The streets of Yangon, Myanmar had aspects of everyday life that reminded me of the busy streets of El Salvador from my childhood memory. I was 5 years old when my dad, mom and younger brother moved to San Francisco, California.
We left El Salvador during the earlier years of the civil war in September 1978. My father was a civil engineer and several times had gone out in the field and his life had been threatened. My maternal grandmother already lived in San Francisco, so after my mother convinced my father to relocate to the US, my grandmother sponsored us. Back in 1979 immigration only required a letter for legal entry and so our transition was smooth.
My father’s transition to his different life in San Francisco wasn’t as easy as my mother’s was. My father got a job as a mail courier for Bank of America. When he finished his shift he would go to night school to learn English. My mom went to college in Houston, Texas so she became accustomed to her new life much easier than him. Her mother, brother and sister all lived in with my grandmother so for her it was like coming home. She spoke the language and training for a job was a natural next step.
Two years after our arrival, my dad died from a stroke that ruptured a brain tumor that had gone undetected for several months. He died almost instantly and our lives were never the same again. It just so happened that he died in June when school let out. So as soon as my brother and I finished school, my mom sent us off for 3 months to El Salvador.
Maybe it was because of our trauma, maybe it was because the civil war was still active, but some memories of that visit are very vivid still. I remember the sadness I felt, but more importantly I became enamored with my homeland. My tio Carlos was one of my father’s older brothers, and we ended up staying with him and his family that summer. I remember my uncle was fearless. He went everywhere and took us along in the back of his pick up truck. He took us through the city streets, mountainsides, beaches, mercado, to his finca…he was to us the saldadorean version of crocodile dundee.
Now here in Myanmar there were things that reminded me of the El Salvador of my memories. Things like people riding in the backs of the trucks, school children piled into trucks dressed in uniforms, women wearing aprons selling food, street vendors pedaling anything, sewage, garbage, garbage being burned, car horns blaring, busy streets, the humidity…so many more things. The main differences I would say were the people and the sound of the language.
Our group visited a pre-school and an orphanage in Insein. The Judson’s anniversary event was huge. It lasted for a little over a week and people came from all over the country to celebrate. It took several years to plan for the event, from lodging to meals, speakers and special guests, choirs, conferences and different sites. Schools and churches were turned into public dormitories so that those who came had places to stay. People came by foot, on buses, hitched rides, rode bikes…it was huge.
The cost for an individual? It turned out to be the equivalent of $2 American. Sure to you and me, what’s 2 bucks? But to these people it was a lot. Those $2 included housing, meals and access to all of the conferences and celebratory events. The crowds were huge and the people came dressed in their traditional tribal wear.
So when we showed up to a church and pre-school, there were no children. Instead in their place were hundreds of sleeping mats. We got a tour of the buildings and met the senior pastor. The organization of the school and church was impressive. There was the senior pastor, 10 co-pastors that worked with the different tribes and residential communities and there was a group that prayed just for and over these pastors.
Some of the church members helped run and worked within the pre-school. The pre-school provided a hot meal for the kids and sometimes the parents. The school also provided basic health care and immunizations.
We then visited a small orphanage. It was a three story building and housed about 60 children and teens. It wasn’t your typical orphanage in the sense that some of the youth that lived there still had their parents. In small villages education isn’t very important and almost never affordable. Parents instead send their children to an orphanage so that they are able to attend school. Other children who’s families had been displaced and separated and no longer had permanent homes would end up in homes like this.
This Orphanage was run by a family. The “house mother” and “house father” were ancient. When we arrived there was no one there. To kill time until they arrived to meet us, some of the kids sang worship songs for us. They talked, via interpreter, about their school and home lives here in the city.
When the couple of the hour finally arrived, I found it inwardly hilarious. The house mother was very old and deaf. She really wasn’t aware that we were there. The “house father” was just as old and loosing his hearing. They had both been summoned out of bed to meet us. It was like when you have unexpected company and you greet them disheveled and not quite awake. What moved me was that they were genuinely honored to have us. They were appreciative to have us visit them because they rarely had visitors from over seas.
The kids gave us a tour of the building and I must say it was a very humble home. The kids slept on mats on the floors and the dormitories for the boys and girls was bare except for cubby storage for the individual kids. Their walls were scarcely decorated by their own works of art, but I was surprised to see clippings of MLK jr, Nick Vujicic, Harriet Tubman, and other western role models.
We said our goodbyes, bowed and some of the ladies were brave and jumped into the back of a truck for a ride.
Later we went to another restaurant. I swear, eating out has never been so delicious. At each meal we had curry dishes, but they were never the same in flavor and nothing like what we are familiar here. Everything was fresh, the meats and the vegetables exploded with flavors. There was always food that was left over. At first we felt bad and we would eat as much as we could so as not to be wasteful. We later learned that the food that was left over was packed up and given to our shuttle drivers, there were 2, and to the guides to take home to their families. Once we knew that, we ate just enough and made sure that there was always enough to accompany our new friends home.
Later that night we went to an evening service. Again we were considered VIP and we were lead to the front of the auditorium. We were given id badges and audio devices to listen to a translation of the message being broadcasted in different languages. Just in the space we were in, were told that there were at least 10,ooo people in attendance. In total, there were over 60,000 people registered for the celebration. It was impressive.
Dr. Roy Medley gave the message that night. What I remember about his message was that he stressed the importance of how all 10,000 of us that were gathered there were worshipping one true God. He knew that there were at least 16 different languages and dialects all simultaneously worshipping and praying to our Lord. He Spoke about how the Judsons had come to this land and had spread the word. That had been 200 years ago…look at us now.
I looked around and sat there in total awe.