When Gospel Ralte and his wife Grace decided to escape from Myanmar three years ago they told nobody, not even their two teenage children.
Gospel explained that it would have been far too risky to share their plans given the tight controls placed on Christians by the military rulers in the country.
“We did not tell anyone the real reason. We just said we wanted to visit Australia and do some ministry,” Gospel said.
“It was very hard but we were worried our children might be persecuted and we did not want them to have to live with any fear.”
The couple’s 19-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son still live with friends at the church compound in Burma’s cultural capital of Mandalay. The family of four is able to speak briefly via Skype most evenings.
“It is very difficult and we are worried for them but they have not faced any real problems,” Gospel said.
The couple hope and pray it will not be too long before their children can join them in Australia.
Gospel said the Myanmar government has adopted a motto of “One race, one religion, one nation” since it gained independence from the British in 1948.
Buddhism is followed by more than 90 percent of the population and supported by the military.
In the early 1960s, many Christian missionaries who did not take up an offer of citizenship following independence were forced to leave the country.
Gospel’s father, a North East India General Mission missionary from India, was able to remain as he had taken out citizenship.
He said Christians were very much in the minority and suffered persecution for their beliefs.
“As a Christian I have experienced discrimination from a very young age,” Gospel said.
“The military and the police would often come into services and tell us to stop singing or preaching.
“Life was very insecure and I have been afraid of uniforms ever since I was a child. I was also afraid to go into any government office.”
Gospel believes he was destined to follow Christ ,which is perhaps not surprising as the Burmese (Chin) name his father gave him includes the words for gospel, preaching, surrounding and popular.
Gospel and Grace studied at a Bible college in India in the late 1980s before Gospel worked as an itinerant evangelist and taught at the Penial Bible School, in his home town in the north western part of Myanmar.
In 1997 Gospel joined the Methodist-run Myanmar Theological College before accepting a position as a pastor to Burmese (Chin) refugees and migrant workers in Malaysia in 2011.
The couple seemed destined to become part of the Uniting Church after they moved to Australia. Their first home in their adopted country was located within walking distance of the Mulgrave Uniting Church in the suburbs of Melbourne. The church took them in and nurtured, supported and guided them for their first three years in the country.
Rev Prof Howard Wallace, the previous congregational minister at Mulgrave, and Rev Ian Cayzer, the current supply minister at Mulgrave, were particularly involved in supporting the couple along with a dedicated band of parishioners.
Mulgrave Church council chair Kaye Cosham said Mulgrave had gladly welcomed the couple into their community.
Since 2016, Gospel has led a group of Mizo Chin community members called Victoria Mizo Kohhran (VMK Church), which founded a sanctuary at North Ringwood Uniting Church (NRUC), meeting regularly for worship every Sunday afternoon. Gospel said he was excited that the VMK is in the process of becoming a faith community of UCA, with support and guidance from the NRUC and Presbytery of Yarra Yarra.
Gospel and Grace said they felt blessed to have received so much love and support from friends in the UCA.
Gospel’s understanding of the Uniting Church was also helped by a period of supply at St Columba’s in Noble Park.
“It was a good experience for me to be with an Anglo and intercultural church,” he said.
An ordained minister of the Methodist Church of Upper Myanmar, Gospel has just begun his first placement at the Ulverstone and Sprent Uniting Churches, on the North-West Coast of Tasmania.
The couple were farewelled from North Ringwood and Mulgrave in late October. About two weeks later Gospel was officially inducted at a service at the Ulverstone church.
Gospel said he was excited by the opportunities that lay ahead.
While the congregation was small he believed the parishioners’ faithfulness over many decades would be blessed by God and he looked forward to reaching out to the community.
Gospel is in the process of being admitted as a Uniting Church minister, something which cannot be completed until at least 12 months after beginning in a placement.