Part of the mandate our churches gave to Rev. Kortering is that he is to assist the Evangelical
Reformed Churches of Singapore (ERCS) with their mission work. For some time now the ERCS have been working among the United Reformed Churches in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The ERCS sent Rev. Kortering to conduct a conference in Myanmar. This conference met from January 5 through January 19 in 1996. What follows is a diary of that trip to Myanmar which Mrs. Kortering wrote for her children back in the States. When my wife and I were in Singapore earlier this year, Mrs. Kortering let us read the diary. Our reaction was that, in the interest of promoting missions among our people, it ought to be published in the Standard Bearer.
One thing that struck us is that anyone who wishes to serve the Lord in foreign mission work must “first count the cost” (Luke 14:25-33). It is costly to be a missionary! One must leave the luxury of life in the States or Singapore. He must leave his children, grandchildren, and friends. And he must live among the poor in a culture which is very different from everything he has known. Yet it is a work in which one is blessed by the Lord in so many wonderful ways.
We present the diary pretty much as Mrs. Kortering originally wrote it. We are sure that you will find it to be a moving account of mission work as seen through the eyes of the missionary’s wife.
Prof. R.D. Decker
January 5-19, 1996
After experiencing two most wonderful weeks in Myanmar, I hope I will be able to convey in this letter how it has truly enriched our lives. We really count it a great privilege to be used by the Lord for the preaching of the Reformed faith.
Friday, January 5
We left Changi Airport on SilkAir along with two ladies from FERC (Fiona Tye and See Leh Wah) and Fung Dun, a Myanmar citizen returning home after studying in Singapore. The flight went well, very short compared with our travels to the US—only three hours. Myanmar is 1½ hours behind Singapore, so we were closer to you, timewise. Our very first impression upon seeing the Yangon Airport was that it was better than we were expecting. There were about 50 people at the airport to welcome us. The delegates for the conference had already arrived, so they came down in a taxi bus. Only about 12 were in the airport itself, the rest waited outside the gate because it cost five kyats (pronounce it chets) to enter.
Myanmar money, incidentally, is all paper. Years ago they also had coins, but those aren’t worth much anymore. One kyat is equal to approximately one US cent. Any foreigner arriving in Myanmar has to exchange 300 US dollars, none of which is refundable if he doesn’t spend it all during his stay there. You give them the US cash and they give you 30 FEC’s (Foreign Exchange Currency) in $10 denominations, which you exchange for kyats as you need them. You can imagine how much paper you get when you exchange about $30.00—that’s 3000 kyats, and they come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 45, 50, 100, 200, 500 kyats. The funny part is that they are gone so quickly because, even though things are not expensive, you have to fork out quite a few for everything you buy. More about that as we go along.
The taxi bus is a covered pickup truck with open sides and just a simple seat along each side. You would be utterly amazed at how many people can fit in the back of these trucks. It’s almost unbelievable! These people are very small—short and thin. They can have eight sitting on each side, and then they stand up in the center, hanging on to a bar across the top. And then, in addition to that, there are some riders hanging on to the back as well. There’s a little step at the back for getting in, and one time I actually counted 10 people hanging on the back. They will have only one foot on the step, and then they get a hand on somewhere and off they go. It looks terribly dangerous, but I guess they are just so used to it.
The hotel van was at the airport to pick us up. We first greeted all the people and took some pictures, and then the people all returned to the village and we went to the hotel. The hotel was very nice—not fancy, but certainly very adequate for our needs. It was a small hotel, only 11 rooms, so we became very well acquainted with the staff. They treated us like celebrities—always opening the door for us and bowing. When we came home, they would dash out to the truck to open that door too. When we came to the dining room, they would place the napkin on our lap. It got to be a bit much. I think they gave Dad and me the most convenient room because we were staying two weeks. We had hot showers, electricity, even air-conditioning. Breakfast was provided in the cost. We had to pay $30US per person per night (good way to use up the leftover FEC’s). They really treated us super, and it was almost sad leaving there. When later on we saw how the people live in the villages, it was almost embarrassing how good we had it. We could also take our dinner at the hotel if necessary, at a reasonable cost. Friday night we ate at the hotel with the girls. Each night we spent some time together, talking over the events of the day, sharing insights, making plans, reading the Bible, and praying.
