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A BRIEF HISTORY OF OUR MISSION 1



On August 13, 1921, J. Russell and Gertrude Morse set sail for China as new missionary recruits of Dr. Albert Shelton. On December 23, they arrived at Batang, then a remote mission station on the Tibetan border. Six months after they arrived on the field, Dr. Shelton was killed by Tibetan bandits and died in J. Russell's arms. This marked the beginning of a lifelong ministry in pioneer missionary work for the Morse family.


In 1926, the Morses resigned from the United Christian Missionary Society and launched out as "independent" missionaries, establishing a new base in the Yunnan Province of southwest China.


In 1927, J. Russell and Gertrude got to inspect the territory which would eventually encompass their life's work when they were ordered by the US Consul to leave China. The country was at the time experiencing much political turmoil. The family walked 70 days through northern Burma en route to the United States. During the journey they encountered numerous new people groups and were able to see firsthand what a serious missionary work in the area would entail.


In 1929, the Morses returned to Yunnan, China, establishing their mission base in the Mekong Valley. By 1930, the mission had locked onto the Lisu and began evangelizing this group in earnest. As of 1939, the mission has established more than thirty churches among the Lisu and counted over two thousand Christians.


At the end of 1940, the mission moved its base of operations into the Salween Valley of the Yunnan Province, and remained there throughout World War II. During the period 1942-1945, the two older sons of J. Russell and Gertrude helped the Allied forces by organizing a network of ground search and rescue teams to aid downed airmen.


This effort indirectly contributed to the expansion of the church. As the many native search and rescue teams consisted of Christians, they naturally carried the gospel with them as they fanned out over the Hump area in search of surviving pilots.


During this time, the missionaries and the Lisu Christians came into increasing contact with new groups such as the Rawang people of northern Burma who would later become a major force along with the Lisu in cross-cultural church propagation. By 1946, the Christian population within the mission's area of work had increased to almost 6,000 believers.


The Communist takeover of China in 1949, was a major disruption for all Christian work. The mission had to evacuate all personnel from their stations. J. Russell Morse fell into the hands of the Communists and was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 15 months. The mission, along with many Lisu Christians were forced to flee in North Burma.


The years between 1950-1965, saw the work firmly established in North Burma. During the early 1950's, the mission helped settle over 20,000 Lisu and Rawang Christians onto the Putao plains. Over thirty model villages were established in the process, all of them interconnected with excellent roads and bridges.


Swamps were drained off to fight malaria infested mosquitoes while new land was opened up for agriculture. Citrus trees from North America were brought in and grafted onto native lemon stock which resulted in significantly improving the health of the population. Schools were started to provide education for the children of the first generation of Christians. In many respects, this period in the history of the mission was the most productive and rewarding.


Between 1966-1972, the mission was again forced to pull up stakes and move out of its field of ministry. This time, the marching orders came from the Burmese military dictatorship. The mission was ordered to leave the country by midnight December 31, 1965. When it became apparent that the mission was not going to be able to meet the deadline, the group made the decision to walk out overland to India.


This began a seven year wilderness experience as the mission became completely cut off from the outside world. Jungle survival was the new name of the game as the Morses and thousands of native Christians struggled to live off the land. The group eventually carved out self contained villages in the wilds, where community life was allowed to be guided by Christian principles.


A real sense of peace and harmony prevailed throughout this new community until the Burmese government stumbled across the lost villages in early 1972. The missionaries were rounded up and removed to lower Burma. The Morses now became guests of the military government and spent the next three months at the Mandalay Central Prison before they were allowed to leave the country.


Needless to say, the government did all it could to disrupt the peaceful communities which had been created deep in the jungles without their knowledge. Most of the people were forced to move out of the area and made to relocate near military outposts. Many were forced to serve as porters for the military and some were killed.


They say that most of the villages in the Hidden Valley area have now reverted back to jungle. The homes which were once alive with the sounds of laughter and singing have all but vanished. There is not a trace of the playgrounds where children once ran and skipped as they pursued their endless games. Yet hunters who have from time to time trekked back into the area return with a strange story. They report that the citrus trees planted by J. Russell Morse are still thriving, growing right in the middle of the jungle. Many have eaten the delicious grapefruit and oranges, and have often been refreshed by Grandpa's orchards. But stranger still, they tell stories about herds of elephants that seem to deliberately tiptoe around the fruit trees as if they too want to keep the trees alive.


