The life that’s always wanted

Went to Maesai and back again for my first-ever intentionally-Christian overseas trip — not a “mission” trip per se, but one for “community development”. And so it proved. We didn’t get to ‘suffer’ as much as I’d thought we’d have to, ending up in a beautifully kept resort for locals and being driven everywhere. But we did get to witness an awful lot, meet some truly impressive people of the Book, and even had the privilege of sticking our spade into the work at hand.

Maesai is at the border between Thailand and Myanmar, and the “Golden Triangle” between the two countries and Laos was nearby — where the Mekong runs through!

The theory part of things was muchly based on J. Jeffrey Palmer’s Kingdom Communities: Koinonea As If It Really Mattered — a slim volume packed with the goodliest content on how to prepare fertile ground for the kingdom of God to be sown and bear fruit. The 8-day trip was meant to be a practicum for the International Development class coordinated by Baptist Global Response, but I was allowed on board after jumping through some hoops. Now let’s get to the more succulent memories of the adventure.

There were trees laden with lychees here, there and everywhere, but none of them were quite as succulent as the ones I’d tried from a garden in Yuen Long.

First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about, get this — stink-free pig and goat farming. Through the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation (ARLDF), a partner of BGRI in Thailand, a Korean scientist had come down to impart this farming technology which just about revolutionises the lives of the hilltribe villagers that are being served. This is because these villagers tend not to have much farmland of their own, being restricted by law or their lack of funds. So previously, it would have been impossible for them to take up the more lucrative practice of raising pigs or goats, as they would have had to place the pens near their homes — a truly malodorous proposition.

This pig pen would have emitted a dire parfum de porcin without the miracle of science (courtesy of the Godhead).

Now, by mixing indigenous micro-organisms (culled from a culture from steamed white rice left at the base of certain trees) into a bedding of soil, rice bran and sawdust, they can rear pigs and goats within the village with absolutely no smell — I know because I happily stood next to a few of these demonstration pens for a good hour or so. Even when you add the inevitable poop to the mix, it’s all good, because the resulting concoction can be used as fertiliser for the FAITH vegetable garden next door (more on that later). Science is amazing. God is amazing. No scary chemicals or concrete floors needed, everything au naturel and freely available. Even the feed doesn’t have to be purchased. Of course, each village is free to adapt the technology to their own traditions and preferences.

On the left are Anglo-Nubian goats, with higher fat content good for cheese and meat (but don’t tell them that). On the right are Saanen goats, reared for their milk (if you get the conditions right, there really is no ‘goaty’ smell to the stuff).

You see, riffing on the old adage of teaching a man to fish instead of just giving him food, the aim of ARLDF (I am deeply grateful to the care, instruction and example of the good people at the Thailand office) is basically to teach folks to fish with what they already have around them, with carefully researched techniques instead of leaping in and importing top-of-the-line fishing rods for a select few. Through cooperation, competence and creativity, a committed, Christ-like community can then be constructed through a series of developmental cycles. Always, there needs to be a keeping still before the Lord, and always there exists a constant battle to resist being a saviour (through apparently efficient faci-pulation) instead of patiently serving and showing the Saviour (through what can honestly be painful facilitation) — even if this sometimes means allowing failure in the community (and when there is success, big or small, there is celebration).

The work that the Singapore team directly participated in was that of facilitating community meetings in two villages, using tools described in Palmer’s book. One was for how to resource the buying of pigs for more villagers; the other was for how to get a freshwater supply into a village known for its internal strife. No prizes for guessing which village is shown here!

Another aspect of the work done by ARLDF is helping missionaries help themselves. There are many in the field who have to be bi-vocational because at some point or other, money runs out while there are still mouths to feed and school fees to be paid. By teaching missionaries how to put together the aforementioned FAITH garden, ARLDF does its bit to help ensure there is Food Always In The Home — or at least fresh vegetables for the family — all year round. The process is again completely organic — no pesticides or herbicides required. We learnt how to choose the location and size of the garden and the types of plants, and how to prepare the soil and compost, rotate the crops and enrich it all with fermented plant and fruit juice. There was also a good bit of teaching on the intricacies of slope farming.

