This is a post I have thought about writing for a long time. But I still, even 9 months after I returned from my first missions trip ever, have so many thoughts bouncing around in my head. So this may lack coherence and logical flow. I've decided that I don't care.
This past December - January, I had the privilege of joining some friends from school on a mission trip to Northern Thailand. We land in Chiang Mai, and then drive 9 hours to work with the Karen people in the Mah-Oh-Jo region. Refugees escaping genocide in Burma, the Karen have nothing compared to what you and I have. Until the Integrated Tribal Development Program (ITDP, the organization that we partner with) entered the region, they had barely enough to survive. Their babies died from lack of nutrition and dirty water. There was no education or medical care.
7 years ago, ITDP and a team of students from my school worked with villagers to build a water tank in one of the three villages in the region. Today, each village has a completed water tank. There is a thriving school that goes up to 6th grade. There is a medical clinic with a full-time nurse. There is running water. The infant mortality rate has been cut in half. A cash crop - coffee- has been introduced. The village of Mah-Oh-Jo, where there was only one Christian before, now has 24 families who call themselves Christians and there is a thriving church. There is also a full-time evangelist in the region. Life has changed. This video does a great job describing what ITDP does:
And that's when I get to enter the story. When we went in December, ITDP and SDCC had already been in the region for awhile. But there is still much work to be done. We stayed in the village of Da-Bu-Sa-La-Co, which, along with Hua-lo (the third village in the region), has no Christians.
Our team had four projects: a new water project for Da-Bu-Sa-La-Co (since their previous source had dried up), building a new school building (it grew too much!), a VBS for the schoolchildren, and some miscellaneous agricultural projects. I primarily worked on the water project, which included digging trenches, burying pipe, mixing concrete by hand (as well as carrying the buckets of water, rock and sand to do so), and building an actual tank. Although I would not say that I was good at the work, I did enjoy it.
My favorite part about it was the extent to which the villagers were involved. We would trench with them, and then when we would all take a break, they would pick berries and leaves for us to try, all the while laughing at our faces when we tasted the sour fruit. We would try to learn Karen, asking the, "Nee co dee-lay?" or "How do you say that?". Then they would laugh at our pronunciation and ask us, "Na me jaw-leg?" ("What is your name?") and then we would get a turn to laugh at their pronunciation.
I also was able to help with VBS. The kids were, without a doubt, one of my favorite parts about Thailand.
They were so shy at first, but it didn't take long for us to realize that it was just an act. Within just a day, then had no problem jumping all over us, running after us and grabbing our hands, and laughing hilariously when we tried to imitate them. They would share food with us, braid our hair, teach us their games, jump out from behind bushes to scare us, and generally just do anything they could to be with us. They were precious.
We also got to experience Karen church, witness 3 baptisms, and several different outreaches to the community. It was incredible to be reminded that the Lord is actively working everywhere in the world, not just here in the States.
It's interesting because going into Thailand, I had really high expectations for the trip. I know so many people who had been on the trip in the past. They always returned with stories of God's faithfulness, grace and power. I knew very few who didn't want to return. And since it was my first missions trip, I expected that it would be incredible.
And it was, in many ways. I loved Chiang Mai. I loved the villages. It very quickly felt like home to sleep on the floor, shower with a bucket, use a squatty potty, eat Karen food and wake up to roosters every morning. The people were beautiful; I wanted to be there. I knew that God was using it, in my life and in theirs. But at the same time, every time we would have team devotionals, so many others on the team would share how much God had been teaching them, and how it was going to change life at home.
I was shocked...I barely had time to think about anything. Life was a whirlwind - a beautiful whirlwind, yes, but not one that allowed time for reflection. I didn't process through anything while I was in the village. I spent many afternoons journaling and wrestling with God about what He was doing. I knew that this trip was worth it even if I left feeling like I hadn't grown or changed at all as a result. My goal was to faithfully obey the Lord and proclaim the gospel.
But at the same time, I couldn't help but feel disappointed. I was hoping that God would use this to cause me to grow in my knowledge of and love for Him and people. I just wasn't seeing that change. While I was there, I just decided that I would have to trust that He was good and using this for good, even when I couldn't see it.
And then we came home. And very quickly I realized that God had been actively working all along. I suddenly found in my heart a desire to pray for the salvation of the nations, a desire that actually bore itself out in regular pray. I found myself longing to use my time and money to further the kingdom rather than to just buy a new dress or travel. Those were powerful things. To this day, missions has become a much higher priority to me. I am open to going full-time, although at this point, that is not my plan. But regardless, my goal is that my finances and prayers would reflect the heart of God towards those who do not know the hope that is found in Jesus Christ.
But even more than that, I realized how much my trip had changed my view of God. Suddenly I understand His love and mercy in a new way. You see, He found them! These three little villages, whom everyone else had forgotten, my God pursued and found and claimed. And just like He pursued them, my dear friends, He has pursued us. May we never forget the glory of His grace! I left Thailand knowing that I had seen the purposes of the Lord, how He is compassionate and merciful (James 5:11).
Rather than being loud and blaring, I felt like I saw God in the same way that Elijah did after the storm: in the whisper. I felt like nothing was changing, and then I came home to see my heart had changed in the quietest of ways. But those quiet changes meant so much to me.
And as a result of all of this, oh my, do I want to return. I want to hug the dear children who became so precious to me, and ask my hut mom, "Oh choo wa?" ("How are you?"). I want to sit quietly in my hut sharing sunflower seeds and laughing as the baby sees his reflection for the first time. I want to worship in another language with my brothers and sisters. I want to see God's glory proclaimed to these three small villages in Thailand. And Lord-willing, someday, I will go back.
This was sooooo long...and I'm not really sure how to end, mainly because I know that there is no ending for Thailand yet. God's work is not done, either in the villages or in my own heart. But I know the ultimate ending: my Jesus returns. And until then, He is using all things to proclaim the glory of His great name.