Thursday, July 31, 2008

July 27: As Usual, I Don't Know What's Going On

Sunday, July 27

As usual, I don't know what's going on. On Saturday, Thra Simon laid out the next day = we would go back North to the KNLA headquarters for worship again, then I could catch a ride into Mae Sot (south) to cross back into Burma legally and renew my visa. Imagine my surprise when we turned south after leaving the camp and drove to Mae Sot. When we reached the town limits, Thra Simon asked me where I wanted to go. I said that I thought we were going to worship somewhere. But no. He'd gotten a call that the woman we had visited the weekend before (the one in the hospital bed with the IV) had died and they were going to the funeral. Apparently, I was going to the bridge to renew my visa. If I had known, I wouldn't have worn my Karen clothing. So I walked across the bridge, a white woman wearing Karen into the offices of the Myanmar border police. Well, they chuckled and made a comment, but I felt a bit foolish.

After a good western lunch I went shopping in the market. I bought more sarong material which needed to be sewed up so I went to "my" seamstress. As I sat waiting for her to finish, one of the nearby merchants in market came up and started talking about me. She rubbed my arms and asked "Are you Karen." Well, no. I'm American. That seemed to elicit a barrage of conversation among the merchants. One of them was dragged up to talk to me. "How old are you, Mother" he asked. A perfectly polite question there. It took them a moment to understand "58" though I'm sure they were simply stunned. "You look beautiful" he said. I asked the woman how old she was. 40. Perhaps she thought I was her age (I'm such a dreamer). Their lives age them, though at the moment I think my life is aging me.


July 26: Is an educated Ministry Necessary?

Journal Saturday, July 26

We left school at noon yesterday to make the trip to Mae Sariang. It's about 5 hours on a twisty mountain road that doesn't look anything like the only highway between two cities. The plants are taking over in some places; in other place, the edges have crumbled the 2 lane highway into a one lane road. The views were breathtaking. For awhile, it runs beside the Moie River with the rugged hills of Burma on the other side. Then it veers into Thailand, down into valleys filled with rice paddies and up into highlands covered with jungle. Just when you think you've had enough of the roller coaster ride, it flattens out and leads into Mae Sariang, a small city (or large town) much less crowded and hectic than the border city of Mae Sot. It's a beautiful town, peaceful and flowery with its own style of Buddhist architecture, quite ornate eaves and tiered roofs which aren't consigned only to the wats. Even the spirit houses and bulletin boards use the motif.

We (Doe Doh, Mamu and I) were there to pick up Gail Mou (Mamu's husband) who has been teaching in the Bible school there for the past week. The school was started five years ago by Pat and Jeffrey Anderson, an elderly missionary team from Great Britain who refuse to retire. They tried, but they moved back to Thailand and started something new instead. Mostly through small donations, their foundation, Crestos, has helped them reach and care for people in Singapore and Thailand. Now, it has helped them start an orphanage in a small village just outside Mae Sariang, and buy an old rice mill and failed hotel which are now a Bible college. The rice mill has become an assembly hall and the hotel is their hostel, class rooms, recording studio, office, and living quarters. They've also built dorms, started a piggery for its methane as well as the meat, dug a catfish/tilapia pond, and other stuff I can't remember. I can't find them on the internet, but their lives are making a difference in the world, unlike much of what you can find on the internet.

The school is a true Bible college for Thai Karens. The curriculum is the Bible. Covering a chapter a class and looking at every verse, they go through the entire Bible during their four year course of study. There are about 68 students there, some with very little prior education. We arrived in time for "family night" when they celebrate the birthdays of all of the July babies. Part of the celebration was a debate for the fun of it. The question: is an educated ministry necessary? That seems to be a big question there. They seem to agree that a Bible school of some sort is necessary, but does a pastor have to have passed 10 level? The debate (like the classes) was in Karen, so I'm not sure what they said but I gather the winning side essentially said that even the person in the kitchen with no education ministers. It seems to beg the question, but I suspect the debate itself was less important than the experience and fun.

I slept in the "hotel" on a real bed with my own bathroom that wasn't just INSIDE the building, it was inside my room. Such luxury. And a western breakfast of cereal, milk and toast. I woke in time for the morning worship (6:00). It was distinctly different from the morning worship at KKBBSC. Jeff sat on the couch with the translator (neither he nor Pat speak Karen though they know Thai) and the students sat scattered on the floor. After a song and prayer, one of them read a Psalm which Jeff then explained. Real questions were encouraged, then the time was over. It lasted over an hour, but the time flew by (possibly because they made me sit on the couch – I love this Pee business – and my butt was very happy). It wasn't the mindless rote recitation I hear every morning. The children don't really know what they're saying in English, but they dutifully sing the sounds and read the words. At least, that's how it feels.

The others stayed in the orphanage where Gail Mou has been living. They came around and gathered me up for shopping. Gail Mou is a small business man. He buys cheap and sells a little higher. When he's in Mai Sariang (an area he knows well since he came from Mirapu camp which is an hour away) he stops at the Karen Women's shop and buys up Karen shirts, bags, and skirts because he says it's the cheapest place to get them. So, of course so did I. I bought a scarf the women use as a hat and I'll use as a stole. After a trip to Saturday market, we left for the twisty ride home. Why do you get so tired just sitting in the car?


July 20: Another Day of Thanksgiving

 (I'll be traveling on Thursday, so I've posted this entry a day early.)

Journal Sunday, July 20

It was another day of thanksgiving, this time in Klee Thee Klou. Newton is starting the Batchelor of Theology program that he's been dreaming about and today was the service to thank God for the dream coming to fruition. There are seven students and miscellaneous volunteer teachers led by a woman who just returned home for getting her Master's in India, a graduate of KKBBSC.

