Around the Table
It all began nine months prior, seated around the circumference of my Grandmother’s garden room dining table. Flowers, trees and wildlife danced, swayed and teamed about on the other side of the floor to ceiling glass doors.
Two individuals had joined my grandparents and me for dinner. Not only to share a meal, but also to share a life passion and mission. The eldest visitor had traveled nearly twenty times over the last twenty years to Yangon, the former capital city of Myanmar. The other gentleman at the table was native to this country, also known as Burma, a sovereign state in South East Asia. I was honored to share a seat at the table, allowing me to see into the hearts and minds of these two men. A mystery and gravitas surrounded them as they shared their vision, with wisdom pouring from their lips as they brought us up to speed on the situation in country.
Myanmar fascinated me – rich in jade, gems, oil, natural gas and other mineral resources, yet with one of the widest income gaps in the world. Seeds of Christianity were taking root despite persecution and the country’s historical ties to Buddhism. Burma also has a myriad of ethnic groups that have been involved in one of the world’s longest-running ongoing civil wars. The country itself has seen many types of leadership, including British rule in the 19th century, independence and democracy in 1948 and a military dictatorship following a coup d’état in 1962. Although former military leaders still wield enormous power and influence in the country, Myanmar has installed a civilian government following its 2010 general election.
I had no clue the weekday dinner would create such a stirring, not to mention include an invitation to set my feet on Burmese soil. The Western suburbs of Chicago had become an onramp to another new country in the Eastern Hemisphere.
At Home in an Unfamiliar Land
Our Toyota Rav4 navigated the steady stream of cars, trucks and foot traffic on the streets of Yangon; motorcycles weaved in and out, creating a complex symphony of ordered chaos. The air-conditioning provided a refreshing break from the warm January weather. From my spot in the cloth back seat I peered through the tinted window taking in this new world. The vegetation was tropical, however, unlike anything I had seen before. In a short five-minute period one could see humble farmland, pristine parks, tattered shacks and simple restaurants lining the street, along with impressive department stores, multi-story hotels, infrastructure and other signs of modernization.
Our times in transit would prove to be one of the highlights each day. From seeing Asian elephants riding in the back of a flatbed truck, to a small pickup filled to the brim with egg cartons, to a herd of water buffalo grazing in a field and lines of children dressed in ornate uniforms on their way to and from school. A new expression of life was around each bend in the road.
The destination of these rides was a seminary, where the leadership was putting on a conference along with a handful of other volunteers. The goal of the program was to provide seminary students, missionaries and church planters from various states and divisions around the country with training, teaching, community and support. The quaint campus was bustling – young men and women in their early twenties, fathers and mothers, even grandfathers congregated in the yard, on the steps and in the various halls and buildings. Despite the many divisions present, there was unity of heart and mind on the grounds as men and women rubbed elbows during communal meals, sang passionate worship at the top of their lungs and learned about faith, health and community stewardship.
In addition to its primary mission and purpose, the seminary was special due to family connection. While being the youngest relative by 40 or 50 years to set foot on Burmese soil, grandparents, great uncles and second cousins had tread the grounds, funding and building the foundations and structures on the gated patch of land that I was now on.
An Interview with Courage
One of the most stirring experiences of my time in Myanmar was spent in a library that members of my family had helped create – walls of books surrounded the rich, brown table we gathered around. What made this particular memory valuable were the men, young and old, whose eyes connected with mine across the reflective, lacquered finish. These gentlemen carried the presence of a redwood, silent and solemn giants, there faces weathered with experiences of life, triumphs and trials.
Through a translator each man shared stories of their mission. Near death experiences, persecution, provisional challenges with nutrition and finances, yet also testimonies of victory, unyielding courage, peace and love. These men were legends, heroes, resolute in their convictions and driven by something greater than themselves.
Although their words were translated to English, they only conveyed part of the story. I desired to know what was inside each of their hearts – what would possess a man to risk his life for a faith he had just discovered, what intimacy did he have with God, what love did he know? I was jealous of what they knew, who they knew, but would I be willing to pay the price for the riches they now had?
Another honor was meeting a particular seminary student, who I will refer to as the gatekeeper. Despite a severe physical handicap that left him reliant on a metal cane, this young man attended to the security gate with pride and honor, running back and forth from his seat just outside the chapel building and across the yard to ensure that each vehicle was authorized to enter. Over the course of the week I had the privilege of getting to know his incredible story.
Under the shade of a shed nearby the metal gate, the smell of gasoline swirled around my head, much like the mosquitos that were buzzing along. With deep eyes and a solemn, yet warm demeanor the gatekeeper shared how he spent the early years of his life in a Buddhist home. Despite being with family, he articulated how he was lonely as a Buddhist, never feeling loved, cared for or encouraged. He felt isolated, as if he had to solve his problems alone. Through his pupils I could see the gatekeeper’s mind jogging through past experiences, his face acknowledging the emotional potholes he encountered in his journey.
The gatekeeper’s challenges remained a constant even after changing his environment. The lack of interpersonal connection was evident as he described the year he spent in a Buddhist monastery – where he had meager rations and dealt with controlling monks who forced him to do “unnecessary” tasks. Although the monks taught him how to pray and meditate, the gatekeeper still felt disconnected. Something was missing.
It was in the valley of extreme hopelessness and alcohol abuse brought on by financial and academic hardship that the gatekeeper found what was looking for him. During this time of depression the gatekeeper was befriended by a church planter doing ministry in his village – he comforted, encouraged and prayed for the gatekeeper. His face brightened before my eyes as he shared how for the first time in his life, he felt pursued, seen and known. It was through the kindness and love of this missionary that the gatekeeper learned about Salvation and the love of Christ. In addition, the Lord answered his prayers and the gatekeeper was able to continue with schooling the following year.
Despite his personal breakthrough, the gatekeeper’s decision to follow Christ came at a price. With glassy eyes, his torso seemed to writhe in pain as he shared how his family chased him out of the home he was raised in due to his newfound faith. There was a palpable tension in the humid Burmese air. His effort to share the Gospel, the hope and joy that he had found, was met by a close-minded brick wall.
As I sat a few inches from him on the unfinished wooden bench, I was astounded at the treasure inside this young man – his resolve was unrivaled. The gatekeeper continued his story, revealing how he had found an open door with his uncle and a roof over his head. Despite being run out of his home, he did not lose hope and kept praying for his family’s salvation. The gatekeeper continued to share the Gospel with them until freedom found them as well.
Raising the Bar
With my flight to Thailand boarding in a few short hours, I sipped on some hot tea and lemon, journaling about the relationships formed and the experiences gained in Myanmar. I could do nothing but listen, write and whisper – by the end of the prior evening the onset of a cough had taken my voice. There was beauty in the silence and stillness.
As I wrote, I found comfort, but also a sense of conviction. I was leaving with a new family, and had been able to enjoy the culture of Myanmar, sampling the Burmese markets, touring the golden Shwedagon Pagoda and partaking in the local cuisine. At the same time, I was challenged by the men I had met. How would I have known what lay underneath their patient gaze? These men, young and old, were risking their lives to love their enemies – men of love, faith, passion and courage.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:13