From Slippery Slopes to a Firm Foundation

By Pastor Cecil and Jane Schmalkuche

How did we find ourselves being ushered through the Diplomat’s queueless desk at Yangon airport, to being met by a throng of excited smiling people with bunches of flowers and becoming the centre point for many photos? How was it that we were honoured like royalty? This was the love, respect and hospitality of the […]

How did we find ourselves being ushered through the Diplomat’s queueless desk at Yangon airport, to being met by a throng of excited smiling people with bunches of flowers and becoming the centre point for many photos? How was it that we were honoured like royalty? This was the love, respect and hospitality of the Mara people of Myanmar.

Many years ago Pastor Cecil Schmalkuche answered a knock on the door of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Footscray. A man asked whether their Mara congregation could use our church as a place to worship. From that moment, a strong relationship was forged between the Mara Evangelical Church (MEC) and the LCA. Pastor Cecil supported that congregation with his pastoral duties as well as guidance and education. Prior to Pastor Cecil’s retirement in 2015, an invitation was received to attend a Jubilee, celebrating 50 years of mission in the MEC.

This was how we found ourselves visiting Myanmar in December 2016. Whilst we had read books on Myanmar and its history, particularly its political history, and borrowed the ever trusty ‘Lonely Planet Guide’, they could not prepare us for the amazing personal experiences we were to encounter. We were accompanied by Malthili, the man who had knocked on the door all those years ago.

Before we left, we gathered at Mauthili’s home with the Mara congregation in fellowship and prayer. They took us to the airport where many of them waited with us until we disappeared into the International terminal hours later.

After our arrival at Yangon, we were met by pastors of MEC, the Women’s Fellowship and others, then taken out for lunch. The next day Pastor Vahnei took us to the MEC Lorraine Theological College, student quarters and main Yangon MEC church, all part of one complex. We were then told to get a good rest in the hotel for the journey ahead. Little did we know the importance of this advice. Our journey would take us into the protected Chin State (which is near the borders of India and Bangladesh) to our destination of Maraland, for which permits were obtained. Four MEC members accompanied us.

It took three days to reach our first village from Yangon. Firstly we travelled overnight on a bus from Yangon to Pokkoku. Then our MEC group transferred to a twelve seater mini bus which became stuffed with people and luggage including three huge bags containing clothes collected by the MEC of Australia to distribute in the village. The roads were unsealed, rocky, slippery and narrow with our driver blasting the horn at each hairpin bend, taking us up and up the mountain side. At one point we had to wait for a grader to finish roadwork before we could venture further. We reached our guest house at night. Cecil and I were kindly given our own room. We retired to bed exhausted, as sleeping on a bus is not quite sleeping.

I am sure it was about 4am, I awoke to the droning of a loud recorded voice which literally went on for hours and just when it stopped, we had to get up. Apparently it was a religious broadcast of some sort. After breakfast at a local café, the six of us were greeted by six motorbike riders. Cecil and I were given huge helmets with visors making us look like we were heading into space. Each bike was loaded with the rider and pillion passenger, as well as luggage front and back. We eventually took off to travel a track that formerly had only been used as a walking track. Again the journey took us over stones, slippery mud, ascents, descents and around hairpin bends, horns blasting, sheer drops and landslides, crossing rivers or narrow bridges.

After seven hours with sore backs, bottoms and thighs, we reached the Mara village of Aru. The village Aru was Malthili’s village. He had not seen his parents and siblings for sixteen years! We were greeted with colourful lays, a bold banner welcoming ‘Malthili and Friends’, followed by songs and prayer. Twice, a service was held in Maulthili’s parent’s home, to welcome and to farewell us. Both times hymns, prayers, devotions, speeches and gifts were given. In the welcoming service Mauthili’s parents sang and danced for joy. Dance in worship is a strong expression of faith and joy for the Mara people. Cecil and I were asked to give greetings. Initially we were taken aback as I especially was not accustomed to public speaking, particularly with no preparation. This would be a common occurrence at all the gatherings we attended, so we both started mentally preparing early at each event.

Aru village was typical in that there was no running water, sewerage facilities, electricity and no shops! Water was collected from the village well, which came out of a tap. Our toilet was a simple squat toilet in the backyard. We showered standing on a bamboo floor where big containers of hot and cold water sat, washing ourselves using a scoop. Light at night was provided by batteries and torches. Villagers lived from day to day with all provisions coming from what they grew; chickens, pigs, bananas, leafy greens and rice. We were provided with ample food to eat but became aware after our first meal that if we ate more than we needed, those that came after us had less; a simple lesson in being aware of the needs of others. An ox had been killed and prepared (which we witnessed) for the farewell visit celebration of which the whole village joined in.

