Being part of a community is a very important value of mine. People make people better. People are interesting. And when people set their minds to a common cause, great things follow. That’s what Partners Relief & Development is. A team of people committed to each other and crazy enough to believe that together we can change the world.
I wrote some lines that describe what normal is over means to me. It is a distillation of what I came away from three major life experiences with:
1. Rose Mu, the refugee widow who helped me understand that simple faith acted on is powerful. Complicated faith talked about is just an articulate form of deception.
2. My dad’s last days and the sting of regret he felt knowing that he was going to die before he even started to live. Dad’s story helped me understand the problem with fitting in and being normal.
3. My 22 year long romance with Oddny. She helped me set aside my fear of intimacy and openness to embrace my role as a husband, father, and friend on an entirely new level.
Ben Bowler and the guys at Moments of Intertia turned these lines into a song. Click here to hear it. (It’s the last song on the list)
NORMAL IS OVER
set aside the burden
of others expectations
tear away now
from their intense manipulations
I don’t want to be normal
an animal in a tunnel
stuck in a cubicle
forced to be sensible
normal is a story with no moral
stop being defined by religion
conformed to convention
kiss goodbye the institution
join the revolution
you will die
will you live?
but you will get
will you give?
you will teach
will you ever learn?
you will fall
but will you fly?
How can I pray
what can i say
that rings a true note
that sings a true song
how do ya speak
or make a request
when so many words
seem so wrong (hold on)
get out of your guilt trip
and off your pulpit
don’t anesthetize me
or psycho analyze me
The tooth of a bear
he’s the crack of a gun
is in the heart of the son
he breaks steel cable
clips chain links
that bind to these stables
of meaningless routines
This river must grow
erode unquestioned belief
into world currents flow
a gush of life to some; to other grief
I don’t want to be normal
an animal in a tunnel
stuck in a cubicle
forced to be sensible
when light dim at night
normal me thinks to fight
the sun climbs the sky again
i wake to do whats right
but fail by noon
for normal has such might
you will die
will you live?
you will get
will you give?
you will teach
will you ever learn?
you will fall
but will you fly?
Rose died in 2003. She was 54 years old.
I arrived in Mae La camp on her final day. Steve Edney, Robin Wales, and Greg Toews were with me. We walked up to her bamboo home to find her resting on a table. A blanket was pulled over her and June Rose, her daughter, sat beside her still mother with an air of devotion. A tube of snake oil ran from a brown jar down to her nostrils; Karen folk medicine at it’s best.
She had what the hospital said was an aneurism. They said they couldn’t do anything to help her and since she was a refugee, asked her son Fabian to take her back to the refugee camp where she could die without the legal complications of an unregistered woman on Thai soil.
When I walked in a day later there were 87 pairs of brown eyes on me. They looked at me pleadingly. I didn’t know what to do, so I prayed for Rose and sat down with Fabian, drinking tea and feeling somewhat lost.
A few moments later grief filled the building. As Rose passed into eternity, her daughter tenderly began bathing her with a wet cloth and weeping.
Robin, Greg, Steve, and I sat down on the floor where all those beautiful children piled onto our laps, crying terribly and looking into our eyes between sobs. We cried with them.
I gathered the children to me and spoke through my own cloud of sadness. I promised them that I would care for them, that we would find them a new home to live in where someone as caring as Rose would nurture them and love them as their new foster parent. We hugged and prayed, then cried some more together.
While I drove back to Chiang Mai to get Oddny and my daughters, the adult helpers and Rose’s kids prepared the funeral.
Crossing in a long tail boat back to Burma, the soil of her birth, we hiked up to a flat clearing where soldiers had dug a hole to burry Rose in. I was one of the first to drop dirt into her grave as I walked past, bidding my mentor and friend farewell. 87 orphans followed me with tears in their eyes.
Back in Thailand we drove to Mae La Camp to negotiate with the Thai Army Commander to move Roses kids from Zone 3 to zone 1 where Peh Lu lived. With our truck spilling over with the anxious expressions of so many orphans, we drove them to their new home.
