By Dr. Dwain Illman
“May you be wealth and healthy in your life” is the blessing many of my patients gave me on one of our clinic days for the FAME medical and leadership training outreach in Myanmar, the land between Thailand, China and India.
Many of our patients have tattoos of a snake on hand and foot on the right and a scorpion on the other side. The belief is that the illustrated critter will not inflict damage on the person with these tattoos.
I never thought in this population with diet dominated by rice that there would be so much hypertension. Often the patient had been given medicine for the blood pressure and would take it on days “I don’t feel well.” The populace is mainly small and thin. Barb was our physical therapist and kept telling the people: “now stand tall and your back will do better”. It takes more than a rice diet with vegetables to avoid hypertension. Genetics still dominate health issues. I had a 47-year-old woman who had a major stroke affecting her left side 7 months ago. As we talked, she cried. There is no therapy or handicap assistance for most of the people. I could offer prayer and hope of Jesus. We did have several patients acutely ill and had to be sent to the hospital.
Many patients came in with what was described as “breathing problems.” They looked good from that perspective. About the third clinic day I learned that simply means: “I don’t feel well.” Sherry had her Buddhist medical student Mendoza translate her prayers for the patient. He has never prayed that much before. She had a patient who asked that she pray for her duck. That was a surprise. The reason is that the duck is to be a gift for her church to help in their building program. No problem to pray for that duck.
Life is not easy for the vast majority of people. Many make $1.25 a day for general labor. One widow with two kids who saw Marilyn for glasses said she sews shirts 18 hours a day 7 days a week. She makes about $1.50 a day.
Then we had Dr.Jere, also known as Dr. Derm, tell a Buddhist monk: “you need to cover your arms to prevent this skin condition”. The monk said: “it is forbidden.”
Burma is the romantic and literary name; Myanmar is the current appellation given by the ruling generals in the 90’s. It actually reflects a better description than the older British name. There is more history and people with “Myanmar.” The people are referred to as Burmese and dominant language is still Burmese. One of our locals noted there are 135 dialects in Myanmar. Many are from small groups in the northern mountains. Sixty million people live in this Texas-size nation. There has been considerable lessening of restrictions and opening to foreigners in the past three years. Marilyn, Hillary and I were among the first wave to visit over 2 years ago.
The Muslims are persecuted in parts of the country; Christians are tolerated in this 90 % Buddhist land. Evidence of Buddhism is nearly on every corner and at the base of every large tree. One large banyan tree near one of our clinics had a significant Buddhist shrine at its base. It was considered very holy. Some of the most spectacular Buddhist temples and shrines are here. We visited the incomparable Golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. It is a kilometer and a half square of huge golden temples and stupas. Offerings to Buddha and bowing and praying Buddhist thoughts are very much in evidence in the pagoda. I witnessed groups of 30-40 monks sitting and chanting the words of Buddha. One group had a leader with a long pointer following the words on a very large manuscript. It was a massive read-along chant. On a similar note, we stayed at a hotel in Bagan for our last night. The clerk was standing, bobbing her head, and holding a Buddhist text and reading it in a singsong fashion. I was just an inconvenience to her. It was one of those moments that didn’t seem real.
One of the reasons for our visit in 2011 was to survey for possible FAME clinics and to make connections with key Burmese leaders. Joana Jones, formerly from Smithville, Indiana retired from General Motors in Bedford, Indiana just about the time Cyclone Narga devastated southern Myanmar in 2008. Over 100,000 people disappeared. Saltwater covered most of the breadbasket of rice fields in the southern one fourth of the country mainly the huge delta area.
One of the results was hundreds of children wandering around with no parents. Joana heard this story and went to Myanmar at her own expense. This was the beginning of Asian Children’s Mission. Hats off to her; what a way to retire.
The central leader for one of the two orphanages is Josiah (Aung Oo) who leads the home outside of Yangon along with his wife Phoebe. Forty kids are in residence. We began our clinics there at Hope Children’s Home. It was an amazing and smooth beginning with stirring results. On day one we treated 207 patients, dispensed 89 pairs of reading glasses and shared in 23 decisions for Jesus. I call this day “hope in the sun.”
In my planning, I wanted to enter “under the radar” so I worked with Josiah to purchase 90 % of our medicines in country. They come in different packaging and are labeled with slightly different names. Our lead pharmacy tech Lonnie did a terrific work sorting and dispensing around 3000 prescriptions for the outreach. Most of the pricing was considerably better than at home. The way the medicines were sold often gave us many more pills than we could use but we found a good home for them.
Phoebe and friends made us lunch while we were at Hope then served a closing dinner for Pastors and us at the end of the day when the conference ended. Thank you Phoebe.
