Legacy Institute promotes evangelism in Asia
Just before the Feast of Tabernacles this year, my wife and I visited brethren in Southeast Asia. In Mae Sot, Thailand, we met Karen brethren seeking refuge in Thailand and other brethren from Thailand, Kachinland (in Myanmar, or Burma), India and the United States.
Sabbath and Feast of Trumpets services and a Christian-leadership training program were organized by Leon and Gloria Sexton of Legacy Institute, who recently moved to Bangkok from the Dallas, Texas, area. Mr. Sexton was an elder in Worldwide Church of God until 1995.
As reported in The Journal, March 31, 1999 ("17,000 Burmese Attend COGs Through HWA Influence"), many Church of God brethren live in Burma, in Chin state bordering India, scattered throughout Kachinland in northern Burma and in central Burma, as well as in the Karen and Shan states in the east and in the delta area in the south.
The Sextons' Ohio-based Legacy Institute is involved in the work God is doing with people in such remote parts of the world: scattered people who endure hardship and lack contact with their brethren elsewhere on earth. We can better appreciate their situation by learning more about them.
Burma (officially called Myanmar), slightly smaller than Texas, borders China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh. SIL International (formerly Summer Institute of Linguistics) lists 107 living languages in Burma. It is a multiethnic nation of some 135 "national races," with ethnic Burmans making up two thirds of the population.
Since 1962 Burma has been ruled by highly authoritarian military regimes. Military abuses declined somewhat in Kachin state after a 1994 cease-fire agreement, but abuse remains a part of day-to-day life for many in areas such as the Shan, Karen and Karenni states on the Thai border in the east, whose opposition forces still resist the Burmese army.
Forced unpaid labor, once widespread throughout Burma, remains a problem for people in the seven ethnic-minority states. The Burmese military continues to seize minorities to work as porters for troops or to work on roads or other infrastructure projects, sometimes only a few days a month but sometimes two weeks a month.
Most are poor farmers who, with full-time farming, barely stay above the subsistence level; they are certainly hard-pressed when working half the month for the military.
The elderly and sick are not excluded from the forced-labor program. If they cannot work, they must pay a fine. Mr. Sexton visited an elderly widow who recently had to sell her house and half her property to pay the fine she incurred because she was too old to work.
Besides forced labor, people in Karen state (and others) are forcibly relocated and face arbitrary taxings, village burnings, torture, rape and extrajudicial executions by the military. Villagers are reportedly forced to walk through minefields in front of the military.
The displacement, or "relocation," programs, which until recently have also been implemented widely in other ethnic states, result in severe hardship because of the sudden loss of crops and farmable ground. Those living in areas where insurgents are allegedly active are compelled to seek safety by hiding in the jungle, where farming is hardly possible and dangers like malaria are hardly avoidable.
Forced below a subsistence level and in peril of their lives, hundreds of thousands of people from ethnic minorities have fled Burma.
The Burmese government restricts the influence of all religions promoting political freedom and rights. In spite of ostensibly promoting religious tolerance, the government shows favor to and endeavors to associate itself with the popular Theravada Buddhist religion.
Most Burmese are Buddhist, nearly 90 percent. A correlation between ethnicity and religion exists. Virtually all the two-thirds-majority ethnic Burmans are Buddhist. Some ethnic minorities are also Buddhists, but many are Christians, Muslims, Hindus and animists.
Christianity is the principal religion among ethnic Kachins in northern Burma and the ethnic Chins and Nagas in western Burma. In the east, some 30 percent of Karen and Karenni peoples are Christian, while many are Buddhist.
In these ethnic states more and more people are found who are readily accepting truths observed by the Churches of God. In these outlying regions, where missionaries began to plant Bibles in the 1800s, God's church is growing.
But those considered Christians, whether "true Christians" or not, undergo religious persecution. This persecution is expressed in a variety of ways.
For example, armed forces have destroyed or looted churches and mosques in ethnic-minority areas. Christians (and Muslims) are discriminated against when seeking permission to build places of worship or to import or print religious materials.
But worse, in some areas, such as the Karen, Chin and Naga states, Christian ethnic minorities are encouraged by coercive means to quit proselytizing and to convert to Buddhism. The means include religiously selective exemptions from forced labor as well as arrest, detainment, interrogation and beatings.
Karen brethren flee
Karen Christians face persecution because of both their ethnic and religious minority statuses.
In 1994 the armed Karen opposition split into largely Christian and Buddhist factions. The new Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) formed an informal alliance with the Burmese government, which led to the Christian Karen's experience of additional abuse from a new foe.
It was reportedly common practice for the DKBA, after capturing a village, to interrogate and release Buddhist villagers but to torture Christian villagers and kill those who refused to convert to Buddhism.
