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Providence in Myanmar

Feb 6, 2018 | Institution / General, News

A delegation representing Providence University College & Theological Seminary is currently in Southeast Asia, where it will visit with former Providence students and present an honorary doctorate to difference-making alumnus Rev. Dr. Samson Hkalam. Travelling in Myanmar and Hong Kong are Dr. David Johnson (Providence President) and his wife Barb, Dr. Stan Hamm (Dean of Providence Theological Seminary) and his wife Bev, Gary Schellenberg (Director of institutional Services), and Jerrad Peters (Creative Content Specialist). These are Jerrad’s words.

Friday: December 1, 2017

This is my final dispatch from our Providence delegation’s trip to Southeast Asia. I hope you’ve enjoyed following our travels, and no doubt we’ll have a lot to talk about when we return to Manitoba. That is, after all, why we came here. Sure, we conferred an honorary doctorate on Rev. Dr. Samson Hkalam—a Providence graduate whom we’re extremely proud of—but we also promised him and the Kachin people, as well as Lian and Daisy in Yangon, that we would take our stories back with us. In that way, I suppose, our journey is only beginning. It’s only the travelling that’s about to come to an end.

On Wednesday we departed Myanmar and flew to Hong Kong, from where I’m writing this. It was late when we arrived at our Kowloon hotel, but I still made the short walk to Victoria Harbour, where the astonishingly beautiful skyline of Hong Kong Island looked back at me from across the water. Yesterday our group got up bright and early for a tour of the mainland Chinese city of Shenzen. We were able to see a number of sites before a dim sum lunch and an afternoon of shopping. In the evening, back in Hong Kong, we were treated to a harbour light show.

Tonight we met with some of our Hong Kong alumni. We greatly enjoyed the dinner of Peking duck, but the highlight of our time with Bertha, Hin, Timothy, Kristy, Vincent and Stephanie was the storytelling around the table, the reminiscing about Providence and the laughing about past memories, hijinks and hairstyles. Each of these Providence graduates continues to further our school’s mission of making a difference for God in their churches, workplaces and communities. They do us great credit.

Finally, the six of us—Dave, Barb, Stan, Bev, Gary and I—would like to thank you for your prayers as we’ve flown, driven, walked, preached, shared, conversed, laughed, cried and adventured in the wonderful places we’ve visited. We’re looking forward to returning to Providence on Monday. Our hearts are full with the knowledge that Providence makes a difference. We don’t just say that. We do it. And we’ve seen it.

Wednesday: November 29, 2017

On Monday evening we landed in Yangon and were honoured with another very special welcome. Providence graduate Uk Lian Hmung, his wife Daisy and a group of students from Judson Bible College greeted us with embraces and bouquets of roses before taking us to our hotel overlooking the Andaman Sea—part of the Bay of Bengal.

Following breakfast on the hotel’s rooftop terrace, during which we watched the ships entering and anchored in the harbour, our group left for JBC, where Dave delivered a morning lecture on the book of Revelation. Once again we were presented flowers upon our arrival at the campus, which is located in Yangon’s Dagon Seikkan Township.

The road to the school in the Township’s Yuzano Garden City—an agricultural area undergoing an urban transition—is bumpy and passes between small huts and pig pens. But Lian, who established JBC in 2013, has overseen the construction of an impressive main building, and the campus will soon be undergoing further development. They also hope to be connected to the electricity grid in the near future. At present their power comes from a diesel generator.

In the afternoon we enjoyed a time of worship with JBC students and faculty, and both Dave and Stan preached brief sermons. Stan talked about St. Andrew and underlined the importance of answering Jesus’ call and becoming a disciple. Dave spoke on the power of God’s Word, drawing on stories from the Bible. “As you take this Word with you to do your evangelism and ministry work, know that this is God’s power,” he said.

Lian, who was translating, also took the opportunity to share about his experience at Providence.