Since 1973, the mission has been based in Thailand. In Thailand, the mission has concentrated primarily on establishing churches among the Lisu, Lahu and Akha hill people. The mission is involved in a broad range of ministries that include church planting, village development work, Bible translation and literacy work, Christian literature production, promoting preventive health and sanitation, introducing alternative crops and agricultural techniques, children's education, and leadership training.


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Biographical Sketch of

Joni & Nangsar Morse



Joni Morse was born on October 8, 1949, in the village of Tariwanggong, North Burma, just two weeks after his parents fled into Burma as a result of the Communist takeover in China. During the period from 1921–1949, Joni’s grandparents (J. Russell & Gertrude), and his parents (Robert & Betty), had established an extensive mission work among the Tibetan and Lisu people of western Yunnan. Joni’s father Robert, who himself was born in Tibet in 1923, grew up not only speaking, but also reading and writing, both Chinese and Tibetan.


Joni spent his childhood to teenage years growing up in northern Burma where his family was instrumental in bringing about a people movement to Christ among the Rawang and Lisu people. At the end of 1965, the Morse family had to again leave their work when the Burmese military government ordered them out of the country. Their attempt to get out through India turned into a seven year wilderness experience in which they learned how to live off the jungle. Their story was first written up by Reader’s Digest. It was later published as a book entitled, “Exodus to A Hidden Valley.”


Nangsar Sarip was born on February 25, 1957, in the village of Mulashidi, North Burma. Her parents (Sarip Jung & Pungya Nang) were both first generation Rawang Christians. Nangsar’s father worked closely with Joni’s grandfather, who successfully introduced over fifty varieties of citrus trees to North Burma to improve the health of the people. Nangsar’s father was also a fulltime elementary teacher in the mission school.


Joni and Nangsar have been ministering in Thailand since 1975. They are involved in a multi-pronged ministry, which attempts to find balance between the demands of church planting, village development, Bible training/Bible translation work, and strengthening believers in their faith. They are currently based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and work out of their home as well as the EDEN Center. Joni and Nangsar received their theological training from Pacific Christian College, and Fuller Theological Seminary, both based in California, USA.


Joni and Nangsar have four children whose names and ages are, Anthony 25, Rebecca 22, Benjamin 18, and Katherine 10. Anthony is presently undertaking graduate studies at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee. Rebecca and Benjamin are both attending Cal State University in Fullerton, California. Katherine lives at home with her parents and attends the Chiang Mai International School in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


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Ministry Overview



Our present mission model (The EDEN Strategy – Serving God’s People Through Evangelism, Development, Education, and Nurture) has emerged as a ministry instrument dedicated to helping national churches in mainland Southeast Asia develop and implement a comprehensive cross-cultural church planting strategy designed to establish self-reliant, self-governing, and self-reproducing churches among the many remaining unreached people groups belonging to speakers of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages and their near neighbors. The strategy is dedicated to the tasks of promoting spiritual transformation, community development, lifelong learning, and personal growth. These ministry concerns have become our main mission priorities over the course of nearly two decades of faith-based work carried out through the EDEN Center.


Our base of operations in Thailand is located in the small village of Baan Paa Laan, just sixteen kilometers outside of Chiang Mai. The quiet country setting has proven to be ideal for our situation, as much of our work centers around ministering to rural people. The work that God has placed before us has been unfolding along four distinct lines. Giving priority to these four ministry needs has helped us keep our focus on those areas of work for which God has given us a measure of competence. Our response to these core needs has been instrumental in paving the way for bringing into existence the EDEN Center, which in turn has given rise to the formulation of the EDEN Strategy. The word EDEN is an acrostic for:


Evangelism

Development

Education

Nurture


The inspiration for the EDEN Center comes from the book of Genesis. In it, Moses talks about the special relationship that God had established with the Garden that He had planted in a location called Eden, as well as with the first two human beings that He had created in His image.


