Monday, November 17, 2008

Reaching Burmese Refugees with the Gospel

October 21 - November 4, 2008
Ranong Provence, Thailand

Several years ago we began feeling the Lord's leading to begin a work in Thailand. In February of 2007 Renee and I took our first Vision Tour of Thailand and then led a Mission Team of 12 to Bangkok in December of 2007.

While in Bangkok, working with Pastor Martin Chappel, we just happened to run into Ben Murry, an IMB missionary working 8 hours south along the Thai/Myanmar border. We now know that our chance encounter was a divine appointment that would eventually lead us to Ranong.

Scott Gates and I made the 24-hour trip from Atlanta to Bangkok through Seoul, South Korea. We spent the day in Bangkok adjusting to the time change, seeing some old friends, learning the culture and resting before making the one-hour flight south to Ranong.

View from the top of What Arun (Temple of the Dawn) across the Chao Phraya River.

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Ornate temples to an "unknown god".

A culture that only hopes to, one day, cease to exist so that they can escape the cycle of suffering. Eternity has no draw for one whose culture and religion teach that it is to be avoided.

Spirit houses meant to protect those who dwell in the homes along the canals from evil spirits.

When we arrived in Ranong we were met by our hosts, IMB field missionaries the Murry's and the William's. Our mission is to learn everything we can from experienced field missionaries so that we can be effective. Our plan is to work with them to see new churches planted among the Burmese and Thai people in areas where little to no mission work is currently being done.

(L to R) Brenda Murry, Patrick and Diana Williams, Mark Maynard, Ben Murry, Scott Gates.

Ranong borders Myanmar to the west, and is the smallest province in Thailand. It receives the greatest amount of rainfall in all of Thailand keeping its mountains lush and green year around. Beautiful forests, waterfalls, hot springs and views are everywhere. The reported population of the city of Ranong is approximately 25,000 but the real number is four times greater when the illegal Burmese refugees are added in.

Punya Ban - Only the first of three falls can be seen from the bottom.

Myanmar, shrouded in clouds, lies across the Par Chan River.

Sunday morning we worshipped at the only evangelical church in the city of Ranong. The Thai believers met first followed by the Burmese church. Together there are approximately 200 followers of Jesus Christ.

Ranong Full Gospel Church

Burmese Pastor Cho Gyi works tirelessly to take the gospel message to the Burmese refugees along the western coast of Thailand.

Sunday afternoon we drove about an hour and one half south to a fishing village called Pac Chompun. This village was virtually wiped out during the Tsunami. We worshipped, preached, shared testimonies and praises with the small body of believers. A Thai woman named Joy works with the Burmese refugees although she cannot speak their language.

The church treated us to a seafood feast. One that I am sure they would never have had except for our visit.

So good going down...

We're not entirely sure...but we suspect that it was this fish sauce that caused Scott and me a great deal of discomfort!

The majority of evangelism with the Burmese has to be done in the evenings. They work very long hours seven days a week on fishing boats, in canneries, on banana and rubber plantations, and as laborers. We visited several house churches all around 6:30 in the evening.

Monday morning we had planned to go to Myanmar but our plan was changed the night before. Pastor Cho Gyi informed us that a woman from one of the island churches had died and asked us if we would go to the funeral to encourage them. The Moken people, also known as Sea Gypsies, live on the hundreds of islands along the Myanmar and Thai coast. They have been evangelized and many are Christians. Buddhist culture generally demands that the dead be cremated. But the Moken believers bury their dead on an island set aside specifically for that purpose.

Scott Gates is an executive with Ryder and a Board Member of howFar Ministries.

Khoa Lao - also called Khoa Pii (Spirit Island)

Monday evening we drove about and hour and one-half north of Ranong. Our destination was a house church on a rubber plantation in a place called Kraburi. The man who leads the church, which is primarily his wife, children and grandchildren, is U Mynt Soe. We were thrilled to be present on the evening the Pastor Cho Gyi and the missionary installed him as a junior pastor. Pastor Soe's house church is the last one in the north of the province that the missionaries know of.