“Providence impacted my life, as I was a student there for almost seven years,” he explained. “I have seen Providence love God and His Word. I have seen your devotion to serving the church around the world. You have made a tremendous impact on my life and ministry in this country. You have been a difference-maker in my life.”

He added: “Today Providence has visited us, marking a milestone for our ministry training school in Yangon.”

Today our group returned to the JBC campus, and Stan provided a morning study of the book of Nehemiah. The 75 students at JBC, like the many young women and men we encountered in Kachin State, will one day be Christian leaders in Myanmar. We continue to be encouraged by the accomplishments of our alumni here, but we also know that they’ll need our support going forward. Just as we’ll need theirs.

Monday: November 27, 2017

Our last day in Myitkyina was one of contrasts. Between our waking and our departing for Yangon we would both visit some of Kachin State’s most vulnerable people and dine with some of its most prosperous. It is not lost on us that we are able to navigate the two extremes quickly and with relative ease, experiencing both through the mediation of our North American reality.

After breakfast we departed for an IDP camp on the outskirts of the city. We were guided around the grounds and through the long, dark passageways between the cramped, makeshift shelters. I asked each subject before taking their pictures. Dignity is of inestimable value here, and I already felt I was taking some of it from the residents with each step I took. The camp’s assistant director explained that more than 1,400 people had lived on the site for about seven years. Samson reminded us that the financial support of governments and NGOs remains as vital as ever.

From there we travelled outside Myitkyina to a drug rehabilitation centre that Samson founded. Many of the guests—all enrolled voluntarily—had been using heroine or amphetamines for more than 10 years. The majority of the men were husbands and fathers. They stay at the centre for three months, and this cohort will soon return to their families and communities. Then the difficult work begins again.

Having returned to the city and picked up our luggage from the hotel, we made the short drive to the home of our hotel owner, who had invited us to lunch. Himself a member of the Kachin Baptist Convention, had also invited a former Member of the Kachin Parliament, the current Governor of Myitkyina and the head of the jade association to join us for the meal. We talked about previous hardships in the region and the ways it might move toward peace, and Dave told the group the key to their future was the education of the next generation.

After a group photo we left for the airport, where we shared emotional farewells with Samson, his wife Zung Nyaw, daughter Hparat and, of course, La Wom. Although we had been in Myitkyina only 10 days it seemed as though we had formed friendships years in the making. Until we meet again, fair friends.

Sunday: November 26, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

A pleasant coincidence of our journey to Kachin State, Myanmar was that it coincided with Thanksgiving celebrations here. We marked the occasion at a morning church service as part of a congregation numbering more than 4,000 and Dave delivered the message.

But for the mass of people that gathered under and around a tent adjacent to the stone church that is far too small for its parish, as well as the tea and fruit served to the church leaders prior to the service, and maybe the lines of thanks recited for numerous types of fruits and vegetables, and also the three-hour length of the program—okay, perhaps there were one or two differences—Thanksgiving Sunday in Myitkyina wasn’t all that dissimilar to what we’re used to in Manitoba.

Agriculture is very important here. Rice is both a food and economic staple, and bananas, dragonfruit, persimmons and oranges are farmed as well. Many families raise chickens, cows and goats, and fish is also very common at mealtimes. The fresh produce arranged in front of the pulpit was reminiscent of what I, at least, am used to seeing in church in early October. There’s something special about Thanksgiving when the people celebrating are connected so intimately to the land.

One of our highlights from Sunday’s service was watching a large group of children crowd near the pulpit when Dave delivered his message. Many took pictures of him, and some recorded the entire sermon.

“We know you have accepted us in a wonderful way since we arrived here, and we have accepted you as well,” he said. “You are a wonderful people and you have a lot to offer the church and the world.”

He then pointed out that the Kachin, despite the ongoing suppression of their culture and their efforts to practice Christianity freely and return their displaced people to their towns and villages, also had things to thank God for—things such as conversion, the holy spirit and their Christian brothers and sisters around the world.