Saturday, January 6
Shortly after 7 a.m. we heard quite a bit of noise outside, like children having recitations; so we thought there must be a school nearby. After breakfast, Fiona, Leh Wah, and I went for a walk and we came across the school. We went onto the campus to look around, and a man came up and asked if he could help us. We told him we were staying at the hotel and that we had heard all the recitations and were a little curious. He was the English teacher, and he took the time to show us around. Nothing like the schools we know. Everything was gloomy—bare wooden walls, poorly lit, very old desks. (The Saturday classes were for remedial teaching. Regular school sessions are Monday – Friday.) We couldn’t believe the library. The books were stacked in piles without the spines showing, so it didn’t appear very useful. He said the school was in need of books and that he would appreciate it if we could send some. It would help the children learn their English if they could read English books. I’m going to have a problem describing everything, because you will picture in your mind school grounds and facilities the way you are used to having them, and this is completely different. Everything is very old. The school grounds are dirt, and they are rough. The canteen is just a bunch of old rickety tables.
This proved to be an interesting contact though, because the teacher later introduced us to his cousin’s wife, who is a Christian. The teacher was about 50 years old, unmarried, and a Buddhist. He told us that a teacher’s beginning salary is 950 kyats per month, and the maximum is around 1,350.Elder Siew Chee Seng arrived on Saturday morning. In the afternoon we all went to Grace Church for the registration of the delegates. It was quite a procedure, mostly because of the language barrier. We had made registration forms here and also took along name tags. A few people, who knew both English and Burmese or Chin, were able to help us. Elder Siew was our photographer. We first numbered the name tags so that the number would show on the picture, and then we numbered the registration forms, so that we would know which person went with which form. That’s another job for this week, getting all this information organized. Just as all the Chinese looked alike when we first came to Singapore, all the Burmese looked alike when we came to Myanmar. Besides that, all the names are strange. So if we’re going to get to know these people, we need pictures and names together, along with other details we asked for. It was fun and a challenge, to say the least. Anyway, we felt we were prepared, so that we didn’t have to take precious conference time on Monday morning for registering.
After registration we took a short walk to see the property which the Singapore churches have purchased for a church building. There is a house and a shack on the property. The house is actually what they are using for the church now, and the pastor, who is a bachelor, lives in a tiny room in the back of the church. While we were there, and the crowd was larger, the meetings were held at Moses’ house. Moses is the husband of Kip Vel, who studies in Singapore, and he is one of the leaders in the United Reformed Churches of Myanmar. He has a two-story house, rather well built. The main floor is one large room (comparable to a nice-sized living room) with a small kitchen behind (kitchen consists of a hot-plate and a few open shelves for dishes and pans). The whole family, and anyone else who needs a place to stay, lives upstairs. Rooms are made by hanging pieces of fabric on clotheslines.
Sunday, January 7
In the morning we went to Galilee Church, which is out in the village, over many bumpy roads. There were several vehicles belonging to friends of Fung Dun which were available during our stay there. One was a car driven by Stephen, who is a member of the Baptist Church. And then there was a truck owned by a friend and driven by the son of another friend. Talk about having connections! Sunday we used both vehicles. They offered something to eat, but we had just had breakfast at the hotel so we could easily wait until after the service. The church is only a small room made of wooden boards. It has a bare wooden floor. Nothing is painted. And it has a thatch roof. Everyone sits on the floor—but they provided chairs for us.
There must have been about 30 people who came from Grace Church in one very crowded taxi bus. There are quite a few children at Galilee, and first the Sunday School children got up and sang a couple of songs. A little boy sang a solo very nicely. And then a Sunday School teacher sang while playing her guitar. Their only accompaniment is guitar, and the people just sing so joyfully. It was really a thrill to be there. Dad preached that morning from Nehemiah—building the walls of Jerusalem. His sermon was interpreted by Fung Dun in the Chin language, and then by another man in the Burmese language.