It was good to be back there with Newton and Boo Poh. Felt like home. The students were introduced during the service and of course they sang. Two hours later, as the third sermon was getting started, I was sure it would never end...but it did. It ended with pictures being taken of the students and the illustrious guests. After talking with Newton, I've decided to spend my last 2 weeks down there helping with the English. Paw Thwe Wah is teaching English; I've heard her teach the kids living in the church's dorm and it's not inspiring. She teaches as she was taught in Burma – rote repetition. I've included a picture of her at the waterfall a few weeks ago. She recently came over from Burma and is illegal so she rarely leaves the village. Not only was she out (mostly because she was in the company of 2 Europeans and the police checks rarely bother with cars driven by Europeans) but she was wearing pants for the first time in her life. She's in her 30's, and the pants were an incredibly liberating experience for her.

When we got to Mae Sot on the drive home, Simon turned into side streets on the edge of the city and stopped at a nice house behind gated walls (which is typical here). I had no idea what was going on as we all (the group included 7 students who went as a choir to sing at the service) climbed out of the car, kicked off our shoes, and entered the house. In the first room, a frail old woman sat cross-legged at the foot of a bed. When Simon and Saw Li Tu went into another room, I caught a glimpse of an elderly man, very portly, sitting in a chair. We were there to pray for him. the students sang and Simon prayed. When he finished, the woman began singing "The Church in the Wild Wood", her favorite hymn. They served us Tang and we left. The man is Saw Tamala Baw, the chairman of the Karen National Union who replaced Ba Thin Sein (who I told you was President. Apparently, titles are flexible.) He's elderly and very ill; there are elections in the Fall.

Next, we visited a very frail, elderly woman in a compound of homes for elderly people on a back alley in Mae Sot. As a Rev. and foreigner, I was ushered into her small room with Dr. Simon and Tee Toh (head teacher at the school) while the students sang outside her door. She was helped to sit up by the helper in the home who tenderly washed her with a wet cloth. In great dignity, the woman sat cross-legged on her mattress. I wanted so much to take a picture – my camera was on my lap – but it seemed an invasion of privacy. Sometimes, I surreptitiously snap a shot during the prayer, but Simon asked me to pray. As I prayed, with the young people outside and the old person, "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything" (well, actually, she had eyes) I thought of the journey of life, how long and fast it is, and how we will become what she is. There was a time when she controlled life, now it controls her. I don't know who she was but I was told later that her husband (now deceased) has been an important Karen juror. Now she sits up with help and listens to the songs and prayers without sign of recognition – except for the warm, toothless smile she gave me as we held hands and I left. There were others. We would stop and I would dutifully get out, not knowing where I was or why we were there, and we made the Sunday afternoon calls on the elderly, the sick, and the dying. I miss that. There was a 94 year-old woman in a hospital type bed with IV, oblivious to our presence as she seemed to look out the window; an elderly man who was Simon's uncle, and an elderly man who was Tabluh Htoo's cousin and Tee Toh's grandfather. It's a small community here; many of them were KNU workers of some sort, possibly the ones who started the struggle, now it's left to the next generation. And they're going to third countries.


July 19: Papa's Birthday

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The day started at 5, as usual, but that was all that was usual. Instead of unsteady violins, I was awakened by the sound of giggling and chairs being moved outside me window, which was the wrong wall for the noise. I got dressed to see what was going on, and the common room was now all chairs, the hot water table had become a worship place, and the kids were all sitting on the veranda. Thra Simon was among them and I asked what was going on.

"For my birthday," he said with ill-concealed glee. "The senior students have been invited for worship."

Less than half of them came, so there were many empty chairs. I don't know their reason for not coming. Five o'clock is the usual time for getting up. But I think Thra Simon and Tablut Htoo were a little disappointed. The students led the worship in Karen, so I can't tell you what they said though singing "Happy Birthday" was part of it.

"Papa's" birthday is definitely a big deal. Yesterday, they killed the fatted pig, a sight I've been avoiding but inadvertently saw. Thra Simon's kitchen has been the busiest place in the camp as they prepare food for all of the guests and dignitaries. I got in the way and poked my nose in the kettles trying not to see the pig's head in the basin by the stove. The men who had slaughtered the pig kept bringing in pieces and laying them on the table. I hope the Board of Health never visits this place. There were basins of garlic and onion, what may be banana leaves in noodle sized strips, "sea flowers" which I think is a white seaweed, curly fungus that might be mushrooms, lemongrass, and pig parts. I'm such a hypocrite. I'll eat the meat, which I did for supper – small pieces of well cooked ribs. I must remember to become a vegetarian.

The "thanksgiving service" lasted for 2 ½ hours and was quite a big deal. Simon had invited the 15 member American team that had come by on Thursday to return at 11:00 on Saturday, so he obviously intended to invite them to his party, though that wasn't what they had in mind. They wanted to witness to refugees. They had no idea what they were in for. They sat uncomfortably on stage, I suspect as a show piece for Thra Simon. The Chairman of the KRC, Robert Htee spoke (He's also some officer in the KKBBSC) and Newton preached. Then various groups performed and Newton's mother, the eldest woman there, prayed for all who had July birthdays. There is a certain reverence given to elders, and especially the crones. Kind of nice, now that I seem to be on the receiving end of that.