“We all worship the same God,” Dave remarked. “May God take his word and speak tor our hearts today.”

Saturday: November 25, 2017

“It is a great privilege, and I am humbled. It is pure grace from God. Actually, my understanding of grace changes every day and every year.”

On Saturday, November 25, shortly after 10:00 a.m. in Myitkyina, Myanmar, the moment came. Providence University College & Theological Seminary proudly conferred an honorary Doctor of Ministry degree on Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson.

“You are wonderful people and we love you,” remarked Providence President Dr. David Johnson in his graduation address to the several hundred people in attendance and nearly 50,000 more watching on Facebook Live. “Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson has more to teach me than I have to teach him. He is truly an example of who a Christian is and what a Christian does.”

The occasion began with pictures—lots of them. Dave and Stan had worn Kachin jackets for the ceremony, and Barb and Bev dazzled in their bright silk outfits. Gary and I wore our longyis, and we posed with many people who wanted their pictures taken with these travellers who had become fast friends.

Inside the church on the Kachin Baptist Convention grounds a string orchestra played as guests took their seats. Following a long processional that included Samson and his family, representatives of the KBC and other Kachin groups and our Providence delegation, the program began. After the congregation sang “To God Be The Glory” Dave and Stan offered their greetings and then presented Samson, who knelt before the crowd and cameras, with his honorary doctorate.

“It is a great privilege, and I am humbled,” Samson read from his acceptance speech. “It is pure grace from God. Actually, my understanding of grace is changing every day and every year. God’s grace continues to pour out on me despite my sins and imperfections. God is using KBC to do his ministry in China, India and Myanmar. Today Providence is here to present this honorary doctorate to me. In fact, Providence is honoring all Kachin. You know our suffering and oppression, and we are so glad you’ve come to see us.”

Samson’s family, the KBC and a Kachin peace organization then presented our group with gifts, after which a youth choir performed a song in Samson’s honour. Representatives from the KBC, the KBC Youth and Kachin peace groups then offered their tributes. For them, their journey with Samson had crossed times of extreme difficulty, ethnic suppression and also the euphoria of peace-making and evangelism. There was history in their handshakes, meaning in their tributes.

Prior to the lunch reception the congregation once again raised their voices in song—this time singing the Providence school hymn: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”

Friday: November 24, 2017

Celebration Saturday started Friday night. Unless you count Thursday afternoon, when hundreds of friends and family paid their respects to Rev. Dr. Khalam Samson at his house in the Kachin Baptist Convention compound. They brought gifts, and a cow was slaughtered to feed them. Here in the Kachin State of Myanmar, however, that was merely a preview of Friday, which, itself, only set the stage for Saturday’s Honorary Doctorate Ceremony.

On Friday morning both Dave and Stan completed their teaching at the Baptist Mission School and KBC Pastors’ Conference. Barb and Bev, meanwhile, picked up their traditional Kachin outfits they had previously been fitted for. Gary bought an embroidered shirt to accompany his longyis. I explored the city on the motorcycle lent to me by La Wom.

Late in the afternoon our delegation was welcomed to the KBC compound by flautists and singers. The grounds were buzzing with activity as food was prepared, tea and coffee served and more gifts offered to Samson and his family. Representatives from churches and other organizations from throughout Kachin State carried large hand-woven baskets, or magun lit, into a tent, each filled with rice, chickens, coffee and other gifts that Samson donated to feed IDP camp residents as well as those present at the evening festival.

And what a festival.

Throughout the evening a large screen overlooking the stage in front of KBC headquarters showed pictures from Samson’s career, including his meetings with Stephen Harper, Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama. Then, at 8:00 p.m., the performances began. Dancers and singers, many bejewelled with real silver from nearby mines, performed choreographed movements and songs arranged and composed for the occasion. The concert incorporated elements from regional culture and the six Kachin tribes, fused with symbols and references to the Christianity that is such an important part of daily life here.

