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Malaysia to Myanmar

After spending the first few days of my five year exile from China in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I re-packed my bags and got ready to fly to Yangon, Myanmar (a.k.a. Rangoon, Burma) early on the morning of May 29. I made my way to the airport late on May 28th, hoping to get a bit of sleep in my favorite terminal (KLIA2, my home away from home for much of 2018) before checking in well before dawn. This trip to Malaysia and Myanmar (and eventually Macau) was planned long before being deported, and saw no need to cancel (indeed, AirAsia makes that impossible anyways). If anything, my inability to return to China was even more of a reason to go all in exploring and sharing the Gospel in new places!

It was still early when I arrived, so after grabbing a taxi to my hotel, I took a nap, since I had been up most of the night. As it was a rainy, stormy day in Yangon, I took time to rest, study maps, and enjoy watching the storm clouds blowing by outside my window. In the evening, just for kicks, I hustled through the rain to grab dinner at “Eugenia Cafe”, a few blocks east. I’ve long gone by “Eugene” in China, so that was a fun little coincidence.

The next morning I was picked up and taken to visit Church on the Rock compound in far northern Yangon, which is the headquarters for a ministry overseeing churches and church planting throughout much of the nation. The campus has a school, an orphanage full of loved children, as well as a seminary. I remember thinking two things. First, I wished my own family was with me, to get the chance to meet all the kids. And second, I wished I would’ve thought to bring many of my books down from China, to donate to the seminary’s library.

I am sorry that this pic came out a bit blurry (my old camera wasn’t very good), but these kids sure were cute.

Drab Rangoon

In the afternoon, I got a ride to a “new” hotel in the center of Yangon, which was as old and drabby as my former hotel was “chic and modern”. I didn’t mind, though, because the AC worked! I honestly don’t know how missionaries of old coped in the tropics without having any way to get relief from the heat and humidity. I suppose they survived through a mixture of necessity and ignorance. Necessity forced them to be tough, and they simply had no idea that someday there would be a way to control the indoor climate. (We are babies compared to these great men and women!)

This was the view out the window of my hotel in downtown Yangon

The Life and Legacy of Adoniram Judson

Speaking of these “old” missionaries, one of my reasons for visiting Myanmar was to follow in the footsteps of Adoniram Judson, the famous missionary to “Burma” who (along with his family) suffered immensely in bringing the Gospel to this region. Despite his great suffering, and the minimal fruit that was born initially, the Gospel took root:

After 12 years of work, Judson and his fellow missionaries saw only 18 conversions. 

Judson’s efforts were not in vain. [He] steadfastly pursued his goal of evangelizing the Burmese people and translating the Bible into their language. When he died, the translation work had been completed, 100 churches had been planted, and 8,000 Burmese professed faith in Jesus Christ. His translation of the Bible is still used in Myanmar today, and his spiritual legacy continues to bear fruit. In 1993, the head of the Myanmar Evangelical Fellowship stated, “Today, there are 6 million Christians in Myanmar, and every one of us traces our spiritual heritage to one man—the Reverend Adoniram Judson.”

I spent the rest of that day exploring old Rangoon on foot, walking a wide circle around the city center, taking pictures of towering churches and ancient temples. The highlight, besides picking up tracts from the Burmese Bible Society (did I mention Judson was the first to translate the Bible into Burmese?), was arriving at the docks in time to watch the multitudes crowd onto boats to make their way back home across the river in the evening.

These wooden boats had little motors to go with their paddles, but didn’t look all that different from what must’ve existed back in the days when Adoniram Judson and other missionaries were traversing the region preaching the Gospel for the first time. The city has undoubtedly changed since Judson first arrived hundreds of years ago, but some things likely remain much the same.

The Church Judson Didn’t Build

The next morning I went in search of Judson Church, a Baptist church named after the famous missionary, located on the campus of Yangon University in the northwest part of the city. The contrast between the tranquil walk through the manicured campus and my jaunt around the “old city” the day before was stark. In here was (relative) peace and quiet, while out there was all hustle and bustle. After making my way to the chapel (which can be seen from some distance), I took tons of pictures from all different angles, and chatted up a few knowledgeable locals. The only thing not nice about the experience was the blazing hot sun. 

After grabbing a burger for lunch at a little Western cafe nearby, I returned to Church on the Rock to spend more time with James, the director, and his son-in-law, who oversees the orphanage. After eating together, and discussing life and ministry in China and Myanmar, they took me to the bus station late in the evening for my overnight journey north to the large and important city of Mandalay.

Mandalay Meanderings

Located just seven hours north of Yangon, I arrived in Mandalay early on Saturday morning, June 2. James had arranged for me to meet with a pastor friend of his (from a different church) later in the day, so I had plenty of time to explore the city. Mandalay is too spread out to easily explore on foot, but not so huge that I didn’t give it a shot. I headed north and made my way around one side of a gigantic square park and temple complex, which is also surrounded by a large moat. My goal was to get a better view of Mandalay Hill on the far side of town, than what I could see from my hotel.