Pastor U Mynt Soe (on right) receives his Certificate of Ordination from Pastor Cho Gyi

Preparing to take The Lord's Supper

Pastor Soe's family harvests the sap from the rubber tree. The raw rubber is dried in flat strips and then hung from the ceiling to dry.

Faces of children and women are painted for beauty and to keep the skin soft.

Tuesday morning we made the 35-minute ride in a long-tail boat to Myanmar. There are two checkpoints that tourists must stop at before entering the country. The first is to to check passports, where they are collected and returned to the owner on the way out of the country, and the next is for inspection. Both of the checkpoints are on small islands in the Andamann Sea. Once these two steps are completed then you must go through immigration upon entering the southern most island of the Union of Myanmar. Our hosts were all amazed that the guards at both checkpoints barely looked at our passports, or at us.....and just waived us through. We knew that God had answered the prayers of the saints and had made our way swift and sure.

Checkpoint Two Ahead

Graven images of a lifeless Buddha can be seen everywhere.

Union of Myanmar (Formerly Burma)

Our constant companions linger in the background. They called themselves "tourguides" ...we knew them to be something else.

Scott and I prayer-walked through the streets of Victoria Point on Kho Thang, an island off of mainland Myanmar. Tourists are not allowed to go past the island to enter the mainland. We passed out many tracts and wished that we had more.

Back to Thailand

That night we drove an hour south of Ranong to Amphore Kapoe. (The village of Kapoe). Ben is blessed to have a nice four-wheel drive vehicle which easily gets him to remote areas beyond the roads. The rain was coming down in torrents as we weaved our way through the plantation. In the distance we saw a dim light and knew that it was our destination.

We were warmly welcomed into a 12' x 12' raised bamboo hut. Twenty, or so, mostly women and children, sat crossed-legged on a woven mat covering the bamboo floor, waiting to hear from the Achan (A-jahn) - teacher. Occasionally, one of the old men, smoking a long narrow cigar, would sit in the open window...listening...hearing the life-saving message...and then silently slipping away.

The rain let up as we left Kapoe knowing that the several saints had been encouraged and that the seed had been planted among the others and praying that it would fall of fertile ground.

During our mission we prayer-walked through several outdoor markets passing out Thai and Burmese tracts. Often the recipient would look at us, puzzled. Do you speak Burmese they would say? They all received the Gospel Message or the Book of John in their native tongue.

The next day we drove south toward Phuket making an unscheduled stop at Pae Champun, where we had visited earlier in the week. We often plan our way...but always know when it is God who is directing our steps.

Our friend, Joy, began to walk us through the village to show us the remains of the devastating Tsunami. We walked across a bridge and, one-by-one, the people invited us into their homes to pray for them. One, then two, then three...all hearing the gospel message.

The man and wife on the left are believers but the three men on the right heard the gospel for the first time.

Nothing remains except the concrete slab.

We continued driving south to a place called Ban Nam Chem where we met with another small group of believers led by a man named Goo Uu Goo. We met in a borrowed store front where everyone quickly took a seat on the concrete floor. Pastor Cho Gyi looked at me and I prayed and presented the gospel...from Genesis to Revelation.

It is not my practice to give an alter call. It is only my duty to present the gospel and God will call to Himself those whom He has chosen for His Son. To hear the wonderful end of the story see the article entitled "Ranong Update, Saturday, November 1".

A young woman prays for salvation!

The west heard most of the news from Phuket because of the western tourists who congregate there but Ban Nam Chem was "ground zero" for the tsunami in Thailand. It took the greatest blow from the monstrous waves. Most of the area was literally flattened. Remnants of the destruction can still be seen today. We learned the full history of the event during our visit to the Tsunami Memorial.

A sixty foot military ship rests nearly one and a half miles from the ocean.

On the way down to Phuket, where we hoped to prayer-walk through the outdoor markets, we stayed at Khaa Lak Bay Front Hotel. The beaches along the coast are spectacular and lined with incredible resorts. We were able to take advantage of the off-season rates paying only $53 USD per night rather than the high season rate of $300 which started the next day!

Phuket draws tourists from around the world. The beaches are fantastic, the cost of food and goods are cheap....but it is a modern day Sodom and Gamorrah. We stayed at a small guest house called the Paradise Hotel in the tourist district near Karon Beach. We walked the streets in the afternoon and evening passing out tracts and praying for the people.