Once again we felt not only profoundly honoured by our very generous hosts but also learned even more about a people that has quickly captured our hearts. This journey has been an education, and an important one.

Thursday: November 23, 2017

We have been overwhelmed by the hospitality shown us since our arrival in Myanmar. Since our arrival in Yangon last week La Wom Gumling has been with us every step of the way. He had a comfortable hotel awaiting our touch-down following more than a day of travel, and he has taken care of every detail during our time in Myitkyina. He is an excellent interpreter, which makes navigating the language barrier far less difficult, and he has also ensured that our bellies are full and our cameras constantly snapping. We can’t possibly thank him enough.

In fact, we’d be hard-pressed to properly thank any of our hosts. What we hope is that the education and experience provided by Providence to Rev. Samson, La Wom, and nearly 20 other current and former students from Myanmar at least somewhat justifies the welcome we have received. Judging from the work Samson has done and continues to do, nevermind our other graduates from this country, we can feel confident that is the case.

Most days Samson and his family have personally hosted us for lunch at the Kachin Baptist Convention compound. Earlier this week we also enjoyed a midday meal with the very generous Yup family. In the evenings we have enjoyed dining as guests of the KBC Pastors’ Conference, the Myitkyina Kachin Baptist Association, the Kachin Theological College & Seminary, La Wom’s gracious in-laws and another Providence graduate, Htu Shan Lasi. Htu Shan’s husband, Dr. Khaw Sau Mading, helped organize and oversee an important missionary venture in Myanmar back in 1979 called 3×300, of which Samson was a part.

Tonight we’re headed to Samson’s, where several hundred people have convened for a celebration ahead of tomorrow’s Honorary Doctorate Service. There will be traditional music and dancing, and over the past few days the family has been decorating the compound with Christmas trees and lights. We’re looking forward to another terrific night. We’ve had so many of them they tend blend into each other. Our hearts are full of thankfulness and friendship.

Wednesday: November 22, 2017

At Providence we often say we equip students with knowledge and character for leadership and service, training them to become difference-makers in their churches, workplaces and communities. It’s a mission that extends all the way back to our founding as Winnipeg Bible Training School in 1925. We like to think we’ve remained true to that mission ever since, and have even enhanced the way we accomplish it.

Training has been a major theme of our time in Myanmar. Through much of this week both Dave and Stan have taught classes at multiple locations. Barb and Bev have visited numerous IDP camps. Gary and I have also chipped in with a word or two at evening services (when we’ve not been signing autographs). Our new Kachin friends are eager to be trained for leadership, and while we don’t have all the answers we’ve been able to direct their questions to Scripture.

Dave has delivered lectures at Kachin Theological College and Seminary, a KBC (Kachin Baptist Convention) pastors’ conference and the Baptist Mission School (BMS) that Rev. Samson founded. Much of his teaching has taken his students through the book of Romans, but he also gave a presentation on the Paraclete on request. He may be our institution’s president, but he also shines in the classroom. He loves it. And you can tell that the students immediately respect him. The faculty do, too.

On Wednesday at BMS he fielded a series of questions about “turning the other cheek”—a difficult concept in a Kachin State that is being ravaged by ethnic conflict. He emphasized the fact that even those who do us wrong bear the image of God. BMS, which is located on the outskirts of Myitkyina—a rice field cropping up against the open-air classroom—has 58 students between the ages of 18 and 21. “Class-time” begins with hpa hka (tea) for the professor, and at break a group of students batted down tamarinds for an afternoon snack.

Stan has been teaching from the book of Nehemiah. The BMS students have been keen to pick his brain about Nehemiah’s leadership, but the content has really struck a chord at the pastors’ conference at KBC headquarters. Many of the 50 or so pastors and lay people present in the main building’s top floor, overlooking the Irrawaddy River, minister with IDP congregations. Their realities are not all that dissimilar from that of Nehemiah’s day, in which the Israelites were displaced from their land by an oppressive power.