And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden;

and there He put the man whom He had formed.” Genesis 2:8


Genesis 3:8 provides us with a fascinating picture of what went on in this beautiful garden. We are told that God regularly walked in the garden in the cool of the day to meet with the man and woman whom He had made. The garden provided the ideal setting for cultivating an intimate relationship with God. Furthermore, it seems that these afternoon walks were undertaken in order to reinforce the close fellowship that God Himself so desired to have with His creation.


The EDEN Center functions as a ministry base for the rapidly expanding network of churches that we have helped to establish across a portion of mainland Southeast Asia. As a multi-purpose equipping and enabling facility, the EDEN Center exists to seek God’s heart, and to serve the cause of Christ through the following ways:


Evangelism – A major part of our work involves the planting of churches among receptive people groups throughout the region. The EDEN Center has been established to help facilitate this important work. The strategy seeks to equip and multiply effective Christian workers for the purpose of carrying out this central mission of the Church.


Development – One of the goals of the EDEN Strategy is to help improve the living conditions of rural communities through the introduction of a variety of self-help programs that require minimal financial outlays. Exposure to whatever kind of appropriate technology that may be available on the market is a fine thing to have if we are given that luxury, but we are finding out that more often than not, what people really need is timely and practical information which they can put to immediate use. Teaching people how to fish for themselves is indeed the better approach toward gaining the high ground for sustainable development.


Education – As a ministry arm of the Church, the EDEN Center seeks to help meet the overall educational needs of God’s people. In addition to helping produce Christian literature and teaching materials, the ministry conducts a variety of short-term Bible schools, camps, prayer retreats, conferences, and leadership training sessions. The positive response we have received from people to this approach to learning has led us to establish extension centers in other key locations in the region as well.


Nurture – The EDEN Strategy is also committed to improving the wellbeing of both individuals, as well as their communities, through the dissemination of helpful information. We are learning that every effort for good should concentrate on spotlighting the needs of the whole person (body, mind, soul, and spirit). In an effort to help us better realize this, the EDEN Center, has been periodically organizing learning opportunities to address key areas of need. Some of our inquiries have included topics such as personal growth, spiritual awareness, individual and community responsibilities, personal hygiene, preventive medicine, village health and sanitation needs, the control of communicable diseases, stewardship, personal finances, and the preparation of nutritious meals.


As can be seen from even this brief description of the work, the type of ministry that we are involved in requires a lot of hands. In addition to our own family, there are many other highly dedicated people – family members, personal friends, extended relatives, fellow missionaries, supporting churches, national coworkers, and many other church leaders and special groups of people – whom God has raised up to labor together in this harvest field.


The present strategy has devised an imaginary cookie cutter to punch out a triangular piece of the human pie in a corner of Asia. Our goal is to effectively evangelize and plant churches among the people groups living within this target area. It is our prayer that many other similar plans and recipes will be prepared for serving up the Bread of Life to feed a spiritually hungry and famished world.



The Silver Triangle




The Silver Triangle’s

Nine Theaters of Operation


In order to better conceptualize this growing work on the field, the Silver Triangle has been further divided into nine theaters of operation. Breaking up the region into smaller units like this has helped us get a better handle on the unique features of a particular place. Mapping out our field of ministry in this way has enabled us to respond more effectively to the specific needs of each area.





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Serving God’s People through

Evangelism, Development, Education & Nurture



Evangelism (Operation REAP)

Regional Evangelism Assistance Plan


Identifying Receptive People Groups & Responding to Ministry Opportunities

Finding Ministry Partners & Deploying Effective Church Planters

Multiplying Missions Oriented Congregations & Self-Reproducing Churches

Establishing Regional Ministry Hubs & Leadership Training Centers


Development (FAITH International)

Fellowship for the Advancement and Integration of Traditional Highlanders


Researching People Groups, Cultural Practices, Oral Histories & Local Folklore

Meeting Community Felt Needs through Grassroots Participation & Creative Partnerships

Improving Rural Settlements through Appropriate Technology & Sustainable Development

Caring for the Land, Promoting Viable Enterprises & Seeking Markets for Local Products


Education (The Learning TREE)