Oddny sat in the back with Naw Mu Kapaw on her lap, crying quietly with her.
You would think that such an important event would lead to us having the pictures of her growing up on our wall, videos of our times together in a shoe box, and mementos to remind us of those early days laying on book shelves. But the 30 dollar girl who prompted us to give away our money, to start Partners and embark on a whole new life; we don’t know where she is, what became of her, or even a photo that we know is of her.
But I do remember some things.
She was in many of our group pictures. I say group because as soon as we said yes to support her, Rose said yes to others like her. Within the space of a month she had 4 children living with her. Within a year the number was up around 30. Rose quickly became mom to many the children who were lost, orphaned, or otherwise marginalized by the war in Burma. This happened because Rose said yes. And we said yes.
So Oddny and I did everything we could to keep up with the rapidly growing need for sustenance for these vulnerable children. I know that Our Girl is in some of our many group photos, but I don’t know which one she is.
I love them all.
I remember Saw Brown, a 5 year old boy whose mom and dad were executed in front of him. He lived with Rose for many years before one of his uncles found out he was living with her, trekked through Karen State, and embraced him back into the family. Saw brown and I used to play football when Oddny and I visited the camp.
I remember Naw Mu Kapaw who was found sleeping in a pig-pen. Her story is confusing but she was malnourished, filthy, and traumatized when she arrived at Rose’s home. She wouldn’t talk for about a year and had many behavioral problems. But eventually under Rose’s care, she became a healthy chatterbox and dresser-upper as any young child who wants to be a princess is.
So much happened during this time that our memory of the girl and how we started isn’t clear, even to us. Last night when Oddny (my wife) read the account she looked up and asked “Did we even see her? Was she in Rose’s house that day?” And I had to collect my thoughts before I said “yes, she was there as I remember it.”
The story happened as I told it to the best of my memory. All of the facts are certain, but the details of that first little girl are lost in a tidal wave of other children and circumstances.
The 30 dollar girl is important to me. She was God’s voice to me, encouraging me to live for something bigger than myself. She was the seed that started Partners Relief & Development. I’m grateful to have known her and often pray for her still.
She was sleeping. If my memory serves me well, she wore a bright T-shirt and beige tights. By her size I guess she was four years old. Her face was clean, hair shiny black and parted on the side, like she had just bathed. She was beautiful, resting on the split bamboo floor like some Karen angel.
Rose hoped up the stoop behind her bamboo shack with a bowl of rice and a plate of curry for us to share. “You must be very hungry.” she said as she set down the dishes. This was our fourth visit to Sho-Klo camp and Rose had already become a fast friend to my wife and I.
As I drew my spoon out of the yellow curry I asked her who the little girl in the corner was.
Rose laughed. It was unsettling and out of context. She did that whenever an awkward or disturbing moment arrived. She looked down at her fingers, looked up at me, and began “Our soldiers brought her to me.” And then added, “As far as they know, this little girl is the only known survivor from her village.”
Rose said that the village was attacked, burned down, and deserted a week prior; that KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) soldiers were sent to document the event, try to determine what happened, and help survivors if any were to be found.
When they arrived they found the remains of a rice-growing village. Walking through the rubble they heard a sound, followed it, and discovered the source: it was this little girl.
“Maybe her parents were killed. Maybe they were sure they would be caught and hid the child, but kept running to divert their attention from their beautiful daughter.”
Rose paused. We hadn’t eaten the steaming rice in front of us. The little girl kept sleeping, curled in a ball like a kitten.
They soldiers carried her for a few days to the Moi River, crossed into Sho Klo refugee camp, and walked the trails along the sho Klo river to St. James Anglican Church. Next to the church was the bamboo shelter belonging to Rose. The little girl was left in Rose’s arms.
We showed up the next day.
Rose finished the narrative and looked up into my eyes. She said, “Steve, please tell your friends in the west what is happening to the children of Burma. Ask them to pray and help so that I can start a home for children like this one.”