They tell us they have taken heart from Stan’s descriptions of discernment, preparation and leadership, but it’s when they have opportunities to ask questions that the difficulties of their situations are brought further to light, truly challenging us. They want to know what forgiveness should look like in their context. They’re discouraged that when they thought it was time to rebuild their villages, the enemy fell on them once more. They want God to tell them when it’s the right time. And they want it to be soon.

Barb has been connecting with women at some of the many IDP camps here. She brings a gentleness and generosity of spirit that is also evident, and clearly appreciated, when we visit churches in the evenings. Bev, crucially, continues to provide important healthcare tips. She’s helping families make basic but important decisions that will improve their quality of life in both the short and long terms.

There’s a lot of training happening here. And we’re here, it’s important to remember, because Samson took the training Providence provided him and used it to make an incredible difference in his church, his workplace and his community—and far, far beyond. We’re grateful to represent a small piece of that difference.

Tuesday: November 21, 2017

Time and again on our travels in Kachin State, whether at bible schools, seminaries, churches, IDP camps, or in private conversations, we are given the same assignment: “Take our message home with you.”

Through much of this week Dave and Stan will be teaching students in and around Myitkyina, and already they have encountered practical and challenging questions from the young men and women, and seasoned pastors, they’ve been engaging with. The Kachin people want to know why they’re being oppressed, how it is they’re supposed to adhere to biblical texts that instruct them to “turn the other cheek” and what “forgiveness” in their context might look like.

It’s tough stuff, and it goes without saying that, beyond providing them with some tools to interpret scripture and offering sincere encouragement, we have very few of the answers they seek. But we can do one thing they ask of us. We can share the story of the Kachin with the Providence community and our friends, families and politicians back home.

Now, I’m not going to try and begin to unpack the convoluted situation that is Myanmar. Even the ongoing crisis in Rakhine State is merely a part of the picture. But when you have 135 language groups representing numerous unique cultures and more than 30 armed groups protecting various ethnic interests against an army that operates largely free of government oversight, often sponsoring sub-militias that have even less accountability, you tend to have tragic situations that are the reality of contemporary life in much of this country.

“We’re living in a small, compact area and we don’t want to stay here anymore,” explained the director of an IDP camp on the grounds of Mali Yang Baptist Church on Tuesday. There are presently about 340 people who have lived in the compound for nearly seven years.

But, he added, “We’re providing shelter and basic needs, and the KBC (Kachin Baptist Convention) is helping us a lot. Samson often comes to visit our church and encourage the congregation.”

After a time in which our entire delegation greeted the congregation, who had gathered to share a time of evening fellowship with us, a young lady from the audience underlined the importance of taking the Kachin people’s message back home with us.

“We have arrangements to get food and other support, but no one talks to us or listens to us,” she said. “I hope you will continue to share our story with others. Your interest in seeing us in person is very meaningful to us.”

Monday: November 20, 2017

“Where on earth did our driver run off to…

…There’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.”

Providence is a big deal in Myitkyina. I say that somewhat facetiously, but then there are the special ceremonies, gifts, marching bands and Kichin in traditional costume presenting us flowers that seem to welcome us wherever we go.

It is not without hesitancy that I—white, western and male—revel in the attention. There is the suggestion of a history of condescension, and worse, in my figure, but it’s important that I remember it isn’t me, personally, being so feted in this place. Rather, it is the institution of Providence—its community, its training, its membership in the universal body of Christ—that is being celebrated. If the honorary doctorate we will be conferring on Rev. Samson is “for all Kachin,” as La Wom rightfully points out, then the incredible hospitality we continue to be shown is “for all of Providence.”

On Monday we arrived at the headquarters of the Kachin Baptist Convention—the denomination Samson serves as General Secretary—to the sounds of trumpets, tubas and trombones before being presented bouquets of roses. (The hotel staff have nicely arranged the two bouquets I’ve received in Myitkyina on a table in my room.)

“You promised someday you would come,” stated Samson after our delegation gathered with KBC leadership in a large meeting room. “The dream has come true.”