Training Resourceful Evangelist-Educators


Conducting Short-Term BIBLE* Schools, Literacy Campaigns & VBS Programs

Developing Spiritually Awake Advocate Leaders & Community Change Agents

Preparing and Distributing Audience Specific Training Materials & Other Helpful Tools

Providing Educational Opportunities to Disadvantaged Village Children, Youth & Adults


Nurture (The OMEGA Initiative)

Organization for Ministry Empowerment of Grassroots Alliances


Strengthening Relationships, Reinforcing Accomplishments & Expanding Ministry Networks

Scheduling Outreach Efforts, Follow-up, Workshops, Conferences, Retreats, & Sports Events

Mentoring Coworkers, Building Capacity, Encouraging Initiative, Coaching Emerging Leaders

Promoting Prayer, Bible Study,* Worship, Drama, Area Celebrations, Regional Conventions


*Basic Instruction in Biblical Leadership Essentials

*LifeWORD Christian Fellowship



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THE HILLTRIBE MINORITIES OF ASIA



The hilltribes of Southeast Asia have long been distinguished by their colorful costumes and their preference for the high country. It is said that both the peacock and the kingfisher will humbly fold away their plumage when in the presence of a hilltribe woman dressed in all her finery. The beautifully rugged terrain that these hilltribe groups call their homeland has molded them into an extremely resourceful and tenacious people. Yet today, these same people are faced with a life or death struggle for their very survival.


Living in the mountains has had both its advantages as well as disadvantages. A village nestled on the ridge top enjoys a better climate than the one located in the sweltering valley below. The upper elevations afford better protection from the dreaded mosquito and other diseases that plague much of the lowlands. There are other advantages as well that pertain more to a sense of peace and general well-being which is a quality of life that is harder to measure.


However, occupying the high ground also means that certain crops do not do so well. While corn, potatoes and other varieties of vegetables can be grown successfully, rice, which is the staple diet of most Asians, does not fair well. The one crop that does produce good yields is opium. The poppy plant thrives at the higher elevation. As a result, opium gradually became the cash crop of choice for most of the hilltribe population. Until very recently, opium was the official currency in circulation throughout much of the hill countries of Southeast Asia. Even today, in spite of government efforts to displace the opium economy, the cultivation of opium continues to persist.


Migration Patterns


The territory marked out by a triangle in the map below is an enormously important and strategic area for understanding the expansion and distribution of Asia’s minority peoples. The Hump country has long been a major staging ground for Southeast Asia's peoples. The area has served as a bustling transit lounge for Asia's myriad cultures who even today, are still on the move. The unique topography of the region too has clearly lent itself to this process.





On the eastern edge of the great Himalayan range, the otherwise impenetrable mountain barrier is broken up by the headwaters of Asia's mighty river systems. The Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, and Yangtze rivers all have their start here and provide the only exits from the tableland of the high Tibetan plateau. These natural corridors became the primary migration routes for much of the north-south movement of people throughout Asia.


Over the past centuries, countless waves of human migration have deposited numerous people groups throughout much of present day Southeast Asia. This has led to the region becoming peppered with an astonishing number of fascinating and colorful cultures. As a result, even if viewed only in terms of its linguistic and cultural diversity, the area we have designated as The Silver Triangle rates as one of the world's richest ethnic stew pots.


Their Background


Most of the people living in Southeast Asia can be generally divided into the majority populations of lowlanders and the minority populations of highlanders. Over the past millennia, countless waves of human migration have been responsible for populating the region with a proliferation of different ethnic groups. Many of the groups who settled in the fertile lowlands have been able to develop into majority peoples with advanced civilizations and developed economies. Those pushed up into the highlands have generally been at a disadvantage because of their isolation and the harsh realities of a rugged and unproductive terrain.


Chief among the hilltribe minorities in this area of Southeast Asia are the Tibeto-Burmans, one of the most diversified of the nine branches of the Sino-Tibetan language phylum. Among the Tibeto-Burman tribes alone, over 300 different language groups have been identified, the best known of which are the Tibetans and the Burmans. In addition to the Tibeto-Burmans, there are many other groups that belong to the Chinese, Tai, Naga and Mon-Khmer families of languages.