The meal afterwards was grand: fish, chicken, all kinds of pork, soup, some greens, and birthday cake for dessert. I spent the rest of the day showing Americans around. First, the witnessing team, then 2 from Colonel Tim. He's an American who was here 2 weeks ago interviewing the WWII vets. His mind goes a mile a minute and doesn't seem to be particularly focused but he seems to get things done. His real goal is to find ways to support the pro-democracy movement in Burma (smells of CIA to me) and to do that he's created his own NGO that seeks to synchronize the work of all of the different groups, as well as doing some kind of energy thing in Burma. His efforts have been a little sidetracked by the Nargis debacle. This summer, he's gathered a group of his daughter's college friends to help him set up an office in Mae Sot and start fundraising. He's also doing a video (hence the videographer who came today. But it's difficult to get a good picture of what he's doing (which seems to be the problem his volunteers are having.

Another effort that reminds me of CIA undercover work to overturn governments is the Free Burma Rangers. I'm not thinking of the idealistic folks who are taking medical supplies into Burma, but the leader of the group, I'm told, is an ex- Navy SEAL or some such elite group. I wonder.

This week I've felt terrible homesickness. I've attributed it to this being the 6 week mark, which is when I usually go home, but I think there's another factor. If I were settled here and knew I were staying, I'd probably still be up for the adventure of it. But my life is definitely temporary. I'm in a dark room with no daylight and no air flow and a lot of dust from decaying bamboo walls. I have no control over my go-to-sleep time; I'm dependent on the whims of the folks in the common room on the other side of the wall. In the morning, I'm awakened before I want to be. I "put up with it" because I know it's only temporary. If I were staying longer, I'd beg a hammer and nails to put more places to hang clothes in the latrine. I'd move to a brighter room or clean the one I have in spite of the dust. I would settle in.

This camp is like that = a temporary, makeshift jungle of bamboo buildings that has settled in. It wasn't built to last. Any day they would return home. But, for the old timers on this side of the stream it's been 18 years. Houses spread out and accommodations are made. William has lined the walk to his house with stones and potted plants. He has a small plot of carefully planted grass inserted blade by blade into the clayey ground. I kid him that he'll need a lawn mower to replace the scissors he now uses to mow his lawn. I can see him as the suburban house holder, every weekend working on his small piece of the world, happy as a clam because that's what he's doing now in this temporary place that promises to last too long.

Soon, I'll be leaving. I have only two more weeks of classes here at Mai La. And like hundreds of other volunteers, I'll go home and leave them here. A few days ago, William sadly noted that so many have said they'd stay in touch or send a book or CD to help him with his studies, but they always forget. They get on with their very different lives and Mai La and its "temporary" residents seem a world away, which they are.


Undated: Grandmother Marcia


Journal 11

Why do they keep calling me Pee (grandmother)? I know it's meant with the utmost respect, but how do they know I'm not 25? That's how old I feel. Except in the morning when I'm trying to get up from a wooden bed and extricate myself from mosquito netting. I'll have to dye my hair again.

Every week, I find an excuse to take the hour trip into Mae Sot, which means spending the night since the line buses stop at noon. I don't do it for the accommodations. The beds are only marginally better than wood. I don't do it for a hot shower because they aren't. I don't do it for the night life. I think there is some but I haven't found it. I choose to stay in out of the rain and sleep for 10 hours. I might do it for the food, a taste of Western at Dave's café with bacon and eggs for breakfast. But I think I do it just for the hustle and bustle of "real" life. Mae Sot is a major metropolis. Two traffic lights. And a lot of motorbikes, some cars and trucks. It's a change from the surreal quiet of the camp and the feeling of confinement. I would make a terrible refugee. I catch the 7:45 bus out in the morning and just watch the traffic, the people going off to work, taking kids to school on the motorbike, opening shops, and starting life again, and I return to the sense of waiting.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

July 12: Visiting the Clinic

Journal July 12

Thra Simon took me and Ebenezer (a Swedish pastor originally a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka. A good portion of his congregation is now Karen refugees, so he came to see what was going on) to Dr. Cynthia's clinic. The clinic has been around for about 20 years and provides medical care for Burmese illegals, the ones without refugee status. I don't know what the figures are on them; I've heard there are about 300 living at the dump in Mae Sot but I haven't located the dump yet. Many are migrant farm workers. I remember when I worked at the Cambodian refugee camp on the other side of Thailand in 1981, many of the people coming in from Cambodia hadn't gone into camps. They were "sheltered" by Thai families, many of them being used for slave labor. That seems to be somewhat true here. Employment is tenuous. Dr. Simon told me that 17 or 18 bodies were found in the rivers – a work detail the employer decided was cheaper to shot than pay. Because they're illegal, they have no recourse if the person who offers them work doesn't pay them.

I'd heard about the clinic since coming to Mae La. To get to it, you turn into an unprepossessing side road between shops. The whole compound of buildings seems to be the clinic with places to sleep, people everywhere, a room filled with mothers and children. I have a few pictures, but it wasn't a place I felt comfortable photographing. Too personal. Ebenezer wanted to see Dr. Cynthia whom he had met when she came to Sweden to accept the "alternate" Nobel peace prize given by the King. I'm not sure the person taking the message understood him (I have problems) and returned with the message that she was too busy to see anyone. I didn't meet her, but I checked her out on-line. Try this link:

July 11: Discovering the "Future"

journal 9
July 11, 2008

My time at the camp is more than half over and I'm beginning to think of home. The head teacher, Ti Toh comes over periodically to check on "his" computer. I'm giving my laptop to him and I think he wants to make sure I don't break it before he gets it. I showed him the Bible study programs last night and he was jumping in his chair with excitement. But his real enthusiasm is for the internet. What a difference it makes to the people here, yet it's opening them up to the world. They have very limited access to computers. There is a computer lab with some older desktops and a teacher but only the older students are scheduled for classes. Some of the teachers have laptops left by volunteers like me, and an Australian has generously provided satellite. Students gather around my laptop in the evening, setting up their first email account and discovering "Facebook" type sites where they begin using their new English to talk to people outside of the camp! They also hear from friends who have gone to third countries, who send pictures and keep in touch. It's hard for us to imagine how exciting that can be for young people for whom the bamboo-barbed wire fence has defined their world.

