Yesterday, Pastor Chris departed for a trip to the other side of the world as an emissary of the Christian love of St Andrew to Hakha, in the Chin State of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Please keep him in your prayers and thoughts for the next few weeks. It is an odyssey that began with hospitality towards a stranger. It has evolved into new Christian family connections which reach into the lives of local strangers made friends and around the world with countless blessings already. Here are some of Pastor Chris's words leading up to this journey...
They showed up at St. Andrew UMC in the early Fall of 2015 asking to meet with the pastor
As I approached them they appeared to be Hispanic.
They stood to greet me as we shook hands and nodded hellos.
I asked what I could do for them and the taller fellow handed me 8" X11" sheets of paper printed with colorful photos....
They were posed photos of this fellow in clerical garb with other clergy standing the altar area of a beautiful medium-sized sanctuary.
The space reminded me of the sanctuary we had just left back in LaGrange.
"We are from Myanmar," he said, "and we need your congregation's help to build our District offices and lodging building."
"How did you end up here all the way from Myanmar?" I asked.
He shuffled through the papers covered with photos. When he found the sheet he was looking for he pointed at a symbol in the background.
"Because we are Methodists and you are our brothers and sisters," he replied.
The symbol was the Methodist cross and flame.
They had my attention and instantly my affection...
Naive or Spirit-filled?
The two visitors from Myanmar showed me their formal letters of introduction on legit looking Methodist Church of the Hakha District of the Chin State stationery.
They explained to me in bits and pieces of English the plans for the building they hoped to construct: offices for Methodist District work and lodging to provide ongoing income to maintain the building.
The total project cost: $40,000 USD.
They had asked the support of Burmese churches in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis.
"We have been to American Methodist churches, " one added. "They say 'we have no money' and 'we won't support missions outside budgets'."
"We will take up an offering for you." I said. "I believe in the generosity of our people. They will support our Methodist brothers and sisters in Myanmar."
Granted, I was brand new at St. Andrew Church, didn't know if they ever took such offerings, and was clueless that there were Methodists in Myanmar.
But we were now committed.
As Mark Ritchie (who will accompany me on my trip) commented a couple of years after my explanation of this encounter, "So you decided to take up an offering for two strangers from Myanmar who said they were buidling a building and wanted you to give them money?"
"Your church is either the most naive bunch of people in the world or you are filled with the Holy Spirit," he said smiling.
I guess we were both.
Six weeks later, in two Sundays of special offerings in November, we raised nearly $10,000.
Getting the money to them would be the next challenge.
It should be easy to give away money.
But we couldn't wire the money to Myanmar - official sanctions had been lifted but banks were/are squeamish.
And in researching that I discovered an upsetting fact: the folks we had raised money for weren't United Methodists.
But they were connected with the Methodists of Great Britain.
I contacted the British brethren by email expecting a cheery affirmation of our generosity.
Instead I got "they weren't authorized to solicit funds from you, what were you thinking raising money for them!"
They said they would take the money and decide what to do with it.
I balked and began to think this project was all a mistake...
After some weeks misunderstandings gave way to grace and the money was wired and promised to the Myanmar project. Finally!
(Our visitors had followed official guidelines but paperwork had not been read.)
By Spring 2016 I received thanks from Myanmar and assurance they were close to breaking ground on the project.
Then videos of the rainy season (August 2016) and floods arrived: building plans less urgent than reaching isolated and hungry church members...
Eight months passed.
A picture of the foundation of the building was sent along.
Four months passed.
An August email: Building nearly done.Hope to dedicate it in November 2017. Planning team met. You must come. Tell us which Sunday you will be here to dedicate it.
God starts showing off
It was August 2017.
I had been invited to Myanmar in November to dedicate the building we helped to finance.
And I could not imagine going alone.
Asking around for a traveling companion was met with disbelief and kind refusals until......
Roger Carnes, a church member, said he knows a local fitness guy, Dan Ritchie, who used to talk about his father, Mark, who did church-related work in Myanmar.
A long shot to be sure, but thanks for a glimmer of hope, God.
I spoke with Mark a few weeks later who it turns out:
claims to know more about churches in Myanmar than anyone else in the region;
has had an unfulfilled desire to reach into a poorer region of the country called the Chin State, the very place I'm to visit;
has a contact a 26 hour bus ride from the Chin State who amazingly speaks the singular dialect in Hakha, where I am invited;
has contacted this friend who is personal friends with the very same Burmese pastor who visited me at St. Andrew two years prior;
would love to return to Myanmar;
and lives about a mile from St. Andrew UMC.
God showing off.
One remaining hurdle: Mark cannot go in November.
God supplied the perfect traveling companion in Mark Ritchie: love for and experience with Myanmar's churches + connections in Myanmar 11-1/2 time zones away + his home only a mile from St. Andrew.
But he could not go in November.
I dreaded sending Van Thawng Dun the news that the dedication would have to proceed without us.
His response was swift: the celebration committee met and decided the dedication would be indefinitely on hold until one condition was met......
I had to be there.
So I guess this is what it's like to be called, insisted upon, confirmed by and gently shoved by God.
Mark said January weather in Myanmar is pretty nice and he could get away if, you know, that worked for me.
So Sunday the generous folks at St. Andrew will bless us.
Monday we will head off for one dedication and a fortnight of experiences in the remote places of Chin State Myanmar.
I know we are to go.
My hunch is... it is about more than a building dedication.
It has been the whole time.
Prayers for safety, insight, health for our loved ones as we are far away.