I had a bag of candy along, and after church, when we were standing outside, I started handing it out to the children. It was so cute. Besides the children of the church, other children started coming from all directions to get a piece of candy. Even some mothers carrying children walked over. The adults were just as eager to get a piece as the children were. There were many times when we thought a video would be fun—but in the eyes of the people simply having a camera was quite a thing already.
We walked over to the pastor’s house for our noon meal. They had it set up outside with a canvas over the top for shade. I certainly would not want to criticize, because I’m sure they gave us their best, and probably even extended themselves because we were there, but that was one time when we wondered if we would get sick from the food. We’re thankful that the Lord kept all of us healthy during the entire time. The rice was cooked outside over a fire. They even prepared chicken for us. I was glad to spot a piece of white meat I thought I could handle.
After that we went to Grace Church for a service at 3:30. They asked Elder Siew to give a message, and this was interpreted by Fung Dun. We had dinner at the hotel and then good fellowship in the evening with the three who came along.
Monday, January 8
The conference began at 8 a.m. Our transportation every day was the truck. I sat in the back a couple of times, but most of the time I rated the front seat along with the driver. Some advantage to being the oldest person around! Lian Te was the driver. He knows very little English but he is trying to learn. When I tried to talk to him, he would usually just shrug his shoulders—but he had the most friendly smile. The ride took approximately 25 minutes, more or less, depending on whether we had to wait to cross the one-lane bridge.
We had taken 50 cheap ball-point pens and a ream of paper along. It was so amusing to us how everything we offered was snatched up so quickly because these people are so very, very poor.
Pastor Lau was the instructor at the last conference on the Five Points of Calvinism. Dad thought he would start out with a little review. It took longer than he had planned, pretty much the whole morning session, because he had to do a bit of re-explaining.
Dad’s original plan was to teach three courses during the conference. Then he decided it would be better to treat one course first, rather than three different courses each day. The one on the covenant was top priority, so he began with that. It went rather slowly because it all had to have two interpretations, and he wanted to explain thoroughly and give time for questions. So it wasn’t long and he changed his goal to two courses. As it turned out, he covered only one course, and in addition to that, he gave a brief introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism.
Because these people are poor, they eat only two meals a day. The meals consist of rice, sometimes with a little meat or vegetable, and sometimes plain. Each morning, before the conference, they would have just a cup of coffee along with a piece of something—I don’t know what it’s called but it’s deep-fried and in the bread family. So by the time the morning session was over at 11 a.m., they were good and hungry for their rice.
In the village, all the people and neighbors are friends, so they had arranged to use the next two houses by Moses for the conference. The house right next door was where the women stayed, and the next house was for the men and was also the dining hall. The men’s house is still under construction, so no one had to move out. I don’t know how it happened that the next-door house was also available. None of these village houses have furniture. The dining hall was set up in three rows. The seats were formed by setting down bricks, only one high, and laying a plank across them. The tables were made the same way by putting two or three bricks on top of each other and then three planks for the table effect. These people sat right next to each other with their knees up against their bodies. Now go ahead, see if you can do that and manage to eat! They had a little temporary kitchen set up between Moses’ house and the next one. They had one working table and two or three fire pits on which they could cook large kettles of rice and pots of veggies. After eating, the girls would do the cleanup. They would get down on their haunches to wash the dishes in a pan on the ground. What was cute was that while these girls were cutting vegetables, washing dishes, or whatever, they would sing their hearts out, even trying to harmonize.
They wouldn’t think of having us eat with them or eating what they eat. On Monday, Fung Dun, Moses, Tracy (a girl who lived with her aunt and uncle, a Baptist minister, in the US for eight years and who was my private interpreter), the driver, and the five of us, went to a Burmese restaurant for lunch. It seemed clean enough to us but we wondered about a few of the things which were served. Afterwards we stopped at a stand and bought large apples and tangerines (100 in all) for all the people at the conference.
In the afternoon Dad started on the covenant. Fung Dun first translated it in Burmese, then in Chin. He did a good job, and stuck right with it all week. He also had to listen to the questions and give them back to Dad in English. We could tell, from the questions, that Dad’s teaching was getting translated properly. Dinner at the hotel. Dad went to our room to prepare for the next day, and the rest of us chatted about our impressions and experiences and then had a time of prayer together.
… to be continued.