After a day of rest Scott and I prepared to head back to Bangkok. One final meeting with Ben and Brenda to debrief our mission and to pray and discuss our future work in Thailand. We plotted the locations of field IMB, and other, missionaries on a large map of southern Thailand, as well as , the places that house churches currently meet. Our goal was to see where there are no missionaries and no known churches.

Ben and Brenda Murry - The hardest working missionaries I've ever met. Awesome!

We decided to focus our efforts on the northern Ranong and Chumphon Provinces. To our knowledge, there is only one house church to the north and just two small house churches in the entire Chumphon provence.

Chumphon is located on the Isthmus of Kra, the narrow landbridge connecting the Malay Peninsula with the mainland of Thailand. To the west are the hills of the Phuket mountain range and its northern continuation, the Tenasserim chain. It is bordered by Myanmar along its northern border and the Ranong Provence of Thailand on its southwestern border. The east is more flat land with beaches along the coast on the Gulf of Thailand. It is 6000 square kilometers (1.5 million acres) with a population of approximately 450,000 people.

Pastor U Mynt Soe

Our initial plan is to work with Pastor U Mynt Soe in Kraburi to develop an evangelism and church planting strategy with a view to plant house churches throughout the provence.

Once back in Bangkok we used our last day to visit our friends at The Well, a prostitute rescue mission. Last December Renee and I took a team from the US there to present the true Christmas Story. By many accounts, it was one of the most significant and moving events in several of our team-members lives.

The howFar Foundation and howFar Ministries has committed to financially assisting The Well as often as possible. Recently, Renee worked with the women's ministry at The Family Church, First Baptist Sugar Hill to sponsor a jewelry and greeting card sale. All of the goods are handmade by the women at The Well and are their sole means of support for the mission. The sale netted $3,300.

Scott and I met with Jim Larson, Director of The Well, to catch up on how the ministry was going and to get an update on some of the women and girls that we had met last December. The Larson's asked that I pass on their sincere appreciation for the financial support from howFar and the women at The Family Church.

While I was at The Well I ran into Fern, a young women who we had met on our first visit. Fern was never a bar girl but was clearly in the "at-risk" category. When we met her, and listened to her salvation testimony and calling, our team was greatly moved. There are so few real opportunities for many of the young women in Thailand that we were encouraged to hear of her desire to attend a three-month Basic Training Program with YWAM (Youth with a Mission) in Chang Mai. Some of our team members immediately gave the needed funds for her to go.

When our visit at The Well was nearly over, Fern came to me, and with tears steaming down her face, said, "I have something to say to you. When you, and your team came last year, you did not know that I was almost ready to give up and go back to my old life. I could not see how I could do anything with my life or get the money to go to the YWAM training program. But you gave me the money and my life has been changed forever. I am doing well, even though it is still difficult to get the money to live in Bangkok because it is expensive here. I am in a two-year training program to learn how to counsel people. When I finish I want to work with Burmese refugees."

Fern with Mark Maynard

We never know when God is going to give us an opportunity to minister to one of His children. For Fern, a precious young woman in a desolate land, an encounter with a group of fellow saints from the other side of the world... made a world of difference in her life.

I couldn't help but to give her a hug and say, "Did you know that we are working with the Burmese refugees near Ranong?" She just looked at me, nearly in shock, and we both realized that maybe we would be working together one day for the glory of our Lord. I hope so.

It's always a difficult transition back to life in the US for me. My mind is filled with the faces of those whom God has called to Himself and of those who have heard the gospel message.

All we can do is pray for the saints and thank God for answered prayer.

The first few verses from John's Gospel in the Judson version, first published in Burmese in 1890 by ABMU, (American Baptist Missionary Union), Rangoon.

Members of the tiny church at Ban Wan, Chumphon Provence.

My newest heroes!

Patrick and Diana pastored a church in North Carolina until he was 70 years old. Did he retire? Not Patrick. They have signed up for a two-year tour in Ranong and expect to keep renewing as long as the IMB will have them. In the short time I was with them they blessed me in ways they will never know.

"...Praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ." Col. 4:3

Mark Maynard
howFar Ministries