Let me tell you about Dr. John Brang. He is of the Lisu tribe way up north in Mulashide area. FAME constructed a clinic up there; Dr. John is the physician. He flew down to meet us and to help in the clinics the first two days. The main killers for him are malaria and TB. He is currently treating 100 HIV patients. That is on the rise because of IV drug usage. Burma is second in the world behind Afghanistan in production of Heroin. Unfortunately, many of the people use it. He serves a population of 200,000 and sees 20, 000 patients a year at the clinic. No dentist is in this area. Dr. John says that now there is no TB nor malaria within 5 miles. 50% of the population is Christian. So much of this is the result of the strong, effective and long-term ministry of the J. Russell Morse family. Their disciples and descendants of their disciples are the main leaders throughout the country which includes the people we worked with.
Early on as I planned, I wanted to combine this with a pastor’s conference. One of the keys was to recruit a pastor who would lead. Dr. Jeffrey Robinson from New Lenox, Illinois stepped up. Sherry Burnham is on the board of FAME with me and active leader in that church. She was my chief recruiter of Jeffrey. She is also a nurse practitioner and became a very valuable part of our team. Sherwood Oaks in Bloomington, IN sponsored 30 pastors to come for the conference. Having all these leaders on our “campus” added a lot of energy to our ministry. Men traveled up to 3 days to get to the conference. Young Pastor Nathan arrived via an all night 12-hour bus ride. Frequently he said “thank You” for what was happening.
Another pastor was Tung Tung. I had him as a patient; Dr. Jeff spent a lot of time with him in the conference. Tung Tung (common to have repeated names, sometimes three times. The charts were often written Tung (square with small 2)). Tung said: “I was a Buddhist monk and fearful of evil spirits. I was afraid I would come back as a frog. Then one day I heard people singing what I came to learn were Christmas carols. It drew me in with the hope and melodies. The pastor talked to me about Jesus. Now I have peace.”
Chris and Marilyn taught and organized a session on practical healthcare that the pastors could use in their remote areas. The book “Where there is no doctor” is available in Burmese. Unfortunately, only 6 copies were found in Yangon. Timothy Punsar came in the next day and said: the store just got a shipment. I have 40 copies. Some of the team bought them for the pastors. They were distributed at the closing of the conference. This is a very useful gift.
The second day we set aside time to treat the pastors who had medical concerns. Many came. I have called this clinic day: Pastor Time.
Hla Pa Da is an area a few miles from Hope where there is a small church. This church began as a Sunday School for village children, founded by Asian Children’s Mission. Lonnie claimed the church building for pharmacy. A porous thatch shelter in front became site for triage. That left the road for us providers. I use “road” generously. It was a well-beaten path standing high going through the rice fields. There was some morning shade so we took small stools, sat down and went to work. That day 152 patients came to see us. Marilyn fitted 35 pairs of reading glasses. The Lord added 24 people that day. Wow! I call this day: By the Way with minimal comparison to Luke 9:59 where Jesus is mentioned going along the road doing ministry.
We had a trio of medical students who came the second day to help with translating. They stayed then for rest of clinic. One is a Christian; the other two are Buddhist. At the last, they were given a Bible and each promised to read from it.
At a park in Yangon we passed most days, I noticed a golf driving range. It was set up so the golf balls were hit into a rice paddy. Talk about a can’t miss water hazard! Boys were hired to collect the golf balls.
Another village name for you is Nyaung Hwa not too far from Hope. Clinics there went well. Across the road is a rice field owned by Asian Children’s Mission. They plan to build the Myanmar Community Development Center there, which will be a center for both vocational training and Christian education. We held clinic in the Pastor’s compound. Lonnie grabbed the house for pharmacy. We sat out around the calabash vines for clinics. I call this day: Rice paddies and calabash. We treated 150 patients and had 20 come to Jesus. This was a pleasant day with lots of shade. The toilet was an interesting bamboo 4-sided small building on stilts. One had to climb up about 4 feet to reach the squat (typical) toilet. It drained somewhere behind where the pipe was buried in dirt. No questions asked.
Have you ever been to Ba Go? It is the 4th largest city in Burma. For a thousand years it was the city of kings. Then in 1817 the Irrawady River shifted several miles in a flood. The city was no longer a port so its significance faded. The church there was built on stilts because of the monsoons. Behind the pastors home was a pigsty. I call this day: stilts and sty.
146 people came and 20 accepted The Lord. I should mention that the Irrawaddy is the main river of commerce. It begins in the northern mountains and flows 1000 miles to Yangon and then to the gulf.
Sunday was fun. We split the group and went to Tamwe and Insein for church. I preached at Tamwe; Jeff at the latter. After a church dinner we opened our clinics. We treated 158 people. Simon Thaung and his wife hosted us for dinner Sunday evening. That was pretty cool. Simon had us seated in the yard around a large table. We were served by his wife and 5 daughters. We ate well.
