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Myanmar bishop monitors situation at home

Satellite photos from NASA dated April 15 and May 5 show the coastal devastation that occurred when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar May 3. A UMNS photo courtesy of NASA.

A UMNS Report
By Neill Caldwell*
May 8, 2008

As the nation of Myanmar began to assess the damage following a catastrophic cyclone, the Methodist bishop for the area was in Virginia, working the phones to organize relief efforts and preparing to return to his devastated country.

Bishop Zothan Mawia will participate in the May 9 baccalaureate service at Shenandoah University, a United Methodist-related school in Winchester, Va., where his daughter is a freshman, before returning home. He is the episcopal leader of the Methodist Church of the Union of Myanmar (Lower Myanmar).

Mawia came to the United States in April to attend a meeting of the United Methodist Council of Bishops meeting and then General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative gathering, in Fort Worth, Texas. He then saw his elder daughter graduate from Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., another United Methodist-related school.

“I am sorry I am here instead of at home,” the bishop said during a May 7 interview with UMNS, “but I know God has a plan, and I am hoping something good comes out of it. Here I can better contact people, to reach out and help and encourage people in America to do what they can to help us. My heart is there, but I know God has a purpose for me being here.”

Estimates of the death toll from the cyclone range up to 100,000, with tens of thousands missing.

Mawia has been unable to contact his office, but he has talked to people in the area who have told him that the damage in that part of central Yangon, or Rangoon, is not as severe. He said the homes of several family members were damaged, and some of his relatives have come to the episcopal residence for safety. He added that no one in his family was killed or injured.

Eager to return home

The bishop is unsure about how he can return home, as the Rangoon airport is still closed. He is scheduled to leave the United States on May 11 and fly as far as Korea. After that, he is not sure what the travel arrangements will be.

He is eager to tour the damaged areas. “I want to be on the front lines, so I am planning on going to the places that were hit. Friends have been calling me, and I know the situation is very bad.”

The area hardest hit is the low-lying delta area along the Indian Ocean. The cyclone’s 80 miles-per-hour winds and the storm surge that accompanied it wiped away many villages.

Mawia was elected to the episcopacy in 2000 in a time of reconciliation following a dispute that split the Methodist church in Lower Myanmar into two distinctive groups. Burma officially became Myanmar in 1989. It is a country that has been torn by political and internal strife, but Mawia said it has never experienced a natural disaster of this kind.

“We are all in shock,” the bishop said.

UMCOR responds

Mawia has talked to the Rev. Sam Dixon, top executive for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, about the church’s response to the disaster.

“UMCOR and GBGM (General Board of Global Ministries) are already sending American dollars to help,” he said. The bishop also invited Americans to visit his nation and help with the rebuilding of the infrastructure and the “building of relationships.”

Mawia is also on the board of World Vision, which is working to provide relief. His wife is a consultant to the World Health Organization and is currently in Manila, the Philippines, presenting a paper to a WHO conference.

The bishop expressed thanks to United Methodists who have already donated money to help the relief effort through UMCOR’s Advance special. “Our economy is bad and rebuilding will be expensive, so we will need financial help,” he said. “But our church will be good stewards of what is sent to us, and we will be very careful as to how we use the money.”

Gifts to UMCOR Advance #3019674, “Myanmar Emergency,” will help survivors of Cyclone Nargis. Checks can be placed in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR at P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068. Credit-card donations are accepted by phone at (800) 554-8583 or online at www.umcor.org.

“Money can do a lot, but without prayers, nothing can be accomplished,” Mawia added. “So we need your prayers.”

*Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate and a correspondent for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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