Posters at the prayer service include images of Sr. Ann Rose Nu Tawng, a Catholic nun who begged the police and soldiers to shoot her instead of the people protesting. She has become an icon of peaceful resistance in Myanmar. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Posters at the prayer service include images of Sr. Ann Rose Nu Tawng, a Catholic nun who begged the police and soldiers to shoot her instead of the people protesting. She has become an icon of peaceful resistance in Myanmar. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
A crowd spread out across the grassy lawn at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Southeast Portland for a multifaith prayer service April 17 for the people of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Buddhist monks chanted, Baptist Pastor J.W. Matt Hennessee thundered, Bishop Peter Smith and Rabbi Michael Cahana spoke of God’s love and the rationality of tenderness and faith here on earth. More than a dozen faith leaders led prayers. They shared both hope and outrage over the violence done to the people and democracy of Myanmar.

The people also stood for two minutes of silence for the hundreds killed in Myanmar since the democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup Feb. 1.

Bishop Smith said he hadn’t witnessed such a profoundly interfaith service in a long time. “It tells you something about the diversity of Myanmar, and also how faith transcends oppression,” he said.

Most of those at the service were immigrants and refugees from Myanmar, a small Southeast Asian nation tucked between Thailand and Bangladesh.

Francis Kham, a leader of the Zomi Catholic community at St. Joseph the Worker, told the crowd how sad he felt at the reason for the gathering, but also how grateful he was for the support shown to the Burmese community by so many American groups and churches.

Catholic Charities of Oregon, the Zomi Catholic community, and Myanmar community groups sponsored the prayer gathering.

Bishop Smith told the people that he too was an immigrant to the United States. He said immigrants and refugees need to resist any temptation to turn away from the news of their homeland. “We must never forget,” he said. “It is our responsibility to keep reminding the world of the brutal repression taking place now in Myanmar.”

He also reassured the people that in the end, “freedom and grace prevail.”

The coup there followed a Nov. 8, 2020, election that the party of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi won convincingly. The military claimed without evidence that there was fraud against its own party. They demanded a new election, with themselves in charge. They arrested their political opponents and declared a state of emergency.

The coup sparked large protests and even more widespread acts of civil disobedience.

Scores of cars, hoods up, have blocked intersections, drivers shrugging about engine problems. People have withdrawn their money from banks. They’ve pasted pictures of the generals on pavements for everyone to walk upon.

Protests have remained mostly peaceful, but the authorities have responded with violent crackdowns. More than 700 have been killed so far.

At the Portland prayer service, representatives of a group supporting civil disobedience in Myanmar sang “Kabar Makyay Bu” (“We Won’t Be Satisfied till the End of the World”), a protest anthem that has become the soundtrack to the resistance. It is set to the haunting tune of “Dust in the Wind,” a popular 1970s rock song — with the original lyrics paraphrasing Ecclesiastes.

Father Ted Prentice, pastor of St. Joseph the Worker, quoted a passage from Revelation about how God affirms those who seek peace, and from Luke how the rich and oppressors are pulled down, and how the lowly are exalted. “We pray that we always walk in solidarity with those being oppressed in Myanmar,” he said. “May they be strengthened by the spirit of the living God.”

Representatives from Myanmar communities asked how many dead bodies there would need to be before the United Nations took action.

They mourned the fact that the police and military, who are supposed to protect people, are instead using rocket propelled grenade launchers against civilians. “Our hearts are broken,” one speaker said. “Every day we are concerned about our relatives. Even though we are different in color and religion, we can pray together.”

Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, said after the service that it had been an important coming together for healing and action. “Even though Myanmar is far away, we need to take every chance we can to support one another.”

Deacon Birkel also said he was impressed by the unity shown in Oregon and was reminded anew about the importance of democracy.