Broken English for broken families
Pastor finds Christ’s power in his weakness
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I have met many missionaries in my lifetime, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a single shy missionary.
My father too is a missionary. He tells me he used to be a painfully shy kid, but I look at him passionately evangelizing to the random stranger who had the misfortune (or blessing) to sit next to him on the plane, and I have a hard time believing that. The way my father speaks English (his third language) sounds like he picked up the language from Broadway musicals—his intonations jiggle up and down in places that make no sense at all, and his facial muscles twist and stretch and crease with exaggerated expressions, as though his frowns and eyebrow-lifts will turbocharge the delivery of his deficient English. When the subject involves his true passion—the gospel of Jesus Christ—his English practically turns into a song and a dance.
I met my father’s kindred missionary spirit last week in Denver, Colo., while working on a story for our annual Hope Awards issue. The organization I visited is a Burmese refugee support network called Colorado Burma Roundtable Network (CBRTN), which focuses on helping refugees from Burma resettle in the Denver metropolitan area.
CBRTN provides a small monthly stipend to 57-year-old Burmese refugee and pastor Andrew Thang, who escaped to America via Malaysia after facing persecution for his evangelistic work among the Buddhists in Burma. Though he founded a Burmese church in Denver, Thang is at heart a missionary, a gregarious evangelist who enjoys being out and about meeting people where they are, interacting with Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims. His three children reflect his missionary background: One was born in Burma, the second in Malaysia, the third in America.
I liked Thang the moment I met him at his church office, when he opened the door for me with an all-teeth-flashing smile and opened his arms wide to give me a hug. “Sophia!” he said, chuckling as though he had just shared a brilliant joke. “Welcome, welcome!” It was one of those rare moments when a complete stranger was genuinely delighted to see me.
Then we got into our first conflict as we went through the schedule he had planned for me. I had asked him to connect me with some refugees, thinking we would visit three or four families over my three days in Denver, but I found out that he had on his list about a dozen families, squeezing up to seven home visits into one day. I protested, “No, no, I can’t meet that many in a day!” I told him that too many visits would confuse and tire me out when I had a tight deadline for this story.
Thang pursed his lips and looked disappointed. Every family has a different story, he told me, and each story was worth hearing. I soon realized that Thang didn’t just schedule these visits for me—he was making his typical rounds, and I was to follow along on his normal day. In the end, we compromised by decreasing the seven visits a day to five.
We then climbed into my rental car and drove around the city to the various families whom Thang visits on a regular basis. Several apartments we visited were in an old, rundown building that reeked of the grassy odor of marijuana. Kids played ball on the dirt field, yelling in a mix of English and Burmese. Some children recognized him and scrambled upstairs to their mothers, trumpeting our arrival. I saw that Thang loves little humans as much as the big humans. He joked and teased the kids, eliciting giggles and shy smiles out of wide-eyed stares, and mothers let him rock their tiny babies in his arms.
Thang carries a whiteboard and a backpack stuffed with his Bible, sermon notes, and whiteboard markers. If the refugees are willing, he conducts a 20-minute Bible study with them, and unlike me, doesn’t seem fazed even when the kids are screaming and laughing and running around, pulling at their parents’ hair and shirt.
For those refugees who are not Christian, Thang simply befriends them. One of them, a stout, broad-faced refugee named Maung Hla who had tattoos on both sides of his shoulders, looked delighted to see us. Like every other Burmese person we visited, he insisted we sit on the sofa while he sat on his knees on the mat.
There in his threadbare one-bedroom apartment, I listened to Maung Hla and Thang banter in Burmese and laugh at each other’s jokes. I learned that Maung Hla has been in Denver for 10 years with his family. At the age of 13, he had fled the brutal military regime in Burma to Thailand, where he stayed with a Karen rebel group and labored in farms for about $2 a day. But his legal status in Thailand was precarious, putting him at risk of extortion and abuse, so he applied for refugee status at the UN and gained admission to the United States.
Life in America isn’t too different, Maung Hla said, describing his days as “work, home, work, home.” In his spare time he drank till he got drunk, which led to DUI charges, several thousand dollars’ worth of fines, and a week in jail. Then on August 2016, he hurt his shoulders. After working about 50 hours a week at a slaughterhouse butchering cows, his shoulders could no longer take the strain. His workers’ compensation ran out a few months ago, and now he sits at home watching his four kids aged 10 months to 11 while his wife works at a bakery. Maung Hla says he cut out drinking and smoking, but he constantly worries about paying bills and rent, which will soon increase from the $776 they now pay.
Later, as we bid him goodbye, Muang Hla told us, “I’m very happy you came to visit.” He doesn’t have many friends, and has no family here, so he gets lonely, he said. His door is always open for Thang.
By the end of the day, I was exhausted and my brain throbbed. But I knew that however tired I was, Thang had expended more energy by interpreting for me all day, sometimes explaining certain cultural contexts or repeating himself because I couldn’t understand his pronunciation.
“How are you still so energetic?” I asked, listening to him chat away and bellow-laugh at his own jokes. “You’re like a 20-year-old!”
Thang pointed up: “It’s God. He gives me heart of a 20-year-old. Because He knows I need it for His glory.”
I recalled that was what my father once told me too: He wasn’t born with the ideal traits of a missionary, but God provides what he needs—the unflagging energy, the boldness, the eloquence, the international tastebuds—to do His work for His glory.
On our last day together, as we hugged each other goodbye, Thang apologized for his “broken English.” I assured him his English is fine, and he said, “My kids always make fun of me, say I have broken English. But I tell them, I speak broken English because I minister to broken families!”
I laughed. Even in his perceived weakness, Thang sees God’s goodness in it for the sake of evangelism. Spoken like a true missionary, indeed.