Last night a student came to my room and asked if he could talk with me. I was sitting on the floor using my laptop, so he settled on the floor. He's 32 and suddenly realizing the power of education.

"From 12 to last year I didn't really pay any attention to school. I'm not clever, but I want to do something to help my people." When he finishes at the Bible school this year, he wants to go to Australia and work on a degree in Political Science because he thinks that will give him the tools to come back and be a leader for his people. We talked for a few hours. He doesn't use the computer. He doesn't know how to search the internet. He doesn't know what's available in the world. He doesn't know what his gifts are. He doesn't really know what a degree in Political Science will prepare him to do. We looked at a few schools to see what kind of courses he would be taking and what it would prepare him to do, but he has a lot of work ahead of him. I think, for the first time, they're beginning to consider the "future". They are realizing that there are now options to sitting in the camp and playing the guitar all day. They have the difficult task of considering the impact on their personal lives and balancing the needs of their community and the continual desire of the Karens to return to their land and to be autonomous (or at least semi-autonomous. They're proposing a federalist form of government for Burma which had been the original promise.) But that desire is affected by a generation now raised in the camps. I asked my class when they had come to the camp and almost all of them were either born here or were brought by their parents when they were a few years old. This is what they know; Burma or Kawthoolie is a story told by their parents. If this generation goes to a third country, will they come back to help their people? This is like the Babylonian Captivity or the great Diaspora. How do you keep a sense of "people" when the community is scattered. This camp time will be crucial to the Karen's (and other Hill Tribes) understanding of who they are as a people.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

July 1: Have You Eaten Yet?

"Have you eaten yet?"

People keep asking me if I've eaten.

It seemed to me they were overly concerned about my personal life. It finally occurred to me that, instead of asking "How are you?" when they meet, the Karen ask if you've eaten. If you haven't, they feed you. They're showing their concern for you and sharing what they have. But Tuc tells me that's changing. The price of food, especially rice, has made the question more perfunctory than authentic. They may offer water or something to drink, but many people are feeling too insecure to offer rice. The word for "rice" is also the word for "yes". Food is central to their understanding of relationship and to their life view. Though farming has been a part of their culture for a while, they aren't far from hunter/gathers. Life in the camp has sent them back to that in some ways. There isn't a lot of land left for raising food.

To understand their situation, we have to understand the idea of "land." Though many of us (myself excluded) own small plots of land on which our homes sit, we aren't tied to that "acre." We could as easily sell it and move elsewhere. We come from elsewhere and move to elsewhere. When someone asks me where I'm from, I have to answer "the Philadelphia area" (though I've really only lived there for 20 years of my life), but my heart answers Vermont. I've never lived in Vermont. My mother has never lived in Vermont. Her parents moved from there before World War I, but that's the home of my heart. For the Karen, it's Kawthooli – Karen State – an area artificially split by a political border. Ideally, Kawthooli embraces the hill country shared by Burma and Thailand. I remember hearing about the Karen in the 1970's, when I worked on the ABC national staff. I was told then that the "Hill Tribes" move back and forth across the border which they feel has been artificially created. Many were still using slash-and-burn agricultural methods. When the land gave out, they just moved the village. They were semi-nomadic; the central social unit was the village (which was usually an extended family), and, like the Native Americans, the land wasn't owned, it just was. It was their place to be. They've been forced by an expanding world to settle; and now their forced to be settled on a small plot of land crowded with people. This prison is a far cry from the recent past when they moved in small groups around their land.

The course to their present dilemma is too complex for me to relate. If you're not familiar with it, I suggest you read "Land without Evil" by Rogers (which I've probably already mentioned and I'm sorry if I'm repeating myself) and these sites: (which will lead you to other sites), , ,


June 30: Not Camp Related

(above: baptism)

June 30, 2008

Saturday – Shirley and I, with Rhonda and Sarah, went off to find the caves and hot springs mentioned in a sign along the road to the camp. But first, Rhonda and I had to renew our visas. We showed our passports to the Thai immigration folks at the foot of the Friendship Bridge, filled out the forms, and walked across. On the other side, we paid our 500 Bahts to friendly Myanmar officials, turned around and walked back for a new 30 day Thai visa. We then waited over an hour for Shirley to return to pick us up. Unfortunately, she was waiting for us on the other side of the road. Debacle #1.

We met Brian and crew for lunch at a very good restaurant that actually served pizza, but we didn't have time for it. They were going with us to the cave, following on motorbikes. But they went back to their guest house first to change – and never showed up at the cave. Unfortunately, we did.

After driving into the back country in search of this hot tourist attraction, we arrived to find all of the signs in Thai. They might have told us that the cave was at the top of the mountain. We started climbing steps up the hill and through the jungle. Rhonda turned back but the rest of us plodded forward. I guess it was worth it. There was not view at the top, only jungle. The cave was enormous, but by the time we reached it, it was getting dark and looked a lot like more rain. We went back down stairs, and stairs, and stairs.

We found the hot springs on the other side of where we had parked the car. Though a few of the stalls were occupied by hopeful merchants, most had closed for the season, as had the spring. There was an area that must be a large pool/beach during the tourist season – whenever that is – but it was empty.

We drove back to Mae Sot, Shirley ran over a huge curb and the car broke down. Thus ended day one of my weekend.