Throughout the morning we were provided a general report of the KBC’s activities. We learned that the organization, which includes more than 400,000 members representing 435 churches led by 3,500 pastors, is active in leadership training, childhood education, women’s ministries and support for Internally Displaced Persons. There are currently more than 100,000 Kachin living in 169 IDP camps. As it happens, the Canadian government, through CIDA, is the largest national donor to the makeshift settlements.

After touring the new KBC office building we drove out of Myitkyina to the peaceful property of the Yup family, who had prepared a lunch of chicken, vegetables, goat and fresh fish just caught in the nearby Irrawaddy River.

Following our meal we drove the winding, narrow dirt road into the mountains to the confluence of the Mali Kha and N Mai Kha rivers that flow south as the Irrawaddy. The landscape was all the more spectacular from atop a tower on Prayer Mountain, from where Samson and 299 other Kachin missionaries set out on a three-year mission in 1979.

Late in the afternoon we met with the Vice President—another Providence grad—and the faculty of Kachin Theological College & Seminary. Their campus is similar in physical size to that of ours in Otterburne, although they have twice as many students. Dave and Stan were both provided the opportunity to speak at an evening service at KTCS, after which we toured the school’s library.

Ready to return to our hotel, I wondered aloud where our driver had got to. And I laughed out loud at myself. We have been made to feel so special here—the result, as humbling as it is to say, of the part, however small, Providence has played in the lives of the KBC, KTCS and Kachin Christians, generally.

That said, I’m cool with living the life of a celebrity for a few more days.

One more story…

When we addressed the boarding school assembly on Sunday night (I wrote about this in a previous entry) I was detained as we made our exit by a group of six or seven female students, each of whom took a selfie with me. Barb, in particular, found this quite amusing.

Barb: “Look at Jerrad! He’s a celebrity!”

Me, thinking to myself with game-face on: “I’m just here to satisfy my fans.”

Sunday: November 19, 2017

“When we cross the bridge there will be military, so look out that window and not this one.”

As I write this the students, faculty and staff who make up the Providence community, as well as my own friends and family, will be getting ready to go to church. The services they attend will look mostly similar to the one I and the Providence contingent in Myanmar attended this morning—only they won’t have to avoid eye contact with soldiers at a military checkpoint to get there. Perhaps La Wom, our guide and a Providence alumnus, was taking extra precautions. What’s more likely is he simply knows this region a lot better than us.

“We Kachin feel like we know quite a bit about you,” he has told our group on more than one occasion. “We want you to now know more about us.” Our Sunday was a whirlwind tour of the Kachin experience.

Late in the morning we crossed the Irrawaddy River and drove past that checkpoint. Shortly thereafter we arrived at the Waimaw Bawngring camp for Internally Displaced Peoples, where we met up with Rev. Samson. He explained that the camp—made up of long, barracks-style dwellings, gardens, classrooms and an open-air church—currently served as home to about 2,000 people, more than 100 of whom had been born there.

“These people are waiting to home to their original places,” said Samson. “[Returning people to their land] is now the key for us.”

Samson, as General Secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention, has, himself, been involved in negotiations with the Myanmar government. Saboi Jum—one of his KBC predecessors and another Providence grad—helped broker the 1994 ceasefire between Kachin State and its Kachin Liberation Army and the central authorities. Hostilities were renewed in 2011, however, necessitating a new agreement.

“People want the military to withdraw so they can go back home,” he says, referring to federal military actions designed to implement centralize authority among the country’s numerous ethnic groups, including, but not limited to, the Kachin. (There are around 30 armed groups in Myanmar and the federal military tends to operate independently of the government.)

It was a message driven home by the host speakers at an afternoon service organized by the Myitkyina Kachin Baptist Association in recognition of our delegation’s visit. The MKBA has previously sent nine students to study at the Otterburne MB campus, but it was clear, as La Wom had often said, that this was a time for us to listen and learn about those students and the people who sent them.