In the mid-1980s the Worldwide Church of God had purchased a small tract of land for the Karen brethren to farm. But, after the Karen-armed opposition split, it became too dangerous for them to remain at the farm.
A large exodus of Christian Karen across the border to Thailand accompanied the DKBA's capture of most Karen-opposition-controlled areas in Burma in the mid- and late 1990s.
Among these desperate refugees are brethren of the Church of God.
Help, not control, from Legacy
It is in this troubled environment that many are coming to understand God's plan for mankind and to accept truths observed by the Churches of God.
And it is here, in parts of the world like this, that Legacy Institute reaches out to help.
Mr. Sexton insists that Legacy is not a church.
"We are, instead, a nonprofit charitable foundation," he said. "Our reason for helping [the Karen and other scattered brethren] is not because they have left or not left, joined or not joined any particular group. Their organizational affiliation or lack of it should not and does not matter to us. It is, pure and simple, that they are brethren in trouble and need help."
In Legacy Institute's July newsletter, Mr. Sexton explains:
"Our job is not to control these people. Nor is it to try to bring them under the 'umbrella' of one of our existing Western church organizations. God has already given them His Holy Spirit and is working with them . . . Our job is to support what God is already doing! Our goal is to empower them to carry out the Work among their own people. We do this by teaching, encouraging and providing seed money for evangelistic efforts and any immediate physical 'daily bread' needs they might have."
Mr. Sexton said the solution to the problem "is to empower God's local people to develop their own programs to preach the Gospel and feed those called in the context of their own societies and economic conditions. The idea is to teach them how to fish, not just give them fish. We help them become fishers of men in their own countries. We want to encourage them to look to God for leadership, not to humans administering from afar."
On the border
On the Thai-Burmese border, at the Thai wild-west border town of Mae Sot--notorious for black-market trading, drug trafficking, sweatshops, revolutionaries and warlord soldiers--my wife and I met with the Sextons and other brethren from various countries.
There Legacy Institute organized a week-long intensive Christian-leadership-training program to better prepare and motivate men already involved in what God is doing in this part of the world.
According to Mr. Sexton, the purpose of the training program was "to educate and empower the men to evangelize their own peoples and take care of those called in their own local areas."
Besides participants living in Thailand, Legacy sponsored Lazum Brang from northern Burma and Michael Hubert from Madras province in southern India to attend the program.
For background information on Burmese Lazum Brang, see the March 31, 1999, issue of The Journal.
Mr. Lazum is an energetic and humble man committed to spreading God's truth. He is an evangelist in the true sense of the word: not in title, but in deed.
He travels all over Burma, from the Himalayan-foothill border regions next to Tibet to the delta area in the southwest.
In Burma, where 86 percent of the scarce roads are unpaved, much of his travel is by foot. Mr. Lazum tries to limit travel in the summer monsoon season. Then roads are sometimes impassable, even by foot, thanks to knee-deep mud.
To attend the Christian-leadership training program, Mr. Lazum had to travel about five days, including long stretches by train.
His trip began as usual with a walk of some distance, but he said he felt blessed to be able to ride the next 15 miles with a logging truck. This part of his journey took four hours on roads impassable for four-wheel drive pickups.
Mr. Lazum evangelizes by whatever means he can, including some unconventional ones. Three years ago he started a pen-friend club, which now extends to 39 countries. He doesn't preach the gospel "in the first letter," he says, but he doesn't waste a lot of time either.
"I've seen this guy in action," said Mr. Sexton. "When we get on a bus, it isn't 60 seconds before he's started a conversation with someone."
Mr. Lazum speaks 24 languages, including English, Chinese, Hindi, Nepalese, Tibetan and local Burmese tongues such as Karen. As the truth spreads throughout the region, more and more people contact him to request he visit them. Recently these included people on the Tibetan border and in Laos.
Having no electricity, Mr. Lazum answers all the 100 or so letters he receives each month with a manual typewriter, or in handwriting if the language does not use the Roman alphabet.
Like the other brethren living in rural Burma, Mr. Lazum and his family are impoverished. He can earn 50 cents a day cutting straw. Legacy Institute has supported Mr. Lazum so he can spend more time writing booklets and visiting people. Yet he would not accept sturdier leather sandals to replace his plastic flip-flops. He has other priorities: buying stamps, printing tracts and giving aid to brethren poorer than he.
More than 350 scattered brethren are members of the Kachinland Church of God, which he pastors, and he visits and writes hundreds more in his part of Burma who are interested in the truth.
Mr. Lazum works with people wherever they are in their understanding. Some have Seventh-day Adventist backgrounds, while others are Buddhists or animists who once knew only the worship of spirits.
Stressing the urgency we all should have to reach people with the truth, Mr. Lazum said: "We all should be active . . . We all should consider to harvest, because now is the best time."