Sunday – I foolishly climbed into the back of the bus/truck so I could see the sights along the road. The road was twisty and potted; I was bruised and disheveled when we arrived at the church. We'd driven from back roads to backer roads to get there. "There" was through a cluster of houses and the end of the road; a small complex of wooden buildings looking over an incredible vista of corn fields, village, valleys and mountains. After consulting briefly with the young pastor, Rev. Newton began walking down a narrow path through the corn and into the valley. We followed. We walked down the hill and through the village below, the pastor gathering people along the way, stopping at 2 houses especially to collect the two men being baptized. After the village, we walked through another field to a muddy "river." Only a few hundred feet on the other side, a farmer was working his rice paddy as we gathered by the river. Amid hymns and prayers, the men confirmed their new life in Christ and waded out of the river, dripping on the mud. We then wended our way back up the path, through the village, up the hill, and to the church.

There was still time before the church service, so we were invited into the pastor's home for a huge breakfast of rice, hot crab sauce, rice, cucumbers, rice, chicken, rice, noodle soup, and rice. As the girls who had come to sing for the service watched TV, I wandered around with my camera until the service started. The small building was packed. The pastor had said the congregation was 105 and I believe it. The children pulled me to the front pew to sit with them; they crammed into the small space in front, some under the table. There was energetic singing, then the service started and Newton pulled me to the chairs in the front. I was to bring "a word of encouragement" but I didn't really understand that I was supposed to preach so I encouraged them. There was another minister who arrived unexpectedly as the service started, and his message was definitely a sermon. Have I told you I don't usually know what's going on? I just go with the flow. After the service, the children and (I guess) non-members left. The 2 men and their wives (who were already members of the church) were invited forward and Newton married them. They now have a Christian marriage. Then Newton served communion much as we do, though I have no idea what he said. We then shook hands all around, piled back into the bus/truck, and bounced our way home. Thus began my Sunday.

As soon as we returned to Klue Thee Klo, we left for Mae Sot and a "thanksgiving." These are services held in people's homes for birthdays, memorials for a person who has passed, or special events. Sitting in a young man's room (I assume it was his; there were pictures of a body builder on the wall) we sang and prayed and Boo Po preached. There must have been about 60 people there, sitting in the room and on the floor of the porch outside. When it was over, we ate. I asked which one was the birthday boy. Apparently, he has already moved to Canada, but the thanksgiving is given without his presence.

The bus/truck driver took me to the center of town and I caught a line bus/truck back to the camp. I walked the mile of muddy road back into camp, just making it before the rains came – again.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

June 26: Food and Bibles

(Above: Morning Chores)

journal 5
June 26, 2008

Yesterday I talked with Wa Do, one of the teachers here who is probably the most active in trying to make a difference inside Burma. He's working with the Karen Baptist Youth ("youth" is young adults) to send supplies into the churches affected by Nargis. The latest count is 110,000 dead. Can we possibly comprehend that? About 70 families have made their way to Mae La and the Baptists are trying to supply them with food, pots and pans, mosquito netting and mats. They're also sending supplies across the border in minibuses and small trucks. The supplies include rice, mats, and netting. They have to pay the Burmese border police to get them through, but they're getting through – a few trucks a week. It's a lot for them to undertake and organize with very little funds, but it's only a tiny drop compared to the need. Wa Do hopes to focus on one church (we're talking about a community), get it up and going with housing and supplies. Rather than trying to send a little to a lot, send a lot to a little, then move on to the next little. Their crops are gone and the ground saturated with salt (which I hadn't thought about). I gave him what I had in my wallet (10,000 baht – around $330) for this week's shipment. He said it would buy around ten 45 kilo bags of rice. That gift is from you.

He'd really like to get Bibles in Karen to the people as a sign of hope. Would you like me to pursue that?

Apparently, there was a news piece on the TV a few nights ago showing how much the Burmese government is doing to help its people. There was a shot of rows of color coordinated tents, but strangely no people. And a shot of happy people receiving supplies. Their clothes were all similar – and coordinated with the uniforms of the soldiers handing them the supplies. They were all picture perfect and beautiful. Those who saw it said it was an obvious piece of staging. The reality is, the government is siphoning off most of what's sent in, but there's no other way to get it in.

Tomorrow I go to Burma to renew my visa. Don't panic, Mom. It's done by most foreigners. I just go to the bridge, cross over, pay them $10 to stamp my passport and cross back into Thailand for a new 30 day visa. They say there's a dramatic difference across the river. I'll let you know.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

June 23: Mostly a Rant

Journal 4 June 23, 2008

Yesterday, I preached at First Church in Mai Sot (Thai Karen). They're without a pastor at the moment. He was asked to "go on retreat" for a while for moral impropriety, something that's unheard of among Karen churches, especially at the prestigious First Church. It has caused a split in the church and, since this doesn't happen often, I don't know what resources they have for facing the problem. Well, of course they have prayer, but certainly not the experience with conflict American churches have. Newton asked me to preach on Saturday evening because, of course, a preacher can preach any time, any where. And me without my books and resources. I didn't even have proper clothing, so Boo Po gave me (for keeps) a beautiful Karen shirt and skirt. I don't know what the interpreter said, so I don't know how the sermon came out. Karen Baptists are, possibly more reserved than American Anglo congregations if such a thing is possible. This morning, in the chapel service, Thra Simon asked me to bring the message tomorrow morning. I didn't realize I was going to have to work while I was here.

I was sitting on my verandah with cat in lap thinking of my upcoming message when I remembered the TIME magazine I brought with me. March 23 issue: 10 ideas that are changing the world. I threw it in the suitcase at the last minute thinking it might be useful in class, but once I arrived and read it in the midst of Mai La, I realized how ridiculous it is. These may be ideas that are changing our part of the world but two questions arise: should they? and how relevant are they for most of the world?

