-development and the best agents of change," then it was difficult to get their attention and attendance at meetings.

The Tearfund Inspired Individuals programme has become a great supporter for my personal and work achievements. Kurt Herrera, a German minister, supports me to sustain my vision, and has initiated many friendships and partnerships in Germany since 2003. Some of my Church's leaders and my colleagues are very encouraging and supportive in my endeavours. By God's grace every year, my spiritual and material supporters are increasing from the local, national, and international community.

Every member of my family is supportive about my life and work. My husband is my best adviser and supporter, to whom I often say: "I will give you Best Husband Award."

My childhood ambitions were to make sure my name was enrolled in heaven's record, to comfort orphans and widows, to make smile the physically handicapped, and to make happy childless parents in their old age.

It was not easy to train to be a priest. My parents were farmers. We had only rice, no cash. Whenever I had to pay cash for school fees, I used to take rice to the schoolteachers to exchange for the fees. When they said they had enough rice, I used to clean their campus, fetch water, and collect firewood for them.

Up to fourth standard [aged 9-10], I used a half-broken slate, and from fifth standard only could I use books. For my eighth-standard promotion exam [to get to high school, aged 14] set by Chin State Education Board, I had to go to Matupi town, which was four days on foot.

It was the most hungry time in my life in Matupi, because that was the first time I ate only twice a day. For my ninth and tenth standard, my sister-in-law could afford only 21kg of rice per month at the rate charged in Matupi. Twice a month, I hadto go two days on foot to buy riceat a cheaper rate, to earn cashfor kerosene, a ball-point pen, and soap.

For my university study, I travelled 17 days on foot from Sabawngpi, my native village to Kamaphyu, and then half-a-day to reach Pakokku Degree College. After I matriculated, I suffered a lot from an evil spirit's attack, and I was often in mental hospital.

For my theological study, I applied to be an MEC candidate, but was not approved, because of my recurrent sickness. Therefore I started my journey to study theology as a private candidate to Chennai in India [formerly Madras] without money, without English, and without friends.

The Holy Spirit was my guide, my sponsor, my professor, my friend, my counsellor, my all in all throughout my six years' theological study. The hardships I faced during my education have prepared me to face the many difficulties I encounter now.

I do not wish to be remembered. I wish everybody will remember God's phone number: Jeremiah 33.3, and Jesus's phone number: Matthew 7.7.

My mother and my eldest brother influenced my life a lot, especially in positive thinking, and having a thankful heart. My father influenced my hard working.

My favourite place is my home, or wherever I can live with my family.

I love Aung San Suu Kyi's Hundred Words booklet.

St Paul's epistles are my favourite part of the Bible, because of their focus on love, strong faith, impartiality, and doing all works for the glory of God. I read least the Song of Songs.

My favourite sound is carol-singing in the midnight before Christmas.

I continue to get angry when people are still living in poverty despite the earth having enough resources to sustain us all.

Whenever I see a family who have a good faith in God, love one another, and serve others with sincere heart, I feel I achieve my prayer and commitment to them, and they will go beyond my prayer. This brings me the happiest moments.

I mostly pray that my family and I will be agents of God, to do good for others. And that God will forgive the sins of the global family, and revive the Christian community.

I would like to pray in a church for a few hours with my husband.

The Revd Mai Ki was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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