On my first missionary encounter trip, we boarded 11 planes to fly a total of 50 hours in 14 days. We visited 6 churches, 1 hospital, 5 schools, 2 orphanages, 3 homes for girls, 1 home for women and children affected or infected by HIV/Aids and a halfway home for displaced refugees. We met over 10 missionaries and attended the 200th anniversary celebration of the Judson’s arrival in Myanmar.
I was traveling with a group of 16 women. We had spent our first day in Bangkok, Thailand visiting Annie Dieselberg, a missionary working with victims of human trafficking. She gave us a crash course in the sex trafficking epidemic of Bangkok. Now, on the second day of our trip we had flown to Yangon, Myanmar.
Our group got off the plane and as we headed towards customs, someone emphasized that up until 2 years before, no missionaries had been allowed to enter the country. (All the missionaries had been forced out of the country years before.) We went through customs smoothly and there waiting for us was Gail Aita, our guide and missionary to Myanmar.
Gail was a ball of energy. She introduced herself, made sure we had all our belongings and we boarded a shuttle bus to our hotel. I’ve traveled to several countries and have found that upon arrival, each has it’s own scent and feel. Naturally no two are ever exactly the same because they’re are so many aspects that set them apart, but if you travel enough your body becomes aware of what’s in the air.
Even when you travel between our states in the US, when you land in a new city you immediately feel the differences when the air either caresses or hits your face immediately coming off the plane. For example when you go to Hawaii, the wind caresses your face with the salty sea air and traces of plumeria. When you go to New York in the winter, the moment you step out of the terminal you are assaulted by the crisp cold icy air.
Myanmar was hot and humid. There were scents in the air that I never identified, but there were traces of spices, flowers, nature and smoke. In Myanmar there was also an explosion of color. The people wore an assortment of colors in their uniforms, casual attire and “longees”. Both men and women wear Longees. They are long pieces of fabric that the people drape and tie around their waists and look like long skirts. It’s their traditional wear. We would see men doing street repairs or riding motorcycles in them. Women had longees custom sewn and some looked beautiful and delicate even.
On the shuttle Gail began talking to the group. She was familiar with a few of the women, but it felt as if you were reuniting with an auntie you had lost touch with. Before discussing our itinerary for the following days, she said that she had spent a year praying for us and that she could go around the group and tell us who we were and a little about ourselves. When it was my turn, she knew I was the youngest, that I had 3 daughters, that I was from California and that I was just barely getting my voice back. Immediately I felt at home with her.
The reason she knew us so well was that not only had she been praying for us, but she had made it a point to know as much of us so she could pray for our families, jobs, illnesses, etc in the months leading up to our arrival. She prayed for us by name without even knowing us…for almost a year! I was taken aback by that, even amazed by it. The thought of a stranger praying for my well being on the other side of the world…it just blew my mind.
(Pieces of what I had learned in the previous months began fitting together. At some of the conferences we had attended with Sharon and my mom there were opportunities to adopt/sponsor children from third world countries. They ask for a monthly donation and that you develop a relationship with the child you sponsor. They also ask that you pray for them. Ordinarily people tend to think that these organizations just want your money, but I’ve seen where some of the money goes. For the most part it goes to where it’s needed.)
We arrived at our hotel. It was nice, concrete floors, lacquer style bed frames and furniture. It wasn’t fancy, but it had everything we needed. We freshened up and off to the restaurant next door for an unimaginable feast.
Up until this trip, I really hadn’t had much experience with Thai or Burmese cuisine. At this restaurant we were served like royalty, and we had dishes all prepared from fresh ingredients. Fresh poultry, beef, fish…we even had goose bacon. It was amazing.
Our next stop was to a Kachin Church to meet with the Kachin Baptist Women group. We had gotten a little pep talk from Gail about what we were about to experience. She told us that there were going to be thousands of people in a very small space. These people had travelled for days and all they wanted was to know that our God loved them. She told us some of them would try to stop us and get a foto with them and to try our best to please, but that we needed to be quick or crowds would take over and we would quite possibly be lost. We weren’t prepared for our meeting though. How do you prepare someone for heartache?
Sure enough, our shuttle bus stops at a strategic space where there are scarcely any people. Our driver informed Gail that we had x amount of minutes before people would realize that we were there and swarm us. It all felt surreal and comical even. Here we were a bunch of nobodies planning to slip in to a church without being noticed. (At home in our churches we make it a point to welcome strangers!)
Nonetheless we were divided into 4 groups and we began to walk through a narrow street whose opening led into a wider street. The church was up on a little hill and there was a service going on. We continued to walk guided by Gail and a guide. At first when people began to take notice of us they would just point and gaze at us in awe. Once in the church a path was made for us and old people began to reach their arms towards us. They just wanted to be touched and bless us.
Following Gail’s instruction we began shaking hands and greeting the people. They were in awe of us. We were like celebrities. Not because we were “american missionaries”, but because we were different. Most of the ladies had white hair, Loraine was a red head, Sarah was an older black woman with light colored eyes, a couple of us were overweight, Kim was blonde…they had never scene people so different from them before.
We rushed into the room where the women’s group was waiting for us and immediately the atmosphere changed. It felt like a mini UN summit. Tables had been set up and we were expected to hear the issues that the tribe hills people were suffering from. They also wanted solutions and resolutions for their people.
One by one the women stood to welcome us, thank us, and to share a little of what their lives were like. In the beginning it was somewhat light conversations. There was an interpreter and she would try to translate the comments in a “pleasing” way so not to make us uncomfortable.
“People come to let everyone know that they come to praise the Lord.” “Some walked for a day to get here, while others walked for a week to get here.” “They were grateful to know God through the Judsons.” “Grateful to be able to praise God.”
Then the comments changed. One very brave and serious woman stood up and began to tell of the horrors her family and village were living. She began to tell about how they had been displaced by the government. They had been relocated to an area where there was nothing, no food, laws, structure. They were being placed closer to the china border. The husbands were being recruited and taken away by the militia.
Only wives, children and elders were being left behind. She told of how a 7 year old girl had been raped by a soldier. The rape had been recorded and spread on fbook, but there were no actions brought up against this soldier. “Help us!” She pleaded “We have become displaced and have no identity, no value.”
In the end she said she was grateful to have the opportunity to come and safely worship the Lord. Even in their daily struggle she said their struggle didn’t compare to Mrs. Judson. She asked for us to pray for the children and for the women. She asked especially that we pray for the young teen girls that were being lured away with the promise of work but tricked into slavery. She asked for prayer for the young sons that were being lost to drugs.
The prayer petitions continued. The testimony of their faith became more powerful as the meeting came to an end. These women had real questions. We had no answers or solutions. All I could think of was “How do I return to the comfort of my life and stay inactive towards the issues that other women face in this world?”
We took group pictures, said our goodbyes and were escorted back through the crowds. We floated out of the church in awe and silence. Some of our spiritual foundations had been rocked. People were being displaced for their beliefs, their cultural identities…we had met them. All these women wanted was to be recognized for who they were.
They were real. They praised the same God we did. They said our visit was an affirmation, that God saw them and their suffering…here I was, thinking that I was just on an adventure.