“And every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live, there will be a great multitude of fish, because these waters go there…” Ezekiel 47:9
Mae Sot is a town bordering Burma in western Thailand. Over 200,000 Burmese refugees and migrant workers live in and around this center of trade, having escaped the harsh rule and economic conditions of the Burmese military junta. Many work over 14 hour days, 7 days a week, in sweatshops and garment factories. They earn less than $50 a month, and are under a constant threat of deportation.
Thousands of Karen people, a tribe of Indo-Chinese descent, live in the mountains and valleys of the Thai - Burmese border. The Burmese military invade their land and burn their villages, forcing them to work in labor camps or to serve in the Burmese army.
Over the years, many have fled across the border into the Mae Sot area, carrying their children and a few possessions, having survived days or months in the jungle, struggling against the constant threat of hunger and malaria, even landmines. More than half of the 70,000 Burmese that live in the three refugee camps around Mae Sot are Karen.
In January, a team from Bangkok traveled to Mae Sot and spent two days evangelizing with tracts and Christian Farmers wristbands. We also visited high school students at the Love and Care School, one of 70 migrant schools for Karen and Burmese in the area.
Now, three months later, we are here on the streets of Mae Sot again, with a team of six people. It’s Friday morning, and a mutual acquaintance has asked Raymond, a young man wearing a skull cap and hip hop jeans, to translate for us.
Raymond tells us he’s a “hybrid: half Karen, half Burmese.” After translating the gospel for a team member, he pulls up his long-sleeved shirt, and shows us two blue Christian farmer’s wristbands. The colors are faded, the red and green almost rubbed off. He’s excited because he realizes we were part of the team that passed out the bands at the Love and Care School in January. He says he wasn’t there that day, but his friends who were gave him the bands and told him the gospel story.
That night, over dinner in an outdoor market, Raymond tells us how he left Rangoon four years ago to live in Umpium, a UN refugee camp in the Mae Sot area. He lived there for three years until he received an ID card that enables him to live and study in Mae Sot.
He tells us what it was like living in the camp, how he paid a broker over $1,000 for documents to get in, only to arrive and find that he had been cheated; the documents really cost only $10.
“It’s horrible.” He says, shaking his head. “You can’t trust anyone there.”
He talks about the trafficking of women and young girls, how at night they sneak from the camp through the jungle to meet brokers who drive them to Bangkok; they are tricked into prostitution with promised jobs as waitresses or housemaids.
“It’s horrible,” he says, shaking his head again, “Aids and human trafficking. That’s why I’ve applied to go to college in Bangkok, so I can study humanities and use my knowledge to help my people.”
That night at the hotel, we remember that before leaving Bangkok, we prayed that God would give us a person with whom we could spend all five days of our trip with, and we are a little humbled to realize that God has given us Raymond.
Monday, we travel south by line car, or “line ker” as Raymond calls it - a pickup truck with two rows of seats in the back. We climb 48 kilometers, gears straining, through dry, brown countryside, past tin-roofed bamboo huts and lush green mountains stretching in the distance, to Phop Phra, a district of Mae Sot.
We stand by the side of the main street in heat and humidity that presses through our cotton clothes and burns and pricks our skin.
Raymond and I stop a man cradling a rooster under his arm. He caresses its toenail between his two fingers while he listens to the gospel without blinking.
Jeab, a team member, yells from across the street, “This man wants to hear, too!” She waves him over to us. He is of Indian descent with dark skin and high cheekbones.
A woman with traditional Burmese yellow powder caked on her cheeks stops; her eyes widen when she hears a few words above a motorcycle ripping by.
Another woman, shielded from the sun inside a wide-brimmed bamboo hat and a man’s button down cotton shirt that reaches to her knees over her sarong, stops and strains to read a Burmese tract.
I feel like a kindergarten teacher as I arrange the group so they are all facing Raymond. Their faces are unmoving, eyes black and intense, hearts malleable, not passive and hardened like the Thai’s we are used to in Bangkok. Their eyes fasten on Raymond’s face, then back to the colors of his farmer’s wristband.
The woman in the bamboo hat doesn’t understand Burmese, so Raymond pauses to explain everything in Karen. The rooster fidgets and crows. The other three wait patiently and politely, arms crossed in front of them.
Raymond finishes. They all shake their heads and say they’ve never heard this story of Jesus before.
We ask if they would like to pray to receive eternal life. They all nod their head, yes.
Raymond translates from English to Burmese to Karen. We yell part of the salvation prayer over the growling gears of a passing water truck. Each mouth forms the words in their own language, then they open their eyes and smile.
When the team meets back at the line-car stop, we discover that within 40 minutes, between the six of us, 10 people have prayed to receive Christ. Raymond shakes his head and tells me, “I had no idea so many of my people have never heard of Jesus.”
Possibilities, because living waters go
We are sitting inside another line-car on the way back from Shwe Koko, and Jeab is sharing the gospel with three Karen women from the countryside. Thai people are celebrating their New Year by throwing water at each other. Children and teenagers wait by the side of the road with buckets, full and ready.
Ryan yells, “Water!” Jeab pauses; everyone ducks forward; we all get drenched; Jeab continues sharing the gospel. The three Karen women haven’t lost their concentration.
I think of Jeab, who will be graduating from our Bible School in Bangkok soon. I think of the years, the days, and the hours, she has opened her heart to receive the Word of God, how the Holy Spirit has fitted those eternal words together, how they rise to the surface, and Christ is poured out through her life.
What kind of impact could we make in a place like this? Among people who have never met God’s goodness or loving kindness, His judgments that are perfect, His compassions that never fail. Would it be possible, someday, to catch a glimpse of Christ’s beauty here, His Life and holiness, distilled and glistening on the surface of Burmese eyes?