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Wasted Years?

After half a century, we learned my family's work bore fruit in Burma's Golden Triangle

As medical missionaries who'd spent years in some of the most troubled areas of the world, my mother and father were, in my estimation, true heroes. Both were "always abounding in the work of the Lord," and lived well into their 90s. Mother died in 1997 at age 97, and Father died three years earlier. Their gravestone in Turner Village, Maine, where my mother's parents lived, proclaims them "Servants of God."

However, in the last years of her life, my mother spoke despairingly of the family's first missionary assignment in Burma. Often, as we ended discussions about those pioneering days, she would say, "There is nothing left of our work in Burma. It was wasted effort, wasted years, all in vain." This surprised and troubled me, especially in light of Scripture, which gives us confidence that our work for the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).

Blazing a trail in Burma

Our time in Burma began in 1926, two years before my birth. That year my doctor-father, Richard S. Buker, Sr., took my mother, Minola, a nurse, and my older brother, Richard, Jr., to the border area of China and Burma.

A recent graduate of Harvard Medical School, my father had completed an internship at Walter Reed Army General Hospital before he moved the family overseas.

After taking a train to just north of Mandalay in Burma, the family traveled two weeks (300 miles) by pony through jungles, over mountains, and across the dangerous Salween River to a mission station in Yunan Province, China. They stayed there about 18 months and then recrossed the border to the Shan States of Burma, where they worked, along with my father's twin brother Ray and his wife Dorothy (both now deceased), until 1940 when World War II closed the area.

While in Burma, the family worked with the Shan, Lahu, and Wa tribes, as well as with lepers. Destitute, hurting, and unwanted (no village would allow them to live anywhere near), the first leprosy patients who came to my parents for long-term treatment ended up living under our stilt-supported house.

My father had no budget or money to undertake such an enormous burden?his salary was approximately $25 a week?but the family could not turn these people away. The patients were fed out of our rice bin. Years later, Father would often remind us that though the leprosy work grew to more than 1,000 patients, "the rice bin never went empty."

The lost years

A few years after World War II, Burma essentially closed itself to missionary work. Nevertheless, Father and Mother returned to southeast Asia in 1949 to work among leprosy patients in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with outreach into Vietnam and Laos. They left in 1955, but returned again to work in Khon Kaen, Thailand, from 1964 to 1967.

They kept up with news from Burma as much as they could, but the reports were never good. During the war, under Japanese occupation, many in the Shan and Lahu churches had renounced their faith.

The situation further deteriorated when the Japanese left, and opium warlords, rebel armies, and thugs took over the countryside of northeastern Burma between the Salween and Mekong Rivers. This area, where my parents had worked, became known as the "Golden Triangle," source of 60 percent of the world's illegal opium and heroin trade. Only in 1997 did rebels sign peace treaties with the Myanmar (Burma) government.

With the signing of these treaties, the Myanmar (Burma) government finally opened the Golden Triangle to outsiders, 57 years after my family left. In November 1997, just months after Mother's death, 15 family members?including my wife Ethel, my two brothers and their wives, two of their daughters, my son and his wife, and Uncle Ray's son and his wife, and their daughter?and five friends made a "roots" trip to the Shan States. There, we found our parents' work had produced results they could never have imagined.

What we found

First, we stopped in Taunggyi, the hill city capital of the Shan States. After being flattened by Japanese bombing, the school for missionary children had been rebuilt and was now the Shan Theological Seminary, thriving and active.

Then we traveled to Keng Tung, unofficial capital of the Golden Triangle. The morning after we arrived, some of us walked up to the old mission compound and hospital. We were drawn to a choir signing "He Leadeth Me" in a language we didn't recognize. We entered the open-air building to sit and listen.

I am not an emotional person and have cried only once or twice in my adult life, but the tears rolled down my face as I realized it was an Akha choir practicing. The Akha were an unreached tribe before World War II, but since that time have been evangelized by the Shan and Lahu churches, without any foreign mission presence.

Also in Keng Tung, we met a Shan pastor who'd learned his first Bible lessons and catechism from Uncle Ray; he walked two days from his village just to see us. His church today has more than 1,000 members, one of 70 Shan churches.

On Sunday we visited the little nearby village of Kung Na, which had about 25 bamboo-and-thatch houses in 1940 but now boasted more than 250 well-built wood homes.

More significantly, a large brick-and-mortar church had been built and was packed out for Sunday services. They had a lively Sunday school program, and two choirs filled the front of the church. This had been my first church home, where I had been baptized in a nearby river. What an emotional experience this was for me to return 57 years later!

Many of the church leaders remembered my parents and my uncle's family. One of these was Ruta. I remembered her as a starving, nearly dead infant that my mother took in and eventually found a home for. She was now a strong pillar of the Kung Na congregation and with the women's fellowship committee put on a big rice and curry meal for us after church.

Late-blooming seeds

Also on our trip we found the Lahu church strong and growing. An active seminary was sending out church leaders to their own people as well as other tribes, like the Wa, former headhunters.

What about the church among the leprosy patients? This church, spurned by the non-lepers and with virtually no trained leadership, remained strong during the Japanese occupation. The number of new leprosy cases in the Golden Triangle has decreased significantly thanks to the health programs started by my father. When we visited the main colony in the area, only 11 patients were under treatment.

Sadly, 176 orphans, victims of a new scourge, are living in the colony now. Young women from the hill country are recruited across the border as sex workers in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand. They return with aids and children. Over 40 people a month are dying from aids in Keng Tung. The government has no capability or plan to deal with the epidemic. There is still hope. We met a Burmese doctor in Keng Tung working for World Vision, a Christian relief agency, who was helping the local government develop a plan of action.

Mother and Father never knew the rest of their story, but now in glory they do. And their children and grandchildren have seen it with their own eyes to tell others. A strong, growing, indigenous church?self-supporting, self-educating, and evangelizing, even under difficult circumstances?has blossomed from seed planted long ago.

By God's blessing, the work in the Golden Triangle was not in vain.

A Christian Reader original article.

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