This is a satellite view of Mandalay looking towards the south. Mandalay Hill is in the lower left corner.

Burmese Beijing Duck

Early in the evening Pastor Thawng and his wife treated me to dinner at a fantastic Chinese restaurant where we feasted on Beijing duck and other authentic dishes. I was already missing “real” Chinese food, so this hit the spot. The huge restaurant primarily caters to Chinese expats and tourists, but seemed popular with the locals as well. The food was great and the fellowship was sweet. We discussed plans for the church service the following morning. They asked me to preach and share my testimony, and told me there would be a special baptism service as well.

This is a view of Mandalay Hill looking north from my hotel near the city center.

Train Tracts

After being dropped off at my hotel, I gathered some tracts that I still had with me from Yangon and walked a few blocks over to the nearby Railway Station. I can’t remember why I went there in particular, but I was glad I did. The station was nothing like the Chinese train stations that I was familiar with. There were no gates and no seats and (for the moment) no trains. But there were people all over the platform, sitting in clusters, sprawled out beside their belongings on paper-thin mats and bags, waiting in the sultry night air for a train to eventually come by. To my Western (or even Chinese) eye, the sight was depressing. Yet it was also the perfect place to pass out the Gospel tracts I had with me.

So I made my way up and down the concrete platform, trying to communicate good-will and friendliness through smiles and gestures (not knowing any Burmese at all), and making sure each individual and family had a tract to read. Adoniram Judson and his family suffered so many years in this nation to preach the Gospel and translate the Bible into the local language. The least I could do was share the Word of Life with the people God had placed in my path.

I don’t have any pics from the train station that night, but this is a busy street market below my hotel.

Baptized out of Buddhism

Pastor Thawng came for me the next morning in his little white work truck (he’s bivocational) and we headed off to the southeastern suburbs. The roads were rough and dusty (see pic below) and the morning was already heating up (for me, at least) when we finally pulled up to the “house church”, a house with a courtyard. Before gathering for worship inside, everyone filled the courtyard to witness the baptism of two “BBBs” (Buddhist-background believers). This is significant in Myanmar, because most Christians in the country come from one of the “reached” ethnic groups who came to Christ generations ago as the fruit of the early missionaries’ labors. Much of the majority (Buddhist) culture, however, remains stubborn and aloof from Christianity, so to have converts from that background is significant, and even more of a reason to rejoice.

After the baptism service, we re-convened in the main living room of the home, which had been converted into a meeting space. As the morning progressed, so did the heat! The only breeze came from a fan or two near the front. I don’t function well when overheated, so I needed God’s help to keep my thoughts straight and my mind focused. The people were encouraged by the testimonies I shared from China (whose southeastern border was just 165 miles away “as the crow flies”), and I felt privileged to worship with them in the middle of a nation which (much like China) has its own troubled history. In summary, the morning service was a blessing to us all!

Muslims in Mandalay?

Arriving back at my hotel in the early afternoon, I avoided the heat of the day by taking a Sunday nap. Later, after studying Google Maps, I decided to take another walk around the city center in the evening, distributing the remainder of my tracts. This time I headed south and west, aiming for a Muslim neighborhood that contained a Panthay mosque; Chinese Muslim (Hui) merchants from earlier generations who had settled in Mandalay. It was dark outside, and I didn’t know how open these Mandalese Muslims would be, so I mostly distributed the tracts discreetly.

As my tracts began to dwindle, I began the walk back to the hotel in the sultry evening air to get some rest and finish packing for my departure the next day, when I would continue my “Asian Exile” by flying to Macau.

Bye Bye Burma

On my last (beautiful) morning in Mandalay, I was picked up by a friend of the pastor for the drive to the airport, which was located a bit south of town. It was on this otherwise uneventful drive that we passed within a mile or so of one of old Burma’s formerly infamous prisons. This was where Adoniram Judson languished two-hundred years ago. If I return again, I’d like to actually go and visit this site in person. But on this trip, a passing view would have to do. 

A pretty little fruit stand on the side of the airport highway. Judson’s prison was just a mile or two beyond these trees.

I came to Myanmar to learn more about the country, fellowship with local believers, share the Gospel (albeit in a limited way), and to follow (a few) of the footsteps of Adoniram Judson, both reflecting on his life and ministry and asking God to also use me in such a way that my labor in Christ (in China, in Peru, or wherever he might send me) might still be bearing fruit hundreds of years later. 

So as my plane took off at about Noon that day (June 4, 2018), I was thankful, not just for having met these fairly simple goals, but also for enjoying myself enough that my heartache from being forced out of China merely ten days earlier had been diminished ever so slightly. My life, as well as life-giving ministry, would go on, with or without my personal presence in China.

Looking out the window of the plane, I could see the bend in the river next to which Adoniram suffered in prison nearly 200 years before…

Just for Fun: More Pics from Mandalay