The Akha village of Hoiyao is a dusty one-hour drive from central Chiang Rai in northern region of Thailand into the mountains. Like many villages of hilltribe people of the area, getting there requires driving on some poorly maintained dirt roads which turn to mud during rainy periods, perhaps dodging chickens, sleeping dogs, and even the occasional water buffalo. Villagers who venture to and from the city or to their work sites miles away usually have to endure the journey in the back of an open truck, with swirling dust in their eyes, mouths and nostrils and clinging to their skin and clothes. During the rains, these simple little trucks can often become stuck in the mud and have to be pushed or dug out by the passengers.We, however, rode in the comfort of a closed cab truck with 4-wheel-drive.
Arriving at the village, we were greeted by the village leader. It turned out that he and his wife opened their home to us that evening to sleep on comfortable mattresses and extra blankets to keep us warm over the cold nights in the mountains. A group of women in anticipation of our visit had already begun to prepare dinner, a delicious feast of traditional Akha foods, many of which were made from crops or livestock of the village. As much as we could eat that evening, our gracious hosts kept refilling our plates.
After an impromptu church gathering where we worshiped together, shared a brief message and prayer and played games with the village children, we retired to the village leaders house to sleep. His wife even came in to make sure we were properly covered with enough blankets and tuck us in!
In the morning, the ladies of the village were at it again, preparing us breakfast before we headed out to Myanmar to bring some medicine to the pastor of another Akha village there. It was humbling to receive such generosity and hospitality from people who for the most part subsist on less than a few US dollars per day. In a way, it was almost uncomfortable. But I was reminded of the early church in Phillipi, who having very little still saw it fit to share of their blessings with the apostle Paul.
This is just one example of the blessings we received from our hosts in Northern Thailand. Throughout our travels in Thailand for the week-long trip, we experienced the blessings of hilltribe people. Though they suffer discrimination from the very country that hosts them, those who are believers in Christ are still filled with the joy of the Lord. The way they worship God is so pure and powerful, the movement of the Holy Spirit is easily sensed among them. It is no wonder that the Christian church is growing among the hilltribe people in that region of the world.
And yet, the realities of living in this fallen world are still painfully obvious. The effects of poverty: lack of education, children who are at risk of being trafficked, shortened life expectancy, are all hazards of life for the hilltribe people. The gospel has improved things in each of these areas, but there is still much work to be done to even the odds of hilltribe people sustaining themselves and their families. While our children dream of being rich or famous, their children dream of eating three times a day and not fearing if their father or mother will abandon them or even sell them to a stranger.
The more time I spend among the poor, the more I despair about the disparity between the rich and poor in the world today. And I’m not talking about the filthy rich, those who have more money than they could ever spend in this lifetime. But people like us, who have plenty and spend frivolously, when there are so many people with greater needs which could actually be met. It’s enough to make me ponder how to convert some of our material wealth into something that can be helpful long term to the hilltribe people of Thailand.
When Paul talks about the love of money being the root of all evil, it is often hard for those of us wrapped in our first world lifestyles to comprehend. We don’t feel evil for having warm clothes to wear or buying a new car every five years. It’s only when we begin to weigh the effects of our financial choices that we can see the evil. The monthly car payment can send 5 children to school when they would otherwise have no access to education. The cost of a new winter coat could feed a family of 4 for a month. I’m not trying to guilt trip you here; I just want to open your eyes to reality. If you feel guilty about what I’m saying, that’s the Spirit working on your heart, not me.
If you don’t feel compassion for the world’s poor, it’s probably only because you haven’t spent enough time among them. When you spend time with them and realize how beautiful they are, how they are God’s children, like you and me, and how generous their hearts can be, often more so than our own, you will naturally come to have compassion for them. Though we are ministry workers to the Japanese, we feel it is important for us to connect with the third world and to help our Japanese friends do the same, since years of prosperity in Japan has deeply affected people’s ability to feel compassion here as well.
After being back from spending time with the Akha for almost a week, I’m waiting to feel normal again. But perhaps the way I am feeling now IS normal. It’s normal to have compassion for people who are facing the difficulties in life the Akha people are now facing. It’s normal to feel uneasy about my personal wealth, because wealth was never meant to be accumulated for a “rainy day” when for so many in this world, everyday is a rainy day. It’s normal to feel heartbroken for the dozens of children we encountered with broken families and little hope for the kind of future we from the first world take for granted.
I ask you to unite your heart in prayer with mine, that the Lord God hears the cry of his people, that he binds up their wounds, that he fills their empty stomachs, and soothes their weary souls. And pray that we do not allow our hearts to be hardened to the plight of the poor and the powerless, but as we are called, that we should serve them and help them in any way we can.
Also, I feel compelled to comment on the various articles I found online about the Akha relating to Christianity, including Wikipedia. It seems there are a few individuals out there working with the Akha (which is wonderful) who are hostile to Christianity and any other concepts they deem come from the Western world and they are vocal in their opposition on the Internet. I can personally attest to the fact that I did not encounter a single Akha person who was hostile to Christians. Moreover, the Akha churches are all led by local pastors, most of whom live in their local village among the people. The conditions they live in are no better than the people they are serving. These are godly, respected men who have a positive influence in their villages and they can only have that influence by living as men of integrity, financially and morally. I also met several young people who are so full of passion for the gospel that they want to become pastors or traveling evangelists to teach their people in more remote areas about the Bible. They are already willing to give up any hope of becoming wealthy or living a comfortable life for the sake of the gospel, even as teenagers or young adults. So the ideas that Christianity is being “forced” on the Akha and their children are being stolen by missionaries are frankly just outright lies. If it were even partially true, I’m certain we would have received a much colder reception from the many villages we visited.