WEEK OF PRAYER: Burmese immigrants find 'living water'
EDITOR'S NOTE: This year's Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention is Dec. 1-8 with the theme of "Totally His heart, hands, voice" from Matthew 22:36-39. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions in tandem with Cooperative Program gifts from Southern Baptist churches support nearly 5,000 international missionaries in seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. Gifts to the Lottie Moon offering are received through local Southern Baptist churches or online at imb.org/offering, where there are resources to promote the offering. This year's goal is $175 million.
RANONG, Thailand (BP) -- It rains eight months out of the year in the Thai province Scott and Alyssa Branding* call home.
For many of the country's 2.5 million Burmese living in the southern part of Thailand, monsoon rain is their only dependable water source. But drinking the rainwater can make them sick.So, the Brandings give them small clay water pots lined with rice husks to filter impurities from the rainwater. Then, they tell them about Jesus, the source of "living water:" "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:13-14).
The Brandings, from Calvary Baptist Church in Maysville, Ky., have been sharing the Gospel with Burmese migrant workers for more than 10 years.
Many of these migrant workers live in remote areas without electricity or running water. They work on rubber and palm oil plantations or are undocumented immigrants living in the jungle to avoid detection by local immigration police.
Living in fear
Families there build spirit houses in their yards, setting out food every day to appease spirits -- even when there is not enough food left to feed their families.
Fear of angering spirits is so deep-seated that new Christians often do not immediately throw out their idols.
"When we go into a home and we see their altar being totally clean, we just praise God because we know they've made that final step, they have totally committed their whole selves to the Lord," Alyssa says.
When a small group of believers formed among the plantation workers, one of the first things they prayed for was time each week to meet together, the congregation's pastor Ye Htoelt said. With no means of transportation, walking 10 kilometers (six-plus miles) or more to another plantation can take more than an hour each way.
Htoelt's hands are cracked and calloused from years of working on palm oil plantations. On the first plantation Htoelt worked in Thailand, there had been running water and electricity, but the landowner was "wicked" and overworked his employees, Htoelt recalls.
He and his wife eventually found work at a different plantation. It didn't have running water or electricity, but the landowner was a believer. Not only did he give the couple Sundays off from work, he sent Htoelt home every Saturday afternoon so he could prepare to teach his small congregation the following day.
Htoelt was unsure he had the ability to lead the congregation, so Scott mentored and trained him in discipleship for two years.
"[It is] such a joy now to see him be able to share the Gospel and have confidence," Scott says. "When he starts speaking about the Bible, it's just like he comes alive and he just explodes with power. ... It's because the power of Jesus Christ [is] in him."
Living in joy
The Brandings, who live in an area surrounded by fish processing plants, also have helped start Bible studies among factory workers.
Aung Kyaw,* a fish buyer whose work affords him the opportunity to interact with both Thais and Burmese, now relies on God instead of trying to appease spirits when business is bad.
"I have learned to have one thing in mind: Trust and believe in Christ alone," he says.
For WinWin Ma, a young woman who works in a squid processing plant, times of worship allow her to claim joy in life through Christ. She is the only Christian in her workroom of 30 laborers.
"I work 10 hours a day and sometimes face problems at work," she says, "but when I worship, the worry and stress fall away. I feel joy."
She also has learned the joy of giving what she can to help others in need. For the past two years, the small migrant congregation has hosted a Christmas program for AIDS patients in the community, says its pastor Simon David, a Burmese immigrant Scott has mentored.
"We go and distribute everything from food, medicine and clothes. We also pray and have fellowship with them," David says. "I love that whenever there is someone in need of counseling or money, they want to give. They don't have much, but they love to give."
Migrant work by its nature is transitory. David tries to stay in contact with relocated workers, telling them, "Do not be afraid. Trust God all the time." He often calls ahead to help the family locate a new congregation. If there isn't one, he stresses the importance of the believers staying grounded in God's Word and sharing it with others.
Living by faith
But it can be especially difficult when family members don't share their faith.
Alyssa tells about a pregnant woman whose husband wouldn't allow her to pray to God when she was sick. "When my husband saw me reading the Bible, it didn't please him at all," the woman told Alyssa. "He kicked me ..., and then took and burned my Bible. ... Yet I decide to cling to God."
Others are eager to hear God's Word. One day while walking along the docks to distribute rice and share the Gospel, Alyssa was invited into a small home. There, she was shown a newborn baby.
"Will you name the baby?" the strangers asked -- much to Alyssa's surprise.
Alyssa prayed for wisdom, looked at the infant and named him after the Bible's Joshua -- a great warrior for the Lord. She prayed that this child, too, would be strong and courageous.
The family began attending church. This year, 7-year-old Joshua sang a Bible verse to the congregation.
Watch a video about the Brandings at vimeo.com/69091113.
Susan O'Hara worked as an International Mission Board editorial intern and Evelyn Adamson as a writer in Southeast Asia.