Asia Biblical Theological Seminary Offers World Class Master's Degree Inside Mae La Refugee Camp
by Rebekah Chan
Mae La Refugee Camp is located approximately 550km—or 341.8 miles—northwest of Bangkok in Thailand. In the camp, refugees are dependent on relief organizations to provide food and supplies. Many camp residents are not allowed to leave the camp under penalty of deportation. With a general sentiment of hopelessness, suicide rates are more than three times the global average.
The camp is home to an estimated 40,000 refugees, the majority being of the ethic Karen hill tribe from Burma. The Karen people fled Burma to avoid fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and Myanmar's military regime that has taken place for the past 64 years. The atrocities committed against the Karen people have been well documented as a gross violation of human rights, including rape, torturing and killing suspected dissidents, forced labor schemes and the destruction of homes and food.
Mae La Refugee Camp was established in 1984 and is the central camp in the area. Mae La is considered a center for study and currently houses limited educational programs for its refugees. Within this community, Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School & College (KKBBSC) is one of the few options available to earn a bachelor's-level degree.
"Jesus says that this world is not our home. The refugee camp is a place where each of us needs to dwell, at least in a spiritual sense, because when we are robbed of this world's possessions we think more keenly about heaven and God's glory." —Dr. Christopher Sadowitz, Professor of Theology of Church Ministry
Perseverance in Trials
In June, Asia Biblical Theological Seminary had the privilege of bringing to the Mae La Refugee Camp its first master's-level program. The Master of Religious Education program is fully accredited through Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich., allowing us to provide a high quality program to those who would otherwise never have access to this level of education. The course took place on-site at KKBBSC campus and consisted of a cohort of 10 students from the camp and three other existing students joining from outside.
We spoke to professors Christopher Sadowitz, professor of theology of church ministry, and Daron Wilson, professor of biblical hermeneutics, to learn more about their experiences teaching inside this unique place.
What were your first impressions of the refugee camp? Did anything surprise you?
Christopher Sadowitz: "My first impression of the camp was cool cliffs, beautiful green jungle, lots of mud, colorful clothing of the Bible students, bugs and the beauty of 400 students singing praise to God in a Buddhist land.
"I have been to Thailand more than 10 times so nothing really surprised me. Then I saw and heard the story of the Karen people and visited the camp. I saw how three of our Filipino students who lived at the camp for the two-week seminar slept on mats under mosquito nets and watched rats scurry about at night."
Daron Wilson: "The biggest surprises about the camp are the minimal conditions and the constricted living space. A community of 35-40,000 individuals is living in a very small area without anything one would expect for an actual city that size. It has bamboo houses, dirt roads and minimal building construction, school systems and medical facilities."
Was there anything particularly challenging in teaching these students?
Christopher Sadowitz: "Since they are an oppressed people, their theological emphasis is on Christian themes of nationalism and freedom. Loving your enemies and releasing your cultural pride and heritage are difficult things to consider.
"Mixing Christianity with being Karen is also prevalent. Some there would say that to be Karen is to be a Christian, just as being Burmese is to be Buddhist. I asked the class if being a believer was more important to them than being Karen. They had difficulty considering that as an option. Also, their ability to go and minister cross-culturally is limited as they are stuck in the camp. It is this constant struggle to maintain faith against the tide of hopelessness."
Daron Wilson: "Due to their living situation the students lack exposure to outside influences and ideas, they are hungry for answers to individual questions they have that are less related to the subject matter."
What do you think is the greatest challenge these ministry students face?
Daron Wilson: "The biggest challenge the students face is living out a deep trust in God in the face of serious injustice and poverty. They are faced with the contrast between their situation and those in more privileged parts of the world.
"For many in the camp, there is no work or even useful occupation of time. Some people have been there for 40 years, and many have known no other life. The students of ABTS will be faced with helping people like this come to understand God's love for them."
How do you see God moving/working in this distressed part of the world?
Daron Wilson: "I see His daily provision for the students, both physically and spiritually, and the amazing work He is doing. By keeping them encouraged to continue to follow Him, work is being done. The students simply continue to plug away, seeking to serve the Lord as well as possible."
Your commitment to support emerging ministry leaders in Asia matters. To get involved in Asia Biblical Theological Seminary's investment in the Mae La Refugee Camp cohort, we invite you to pray for our ABTS students, learn more about this new partnership and/or give a financial gift.