Idea #2 The end of customer service. And this is a good idea how? "With self serve technology, you"ll People here are scrambling to find a way to make a few baths. I look around at people living just a baby step above survival and that step is only because of international help. Most came here with only the baggage they could carry on their backs = if they weren't carrying the too young, too old, or too sick. And they aren't alone in the world. There are too many marginal people. If I had the internet right now, I might flood you with statistics, but numbers don't mean much. It's the faces that count, and they're all around us. Using a computer instead of talking to a human being not only reduces jobs, it increases frustration and the impersonalization of our culture. In a world crying out for community and connectedness, a culture that has been individualized to the point of fragmentation, we don't need less customer service; we need more.

The third idea that is changing the world is the "post-movie star era." Oh, come on! And we care why?

The fourth idea: reverse radicalism. Talk to disillusioned radicals to stop terrorism. Good idea, but great? And how is this such a radical idea? Why weren't we talking to them before. Why weren't we talking more to each other?

The fifth idea: Kitchen chemistry. Cooks are now looking at the chemical processes that change food. That too feels a bit irrelevant. At the moment, I'm not sure what I'm eating; I'm just glad to be eating. Food here is whatever they can grow, or scrounge, or have given to them, or can find cheap in the local market. I'm told the green stuff is morning glories and the soup for lunch was obviously fish head. A people's language reflect what's important. The word for rice, "mei", is also the word for "food" and "yes". They great each other not with "How are you," but with "Have you eaten." Just eating is an accomplishment Though I love to eat, I think we've become a bit obsessed by our food. We need to spend less time and energy on the "perfect meal" and more on making sure that everyone eats.

The sixth idea: geoengineering = using the same ingenuity that has gotten us into the global warming mess to fix it. Not to get us out – the writer contends that it's too late for that – but to find ways to ameliorate the situation. Not a bad idea, but potentially dangerous. We're too inclined to think that, if we can wash muddy clothes there's no reason not to step in the puddle. If we can put iron in the ocean to absorb carbon, it won't matter how big our carbon foot prints are.

The seventh idea: "synthetic authenticity." It doesn't matter how artificial something is, as long as we think it's "authentic." Again, as I look out on this crowded camp, that seems petty and narcissistic.

Idea eight: the new austerity. At last, something that makes sense. Actually live within your means and be grateful that you have means to live within. It's pretty pathetic that this is a "new" idea.

Idea nine: mandatory health. You can be fired for being out of shape or smoking or not taking care of yourself – which we should all be trying to do anyway.

Idea ten: judaizing Jesus. This is an interesting theological trend – though not entirely new since we talked about it when I was in seminary lo these many years ago - and affecting some Christians at the church level. This is an area of the world in which Christians are a very small percentage of the population, and the ones with which I live still have the perspective and practices of early 20th century missionaries. I would like to see them struggling with liberation theology. The younger leaders are on the brink of it, but they're being held back by the more traditional elders. The verb they're using is "fed up."

The first idea has the most relevance, so I've saved it for last: common wealth. "Our survival requires global solutions." We have to see beyond our borders if this world is to survive. There is no turning back on the global transportation and communications we've created. The men here are staying up all night to watch the Euro Cup; cell phones abound; the internet makes it possible for me to sit on my veranda and order books from Amazon while I check my bank statement and pay bills. These refugees can know what's going on in the world, and participate in the world, if they choose. This is very different from the refugee camp I worked in in 1981. There are few isolated corners of the world left. We need to work together as a world if we're going to continue to survive.

How about some other ideas that matter. I should get off of my soap box and into the pulpit but it's getting late and I'll save that for later. Sorry to rant, but I feel frustrated by this log jam of human beings. They can't go back or forward. It's no way to live a life or sustain a people.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

June 18: My Students' Voices

June 18

I look a fright. I'm either drenched in sweat or rain and usually both. The rainy season has definitely arrived, and when it rains, there is no internet. When it's sunny, there is no internet. Today, there is no electricity either so I'll type until my battery dies.

Classes have started. I'm teaching 2 English grammar 3 hrs a week each, Baptist polity for 2 hrs a week, another English grammar for 2 hrs on Friday and anyone who wants to come for 2 hours every evening. Some vacation. Though the students are pretty good at reading and writing, they have very little conversation. I'm focusing on basic verb tenses for the classes and trying to find ways to force them to create English. The evening is mostly games SO: ESL friends, if you know any good games I can use for fairly basic English, please send them on. I'll search the internet when I can, but I don't have much time on it at the moment. I've taught the progressive and imperative through Simon Says and charades, but I've always been a bit weak on games and creative techniques. I see this as a great opportunity to grow in that area. If you have any of the information gap pictures or things like that, I can get them copied. I have 50 hours of class to fill. Actually more because I can't get them to leave. Not a problem I have back home.

Last weekend, I met a man from Holland in Mae Sot and he came by to see the camp yesterday. His last job involved working with handicapped children so he wanted to see the handicapped house. I'm glad he came; I hadn't thought to go there. There were 9 men in when we came, just lying around – but it was break time. Most had lost various appendages; all were blind. Except for one man who was blinded by boxing in Burma, they had all been soldiers who had been wounded by missiles or land mines. There were about 20 in this part of the camp, some living with family. They're learning to read Karen in Braille, some English, and a lot of music. They sang for us. It was very impressive. They get around camp fairly well on the arms of small children, most of them from the orphanage, who have adopted the men. Shirley tells me that on National Day, when everyone crosses back into Burma for a several day celebration (for some reason permitted by the Burmese army), the men go too. They make their way across the river in rickety boats and are led by the boys for the 45 minute hike into the jungle. And they march proudly in the "parade". Wearing their uniforms, with whatever arms they have linked together and small boys leading the line, they march proudly. The people are proud of their soldiers, and as a community, they take care of the wounded.

