Tuesday, October 9, 2012

First impressions of the BEC

We arrived in Chiang Mai in the early evening on September 28th. It had ended up being quite a long and slightly arduous trek from to Chiang Mai from our home soil. As we got off the plane in this tropical environment, we were greeted by high humidity and sometimes torrential rain. Despite the fact that we now live in the Mediterranean climate of South Australia, Gaye and I always appreciate some tropical air. Approaching Chiang Mai by way of a long bus trip from Bangkok, we were met by the familiar sight of Doi Suthep, the towering land-form so closely tied to Chiang Mai in popular culture (both near and far). Truly, one of the great things about this place is that it balances its heritage with its current demands. The sight of age-old ruins in the centre of town, the presence of the moat and the common occurrence of magnificent 100+ year old native trees is a fitting reminder that this place has held onto its historical roots quite nicely.

After encountering a minor hurdle in locating the exact part of the street we had to reach, Gaye and I were greeted by Don and Una Strempel. This meeting was somewhat significant, since my first trip to Cambodia also saw me (Dan) work with the Strempels. Further, Don had baptised Gaye in February 2008, she being the third baptism in Cambodia. It is funny how life pans out! Having caught up on the latest news with friends, preaching activities in Chiang Mai, we proceeded into the Bible Education Centre (BEC). This place offers a lovely balance of homeliness and adequacy for its task. It really does say welcome to anybody who walks in the door, appearing as home, all the while acting as an efficient BEC that offers facilities for multiple classes to be run at once. If our friends feel comfortable with us, we are surely off to a flying start!             

We have been privileged in our short time to meet some very special friends. The desire to really get to the kernel of what the Bible is trying to teach seems to be a strong driver in them. The message they seem to have is that it is important to know God and His word. What a fantastic thing that is! It isn’t every day we get to make new friends who have such an unclouded view on what really matters. Since being here, we have been lucky to add a few more friends to the growing list at the BEC. Each of these is a relative of Gaye’s. Kuku, Gaye’s younger sister (pictured with Gaye) has progressed nicely in the 40 Lesson Plan. 

She really has done a lot of thinking about the things of God, as evidenced by her very intuitive questions. Also, we have been pleased to have Mae Mae, Gaye’s niece dropping in to learn. She also demonstrates a great deal of energy in being able to even come here for lessons so that alone is admirable.

Exciting times are ahead, as we set out on our journey here in Chiang Mai over the next few months, God willing. It is our prayer that others who desire to read and understand the Bible for themselves might appear and avail themselves of our offer of assistance.


A visit to Mae Sariang

Before we left Thailand I was determined to make our way to another location and get the feel of moving around the northern areas of this country on our own. Hler Moo, a very good friend of ours, spoke of a cousin in Mae  Sariang. His English name is Raymond and he has been visited before but was still keen for further contact. So Jenny and I did some investigation at the Arcade  Bus station about costs and timetables for the regular bus service. We booked seats a couple of days ahead on the air conditioned bus at 11:00am, which would arrive in Mae  Sariang by 3:00 pm. All went to plan. We travelled south in the valley until we reached Hot and then commenced an ascent across the mountain range. It was evident that the driver does this trip regularly and knows the road well, so the steep and windy road was negotiated well.
In Mae Sariang we found a hotel and called Raymond who was able to come and meet us within half an hour. He is a very pleasant man and we were taken to his family home in a small compound to the north of town where his children, all now married, also have houses. Having arrived late in the day he only wanted to get to know us and introduced many of his family. 

We spoke at length with his son who now has a senior role with a Karen NGO. Their purpose is to provide emergency relief assistance to internally displaced Karen people while facilitating community participation to improve the lives of their people in Myanmar. Raymond has just retired from his important role with the organisation and we could imagine his son taking this role sometime in the future. As members of an NGO they have been given Thai identification papers and can move freely in the Mae Sariang area. Other members of the family work as farmers and market gardeners. Raymond was a member of the liberation army and was wounded in action. This was not given proper attention for many years and has left him disfigured and restricted in movement.