Although set apart by clearly distinct languages and cultures, these various people groups nevertheless display a certain amount of uniformity by virtue of having similar world-views, beliefs, and traditions. It is this common wavelength created by their "connectedness" that facilitates cross-cultural contact and communication.


Their Distribution


The present distribution and intermingling of the many diversified ethnic groups of Southeast Asia is largely due to geography and ancient patterns of migration. Throughout history this portion of the world has served as a major staging area for numerous ethnic groups. One of the latest waves of these migrations following after preceding Austro-Asiatic, Sinitic, Mon-Khmer and Tai migrations who left the “roof of the world” in search for new homelands are the Tibeto-Burmans.


These people moved down off the high Tibetan plateau long after most of the fertile arable lowlands were already occupied by earlier arrivals. Fanning out far and wide by following the major river systems and mountain ranges, they fell heir mostly to the difficult highlands and inhospitable monsoon jungles. Wave after wave of these migrating peoples were funneled through the narrow corridors of the forbidding eastern Himalayan ranges to populate the rest of Southeast Asia, with the new arrivals splitting into today’s hundreds of isolated hilltribe minorities.


The present hilltribe population includes numerous language groups representing a number of the major racial and cultural divisions of Southeast Asia. Although mainly concentrated in northeast India, Burma, and southwest China, they also are to be found in Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos. The majority of these hilltribe groups have preferred to live near the foothills of the Himalayas. Even those who have ventured south and southeast have consistently sought out the mountainous areas of their respective countries.


Today, it is not uncommon to find the same tribe living on both sides of a given border. Various pressures, both natural and political, often cause entire segments of a population to move across an international boundary. Observations made over the past half-century indicate that the hill peoples of Southeast Asia are still in motion, and have not yet come to a halt in their long migratory journeys. This phenomenon of the trans-frontier hilltribe population is a puzzling issue for many local administrators, but it is a reality that is being increasingly recognized by the respective governments of the region.


Their Economy


All hilltribes people have traditionally practiced a “slash and burn” method of agriculture. The jungle is first cleared and the trees cut down and then burned later when dried. Crops are then planted between the stumps, having been fertilized by the nitrogen and potash left from burning off the jungle brush. However, in just two or three years the land is exhausted and the farmers are forced to move on to another location in search of new fields. During this time, the used fields are allowed to lie fallow until the jungle grows back and they can repeat the process all over again. This is one of the factors contributing to a constantly shifting hilltribe population.


Most hilltribe families practically live from hand to mouth, and eke out an existence that can barely be called a living. For many, it is a struggle just to make it through from one harvest to the next. Although a number of crops are planted, such as mountain rice, corn, millet, potatoes, beans and a variety of vegetables, lack of a balanced diet contributes to a high rate of malnutrition.


Depending on the location of the tribe, some trade with the outside world exists for the purpose of procuring the basic commodities that they themselves cannot produce. The possession of livestock also plays an important role in the hilltribe economy. Cattle indicate a family’s wealth, and serve to insulate the members from possible disasters that often tend to strike without warning. Chickens and pigs serve as potential cash, but also play an important part in the people’s ritual practices.


Their Beliefs


The propitiation of evil spirits is the single most dominant influence in tribal life. This fear of evil spirits among the hill peoples however, is not to be dismissed as mere superstition or ignorance. The reality of the evil spirits has been impressed upon the people through direct communication from the spirit world. Most hilltribe groups do not involve themselves in developing a system of religious beliefs beyond this very pragmatic need to appease the spirits that otherwise oppress and trouble them in many fearful ways.


If someone gets sick, relief is first sought by contacting the responsible spirit and offering a sacrifice for healing. The village “shaman” is employed to negotiate with the offended spirit on behalf of the stricken person. In most cases this will involve an animal sacrifice of some kind. This constant need to make animal sacrifices sees to it that the average family remains in perpetual poverty. Occasionally, the spirits will deny any involvement, in which case the sickness is treated with native medicines.


Their Lifeway


Most hilltribe villages are to be found situated along ridge tops, or perched on the sides of mountains. The primary reason for this is because the hill people prefer the coolness of the mountains to the heat and humidity of the malaria infested lowlands. Local government and leadership proceed from the village chief, the “shaman," and the heads of each clan.


