Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Why I Went and What I Learned

This is the post I have been avoiding writing.  It remains as one of the last things standing between Life in Thailand and returning fully to Life in Tulsa.  It's like finding sand from your last vacation in the bottom of your beach bag.  It's like looking down at your pitifully chipped toe nails and refusing to remove the remnants of your wedding pedicure.

I still have the toe nail polish that was applied in Thailand.  It's a faded purple.  I'm not taking it off, not just yet.

Another reason that I have been putting off writing is that words fail me.  I want to be able to convey adequately all that the Hill Tribes Mission encompasses.  It's a multifaceted ministry that reaches an untold number of tribal people in at least three different countries.  Children are being given hope.  Pastors are receiving training and education with no strings attached.  Mothers have a place to turn for desperately needed medication for their toddlers.  Everyone in the Brown's path is given the gift of love.

It was with trepidation that I first broke the news to my circle of friends and family that Robert and I would be spending three weeks in northern Thailand with Paul and Susan Brown.  Everyone had the same question, "What are you going to be doing there?"

Well, that's a mighty fine question.  I didn't want to go as a tourist, sapping our hosts of time and resources.  Some of my friends had gone over there to teach Vacation Bible School.  Others to provide crucial dental and pharmaceutical services.  Robert was going to preach in the villages and attend preacher training.  But what could I do?

I can check "trekking through a rice paddy" off my Bucket List!

 As I packed and prayed, the idea took shape and form.  I was going to observe.  To take it all in.  To get to know the mission.  To look for ways that the churches back home can serve.  To be an ambassador, perhaps?  And last, but in no ways least, to reconnect with some very dear friends.  The Brown's are very much a part of my family's heritage.  Bro. Paul knew my great grandparents, Sis. Susan taught my mother in Sunday School.  My parents met in that church and so did Robert and I.  We have over forty years of shared history, all wrapped up in the people and doings of Sherwood Baptist Church.

I didn't realize how much I missed everyone.

 But, things change.  People change.  Life trajectories change.  God never changes.  And that really is the story of Paul and Susan Brown.

  My teenage years at Sherwood were exciting times.  As a church we were experiencing growth, new directions with ministries, taking on new missionaries and meeting new pastors.  One of our most exciting new mission fields was in Northern Thailand.  There was a native missionary there who ran a children's home and ministered to the hill tribes.  Bro. Paul and Sis. Susan began making regular visits to this ministry.  They would come back with strange tales of tribes I had never heard of before with exotic names such as Lahu, Lisu and Akha.  These people lived in bamboo huts and worshiped spirits.  When villagers would come to Christ, they would burn their spirit houses and cut off the symbolic string bracelets that bound them to the spirits.  It sounded like one of those illustrated missionary stories that Sis. Susan used to read in Sunday School.

The mayor of Pasak 2

Over a period of ten years, God put it in both the Brown's hearts that He was calling them to Thailand to live.  Forever.  No turning back.  And so they went. They were excited about the opportunities, but there was a little niggling concern in the back of their minds.  Something wasn't quite right.

It didn't take long before it became obvious that there were problems.  Dreadful problems.  The man that was their only interpreter, the man who had put on such a good show of love and concern for orphaned children was actually a low life con man.

The tribal people of Thailand are for all practical purposes undocumented immigrants.  Traditionally semi nomadic, these tribes are relatively new arrivals to the jungles and mountains in and around northern Thailand, Burma, and Laos.  Most of these tribes originated in China and slowly immigrated into the region during the 1800's.  They wandered back and forth, viewing the Mekong River as a highway, not a boundary.  Since the borders were fluid and national identity was based on common language and culture, this wasn't too much of a problem.  But in today's modern world, it just doesn't work.  What has happened is that these indigenous people are living without the benefits or protections of national citizenship.  They can become Thai citizens, but it requires a lot of paperwork.  Paperwork that isn't always available in these remote areas.  Many people don't have a birth certificate and don't even know their birthday.  New Year's Day has become the favorite adopted birthday to those who are unsure.

If you are not a Thai citizen, you cannot own land.  But, you have to be connected to a legally owned piece of property to become a citizen.  Holding a job is difficult.  We saw many motorcycles with no tail lights.  Our interpreter, Lek, said it is to keep from drawing attention from the police because they have no license.  So, they just zoom around the mountains in the dark with no tail lights. When you have no official status, when you cannot speak the language of your home country, when there is corruption in the local governments, you are easy prey.

There are many unscrupulous people who take advantage of the villagers however they can.  There are organized crime rings and Godfather type kingpins.  One of these men was to become a particular thorn in the side to the Browns.  He put on a good show, but that's all that it was.

When the Browns moved to Thailand, trouble began almost immediately. They were quickly forced to leave their erstwhile partner and sole translator along with all their contacts, not to mention their home.  They were starting from scratch. 

But, God!

Praise the Lord for those two little words, for they change everything.  God was in control all along.  His plans are always perfect and right on time.  Mr. Con thought that he had gotten rid of two meddling Americans, but he didn't realize that God was the One writing this story.