Breaking through the granite of my self-centered hypocrisy was this wonderful life in the arms of a woman who herself had survived tremendous pain before arriving on the border. The little girl sleeping on her floor was vulnerable in so many ways and needed nurture and protection. Rose was willing to take her in but she needed a Partner in the project –someone to help provide the basics for this new member of her family.
“Will you help me Steve and Oddny?”
We calculated the cost of care for Rose to become her foster mother. Flip flops, school fees, an umbrella, supplemental food, clothes. Total Cost: 30 dollars. We went through the numbers twice, three times. The result was that it would cost Rose a total of 30 US dollars to provide comprehensive care for this little girl for an entire year.
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!”
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.”
I felt that the Royal Thai Army guard should have stopped me, asked for my ID, and drilled me with questions, assuming I was an infiltrator. But he didn’t. His M-16 was leaning against the bamboo hut right next to the hammock he was lounging in. As I walked by, he barely noticed me.
His duty was guarding the entrance to Sho Klo Refugee camp. In front of the entrance was a small field. It had a market atmosphere with bales of cooking charcoal, bundles of leaf roofing materials, and cases of cooking oil being delivered to porters and stored in large bamboo buildings built to keep rats out. They were the only buildings I noticed with tin roofs to keep the NGO supplied wares safe from the rain.
As I walked down the trail through rows of light brown shacks I wondered at how clean everything seemed. Each hut owner took special care to sweep the loose dirt and refuse from food preparation into holes to be buried or burned. The resulting earth around each hut was clean and packed hard by bare feet.
On the back porch of each hut an aluminum pot sat upside down drying beside a couple tin spoons and plastic give away cups with Nestle or Coke logos on them. They had been scoured with sand and rinsed in the river, now prepared for the next batch of rice or ginger root soup.
Many of the dwellings had flowers growing from old cookie tins or depleted mortar shells.
The bamboo used to construct each row of orderly huts lent architectural appeal that I liked. All those clean lines gave the exfoliated hills a blue print like sense of order and design.
With fragrant smells of cooking, chili peppers frying, oil boiling, and exposed dirt in the air, I continued through the camp, staring and trying to process all the things I was seeing.
“He stepped on a landmine,” my host said.
She noticed me looking up at an elderly man on his porch, leaning forward to see whom these strange visitors were. One leg whole, the other a prosthetic plastic and wood contraption. His face was scarred with small marks and one of his eyes was missing. His one eye regarded me. Looking back at him I saw a vacant sign. For rent it said. Nobody home.
“Land mine?” I replied.
“Yes, many people here step on the landmine. The ones who made it here are lucky.”
Our guide, Elvira was the daughter of Molly Moo. She didn’t know how old she was or when she was born. Molly Moo and her husband had 49 grandchildren and something like 18 of their own kids. Elvira was one of their many daughters born towards the end of their child-bearing age. My wife and I guessed she was 18.
Elvira told me about the things people in the camp endured, while pointing out specific examples of the abuse she listed.
“She was tortured,” pointing with puckered lips at a woman washing clothes by a steel pump well. “The things they did to her we don’t talk about.”
“That boy by the big tree. His parents were killed, he is a, what do you call that?”
“An orphan” I said.
“Yes, an orphan.”
Elvira talked about so many things I had never seriously considered before. War. Rape. Torture. Whole villages being burned down on purpose; ancestral rice fields and meeting places booby-trapped with land mines. Elvira talked solemnly about children disappearing, being forced into the army, or worse.
“Why? Why do they do this?”
“They hate us. They hate our Karen people” was all she said.
After winding our way over some steep hills and through clusters of quickly built dwellings, we arrived at St. James church. The priest met me in front of his long bamboo and eucalyptus beam church, with a broad smile and handshake.
It was Sunday. I was the special speaker. I was seated in front of about 400 church members on a hand made teak chair while everyone else sat cross-legged on the split bamboo floor. From my elevated position I sat with wide-eyed wonder.
Through the cracks in the floor men would drip gobs of beetle nut spit, dark red and viscous, down to the ground. Mothers would hold their babies to pee and any small sized scrap of refuse found its way to these genius portals of nature.