The next day he picked us up early and we returned to his home where he had invited a number of friends for discussion on the Bible. I mentioned before starting that it would be very helpful if we had a whiteboard. With brief hesitation he and two others went down to a local church hall and borrowed their whiteboard. This made it so much easier to trace the experience of man, his relationship with sin and how God had provided salvation for those willing to hear and learn. 

So from the destruction of the Flood and the dispersal of mankind across the globe through the circumstances of Babel we finally came to the promises to Abraham the man of Faith and then David “the Beloved”

 We have generally found that people have an understanding of the promises and even the covenant in Eden and the promised seed being Jesus Christ, although why Jesus is the fulfilment of the promises is much less understood. So we spoke about the outcome of the promises and the kingdom and throne being in the land of Israel, how that both David (Acts 2) and Abraham (Hebrews 11) have not yet received the promises and that both are in the grave awaiting the resurrection. Now this presented some problems as they would understand that those of their faith were now in the kingdom in heaven. So like William Tyndale we made the point that there is no point of the resurrection for those who have received their reward already, yet all have to be raised for judgment in the day of Christ’s return and there are no end of verses that explain this.

So they agreed we needed to talk about this further and Raymond asked for us to come again and he would have more people to talk about this and he appealed that this be for two or three days! As it was, we were to leave Thailand in the next two days and had many things to attend to at the BEC.

So even though we spoke of things that challenged their understanding of the gospel they wanted to know more and were prepared to listen and talk these things through. In the end we had to plead to leave as we needed to catch the 3:00pm bus and only made this with a few minutes to spare. Our journey home was filled with discussion on what needs to happen in the future in answering their need and we pray that God will give them a speedy answer to their questions and provide that necessary understanding for the hope of life eternal.

Craig and Jenny Hill

Friday, October 5, 2012

Why the BEC is so important

The city of Chiang Mai and the home of the Bible Education Centre is in the middle of a valley in northern Thailand. The highest point in Thailand is on Doi Inthanon at 2565.3341m, it is just south-west of Chiang Mai. It is said to be in a range of mountains that extend down from the Himalaya, across the north of Myanmar and into Thailand. This blog has made mention a number of times that a lot of interest is being shown amongst the Karen people of which there are said to be some 200,000 in Thailand, in refugee camps and as illegal immigrants or what is referred to as “Internally Displaced People.” Very few, it seems, have identification papers which would enable them move around in Thailand. Many of those with ID work for an NGO or Non-Government Organisation supporting the welfare of their people. Because the Karen Province in Myanmar lies along Thailand’s western border most of the displaced Karen people and their refugee camps are in the river valleys across the western mountain range from Chiang Mai.  This displacement of people is the result of political unrest and fighting against the Burmese army over the last 40 years. This action is said to be continuing in some areas today, even though there is a cease fire in place.  

Recently I travelled with Terry down to the town of Mae Sot across the western range of mountains, where we found accommodation for the next 3 days, two single rooms with en-suites at the Green Guest House. Terry had been here just recently with others and we had returned to spend more time teaching by invitation. The first place where we spent two and a half days was with a Christian hostel run by Taphu and a group of volunteers looking after the children of the Karen people. These poor people are struggling to find work and earn an income and need to place their children somewhere. They request that they be looked after for a year, sometimes two and Taphu is able to find sponsors to cover the costs of running his mission. He has about 45 children at the moment and while they live in very poor circumstances they are happy and well looked after emotionally by some very caring and devoted people. 

Apart from Taphu, there are two women, one his daughter, and 4 men who help him. A number of the men have in the past been involved in the fighting in Myanmar and have had very difficult lives over the past 40 years. Taphu, himself, lost his father in a bombing raid when he was just 13, he and his mother escaped to the forests where they lived in hiding for many years. He now has Thai identification papers and his children’s mission is recognised by the Thai authorities. Some of the men who work with him do not have identification papers so they are confined to the mission grounds. This means they have very limited prospects as all they have in life is food and shelter and their work for the children. Taphu, himself, has recently lost his wife in a car accident and is now finding the responsibility of the work on his own very difficult. His nephew, a trained teacher has come from Myanmar to help him, which displays some of the incredible spirit that exists amongst this oppressed people and their care for one another. As we were told, “sometimes we have nothing but prayer”.