Shirley led me to the market in the camp today. I was in desperate need of shoes that won't slip on this mud. I had a quite elegant fall yesterday. Going to market means going across the bridge into the main camp, which we aren't really supposed to do. The UN and Thai's claims the market isn't there, though how they can't see it is amazing. But, because it doesn't exist, they don't want to find any foreigners there, especially ones with cameras, so I haven't yet done my picture-taking thing. But I will so you can see my elegant mall and the luxurious neighborhood in which I live.

More than 400,000 baht (more than $12,000) have been raised in the camp and taken across the river to help the Nargis victims. About 20 Baptist families have been taken in by the Baptists in the camp; I don't know how many others have come. Shirley and I stopped for tea at an Indian stall in the market and there was an elderly gentleman in a cotton button shirt (unusual, most are in T shirts) who started talking to us in very good English. He was from a suburb of Rangoon. His son lives in Phoenix. His family was harassed though I'm not sure if it's because of his son in America or because he was Muslim, so he moved to the camp. His other son and his family were caught in Nargis, their home destroyed. They were without food or shelter for 48 hours, and he got them into the camp which is actually a fair distance away. I don't know how they got here, but they're safe. When money goes over from the camp, it has to go in American dollars, so I will give them what I have the next time they go and say it's from all of us.

Karen Hite, you would love the sounds here. This place is alive with music. The Karens love to sing and I've got the CD. Music is a required course that they all take after lunch. There are groups all over the place singing away. I just sit and enjoy.

I thought you might like to hear from my students (with only minor corrections). Many of them have left their families in Burma to attend the school:

My name is Peh Shee Way. I'm 27 and I have four brothers and 3 sisters. I'm younger one. I live in Plaw Lah Hay Village, Lapputta Township in Myanmar. My father is a pastor and my mother is a teacher. I have been here in three years. Now, I staying in dormitory. My father passed away in 1999. Now, my family are living in Myanmar. I miss my mother, my brother and my sisters.

Now, I heard about my family. I so sad because they are meeting by cyclone. So they have many troubles, they have many problems because the Governor of Burmees are defeating to them. We can't do for them. But we can praying for them. We are also refugees. We have no chance to go outside. We are staying along in this camp. but God giving us opportunity to learning His words, English, and other educate in our camp.

...My family stay in my village while I'm study in Maela. I worry about my family. Because now the Burmese soldiers attack to many who cover in Brigade 5 (this seems to indicate an area as well as an Karen army unit) and also attack my village too. So, I'm very sad because now my family is in the jungle. But always I pray to God for our Karen people who are living in jungle. – Naw (Miss) Lah Hser Paw Doh)

I'm a student. Now I'm studying in KKBBSC (Kawthooli Karen Baptist Bible School and College). Now my family live in Burma. I have no relative in Mae la but only one me. My families are poor and they provide their lives with ordinary work. They are selling rubber materials. In my village most the Karen people are grow the rubber trees and feeds their life. But no they are still under the rule of SPDC (Burmese army) government. They are chaining tightly under that ruling. They cant safe their lives while they are staying in the time of modern.

While I'm searching for wisdom, I live far from my family and I miss them too. I can do nothing for them. I'm just praying. – Saw (Mr.) Kaw Khu

My name is Saw Klo K'paw. I live in Mae Ra Moe camp. I hae two siblings and I am the eldest. My youngest sister is nine years younger than me.

My parents are Christian. When I was eight years old, I went to Sunday school. There teachers taught us Bible and tell us many stories about Jesus. S I heard God's word since I was small and know a little.

In 1992 I passed eight standard (grade) and stoped attending school to undertake the work for my nation. I worked as the soldier for 4 years.

Whenever I was in trouble I pray to God and tell my problems. And God helped me all the time. Besides I want to know more about Bible and want to help highland people who do not know Jesus and believe God yet.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

June 15: A Moveable Church

THANK YOU to everyone who responded. I'm working my way through the material. Classes start tomorrow. Obviously the internet is back - for now. This is a long one so either grab a cup of tea, save it, or delete it. And happy fathers day!


June 10 – Mai La - I've been at the camp - some. I arrived on Friday night, slept most of Saturday because I had no idea what to do or what I could do. They left me alone which meant I didn't know where to eat. Saturday evening I found my "savior". Shirley arrived. She's an Australian who has been teaching here for a year. This year, she'll only be here on Tuesday and Wednesday; the rest of the week she lives about 2 hrs south of the camp at Pastor Newton's. From there, she goes further south to Phopra where a small Baptist community has a school for IDP's (Internationally Displaced Persons). In this case, it's children. There are 300 in the school; about 170 live there. They're sent from Burma by their families to get an education and to keep them safe. In Burma, any person 12 years or older is conscripted for manual labor for a portion of each month. Phopra is only a few miles from the border. We took a drive down to see the river, though the water was too muddy to venture in. I spent Monday with Shirley at the school as she taught her English class. Unfortunately, my camera is broken (woe! and what will I do?) so there are no photos of this burgeoning community. The dorms are full (by the way, erase your image of a dorm. These are bamboo sheds with teak leaf roofs and cubicles which hold 4 or 5 children each. ) The class building for the high school is new – a concrete-block row of 5 or 6 rooms with half walls separating the rooms. The noise is deafening. Pastor Peaceful (his English name) hosted us in his home. Most of the homes shelter looms which are rented out to neighbors to make traditional Karen cloth. I bought some cloth for the traditional skirt since mine are all too short and my pants are too hot.

