Back in February, 2008, I had the opportunity to be part of an American Baptist delegation visiting the refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border. My trip to Thailand was in both a professional sense, to learn how AB Women’s Ministries could more effectively partner with Baptist women from Burma now living in the United States, and in a personal sense, to learn as much as I could about life in refugee camps and the resettlement process to aid in my volunteer work with the refugees coming to my home church and community.
After a few days in Bangkok and Chiang Mai visiting some of our American Baptist missionaries, the International Rescue Committee, and the Thai-Burma Border Consortium, we visited Mae La camp and then Umpiem camp. At Umpiem, I and two other delegates broke off briefly from the main group so that we could visit the Karen Women’s Organization office (an amazing organization). Afterwards, as we were trying to catch up with the rest of our group, we stopped in one of the camps’ many schools. The school had just let out for the day and a lot of little school boys were still about, goofing around like boys anywhere do. As soon as they saw our cameras, they started asking us to take their pictures and posed in both serious and silly ways; we had a great time with them despite the language barrier. I noticed this group of girls hanging shyly off to the side, watching us, but carefully staying out of the action. I waved to them once or twice to get them to let me take their picture: Finally, they turned towards me and I snapped fast, and then they scooted off in giggles. This picture became one of my favorite of my whole trip. Every time I looked at it in the years following I’d just smile. These girls took my heart that day.
Fast forward five years. We had our national Women’s Day worship celebration immediately preceding the ABCUSA Mission Summit this past June in Overland Park, Kansas. I had used this photo in our program book for Women’s Day. About halfway through the morning’s program, AB Women’s Ministries executive director Virginia Holmstrom caught me as I was going about my responsibilities, and pointed to the picture in the program book.
“You took this picture when you were in Thailand, right?” She asked. I nodded, brows knit quizzically.
Virginia grinned. She pointed to one of the girls in the picture. “She’s here!”
My jaw dropped. “What? She’s here? You’re kidding me! Where? I have to meet her!” I dropped what I was doing and Virginia led me to the young woman.
May* was singing with a Karen choir participating in our Women’s Day worship. Sometime in the intervening five years, May’s family had relocated to the United States. May and I have since had some email exchanges as I learn more about her life now that she’s here. I hope we’ll be able to stay in touch.
I hadn’t expected to be able to visit the Karen Women’s Organization that day–but our path took us right by their office and women were there working. We made a quick change of plans to take advantage of the opportunity. I hadn’t expected to stop by the school and take pictures of bunches of children afterwards. But when the kids were there, we made a quick change of plans to take advantage of the opportunity.
I certainly hadn’t expected anything other than the opportunity to use a great photo that makes me smile when I chose that picture to include in our program book.
But our God is the God of the unexpected. God has a way of criss-crossing our paths throughout our lives with people from whom we can learn, people who touch our hearts in unexpected ways, people with whom we will maintain a lifetime connection even if we never speak to or see one another again. And those unexpected moments when God does give us the opportunity to see each other again? Priceless.
Thank you, May, for letting me take your picture that day those many years ago. Thank you for letting me take your picture again this summer. Thank you, God, for being the God of the Unexpected. I can’t wait to see what you do next.
*Name changed for safety reasons.
(Updated October 2, 2013)
May emailed me after I posted this to give me a little update on her life, and gave me permission to share this with our readers:
I really like living in America. I think my life in America is better than in Umphium* camp. Here we get free education and free food at school. First of all, there’s lots of food and clothing that we can get for free. I also like to meet with American people; they are so nice and patient. They help us a lot. We thank God that he gives us friends that love their neighbor. Now I’m in high school and I’m a senior this year. My family were doing good, but now only my mom works. My dad can’t work anymore. Both of my dad’s hands and legs were paralyzed but he can still walk. He just doesn’t feel like a normal person. But anyway, thanks to God that God is with my dad and now my dad is doing good. My dad babysits two kids and he gets paid; thank God for that.
I’m so glad that I have a chance to meet you. Before I met you, one of my sister’s friends told me that she saw my picture when I was in Umphium camp. She was at a meeting and she saw the picture that you took of me when I was in Umphium. I still remember the day you took the picture and I always wished that I could meet you. Suddenly, God has blessed us and we meet again! And I also hope that one day I’ll have a chance to see my friends from Umphium again, just like I met you again. I really miss my friends that are still in Umphium. I hope that God will bring them to America just like God brought me, and we could meet again.. 🙂
In Jesus name, Amen.
*There are multiple spellings for names of camps along the Thai-Burma border.