A survey of the living conditions in an average village would produce a state of mixed feelings ranging from the grim to the delightful. On the one hand, people live in dark huts scattered over the mountain slopes seemingly without any rhyme or reason. No system of sanitation exists, and animals are allowed to roam wild in the village. Most villages have limited or contaminated water, due to either an inadequate supply, or an unsatisfactory delivery system. All these factors combine to present a health problem that begs for attention. Few villages have stores of any kind, and villagers must go to the plains to buy even the most basic of necessities such as salt or cooking oil.


At the same time a more peaceful and picturesque setting for pursuing a tranquil and contented life can hardly be imagined. Over the centuries, the hill peoples have developed an elaborate and intricate protocol to respond to the vagaries of life in the mountains. Anyone interested in examining a village setting will discover that there is a profound logic to its system of life and organization. However, just as nothing in life is perfect, so too the hill peoples have their own unique set of problems. They also have to battle the monsters of isolation, ignorance, and superstition. It is within such a world that the hill peoples of Southeast Asia find themselves performing the delicate balancing act demanded by the unforgiving environment in which they find themselves.



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THE LAHU PEOPLE



Best known for their hunting skills and their cultivation of opium, the Lahu are a hardy and resourceful hilltribe group who inhabit a strategic swath of territory that stretches across a significant portion of Southeast Asia. Their home area extends south in a near crescent shape from southern Yunnan, China, through eastern Burma, northern Thailand, northern Laos, and northern Vietnam.


The Lahu people are made up of various sub-groups, such as the better known Black Lahu (Lahu Na), Red Lahu (Lahu Nyi), and the Yellow Lahu (Lahu Shi). Population estimates for the Lahu have variously been given as 450,000 in China, 250,000 in Burma, and 60,000 in Thailand. Figures for Laos and Vietnam are sketchy, but have been estimated at 20,000 for Laos, and 6000 for Vietnam.


Dignified and self-possessed by nature, the Lahu are a very group-oriented people. This sense of cohesiveness has enabled the Lahu to weather many an uncertainty as they journeyed forth from their original homeland in southwest China. In the course of their long and circuitous migratory travels throughout this past century, the Lahu have survived numerous wars, revolutions, and dislocations.


While this display of group solidarity has stood the Lahu people well, it has at times masked a temperamental side of them that some see as being a liability. It is this tendency that accounts for the high incidence of seemingly minor misunderstandings that often escalate into major tiffs and splits within a community. Yet it may just well be that it is this characteristic of wearing one’s feelings on the cuff that gives the Lahu the ability to take great risks.


As with their near neighbors the Lisu and Akha, the Lahu belong to the Tibeto-Burman family tree of Asian languages. It is interesting to note that of these three tribal languages, Lisu circulates as the trade language in the north of the Golden Triangle region, while Lahu has become the undisputed lingua franca in the south of this strategic area.


Another interesting observation that touches on both the Lisu and the Lahu concerns the pattern of their distribution. My own research into hilltribe village sites reveals that the Lahu consistently occupy the mid-elevation terrain that is made up mostly of bamboo country. This puts the Lahu just below the Lisu who prefer to settle the pine covered ridge tops, yet places them above the Karen who live on the valley floor.


Lahu Culture and World View


The Lahu, as with most of the other hill peoples of Southeast Asia, have an orientation to life that is unique to them. Such cultural markers are what set them apart from the other hilltribe groups. Lahu community life revolves around the tasks of upholding the traditions of the elders, maintaining the precarious balance between the physical and the spiritual worlds, and the cultivation of the earth.


Traditions and Customs: The Lahu believe that all human beings came out of a gourd. According to the Lahu, there once was a special gourd that grew in a garden. The size and growth of this unusual gourd attracted the attention of all the animals in the forest. Every animal tried to bite a hole in the gourd, but there was no animal that was able to break the hard outer shell. Even the cat’s gnawing, or the bird’s pecking failed to puncture the gourd. Finally, a rat succeeded in making a hole in the gourd, letting out all the people. Because the people were so grateful for being brought into the world, they gave the rat the right to live in their homes and to have access to their food.


