30 August 2022
The Reverend Heidin Kunoo once dreamed of traveling the world as a missionary. Now she’s on a quest to fortify local parishes, with a little inspiration from her own traditions.
At St Paul’s East Kew where she is an assistant priest, Ms Kunoo runs a monthly lunch get-together for young adults at a pub.
It’s a social thing, and there’s no mention of Bible study.
Conscious that many young people would rather be elsewhere than church, Ms Kunoo wants to take the time to build a solid relationship with them first.
Ms Kunoo who was ordained in November 2017, sees building the links that eventually flourish into healthy faith communities as being somewhat like gardening.
“As a priest, I need to discern where their hearts are. You cannot force someone to do something if they don’t want to do it. It won’t be fruitful otherwise. God is the only one who can make things grow,” she said.
Since beginning her work in churches, Ms Kunoo has held placements at locations including Bacchus Marsh and Queenscliffe.
What she wants more than anything is to help young people see how important the church is for them, and how vital they are to it.
A member of the Karen ethnic group, Ms Kunoo was a young teen herself when she arrived in Australia in 2005 with her parents and two older siblings.
The family settled in Melbourne’s west and joined a nearby Anglican church.
Buffeted by loneliness, language and cultural barriers, Ms Kunoo looked forward to perhaps meeting other teenagers and making friends but was dismayed to find that she was the only young person in the congregation.
On asking about it, she was told that in Australia most young people seemed to prefer to spend their Sundays at sport or work, or doing other activities.
It perplexed her.
In Burma’s Karen Christian community, the youth group, the mother’s union, the men’s society and the Sunday school, are seen as the four pillars of the church, with each valued as much as the others.
If any pillar is diminished or removed, the structure collapses.
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The ideal of the community working together, is something that Karen youth then become aware of from a very early age.
They come to learn that people in a community can depend on each other. They also learn that where there’s strong family, there’s a strong community, and vice versa.
“So, family and community is extremely important,” Ms Kunoo said. “When someone falls, there is someone who will pick you up.”
That focus was what kept the congregations animated and involved, she said.
Ms Kunoo remembered how at church in Burma there were always people around. They were there during services and for hours afterwards, and every single day there was background laughter or something going on somewhere on the premises.
But for her, there was nothing quite like Christmas time to cement the idea of the community as family.
Burmese Christmas celebrations are famous for being spread over several days, and for being occasions where believers, as well as the unchurched, come together and sing traditional Karen carols, dance, and share roasted meats and glutinous rice, and traditional soups at midnight.
She has fond recollections of the noise of the games and tournaments, the smoke and heat of campfires and the excitement of exchanging gifts with everyone, so that no person left empty handed.
“Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, we were hardly at home because we were always at church and there were so many things going on. And the only time that we go home is when we go to sleep,” she said.
The role of faith in people’s lives was never understated, however, and the degree to which they attended to it, was a very serious matter.
For many young Karen people, religion, like their education, was by no means optional, Ms Kunoo said.
As the daughter of retired Anglican priest, the Reverend Nisher Kunoo, and the great granddaughter of one of Burma’s most well-known missionaries, family and religion have always been inextricably linked for Ms Kunoo.
Indeed, she was very young when she first received her calling to priesthood.
For Ms Kunoo, it was a voice that told her that her father loved her. Given that her dad was a priest, she didn’t pay it attention at first.
Back then her dream was to be a missionary and work in developing countries.
Priesthood in Burma was not a reality for women, so it had never been her plan then, and wasn’t a goal even as she grew to adulthood in Australia.
Still, she heard that voice calling her often enough over the years to spend lots of time alone contemplating it.
Nonetheless, she didn’t welcome the idea of becoming a priest even as she neared the end of a theology degree at Trinity college.
She thought often of her childhood ambitions of being a missionary. The idea of returning to Burma and travelling away from the clamour of its urban centres to work among the country’s most needy and remote people was appealing to Ms Kunoo.
But she could see no future in that for her, and she turned to her family for guidance about her direction.
She wouldn’t be rushed into making her decision, so she asked her parents to accompany her to retreats and her discernment so that they could spend time in reflection and praying together about her future.
Gradually, Ms Kunoo became aware that whenever she rejected the idea of ordination, she felt anxious. Yet when she contemplated it as a possibility, she felt peaceful.
Part of that sense of peace came from her conviction that within the Church there was always going to be a community she could turn to, she said.
Eventually, Ms Kunoo realised that a sense of parish closeness was what she most wanted to feel around her, so she decided to become ordained and pursue a life of parish ministry.
Some days Ms Kunoo still feels thrilled at the idea of trekking the jungle canopied mountains and valleys of Burma to take God’s word to forgotten people, but she has decided to leave that to a working holiday for now.
Having conducted a survey among young people at a Melbourne diocese parish a little while back, Ms Kunoo said she’d found that most believed that church was some place their parents or grandparents attended.
“They said they were too busy studying or working and that when they started to age, they’d finally go to church. Some even suggested that religion was more of a club for old people,” she said.
So, she is keen to show them that faith is a journey during which it is important to build foundations.
It is probable that she will never get to the point where all parishioners would opt to spend Christmas day together with each other, or that the gentle hubub of voices would be around the church well after services, but that is not her aim, Ms Kunoo said.
Rather, helping young people start to develop a love of church community is something she is determined to work slowly at.
For that, she will draw on what she knows of family and community to help make a difference.
“For people on their own it’s easier to give up. But when you are in a group, there is encouragement to keep on going through difficulties, instead of losing faith. Through family, you see the presence of God working,” Ms Kunoo said.
This profile of the Reverend Heidin Kunoo is part of a series on women in ministry, marking the December 2022 anniversary of 30 years since women were ordained in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.