John Predmore

Singing to the Dead recounts the experiences of Victoria Armour-Hileman, a Catholic lay missioner from the United States, among the Mon Buddhist refugees in Bangkok in the early 1990’s. As the Burmese government intensifies its ethnic war on its Mon people, Armour-Hileman engages in the daily struggle for survival of a persecuted community and mediates between the monks and the world outside their temple sanctuary.

Singing to the Dead is a story of profound human connectedness. “Most of us long for a kind of connectedness we never find,” writes Armour-Hileman, but “we shrink from the very engagement we desire and have come so far to find.” As a Catholic aid worker with humanitarian fervor, Armour-Hileman (or “Wicki,” as the Mon affectionately call her) painfully discovers how to earn the trust and friendship of a people. She is pushed to face her own fears, hopes and inadequacies while ministering to the wounded, tortured, sick and orphaned. Although the missioner’s sense of powerlessness springs from witnessing the unceasing suffering and precarious existence of a displaced people, it also serves as the cement for the profound connection between her and them.

The Mon have a mythical origin, founded by the Lord Buddha and 20 of his disciples as a great nation of peace and harmony. But centuries of ethnic and political conflict between Burma and its indigenous people have sent the Mon into exile, often into neighboring hostile Thailand, where they are labeled “illegal.” They are a people without a home.

Under constant armed surveillance, a small group of Mon monks shelters refugees inside a small, overcrowded temple in the slums of Bangkok. An increasing number of temple raids have made life more perilous for the refugees, who are faced with unjust imprisonment, torture and threats of repatriation—which means certain death at the hands of the Burmese soldiers. Thus the dream to establish the Burmese Mon State becomes ever more vital to achieve.

Wicki works alongside Brother Matthew, a veteran member of the same Catholic mission community to which she belongs, who accidentally discovers the Mon temple. He is then recruited to teach them English. He also responds instinctively to their medical crises and their need for medicine and treatment. Soon a very accomplished mediator, Matthew miraculously comes up with money at the last minute when all previous attempts have failed, pleading with doctors and hospitals to evaluate a sick or wounded person, and interceding for them for repatriation at the embassies. The veteran missioner is portrayed as a heroic man of astonishing passion and compassion, guiding Wicki through her education among the poor, but his voice is no substitute for real-life trials.

The author performs her share of heroic deeds as well: advocating for a patient whose intestines lie outside of his body, for an armless landmine victim needing a cornea transplant, for a mother of an ailing newborn and for penniless prisoners with no hope of release. Person by person and against great odds, she tries to provide some relief to their suffering—and each person transforms her.

Despite many difficulties and failures, Wicki develops profound friendships with the community, especially with Phra Dala Non and Phra Damma, two monks who take great risks as translators and guardians of their community. The depth of their friendship is constantly challenged by cultural barriers, poverty and immense military oppression; yet their understanding of one another flourishes across cultural boundaries.

It is in these moments of friendship and trial that the reader feels the emotions of the people who appear in this inspiring book. The quiet desperation of the proud monks and their trusting patience with a Westerner testify to the beauty of human endurance. Wicki’s awkward questions and impulsive race to accomplish create a sense of ambivalence and bewilderment. The frustration and futility are palpable. Just as readers will sometimes gasp at the human atrocities recounted in Singing to the Dead, so there are the genuinely powerful times when we are moved by the caring sensitivity that one human shows to another. It is a book that captures complex emotions, prompting us to reflect seriously upon the world in which we live and consider the ways in which we contribute to its injustices and suffering.

Through her skillful storytelling, Armour-Hileman raises thought-provoking questions about human motives, pain and suffering, the work of global justice and peace and divine inaction in our world. As the reader grapples with these concerns, the author does not interfere by passing on her image and notion of God. Rather, we are left with our own powerful impressions and stories, each to interpret in his or her own context.

Singing to the Dead puts a face on a terrible tragedy half a world away, and its message is compelling. Armour-Hileman’s vivid, eye-opening account, though written with humor and compassion, is a story that demands a personal response from each of us. It asks us to become more intimately connected to our world, and it awaits our answer: will we shrink from or nourish the desire that we have come so far to find?

John Predmore, S.J., recently a summer editorial intern at America, is studying at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass., in preparation for ordination.