The Lahu also have a story about a time when their ancestors went to see God. Every ethnic group had the opportunity to ask God for whatever they wanted. The Chinese asked for, and got, a writing system from God that enabled them to increase their knowledge and learn how to conduct trade. The Shan asked God for a plow tip that enabled them to cultivate the land and plant their crops in terraced paddy fields.


When the Red Lahu went before God, he was so dumb-struck that he forgot to ask for anything. However, God was kind enough to give him some literature written on paper. He put the papers in his loosely woven basket and came home. When the person arrived home, his basket was empty! The papers had all fallen out along the way through the holes in his basket.


The villagers were so furious with him that they sent him back to see God another time. He bowed down before God and explained what had happened. This time, he asked that he be given great knowledge. However, God was so angry with him for losing the manuscript that he urinated on the ground in front of him instead. This is why the Red Lahu to this day, dance around a wooden phallic symbol whenever they present their offerings to God.


Finally, the Black Lahu went before God. He asked God for a simple hoe to help in tilling the fields. When the villagers saw what he had come back with they became angry over his absolute stupidity. “What?” They shouted. “You actually saw God and came back with this?” They immediately sent him back to God to ask for something more substantial than a tool designed to break one’s back.


The Black Lahu representative approached God with great fear and trepidation. By this time, God was becoming used to the Lahu, and their habit of coming back again and again. When God asked him what he wanted, the Black Lahu told God that he now wanted to learn how to worship Him, and to be wise and famous. God was quite amused. Nevertheless, He went along with the request. God told the Black Lahu to go get some paper so that He could write down everything he wanted to know.


However, instead of going all the way down to the plains where paper was available, the Lahu representative visited a nearby bamboo grove. He decided bamboo leaves would do just as well for writing purposes. Again, God became angry with the Lahu for being so lazy and careless. God drew a circle in the ground and instructed the Lahu to make rice cakes in that shape and offer them to Him at every New Year’s celebration. God also taught the Lahu how to make a raised dance floor in the village where they were to dance before Him with lighted candles made of beeswax. God told the Lahu to never make a roof over their dance floor because He wanted to be sure He could see them clearly.


The Lahu also have several customs that set them apart from many of the other tribes. House building is one area in which the Lahu differ from other groups. For the Lahu, a house must be built and occupied within the same day. It is not permissible to use iron nails to hold a house together. All posts and beams must be fastened together using either rattan or wooden pegs. Tradition also dictates that a Lahu house should not have any windows.


According to the Lahu, the left side of a house is superior to the right side, and the back of a house is more sacred than the front. This is why the Lahu have areas in their homes that are off limits to outsiders. The location of the family altar for housing the ‘house spirit’ is always in the back left corner of the house. The Lahu will routinely ask guests to be careful not to trespass into these areas, or make any undue commotion while taking shelter in their homes. The Lahu do not allow dancing or any other kind of noisy merry making in the houses.


Religious Beliefs and Practices: All Lahu believe in a supreme God. Village priests make offerings to God during the New Year’s celebration as well as on other important occasions. Heads of households direct their prayers to God when they need His special blessing. Most Lahu however, see God as remaining in the background, while various categories of spirits involve themselves in the daily affairs of humankind. Spirits have the potential of doing both good and evil. Thus, the propitiation of spirits, and the need to care for the afterlives of one’s ancestors are the more dominant features of Lahu religious practice.


The concept of caring for the soul is very important to the Lahu. The Lahu believe that one’s soul is capable of leaving the body and wandering off to distant places. Any number of things can cause the soul to leave the body. Sudden fright, mental anguish, becoming heartsick over some matter, loss of face, loneliness, all of these states can cause one’s soul to become restless and want to leave the body.


According to the Lahu, a person who is often sickly, or appears to be continuously weak or malnourished, is displaying the symptoms of a wandering soul. In order to restore the person to health, it is necessary to call the soul back into the body. The Lahu have elaborate rituals for locating wandering souls and coaxing them back to their original dwelling places. If a wandering soul refuses to return, then the person with the lost soul will experience certain death.


