Hello, friends. Hope all is well with you. I am enjoying my new home here in Chiang Mai, and continuing to get to know my neighbors. The weather is heating up again, so it's back to the air conditioning. It is so dry now, my garden requires watering every day. But the orchids in my garden are loving it, and giving me lots of flowers!
I have been doing all kinds of random things these last few months. Seems like everywhere I go, I find another opportunity for ministry. I have preached twice in Thai in recent weeks. It's still a challenge, but slowly getting better. I see my friend, Rung, when I go to Bangkok, and we continue to spend time together. An Australian Baptist missionary couple I know have been taking her to church sometimes, showed her the Jesus film, and gave her some written materials. Rung just loves this family and especially their two beautiful daughters. But she said there were many things that she still didn't understand, and my Thai is a little easier to understand than theirs. So she has been asking me her more complex questions about Christianity, and I try to answer as best I can! It's a joy to work as a team with this Australian family and see how God is using each of our different gifts to touch Rung's life.
I have also been teaching art classes for the New Life Center girls. The classes are packed, with waiting lists, and the girls are having lots of fun. Recently, we have been doing beaded jewelry. The girls are making some beautiful pieces, and are gaining skills, which they can use in the future, if they choose to. It's exciting to see the pride in their eyes as they wear their creations. Also, we have had some good news about the adult education classes. As you will remember, we have been concerned because the government is beginning to close the adult education programs our girls currently attend. Within 3 years, the program will be completely closed, severely limiting the options for our kids. In response to this crisis, a local Catholic school has decided to start up some evening adult education classes. Not all of our girls are eligible, as the minimum age is 16, and they have to have a citizenship card. Also, the fees will be twice what we have been paying. But at least some of our kids will be able to continue studying when their section of the government school closes. Please continue to pray that God will provide options for the others who cannot attend the Catholic school.
A few weeks ago, I had a little setback. My house was broken into. Thankfully, my computer, and camera were not taken. But they did take most of my good jewelry, broke some things, and made a mess of the place. Some jewelry I had inherited from my mother was taken, including a family crest ring I had received from my grandmother. So that was disappointing. It also feels so violating to know that someone came into my home and went through my stuff. But in the end, I know it's just stuff. And I feel grateful that God has provided more than enough to take care of all my needs. So losing jewelry is just a small thing compared to the needs of those around me.
This truth was really brought home to me last weekend, when I went to visit the Beclaw Karen Refugee Camp in Mae La (about 5 hours from Chiang Mai). I spent 2 nights in the camp, sleeping in a bamboo hut. I went with some other missionaries to attend the graduation of 46 students from the Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School there. A large percentage of the Karen tribe is Baptist, and they trace their roots back to the ministry of Adoniram Judson, so it was exciting to see the fruits of his labor so many years later. Some of the leaders there have master's degrees and doctorates, and spoke excellent English, so it was easy for us to communicate. The camp is right on the border with the Burmese jungle, just an hour's hike away. An estimated 45,000 Burmese people from the Karen tribe now live at this refugee camp, the largest of the camps along the Burmese border. People are permitted to build huts using bamboo and leaves provided by local NGOs (non-government organizations). But they are not permitted to leave the camp to work, so there is little opportunity for income. There are wells and a small river to provide water, but it has to be boiled before it can be consumed. Life is hard there, and the village was dusty and primitive. I imagine the rainy season is a muddy mess. Forest fires were burning in the surrounding hills, which is natural during the dry season. So smoke hovers like a heavy fog in the air for months on end, and produces many cases of respiratory illness in the camp. Most people have nothing...just what they were able to carry through the jungle in their hurried escape. The section of the camp that we were permitted to go into is the more luxurious section, because it has electricity. People in the camp live mostly on rice, fish paste, and vitamins provided by NGOs. Sometimes they do get vegetables, but there is almost no space in the camp to grow their own crops. I did see a few geese and 2 pigs, but certainly not enough to go around.
But even harder than seeing the squalor these refugees live in was hearing the stories of what they had suffered in Burma. Children summarily shot in front of their parents. Women gang raped by soldiers. Being chased through the forest for 5 years or more. Villages burned and land mined so no one could return. Men forced to carry soldiers' baggage and walk through land mined areas ahead of the soldiers. Even the president of the Bible school, a well known, respected and educated man tells of how when he left Burma, he got to the border and was forced to choose between giving up his elderly father or the possessions his family carried. He chose to keep his father, and handed their bags over to the soldiers. What these tribal people have suffered is just unthinkable. And yet...their faith endures. The Bible school choir was the most powerful I have ever heard. They sang the Hallelujah Chorus in Karen and brought me to tears. The Christians in the camp sing from morning until nighttime, starting at 4:30 am with the orphans choir roving around the camp. They worship and listen to Bible teaching for hours. The evening before the graduation, there was a foot-washing service in which the school professors washed the feet of the students. It was a powerful message to everyone who attended. I also heard testimonies from the students that were deeply Spirit-inspired. I saw such life and light in their eyes that it could only have come from God. Though some were beginning to despair, others encouraged them with words of hope. They reminded one another that God has not forgotten them.
I would like to share with you a poem written by the Principal of the Bible School at the Mae La Refugee Camp. Another Karen wrote music to go with the poem, and the students sang it at graduation in both English and Karen.
They call us a displaced people, but praise God; we are not misplaced.
They say they see no hope for our future, but praise God; our future is as bright as the promises of God.
They say they see the life of our people is a misery, but praise God, our life is a mystery.
For what they say is what they see, and what they see is temporal. But ours is the eternal.
All because we put ourselves in the hands of God we trust.
Since Burma is a neighbor to Thailand, the crisis there affects us in countless ways. Since 1996, an estimated 1,000,000 Burmese people have been displaced from their villages. 200,000 have fled to Thailand as refugees. This influx of refugees is a real strain on Thai resources. The injustices committed against Burmese Karens are also felt by Thai Karen family members here. Many Burmese women end up in prostitution in our cities. Other Burmese have found their way into Thailand, and offer cheap labor and are easily exploited. But most importantly, we Christians grieve the suffering of our brothers and sisters who live just hours away, hoping to make it through another day. In many ways, we feel so powerless to help these desperate people. But I hope you will join me in praying for the displaced people in Burma, and the refugees in the Beclaw Camp. I don't know if my visit was meaningful for them, but if I gave encouragement to even one person, I know it was worth the trip.
Blessings to you.
Your Sister in Christ,
(For more information about the situation in Burma, you can go to www.prayforburma.org )