One day we were visited by an elderly gentleman with a huge warm smile, who had lots of questions. He was very tactile, touching our white hair and Cecil’s grey beard (we found the Mara people to be very warm and inclusive people). In answering his questions it became clear to him that despite all the wealth in Australia, we had many social problems, whereas in his village even though people are wealth poor, they have a strong, cohesive, Christian community. He stated that previously he did not think that we needed his prayers but now understood differently.

One afternoon there were a number of gun shots letting the community know a person had passed away. We informed people that we would like to attend the service but we were never told when and where. Then early the next day about 4am we heard another series of gun shots which we later found out were calling people to prayer and burial. In all the Mara villages, the church is often on higher ground with a large cross to be seen by the villagers wherever they lived. In Aru we ascended the hill to their church, faithfully built by the villagers. (How did they get the building materials they needed up those steep hazardous narrow tracks?!) The church was a basic design with simple furnishings and pews standing on a dirt floor. They are raising funds for an extension to house the ever growing number of worshippers.  We joined them in worship. Cecil preached and I was asked to give a greeting. Our time in Aru was short but filled with such love, honour, generosity, faith and support. Their deep and abiding faith was an encouragement to us.

The next day we once again hopped onto the back of a motorcycle and were taken to the town of Lialenpi. Here awaiting us was a huge banner, ’Welcome Pastor and Mrs Schmalkuche.’ Welcoming us was the Bishop of the MEC and two pastors on one side and village chief in traditional dress on the other. Under the banner stood a choir greeting us with hymns of praise followed by prayers of thanksgiving. Past the choir we saw a long, snake line of townsfolk which seemed to go on forever. We shook hands with young and old, along with smiles and laughter until we finally reached the end of the line.

While at Lialenpi we experienced so much. We stayed at a place called The Health and Hope Foundation, a remarkable place run by Dr Sasa (the village chief’s son). Dr Sasa is a medical doctor and strong Christian who returned to his country to assist in providing medical care and training. Health and Hope trains many villagers to return as health workers to their village. It also provides opportunities for selected villagers to be educated outside Myanmar to return and use their qualifications to benefit their people. They are now in the process of building an airstrip for quicker access to bring in medical and other supplies, as well as transport for emergencies, as the way by road is very slow and hazardous. They also want to provide education for the many isolated villages in Maraland. We were blown away by what had been achieved in four years. Interestingly, the Patron of this Foundation is Prince Charles. We were under the care of Dr Sasa and the church leaders for the rest of our stay in the Chin State.

MEC head office invited us to the official dinner for LCA and MEC. Another huge banner had been erected inside declaring ‘MEC and LCA Fellowship Dinner’. Joining us were many church officials, women representatives, elders, civil leaders, military leaders and the Doctors from Health and Hope. Once again we were overwhelmed by their generosity and gratitude. We heard the history and mission of the MEC, were presented with gifts woven and made by the Mara. (I made an impression with the women as I always wore the traditional skirt wrap called the Timi which were gifts from the Mara in Australia and Myanmar). After the presentations many photos were taken both formal and informal. Tables were set and laden with delicious local fare.

Early in the morning of the Jubilee, after witnessing the departure of many villagers and Health and Hope trainees, who would walk for up to 14 hours to the Jubilee, we packed our bags climbed into a four-wheel drive and were off. We stopped just outside Lialenpi town with two other vehicles and created a huge prayer circle, praying for safety for all, for the hazardous journey ahead. The road ahead was again narrow, sharp bends, slippery and rocky. The road took us through many villages and rivers. We stopped at someone’s house for a welcome rest and delicious taros. We passed many of the walkers on our way.

Finally we reached Patetlah, the village chosen for the Jubilee. Cecil and Mauthili rose up through the roof opening like kings and pope and greeted the multitudes who had lined the road to welcome us. It was unbelievable! We were taken to a house prepared for all who had come with Dr Sasa. Patetlah is not far from the Bangladesh border. After we had unpacked and rested, we were led to an open area at the base of a steep set of steps. Here were gathered mission tribes from the Rachine State, India and Maraland all dressed in their colourful and beautiful traditional attire. We were once again given beautiful woven shawls. We were led up the steps with everyone following to another open space. Here we witnessed much singing, dancing, welcoming hand-shakes, prayers and again prolific photo shoots capturing this scene of joy with praise and thanksgiving. There were many events going on throughout the three days as this was a one in 50 years event!