One cannot meet Michael Hubert of Chennai, India, without being impressed by his positive manner and way of thinking. Mr. Hubert, from a part of the world where life is not easy, nevertheless takes a positive let's-go-for-it approach and flashes a warm smile.
Seeing them scattered after many left the WCG, Mr. Hubert was disappointed with the lack of fellowship among the brethren in India. Although he was a deacon in the WCG, he did not want to presume to assume any leadership role. Yet he felt compelled to fulfill a need.
He built a roofed meeting place on top of his house for Sabbath assemblies and has organized a festival meeting there for the past two Feasts of Tabernacles.
Mr. Hubert was an impetus for Legacy's leadership-training program in Thailand. He saw and expressed a need for pastoral and evangelistic training in areas like his where no one is really doing a work. The brethren he meets with are eager to spread God's Word in their region.
Legacy Institute supports Mr. Hubert's plan to translate Church of God literature into Tamil and Tegalu and to distribute literature in southern India.
Mr. Hubert is president of a small charitable trust called Shabnam ("early rain") Resources. He helps poor abandoned street children by buying books, paying their school fees and giving vocational training to give them a chance in an otherwise hopeless life.
His organization provides some food (and shelter when possible) for about 150 street children. He seeks support from secular corporations and institutions to help fund this work.
Mr. Hubert also helps with book costs and education fees for children of poor brethren in his area.
Karen train for leadership
Because Lazum Brang was able to secure only day passes to enter Thailand, a border location was necessary for the program. This meant, however, that one Karen man in northern Thailand could not attend because of his high-profile past membership in the Karen army; travel, especially near border areas, poses for him the threat of deportation and execution in Burma.
Nevertheless, this man works passionately to prepare booklets in the Karen and Burmese languages.
Two Karen men living in Thailand, Davidson Ley Bey and David Mya Maung, attended the program. Mr. Ley Bey is the son of the late Saw Ley Bey, longtime elder for the WCG in Burma.
Davidson Ley Bey is a deacon living in Mae Sot. We met for Sabbath services and a Bible study Sunday at his house. Having limited employment for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and an NGO identity card, Mr. Ley Bey can travel within Thailand more easily than many refugees can.
David Mya Maung lives in a refugee camp in the mountains of northern Thailand and had to cross nine checkpoints to reach the training program in Mae Sot. Refugees are not legal residents and thus have their movement restricted. Local unscrupulous authorities can take advantage of their refugee status to extort money from them.
Mr. Mya Maung and Mr. Ley Bey both translate material about God's feast days, pagan holidays, Babylon, etc., into Karen and Burmese. They also have made contact with potential brethren in refugee camps to get to know them and share Church of God beliefs with them.
We met as a small group of 20 for the Feast of Trumpets in Mae Sot, where Mr. Sexton and other Americans, including Herb Vierra of Monrovia, Calif., and Vince Szymkowiak of Steelville, Mo., spoke. The leadership program was to begin the Sabbath before the Feast of Trumpets but was postponed to begin the day after Trumpets because of post-Sept. 11 plane groundings that delayed the arrival of the American presenters.
The Vierras and the other presenters had spent many hours in airports. On the first day of the program he discussed the "church" as spiritual entity; pagan influences on Christianity; and the need for the church.
Other topics and presenters:
Aaron Dean, a United Church of God elder from Gladewater, Texas, arrived midway through the training program as a visitor.
Active where others aren't
Legacy Institute continues to discover brethren in distant and isolated corners of the earth. Legacy recently discovered a group of about 3,500 in Angola and more in Nigeria and Brazil.
This year Legacy helped sponsor Feast of Tabernacles sites in Angola, Burma, India and Thailand and hopes to sponsor a site in Sri Lanka in 2002.
For brethren in Angola, Brazil, Burma and Thailand, Bibles are either unavailable or unaffordable. Legacy buys and distributes Bibles for these people.
In general, Legacy seeks to help destitute brethren when funds are available. Legacy helps the Karen with housing, food and education. As refugees, their children are not legally permitted to attend public schools, so Legacy tries to make their education possible.
Legacy also helps with the medical needs and children's education for some in the Kachinland Church of God.
This is all possible through the generosity of Western brethren.
Finally, Legacy plans a school in northern Thailand based on the model of the WCG's Waterfield Institute in Sri Lanka. However, more than providing vocational education for students, the school will teach Bible classes with the intention of also preparing students to be better equipped for doing the work of spreading God's Word in their areas.
For more information about Legacy Institute, visit www.legacyinstitute.org or write P.O. Box 7, Dundee, Ohio 44624, U.S.A.
Secondary sources for this article include the U.S. Department of State's "Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999: Burma"; the U.S. Department of Labor; the George Soros-established Open Society Institute's Burma Project; The CIA Factbook; Amnesty International; The Bangkok Post; and the Bible Society of Myanmar.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God