My ego centric version of faith was quickly revealed shallow by a stateless widow with two small children in Sho Klo Refugee camp.
“Hello-o! How are you today?”
Her voice was the sound of brightly colored flowers, laughter and joy; the sound of someone who cares, loves, and reaches out to people; whose soul is thriving.
“Oh do come in to my house,” she said with a slightly British accent, “Come in and share lunch with me. Do you like curry? Ha-ha-ha! Come in, come in!”
When you meet a happy person, study them closely. They are in short supply. When they are happy despite their past, look closer. God is about to talk.
There were well-watered flowers planted in old coffee tins on the porch of her bamboo home. The dirt in front of her porch was well worn and swept clean.
“Yes, we love curry!” said Oddny with a smile, and then reached out to Rose Mu with the traditional Karen handshake. Right palm gripping hers while the left palm grasps your own elbow in a sign of humility and honor.
Pictures of Swiss chalets and Dutch tulips hung on her walls.
“Where did you get those?” I asked.
Laughing, with her right hand covering her mouth, and her pinky finger aiming down, she answered, “magazines. My children and me cut them out of old magazines and hung them on our walls. So beautiful aren’t they?”
Handing me a battered tin cup of lukewarm leaf tea, I marveled at this woman. She was vivacious, about 40 years old, always on the verge of laughter. She obviously had a boundless supply of energy.
While we sipped our tea, I noticed a white leather album leaning on the only bamboo shelf in her shack. “What is that?” I asked curiously. Laughing quietly now, she gently dusted it with her course palms and set it tenderly on the low table we were sitting beside.
“This is my wedding album.”
We turned the pages with a sense of wonder. Black and white pictures of Rose in her wedding gown, Rose and her husband getting into a long black colonial era car, and finally, a photo of the home they were meant to settle into, have babies, and raise a family. It was like a fairytale storybook from another prosperous world, another time.
“My husband is dead.” Was all she said when we closed the album. It was awkward to know what to say, so after expressing our condolences, we just kept asking questions to get a full portrait of this remarkable character.
We learned that Rose was a teacher. She had gone to the University of Rangoon. She was from a wealthy family and born in a privileged social class. Her husband was veterinarian on his way to becoming a doctor. They were well off. Their genuine leather album, command of English, and mannerisms made that clear.
Our talk eventually led back into how her husband died, that he was helping the prodemocracy movement and ended up on the wrong side of the then called, State Law and Organization Restoration Council (SLORC). She believed he had been murdered. Further more, because of her husbands contact with the underground freedom movement, the regime arrested Rose and put her in Insien prison, known throughout the whole country as a sort of hell on earth, especially for women.
Her story and the stark contrast, in fact, apparent contradiction, of her demeanor and joyful presence was nothing short of a miracle. I couldn’t help wondering how she could live through such pain and loss then come out of the experience with anything but bitterness. Her story made me question Gods Goodness. So how on earth does it not make her question the same?
Earlier in the day at St. James Church I assured a group of 400 refugees that God loved them and had a wonderful plan for their lives; that if they would only trust and obey Him, they would be healthy, provided for, protected, and enjoying the abundant life on earth, eternal life in heaven.
Walking down the path after church to meet Rose, I was already off balance. I was feeling vaguely sick about what I had just said and somehow sure that my words were not what Jesus would have said to a group of refugees. But this was the gospel message wasn’t it? This was the good news, right?
Now meeting Rose, my sense of uncertainty grew. She obeyed God and helped her fellow survivors. She was a picture of faithfulness. She prayed regularly, went to church, led the women’s association, taught children’s Sunday school classes and so much more. There was no doubt in my mind that she loved God and that love was demonstrated in her actions. If anyone were truly in touch with God, it was Rose.
What did it get her? A dead husband. Violated. Stateless and homeless, dependent on foreign aid, and living among 9000 other people with stories as brutal as hers.
The sun was starting to set. Oddny and I wanted to stay with Rose, but we had to leave. I had so many questions running through my mind. If I were Rose I am quite sure I would be bitter, angry, broken. So what is the source of her strength?
Why is this woman so happy?
“Bye Rose. We enjoyed our day and look forward to meeting again. Your story was very moving and your joy is an inspiration. We will come back next month.”
“That will make me very happy,” she said as we stood and moved for the porch. “I’ll make you another special curry!”
As we walked back out through the sprawling trails to the camp entrance, I had one clear thought. I was a hypocrite.
I met hungry children and instead of getting to know them and helping them satisfy the grind of hunger and malnutrition, I told them Jesus loved them and left. They are still hungry, still homeless, and terribly vulnerable. They are also no closer to love, having heard an American know-it-all explain an egocentric version of Christ’s gospel.
Humbled by the church experience we met Rose. According to my message that morning, she should be driving a BMW, living on acreage in the country, and eating steak with name brand silverware. It was easy to see that my message was fouled, but how exactly?
“Oddny, this changes everything,” I said quietly as we jumped into the back of one of the many red trucks that troll the border road and serve as taxis.
“This changes everything.”