Our eighth clinic was in a poorer area of Yangon. We drove for over an hour to reach it. Maeram Pungsar’s sister Ginzi supervises this ministry to children. She has several orphans. She said she adopted two of them out a few years ago and missed them so much she now has adopted most of the children in the home. People were much poorer in this district. Houses were built on stilts, as the water table was high. With monsoons, the dirt streets would become small streams. We drove by so many merchants selling a huge variety of items yet many seemed to the same inventory. They had their merchant stands right off the elevated road. My description is: in the shadow of Yangon. Forty-two came to The Lord.
For the week we treated 1254 patients; dispensed 288 pairs of reading glasses and rejoiced with 166 new Christians. There is hope in The Lord for Burma. Perhaps I should say: “Burma Saved.” Many of you don’t know about the old road signs for Burma Shave but this is a reference to that.
One evening as we walked in late at our hotel, another hotel guest asked: are you volunteers.” “Yes, we said.” She said: “I thought so, you look tired.” Each evening we were very tired but revived ourselves each night to be ready for another day of ministry.
The leaves of the Betel plant are mixed, ground and chewed as a stimulant by many people. One of the results is stained black teeth. One of the locals said she thinks white teeth and pink gums are ugly. Black gums and tooth stains are beautiful to her. I asked my student what is mixed with the betel leaf. He said: “tow’ bah koh”(emphasis first syllable). I had him repeat it several times before “tobacco” was heard.
GNPI (good news productions international) in Yangon is directed by Timothy Pungsar. Timothy has a passion to reach the Buddhists. In his studies he notes that Buddhism teaches that someone greater is behind Buddha. This is the door Timothy wants to use to influence the Buddhists for Christ.
It was a real inspiration to hear 40 pastors sing hymns in Burmese. I recognized the tune but not the words. Nonetheless it was praise to my ears. I thought of the picture John paints in Revelation 5 when he notes that people from every tribe and nation will be praising before the throne of God.
I will conclude with several summary thoughts and testimonies from our 13-member team. This journey will be a highlight of memory for each of us. To borrow from one of our hotel’s motto: Myanmar – a remarkable experience.
LONNIE describes her experience as “Many but Few.” She has been overwhelmed with the number who don’t know the Lord. It touched her to see hundreds of small children being trained to become monks.
PAM’s expression to summarize is: red teeth – special friends. She prayed for children that they would know Christ. She was impressed with how many pagodas and temples there are. She plans to pray for those bowing before images of Buddha. Pam also said her adventure could be known as the five-hour energy trip. (She revealed to the group that she took some of this booster two or times a day. And here we thought she was hyperthyroid).
CHRIS notes the gentleness, the smiles and the kindness of the people. She noted a book called: Golden Land, Lost but found. Gold is everywhere. Her summary is “Golden opportunity and opportunists.” Business from the west is expanding. China is buying up and influencing huge decisions in the country.
BARB – never stop bobbing and weaving in a chaotic world. Traffic is organized chaos. It is so easy to give up. This is parallel to my life – keep my eye on the destination, trust in the driver. You will get to destination.
SHERRY thought it was disturbing and encouraging. There are so many who don’t know Christ. She says there are significant diseases without access to adequate healthcare. It was encouraging to see what the Morse family impact has been in this nation. Her parents were forwarding agents for Eugene Morse for many years
AMBER mentioned it was hot loving in a golden land. Christians need to flame of Christ’s love in the heart of these people. She was so impressed with their sense of hospitality,
JERE said his eyes have been open to this part of the world. People have been warmest here compared to other developing countries he has visited. Golden opportunities are here. He will encourage others to come, as it is a very safe country.
“Just felt right,” KATIE expressed. She never doubted this was where she was supposed to be. Every morning at clinic she thought: “this is where I am supposed to be.”
DEB enjoyed watching the team and how they connected with each other. She liked watching Pam teaching the crowds using the EVANGICUBE. Simon was her translator. The people would not take their eyes off Pam. She was perceived as genuine by the people. Barb adds the words: “awesome, dude.” Our God is so awesome as are the people of Burma.
WENDY – Burmese Bouncer – not that I would choose this. I felt it met a need. It was very worthwhile. (Wendy would keep order, lead patients to next activity, etc.)
JEFF felt that it was walking together to bring the light into the golden darkness. Five key leaders are walking together: Dr. John, Josiah, Simon, Timothy and Joel. What will the future be as they continue to walk together? I pray it will be God-blessed.
MARILYN spoke Burmese for thank you. Thank you Jesus for putting Christianity in place. 40,000 people have come to Christ because of the Morse family ministries. It is thrilling to see the leaders. Josiah has organizing skills; Simon projects a vision for the future. Joel presented a vision for Mandalay. Timothy can see Buddhists coming to Jesus by the millions. Simon is concerned because so many in America want the preachers to be self-sustained. Half have failed to do so and have left the ministry. How can we help and sustain the ministry? Each of us has to deeply consider and pray.
You say Burma; I say Myanmar; we all say hallelujah. Golden opportunities are open as the doors continue to allow Christians to expand ministries in this land.