So it was, that over two and a half days we presented all we could give them in outlining the true gospel of the scriptures. What else do we have but this to give in such circumstances, something far greater than silver and gold (Acts 3). They are not looking for material things but just a peace and security that their world will not provide. So we spoke on important principles of the gospel: The nature of man and his need for salvation, the hope and comfort of the promises and prospect of Divine nature. They were glad to listen and did not always agree but the debates were genuine and the plea for us to return again very earnest. So this is the best result we could hope for at the present time.
With some of our friends. Taphu's face has been blurred for privacy reasons
 During the three days we spent one morning at a Theological college at the Mae La Refugee Camp. We were invited by the Principal, a respected Doctor of Divinity and the creator of the college. He has a remarkable spirit and has vowed to stay with his people and the young people of the college, even though he has had many offers for positions overseas. The problem is that if he left Thailand he would not be allowed to return to resume his work at the camp. When he gained his doctorate externally, those from the university came to him in an award ceremony, such is their respect for him.

The college was burned down only this last March in very suspicious circumstances. The Thai authorities wanted to investigate the site further and delayed the rebuilding. After nothing was done for a long time the college staff commenced the rebuilding anyway. So in just a few months they have almost completed the work, an amazing feat and all done by volunteer workers from the camp. Sponsors are certainly not in short supply.

We were not sure what we would be asked to do and were led by the Pastor to the early morning chapel session for the school. It was an amazing sight to see over 300 young people all seated in the large room that makes up the basement. They were all dressed conservatively and were well groomed, most of them having come across the Mae La river by the swing bridge from the Refugee Camp. We had heard their singing earlier which is something they do while waiting for everyone to come. The singing of the Karen people is very different from most of the singing I have heard in Asia, it is both beautiful and harmonious.

 After an opening prayer by one of the teaching staff who were all present with us on the platform, we were also treated as part of the service to a solo performance from a young Karen girl that was quite captivating in its style and delivery, certainly heartfelt. We were then called upon to speak for 15 min each, something not expected. So Terry spoke on the parable of the wedding feast and I spoke on the meaning of the Gospel. 
At the end of the final hymn and prayer it was arranged that we each take a class for one and a half hours for the first and second lesson periods of the morning. Again this was unexpected but a joy to do and we had a wonderful three hours in separate classes speaking about the word to a very interested group of young people. Even though this was done through translation it was quite clear that the majority understood English and at some point the translation stopped. Their training, no doubt like the colleges in the western world, has relatively limited Bible content, so it was encouraging to see their interest in something they have not had great exposure to. They are a beautiful people and it is interesting that a recent history of violence and oppression has not led them to bitterness but a quiet continuance in good things.

We were treated to an amazing Thai/Karen meal for lunch with many unheard of dishes some of it quite spicy but all very tasty. The food is so good in this part of the world. The Principal’s wife is a great support to the work they share and it is obvious they have a wonderful relationship, treating the college and its children as their own.

Following lunch our host had a meeting with the Camp Commander to attend and we were asked to come along. The Thai authorities through the Department of the Interior manage all of the Refugee Camps. There is Police and Army presence at all times and they are quick to instigate corrective action when there are difficulties. The Camps have primary and secondary schools but there is no work or industry in the camp as it is the policy that this will never become a town and that it will be dismantled when a full reconciliation with the Myanmar Government is achieved for the Karen people and they can return to their lands again across the border. Their homes are made of bamboo and woven palm fronds and the rooves from the large Teak tree leaf which have a limited lifespan of two to three years. When you travel along the road beside the camp you can see these houses throughout the valley, pressed up against some very high limestone cliffs and housing some 60,000 people. The Camp commander is appointed for two years and the current incumbent is 28 years of age and handled himself very well.

After three very successful days we returned home by bus wondering where things will go in the future. When future invitations to speak to the students come to an end, we can only hope that some of them will want to know more and make contact with us again perhaps in Chiang Mai. This is one of the reasons why our presence with the BEC in northern Thailand is so important.

Craig Hill