That night we attended the inaugural service held in a building of bamboo erected temporarily over what was the village sports ground. This building could house up to 3,000 people. The service was a joyous occasion filled with hymns, prayers and official greetings. Pastor Cecil gave his sermon after reading the LCA greeting by Bishop John Henderson. The service was translated into Burmese and Mara. The next day a service was held around the commemorative obelisk which went for two hours in the blazing sun. Very kindly we were cared for with umbrellas and seats. Choirs sang, addresses given, bibles distributed and gun blasts marked the milestone.

That night we attended another service at the bamboo church, which showcased the traditional dances, songs and instruments of the various tribes. We witnessed some amazing talents. One incredible dance was done with long horizontal poles clapped together in different rhythms with others jumping in between these poles without getting caught. The final Choir had us all up dancing round and round again expressing sheer Christian joy. Even the two Buddhist doctors who had come, joined us.

We had to leave early the next day before the end of the Jubilee, due to the doctors having to return to work and also to provide more rest for Cecil, who had been battling ill health. We were inundated with people who came to say goodbye with many photo moments now etched into our histories. Our trip to and from the Jubilee was dogged with brake problems so we were very thankful for safe arrivals.

While in Lialenpi we attended church the next day. We were led up to the altar to sit behind the pulpit as was the custom. Along with the liturgy there was a children’s choir, women’s choir and the youth group sang and danced. Cecil was given the honour of preaching that day. As we filed out we noticed produce being exchanged amongst the members. They also generously gave us eggs, sugar cane, sugar cane toffee and huge melons. Every moment of our stay was photographed or filmed.

We then visited the hospital of Lialenpi. The two military Buddhist doctors served the community here and were on duty 24hrs during the week. They showed us around the hospital which could only provide basic care. If it was life threatening, there was little they could do as they didn’t have the facilities for surgery. Mobile phone access was rarely available in this area but there was one particular spot at the hospital where, on a good day, friends and family could be rung. The doctors had a TV run by solar power at the hospital and would spend their weekends following world soccer. The night before we were to leave, Dr Sasa and the church leaders called us to gather to say farewell and pray. At the end, a mass prayer was said.

At our last breakfast together the two doctors sang us a song they had written the night before. They have both been in Lialenpi only a short time but the song spoke about their love for this place and its people. How they had been welcomed and cared for by this community. It was a special moment to hear   these Buddhist doctors singing about the Christian love they had witnessed. We give thanks to Dr Sasa who has been a wonderful mentor to these two young military Buddhist doctors by being open about his faith and inclusive and caring towards them.

We set off with Dr Sasa, his efficient secretary Khai Aye and Maulthili for the trip back down the mountains via the 4-wheeled drive track. The trip was full of mechanical surprises. In the middle of the night a puncture had us all out in the cold air using our mobiles as torches trying to check for the problem, find the necessary tools and change tyres with stray inquisitive animals close by. We ended up at two more garages with many hours of work before we reached our destination of Bagan, the famous place of Buddhist temples and Stupors.

We would like to thank the LCA International Mission, especially Glenice Hartwich, for the opportunity, support and encouragement we received and the ongoing support the LCA continues to provide to our Mara brothers and sisters.

It was the experience of a lifetime. We have been deeply humbled by the respect, honour and love that were shown to us. We feel indebted to their generosity, kindness and hospitality showered upon us by their Christian love. We were reminded time and time again of their amazing event management skills, their tenacity and commitment to achieving what they do under very difficult circumstances. Overarching all this is their deep and loyal faith to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as they remember how He has transformed their lives and remains forever with them.

Please pray for the Mara people in Myanmar as they live their faith in a predominantly Buddhist country and as they continue to live and spread God’s amazing grace in their mission fields.


If you would like to consider the opportunity to serve as a volunteer in mission, serving in practical ways, teaching English, teaching in the seminaries and institutions of our partner churches, or in local churches, you are invited to phone Nevin on (08) 8267 7300 or email nevin.nitschke@lca.org.au. For more information, go to http://www.lcamission.org.au/join-gods-mission/volunteer/

Read more stories about volunteering at http://www.lcamission.org.au/category/join-gods-mission/volunteers/

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About the Author : Erin Kerber


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