Nursing mothers were feeding their children while the priest led mass. Some would finish nursing and absent-mindedly leave their breast hanging openly. Kids would come and go; mostly to their mothers who sat together on the left side of the room.
It was an Anglican church, with High-Church tradition. They followed the Church of England calendar and closely regarded the liturgy. The priest was a tall and kind man named Swe Mye. He wore a white robe. He was from Tongoo.
When he introduced me as the special guest speaker I stood and walked to the pulpit as if in a dream. I remember this moment with intense clarity because it felt so awkward and strange.
I delivered a very American sermon, reassuring the congregation that God loved them and had a plan for their life, that if they seek him and learn obedience, he would bless them because that is His nature. I was on autopilot. I reproduced what I had learned –what I thought was the gospel.
I walked out of the church and ruffled the tightly cut hair of some little boys playing in the dirt, then shook hands with the parishioners as they streamed out of St James church into the maintained dirt trails spiraling through the hills full of huts.
As we started down the hill with Rev. Swe Mye, I reflected to myself that this picture was all wrong, that my sermon was wrong; that what I called the gospel couldn’t function in this refugee camp.
What is that feeling? What did I miss?
Feeling ambivalent I continued down the trail to the last row of huts built alongside the small River running through the camp. In the fourth post structure on the left was the shelter of Rose Mu.
A widow in Sho Klo Refugee camp was about to become my most important teacher.
Ramkamhaeng University had more than 500,000 students enrolled in 1988. I was told it had the largest student body of any other academic institution in the world. A city was built around it. Other add-on educational support centers sprung up around the campus like little snorkels of air feeding into the beast. I lived outside the front gate on street number 43/1.
My room mate was Win, a 24 year old Hmong law student from Mae Sa Maay, Just North of Chiang Mai. His tribe was well known among war veterans for their collaboration with the CIA against the Viet Kong in the seventies. Win could sword fight, taught me the Thai word for passion fruit, and had a very endearing smile.
We had another room mate that year, Phil, who kept us entertained with shower yodeling and bird calls. Phil skipped around the outer campus with me for three years living in apartments and dorm rooms in order to get closer to the student body. We were best buds. We were starting a church.
One evil habit Phil had was Turian feasting. He would invite all his friends over and sit down to a fresh pile of durian. While they ate what the Thai’s call the “king of fruits,” I would gag. They deliberately drank coke so their burps would fill the air with what could have been classified as chemical weaponry.
Durian looks like a large mace. You know those Viking weapons? They have a handle with a big heavy ball on the end. The ball, either attached to the handle or suspended from chain sport lethal spikes meant to maim and kill. The Vikings would swing them at their enemies or innocent villagers, kill them, then steal their stuff. Durian grows on trees and looks like this Viking weapon. It is dark brown and you need a heavy machete to penetrate the hard spike shaped peel.
Inside the spiked enclosure are hives of round or oblong fruit. Each nodule was yellow with a white hue. The smell when you open one up is a mixture of decomposing garlic and dirty socks. In the core of this ball of airy fruit is a hard brown seed. Most hotels and tourist sites in Thailand have a sign in front of the premise’s that reads: No Durian Allowed.
I didn’t just get tired of Durian at the end of my three-year stay in Bangkok; I got bored with my work. At first it was a huge thrill to learn the language and culture, learn their spirituality, figure out how to lead worship and preach and start a church. But once things were working, in fact right about the time they really started to flow, I got bored.
A counselor told me that I have what’s commonly referred to as an 18 month itch. What that means, he explained, was that I would be engaged with a job and happy with it until the challenge is gone, then I would get bored and look for or invent a new one. “You are a typical consultant” he told me.
Back in 1989 I didn’t have that level of awareness. I was just bored and wanted change. I felt antsy. So I gave notice to my team, conspired to tour around Europe with Oddny and her friends from Japan, and packed my bags.
We were off to Kazakstan on Polish airlines. Good bye Turian. I shall not miss thee or thy smell.