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


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