We spent Sunday and Monday nights at Pastor Newton's house. He and his wife who came here from Burma 20 years ago after the first outbreak are surrounded by their church community which has built a mission center. They too have boy's and girl's dorms for children who come during the week to go to the Thai school. The day begins at cockcrow with the sound of prayers and hymns and ends with the same. Newton and BouPo are the venerated elders, "grandparents" to this mass of children.

There is an incredible sense of community among the Karen; both the immediate community of their family and village and church, and the larger community of the Karen nation. I keep thinking of Hillary's book, "It Takes a Village". They live that. The children are cocooned within a community which supports each other. Shirley told me about one pastor. His church had come to Thailand in the 1980s (and they move together as a church). They wanted to return to their land – not specifically their family farm land because, for the next few years they moved from place to place as the Army moved through, burning villages. Though he wanted to stay in Thailand, he returned with the church, because a pastor stays with his people. It certainly made me think of our own culture in which pastors and parishioners move from community to community. Here, churches move. Obviously not the building but the real church – the people.

Shirley and I traveled south by baht bus and motorbike. We came north early this morning the same way, getting to the camp in time for chapel. I had been told there would be no classes today, they were still interviewing the 80 new students. After chapel I was told I had the first year students for 3 hours of English grammar. I tried to make them leave after 2 hours but they wouldn't go. Go figure!

I've written this on Tuesday afternoon but the internet is down. I don't know when you'll receive it.

June 12 – Mai La = I woke this morning to the smell of bacon. But Mom doesn't fry bacon in the morning! Then there was the sound of a violin and guitar tuning up, and I remembered where I was. Only a bamboo wall separates me from the gathering place for, well, I'm not sure who gathers there. Mostly kids but others as well. They begin the day with singing, prayer, and Bible readings. I usually know the tunes but not the words.

I know when I emerge from my little room, there will be breakfast waiting under a large plastic fly-keeper-outer. As the only visitor, I eat alone. Meals aren't social events here. People come when they're ready, shovel the food in with their hands or a large spoon, and leave when they're done. Shirley spent a great deal of time (and money to buy the meat) making spaghetti Bolognese (and I have no idea if I've spelled that right) the other night for Thra William and family (various nephews who haven't yet been resettled) and they all disappeared. So we ate. They drifted in, added hot sauce and ate it, then drifted away. It was a bit strange, but then, everything is here.

This morning, breakfast was rice with bits of egg and onion. Quite good. I suppose it was a stir-fried thing. And it's nice to know what I'm eating because I usually don't. Dinner was rice (of course), potatoes that were in some kind of saucy concoction, a very spicy fish slop, and a soup with small fish and what looked like river grass. They feed me the best they have, and I appreciate it. I probably should eat more to show my gratitude, but this heat takes away my appetite. Food is what they forage in the forest and river or grow. But, mostly it's rice and chilies.

I'm looking out on an incredible mountain or hill wreathed in mist. Rather like a Chinese painting. The camp of officially 50,000 but more like 70,000 is squeezed between the hill and this ridge of rock that, with the river behind it, defines the border with "Burma" though here they will tell you that Karen State or Kawthoolei (land without evil) lies on the other side. Their nation. I'm not going to get into the history of all of this; there are websites that can do it better than I can and I'll refer you to them when the internet is up again. For the people here, it isn't ancient history. It's their lives. There is a keen sense of getting on with life and of waiting, at least on this side of the river that runs through the camp. Officially, this side doesn't exist even though 10,000 people live here. Because it isn't part of the camp, I'm able to stay here and the school has more freedom to operate.

The people in the school are using their waiting time to get ready. Though I'm teaching in the morning, they're really just pickup classes. Mostly, I'm using the time to assess how much English they know while I grab teaching opportunities. As part of it, I've asked them to stand before the class and talk about themselves, where they've been and where they're going. Almost all of them say "I want to be a pastor/missionary/doctor/teacher and go back and help my village/people." Many of these young people have spent half of their lives in the camps. They come from all of the camps, some even from Chiang Mai or Thai villages. They've graduated from high school so this Bible school is college for them. Some have gone on to or plan to go on to Master's degrees in India, which means they make their way back across Burma without papers to get to India. This school has a reputation for good academics and English teaching, which surprises me when I see how "flexible" it is. When classes start on Monday, at night I'll be teaching preclasses (remedial English), during the day I'll be teaching 2 English classes and 1 ?. I think we've settled on Baptist history and polity. If I had known that ahead of time, I could have brought resources. Right now I'm scrounging through my memory and the library here. The most recent book (and there's only 1 book and 2 pamphlets) is Torbet, 1954, on ministry then and now. Mary Wood left a book last time she taught the course which they're locating for me. I suppose the regular teachers who teach the core courses are much more prepared than I am.

Thra Simon sat with me for a while yesterday which is the first time I've spoken with him. He said that 20,000 people have now been resettled since the UN began their push. I don't know if that was just from this camp or all of them, and I don't know if they've been replaced by new people coming over the border. They're trying to help the churches in Burma hit by cyclone Nargis but they've had trouble getting help across the border. 30 churches were destroyed. The storm hit and area that's mostly Karen and other Hill Tribe, which, they believe, is why the government isn't rushing to help them. The help that gets across isn't reaching the people. In fact, he said that in the markets of Rangoon you can find rice and food stuffs from Japan and Korea that were sent for the victims of the storm but are being sold to anyone.

A Land without Evil, Benedict Rogers