One day, Bro. Paul went to seek the aid of a lawyer in town.  As he sat in the waiting room, he struck up a conversation with a man named Moses.  Moses was a Sovereign Grace Baptist Lahu!  Even better, he had a son that was fluent in Thai and English and worked as a translator.  And just like that, things started to turn around for the Browns and their ministry.

Faithful Lek

Now that they had a trusted translator, they were able to start the painstaking work of starting from scratch.  The ministry they thought they were building on had a rotten foundation.  Now they could start over, building on the good news of Christ, not a man's perverted quest for power.

They moved out of the hotel and into a rented home.  Bro. Paul and Lek spent months combing the mountains, searching for the children that Mr. Con had scattered about.  This task was doubly hard because of the lies that were spread about.  Many people distrusted Bro. Paul and were afraid to incur the wrath of the Kingpin, particularly since he legally controlled much of their land.  It has taken several years to overcome this, but gradually people are beginning to see the truth.  Bro. Paul and Sis. Susan truly love them.  They want nothing more than serve.  They ask for nothing, they take nothing.  And it's bearing fruit!

Moses' rents his land near the northern border to Bro Paul as a training camp for village pastors.  Every other week one of two classes assembles for a week of instruction.  The groups are divided by language.  The Lahu speaking group hails from Burma, Laos and certain Thai villages.  The Lisu group is mainly from Thailand.  Sometimes the Laotian and Burmese men have trouble at the border.  The officials are suspicious as to why they are traveling back and forth so much.  Every now and then, they will be denied access.  The men would much rather slip across the border unofficially, like they used to.  But Bro. Paul insists on doing things legally.  Crazy American!      

The pastors are also farmers, with leg muscles that any American gym rat would envy.  Farming slopes greater than 40 degrees will do that to you.  Any slope greater than 30 degrees is "owned" by the government, which means the indigenous people can unofficially work it.  The land is cleared and furrowed by hand.  There are scarcely any terraces.  I imagine they work clinging to the hillside to keep from rolling off.

The set up of Preachers Camp is simple.  It is mostly contained in what we might call a garage.  There is a large covered area in the center that corresponds to a carport.  It is open on both ends.  This is the dining hall.  There are several folding tables, a water dispenser with cold and hot water and an outdoor sink where all the dishes are washed.

 On one side of the mess hall is an enclosed classroom/dormitory.   Each man rolls up his bed mat and brings it with him.  During the day the mats are stacked in a corner while class is held.  Bro. Paul teaches at a white board while Lek translates.  A single fan stirs the air.  Coffee cups, notebooks and pens mark the spot where each scholar sits at the white folding tables.  This is also where Sis. Brown hold English class in the afternoons.  There are scarcely any books written in the Lahu language.  It would take decades to translate the Christian Classics that we all take for granted.  It is much simpler to teach the men English.  In this way, a whole world will open for them.  A world of study, but also a gateway into the modern world of business.  No longer will they be at the mercy of mercenaries, simply because they cannot speak a common language of commerce.

On the other side of the mess hall is the chapel, kitchen and living quarters for Moses and his wife.  Each room is separate from the others with a door that opens to the covered area.  The ladies, Moses' wife, daughter and daughter in law, cook three meals a day for up to thirty men in a simple kitchen.  It is truly astounding all that they turn out.  They must be exhausted by the end of the day.

At the other end of the property is a Children's Home.  The children live in a block building with small rooms, again each room opens to the outside, somewhat like a small motel.  Their caretakers live in a bamboo hut next door.  At the back of the property is a modern, Western style home, built by Nazarene missionaries.  Since they cannot buy land, they rented the space from Moses.  As they have moved, the house was open for the Browns and us to stay in during our visit.  One of my most poignant memories is sitting just behind that house on a misty morning, coffee in hand, overlooking a pond.  The men back in their dorm were singing, "He Leadeth Me" in Lahu.  The sound floated through the mist with a thrilling clarity.  It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.  Truly, our Shepherd is faithful to lead His sheep, all over the world.  That afternoon, the pastors rolled up their bed mats and headed home to their own congregations.  I have heard that one of the Burmese pastors has a flock of hundreds.  What an opportunity for just a handful of laborers to train pastors that will reach potentially thousands of souls in South East Asia!

Training is just one facet of this ministry.  Another huge component is visiting each church and it's village.  Nearly every weekend of the month, the Brown's are bumping and jostling their way to another church.  You can see the urgency Bro. Paul's eyes, hear it in his voice.

"I haven't been able to get to Hoe Dua for some time because the roads have been impassable.  I really need to go see them.  They need encouragement."

The fabled road to Canaan. Someday I want to go down this road!

As always, Bro. Paul brings an encouraging message for the congregation, Sis. Susan brings medicine for the entire village.  These villages are remote, getting to a doctor is the first difficulty.  Communicating with the doctor is the second.  Paying for the doctor is the third.  The medicines are simple, over the counter remedies, often homeopathic.  Susan fusses over the children with the concern of a grandmother.