Of the approximately one million Kachin people in Myanmar more than 900,000 live in Kachin State. About 500,000 of those are Christians, and 400,000 of them are members of the KBC. Of those, 70,000 are part of the MKBA. Nine people might not seem like much when lined up against such numbers, but time and again we have been told about their value to their communities.

“These nine have been serving in different areas of ministry in the community, and we would like to thank Providence for equipping them,” remarked Rev. Gunhtang La Myen. “We would also like to express our joy that you have come all the way from Canada to award an honorary doctorate to Samson.”

Added La Wom, who was also translating: “This award is for our entire community.”

Following a traditional Kachin meal at a restaurant across the street from the MKBA compound we briefly visited a boarding school—the same boarding school, incidentally, that La Wom attended some years back. Dave, Barb, Stan, Bev, Gary and I each addressed the 100 or so kids in attendance, and having seen quite a few soccer shorts and jerseys among them I used some of my time to talk about my work as a soccer journalist. It never ceases to amaze me how soccer is able to cross language and other cultural barriers.

Back at the IDP camp, on the dusty roads and in the cramped dwellings, there were plenty of barriers we simply couldn’t cross. We could say all the right things and feel all the right feelings, but there would never be a way for us to transfer ourselves into that experience. And, if we were honest with ourselves, we wouldn’t want to, either. We have our own realities, our own comforts—and the checkpoints we install to protect them.

But this is why the Body of Christ is so special. Worshipping together, whether in Southeastern Manitoba or at an IDP camp near the Chinese border, there are no barriers to cross. Those are for the rest of life, and they’re only there because we put them up. God’s house is barrier-free. He has a way of obliterating check-points.

Saturday: November 18, 2017

“This is a major moment in the life of Providence and the life of KBC (Kachin Baptist Convention).”

Dave couldn’t have imagined how right he was when he spoke these words, and how mutual the feeling is, as we were being whisked around Yangon this morning. None of us had any idea, really. But let’s rewind a bit.

After almost 30 hours of travel and stopovers our group of six arrived in Myanmar’s biggest city and former capital late Friday night. Our journey had taken us on a red-eye flight from Winnipeg to Vancouver and on to Hong Kong, where we awaited our plane to Yangon. Waiting for us at the airport was La Wom Gumling—one of nearly 20 students from Myanmar to have attended Providence—and our contingent, now numbering seven, checked into our hotel in the early hours of Saturday.

Rarely has a mattress felt so good. Personally, I didn’t sleep particularly well, and early Saturday morning I left my room for a walk around Kandawgi Lake (Great Royal Lake), on whose waters are reflected the Shwedagon Pagoda in the distance and to the east the Karaweik—a replica of a Burmese Royal Barge.

Our rooftop breakfast overlooked the lake, which is barely a metre deep, and after an early check-out we headed to the pagoda. Built between the 6th and 10th centuries AD, the 325-feet-tall Shwedagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist site. Daw, our guide, led us counter-clockwise around the stupa—briskly, as our priorities for the day lay elsewhere.

Having picked up some lunch near the Yangon Yacht Club we headed to the airport and caught our flight to the Northeast city of Myitkyina—capital of Kachin State, home to the 400,000-member strong Kachin Baptist Convention and our hub for the balance of our adventure.

And what an adventure so far!

Upon landing next to a grassy field overlooked by mountains, we were greeted by television cameras and girls dressed in traditional costume representing Kachin’s various culture groups who presented each of us with an arrangement of roses. Samson, of course, was there, too, and following a brief rest at our hotel we joined him and several hundred pastors at a conference in his church compound.

We were served a terrific meal in the Chinese style, and as we ate our pictures were taken by several of the event’s attendees. Someone took a selfie with me. I think I know why.

Earlier in the day…

Bev: “We don’t want you to have a bad hair day, Jerrad.”

Me, puzzled: “I’ve never had one of those.”