To think it all begins with leguminous plants (aka nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs). These give back nitrogen to the soil, instead of taking and taking and taking, so the soil they’re planted in tends to be very fertile. Of course, you can’t stomach legumes all the time, so there’s a way to vary the plantings while maintaining soil fertility. Here, you can see the root nodules that draw nitrogen from the air and give it back to the soil.

I do carry a sigh in my heart for the lack of a place back home to dig my spade into. But who knows what lies fallow for the future? I did get to see two Filipino missionary families who put FAITH into practice. The first were a really lovely couple, G & D, with just about the most incredible love story I’ve heard in a good long while (I’m always keen on nosing out people’s stories, incredible, in love, in any time). Ask me about it if you can catch me. They serve a Shan village by teaching the use of medicinal herbs and backrubs (yes, backrubs) to ease the pains and strains of life, and personally, they were a real gift to me in terms of how and how long to trust in the Lord — without guile and without end, it seems.

G & D’s FAITH garden. They keep a beautiful home, and while the very handsy D is in charge of all the handsy stuff, there’s no plant on the property that G doesn’t know and utilise.

J & N’s home has 3 rather silly dogs, all of them ‘orphans’ too, left behind when their masters had to leave Maesai. One of them is Singaporean (not this one)!

The other missionary couple, J & N, run a home for 12 children (somehow the number always remains at 12, even though the children come and go) who have either lost their parents or have been sent to safety from being forcibly made child soldiers. I’ve never gone into an orphanage — my volunteering days were all spent in an old folks’ home — so I don’t know how they usually are, but this one felt like a lively, warm home. Of course, there is sadness and need. These are children who know never to take anything for granted, and it shows in how they communicate. But J & N have done their utmost, I think, in helping these ones feel their Father’s arms around them. You can check out their work and find out how to support them by clicking here. You know, I was once (or twice) told that I might have a calling to serve deeply wounded children and young mothers, but after visiting the home (and a service for autistic children recently), I’m learning to hear the nuances in that statement. It’s not necessarily a call to children’s ministry — I still can’t quite stomach the conventional ‘entertainment’ mode of teaching that I’ve witnessed before — but it could be something that arises as naturally as it did for J & N. They didn’t set out to run an orphanage; it just so happened that people were in need, and they decided to help. I only hope and pray that I can live and act as they do, loving God by loving neighbour, and letting that love go forth to its logical conclusion — the letting go of my self.

Well, there’s lots of other things to share about the trip, but these are the key bits and gifts from the Lord. Yes, the food was quite often extraordinary. Yes, there were lots of opportunities for prayer, and even answers to prayer — one long-forgotten one was answered (a secret revealed by accident). And yes, the most challenging bit — and gift to receive — was indeed getting along with the team. I am so grateful for my roommate, the indomitable SC. Every day, she forced me into a healthy pattern of reading, reflection, confession and prayer. It kept me so ‘well-irrigated’ that my natural-born instinct to be irritatable (the natural-born propensity to be irritating was intact, to the detriment of my teammates), for the ‘dark mood’ to descend, only burst out (having shortly surfaced once or twice in the week past) at the last group meeting on the last day. Thank God for giving me an opening to sort-of apologise by thanking the community that had been built up among us for 8 days for bearing the image of Christ and extending His grace towards me.

Even if something is justifiable to say, if it’s said without love, without grace, it’s not truth in the sense of the holy, but sin. I have a problem with self-control, I know — and it extends to not being able to maintain my composure very well at all. I’m not angling to be a people-pleaser here; it’s about choosing to be gentle and pleasing God in that. I’m harbouring confidence that this issue can be resolved because the Holy Spirit is present and Jesus is interceding. That being said, rather than moan about people not understanding my need to have space for myself to stay sane and saintly, I should really just scuttle off when I have to. Pretending to be sociable will only make me bare my teeth without realising I’m doing so. Oh, I have been very blessed with the friends and family I have. God bless them. God bless you.

I loved the relative serenity of Maesai. I loved how much potential there was in the soil there, meant not for condos and skyscrapers but farms and gardens. There is much work to be done and needs to be met — your turn, next?

Addendum on 10 June 2012: By LLP’s implied demand, there are more photos of farm animals here.

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