"I can see he has an ear infection, so I'm going to give you antibiotics for him.  I can't give it to the girl, she's not sick with a fever.  Antibiotics are only for those with infections  Here are some vitamins.  These are not candy.  You will get sick if you eat them all at once."

She has stopped giving out multivitamins, precisely because she was concerned that they were being consumed like candy.  As I helped her pass out the vitamin C drops, I could see why that was a concern.  Little boys appeared out of the woodwork, grimy hands outstretched, hoping for a bag of yellow lozenges.

"My throat hurts!"

Uh-huh.  Soap and soothing lozenges follow the vitamins.  They pause to fold their hands and dip their heads in thanks before skipping off to munch the C drops.

"Only eat one a day!" I call after them.

 The older people suffer from aching joints, fungal skin infections, high blood pressure.  Susan does what she can and advises the rest to visit a doctor.  It's unlikely that any of them will actually do that, though.  The real healing power at work here is the love of God.

The final major component to the Brown's work here is the raising of the children they have rescued from their abusive "Children's Home".  They managed to recover seven young people, mostly preteens and early teenagers.  Two young men are old enough to attend technical school.  Recently they were able to add another girl, the same age as Molly.  That brings the total to 2 helpers, 4 boys and 2 girls.  The Browns have been blessed with a home in a nice neighborhood that suits their current needs perfectly.  To satisfy the legal demands of fostering children, boys need to sleep in a separate house from the girls.  This rental property comes with one large, Western style house and a smaller house next door!  All Susan has to do to summon the boys for their meals is ring a bell out the kitchen window.  Of course, more often than not the smaller boys are already over at the big house, watching TV, playing soccer with Grandpa, doing homework.

Grandma and Grandpa, as the children call them, are truly raising their second family.  They love these children as their own and treat them as their own.  Susan expressed to me her determination that no one would ever look at her children and say, "Oh, those poor orphan children."   She related how that the principal at their school was reluctant to enroll them.

"Village children don't do well here," he said.  "They don't fit in, they steal because they don't have spending money."

As you can imagine, Susan was not about to let a little thing like that deter her.  She stands by the door every morning as the kids rush to the pick-up van and hands them each their spending  money for the day.  The children are always well dressed.  She and Bro Paul takes them on outings and gives them birthday parties.  She teaches English in the evenings, after dinner.  Bro. Paul conducts family worship before bedtime.  One of my favorite memories with the kids was in the family room, during devotions.  As Bro. Paul was earnestly urging the children to guard their eyes and ears from evil, a pair of plastic handcuffs dangled from one wrist, snapped on surreptitiously by a mischievous imp named Danny.

Most of these children are not true orphans.  Some of them have parents in jail or who are otherwise incapacitated.  Many were being raised by family members.  Jan is the only child who was not from the dysfunctional Children's Home.  Her tale is heartbreakingly common and one that is of special concern to Sis. Susan.  A bright girl of 13 who loved school, her family could no longer afford to send her to school.  She was pulled out and was to join her family working the fields until she could be married off.  Of course, this situation was not ideal and would have been the end of any opportunity for her to get an education.  Her family contacted the Browns, to see if they had room for her.  In God's gracious providence, they had one last spot open and Jan was just the sort of girl they were looking for.

This is the vision Susan has for the future of their children's home.  As they fulfill the legal obligations (something their former partner studiously avoided) they hope to be cleared to have up to twenty children to raise and educate.  There are so many needs, so many orphaned and abandoned children.  They can't reach them all.  They can't rescue them all.  But what can be done is to take steps to clear a path for a brighter future for all of them.  Young people who speak Lahu (and other tribal languages) and understand the unique culture, raised in a loving home with the opportunity to learn Thai and English, get Thai citizenship, be educated and (Lord willing) be saved and instilled with a strong sense of mission; what a force for good these young people can be for the future of their people!

As I look back on the weeks I spent, getting to know the ministry and mission of the Browns, I am so thankful for this opportunity.  Beside the adventurous thrill of hiking beside jungle waterfalls, riding elephants bareback and speeding down the river in a longtailed boat (we did do some touristy things after all!) the true excitement and joy came from hearing beloved hymns sung in a strange tongue, prayers offered from the heart, unintelligible to me, but precious before the throne of Grace, looking into a brown and wrinkled face and recognizing a kinswoman of the soul.

These impressions will stay with me always.  I will forever have an interest in South East Asia and the tribal villages in general.

 I will remember and pray for Preston, William, Andy, Jay, Bang, Danny, Molly and Jan in particular.

To know and tell the stories of . . .
The Lahu cook with her Lisu husband who deliver hot meals on the back of a motorcycle, 
The firebrand native evangelist who is making inroads into the unreached villages, 
The Grandpa who is up at 3 a.m. praying for those under his care, 
The Grandma who crochets year round in order to have Thanksgiving presents for over two hundred village children,

This is why I went to Thailand.