Village Cleansing Rituals: Just as one’s own soul is capable of wandering off, lost souls and wandering spirits from other places can also find their way into a village. When a village gets too many of these unaccounted for spirits taking shelter within its perimeter, bad things start happening to the village and its people. In order to rid themselves of these unwanted spirits, the Lahu will hold mock going away parties to lure the spirits out of the village.


These village cleansing rituals are generally performed during the New Year celebrations. The Lahu will resort to trickery to entice the unwanted spirits out of the village. In order to convince the spirits that they will be abandoned and no longer cared for if they do not follow their hosts, everyone in the village will go through the motions of leaving the village. The village shaman and his assistants will lead their fellow villagers to a predetermined place outside the village. The intruding spirits are invited to make the move with them.


Once in the forest, the shaman makes it known to the spirits that they have now arrived at their new dwelling place. The villagers will then attempt to lose the spirits in the forest. Everyone returns to the village by crawling through an elaborately woven bamboo maze. The spirits cannot follow the villagers back to the village because the entrance to the bamboo tunnel has a special partition that is able to keep out the spirits. Similar cleansing rituals can be performed for individual households as well.


The Pursuit of Blessings: If one characteristic can be identified above all others as being the distinguishing feature of the Lahu, it would have to be their tireless pursuit of that elusive element we call blessings. Among the various hilltribe cultures of Southeast Asia, the Lahu stand out as the people who specialize in the giving and receiving of blessings.


The Lahu have developed very meaningful and colorful ceremonies to secure favor for every occasion and relationship. Their blessing rituals begin with the ceremonial washing of the hands with water. The one giving the blessing ties white cotton string around the recipient’s wrist, while uttering the appropriate words for building up the person. Depending on the occasion, dancing may or may not be part of this ceremony.


Messianic Movements: The Lahu have a long history of periodically spawning messianic movements. These messiah figures appear on the scene whenever the Lahu people feel threatened, or begin to lose their sense of purpose and direction. This phenomenon may be nothing more than an in-built cultural mechanism that has evolved over the years to safeguard and preserve the Lahu as a distinct group of people.


While it is impossible to fully assess the impact of these messianic movements, they do seem to have been successful in revitalizing the Lahu people whenever they have been in their darkest hours. Our interest in this tradition of messianic movements has more to do with the general orientation it has given the Lahu people. This tradition of theirs has helped the Lahu to be more aware of the need for spiritual redemption. It is this awareness that is now lending itself to the reception and propagation of the Christian message among the Lahu.


The Lahu are an example of a people uniquely prepared by God to become His very own. Their own customs and traditions are full of pointers that provide evidence of God’s intervention in their culture. Today, they are again at a major crossroads in their collective journey. Many are looking for a new messiah to appear on their cultural horizon. Some of the discerning leaders from among the Lahu have now found Christ. For them, Jesus has become the Messiah for whom they have been waiting. May the Lord cause them to become mighty instruments in His hand to further spread the message of Jesus Christ, the hope of glory!


Farming Methods and Preferences: The Lahu practice a slash and burn method of farming that is common to most of the hilltribe groups. First, the underbrush is cleared from an appropriately chosen field site. Next, the trees are cut down, and the branches are systematically chopped up to ensure proper drying. When the field is considered thoroughly dry, it is burned off and prepared for planting.


Rice is the staple diet of the Lahu people. The Lahu plant all their basic crops, such as rice, corn, beans, chili, sesame, squash, and cucumbers in the same field. While these crops provide enough for an average family to live on, there rarely is enough left to bring in the needed extra cash. This is why the Lahu have traditionally relied on an opium crop to tie them over for the year. Now that opium has become an illegal crop, the Lahu have had to learn to plant other cash crops such as coffee, tea, fruit trees, ginger, and various varieties of beans and vegetables.


1  Eugene Morse, Exodus To A Hidden Valley (Cleveland: William Collins Publishing Co., 1974).

Gertrude Morse, The Dogs May Bark…But The Caravan Moves On (Joplin: College Press, 1998).

Doug Priest Jr., editor, The Gospel Unhindered (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1994).

(This book has an article each by Joni and Nangsar Morse).

Helen Morse, I Once Was Young (Chiang Mai: Self Published Through ACTS Co., 2005).


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