I am writing this at 6am, after a better night’s sleep. Already when I came out on the deck where I work, a group of young women were reading their Bibles together. Before I started typing, others have joined them, and they are holding their morning service, with singing, prayer and communal Bible reading. When we are ready for bed, the children are holding a service. What with college chapel in the middle of the day, and various other prayer meetings, choir practices etc., and since everyone at the college from children to principal eats and even drinks communally, living here is like being part of a big monastery. Yet, this monastery is thoroughly “open” to the world around, on its edge are the landmine victims and the children at the school, various “others” – including us – arrive and are included temporarily. This “monastery” includes single men and women, and families too. It builds – at the moment with the jubilee coming, how it builds! It repairs – yesterday the water pump (we were glad when that came on just before bed time). Above all it survives – as a place of peace, hope and faith, for a people oppressed by 60 years of civil conflict.
This is one way in which living here challenges me. Living (even as a theological college teacher) in the West, we hardly pray. Compare college chapel twice a week, church once, plus personal prayer-times, homegroups etc. with the Karen daily pattern! We are so busy (even “busy doing God’s work”), despite our computers (that we once feared would put large numbers of us out of work), washing machines and dozens of other gadgets that clutter our lives, we are “too busy” to really pray. Much of my private prayer time in recent years has been in the spa, the only time life in the West goes still 😉 Yet here, they manage to pray, praise and even worship regularly and long.
Then there is the context, this camp: its official UNHCR population is 38,693 people, or the 40,897 the Thai authorities fed last month. Housing and other buildings, and toilet and rubbish systems are village style – nothing here is officially allowed to be “permanent” – yet the population is large town size. What’s more the figure is way too small, add on all the people who are here, but for some reason, (and there are many reasons!) do not want the authorities to know…
The official figures list about 150,000 refugees on this border. Not one of these can have an official “job” that pays wages. Nor can the unofficial migrants who work “under the counter” for less than minimum wages across Thailand, like the rubbish dump people I mentioned the other day.
Sometimes if the security situation is fragile, as it was after the Karen National Union’s previous General Secretary was assassinated in Mae Sot in February, camp security will ask for a blackout and curfew. Some students here recently had their cell phones and light bulb (the light bulb students were in a dorm near the main college building so had power) confiscated just before their exams for studying under a blanket.
Yet, in all this, these people remain happy, hopeful, and trusting in God. Surely that’s a reason for us to pray for them. Give thanks for the resiliency of the Karen spirit, for their faith, for their adaptability and ingenuity. And beg the God who loves all his creatures that the torment of their land may end, in peace.