A tale of two Thai tribes

Preaching the Gospel in northern Thailand

by Sarah Rooney

BAHN BOON YEUN, Phrae Province, Thailand — Small, wild-haired figures in ragged clothes move barefoot through the moonlit mango grove. Some carry archaic muskets as long as spears, others squat beside soot-stained shacks murmuring to each other in the darkness. Inside a big wooden house at the heart of this forgotten valley, Eugene Long is bathed in a brilliant pool of fluorescent light. His wife has just baked apple pie and he’s getting ready to tuck in.

New tribes mission family (l. to r.) Eugene Long, daughter Crystal and wife Mary pose with a young Mlabri family at Bahn Boon Yeun.

Long is an American missionary living in this isolated region of northern Thailand with a nomadic tribe known as Phi Tong Luang, or Ghosts of the Yellow Banana Leaves. If Long has his way the tribe will soon know their Epistles from their Apostles and say grace before each meal. “We want ‘em to be Christian,” says Long. “We want ‘em to be Christian so bad we can taste it.”

The Ghosts of the Yellow Banana Leaves are a tribe on the verge of extinction. They are so named because they build their shelters from green banana leaves, and when these turn yellow they move on. They call themselves Mlabri, meaning “forest man,” and number some 220 members. The Mlabri are animists who believe tigers are the angry souls of the dead and that rainbows, which they call “monster’s farts,” can swallow people whole.

Long and his family are part of the New Tribes Mission, a Florida-based organization of born-again Christians. NTM has over 3,000 highly-trained missionaries working among remote tribes in 27 countries. Their motto is “Planting churches among tribal people until the last tribe is reached.” NTM missionaries believe in the divine authority of the Bible — that woman was made from the rib of man and the world was created in six days (tigers appeared on the sixth day along with other land animals).

Missionary Eugene Long and his wife, Mary, talk with Mlabri tribe member Yaalohm outside her house.

These two tribes are unevenly matched. On one side are the Mlabri, many of whom can’t recognize their own faces in photographs or mirrors and whose entire race could fit on a Boeing 747. On the other side is the sophisticated NTM machine, backed up by modern medicine, technology and multimillion-dollar donations from church congregations back home. While the Mlabri have no experience of missionaries, NTM has decades of experience with people like the Mlabri. They even have a nine-step conversion plan which they claim takes a tribal person “from beginning to new beginning.”

Step 1: NTM studies a remote people group and prayerfully considers starting a ministry in a new location.

Eugene Long’s first meeting with the Mlabri took place over 20 years ago. It did not go well. “They would hear me as I came crashing through the jungle, and the women would grab their children and run away, overcome with fear,” says Long, a hyperactive fortysomething with startlingly blue eyes and an ungodly guffaw. Undeterred, he continued to trek into the jungle to give them food, clothes and medicine. “It’s like when you’re courting a woman,” he explains, “you buy her candy or you send her a card.”

Step 2: Missionaries move into a location and get established.

How do you convince a nomadic tribe to settle in your back yard? Long decided to build his house in the jungle and hire the Mlabri to farm for him, encouraging them to build their shelters nearby. Some mornings, Long would wake up to find the valley deserted. He has lost count of how many times the Mlabri have packed up and vanished. One time, it took him 14 months to coax them to return.

Dr. Kit, a Thai medical missionary, administers shots to the children of Bahn Boon Yeun, with the assistance of NTM missionary Inge Lipsius.

It was the Almighty who eventually convinced the Mlabri to stay, according to an article in an NTM magazine: “Praise God for the fact that the Yellow Leaf people have remained on location for such a long time now. Being nomads at heart, we believe God is keeping them there in order to hear His Word.” An NTM missionary family from Germany has since joined the Longs and 102 Mlabri have settled in ramshackle huts dotted around the valley.

As de facto chief of the tribe, Long has put himself in charge of introducing the Mlabri to the 21st century. Says Long, “I’m their employer, doctor, teacher, their everything.” The Mlabri are taught to read and write at a small school and trained to farm their own fields. The children take a compulsory daily bath. Long also takes the Mlabri to visit the nearest town and, reluctantly, allows them to watch 90 minutes of television each evening.

Long himself is not overly familiar with the 21st century. He has been back to the United States only twice in the last 20 years. He goes to the cinema once every five years. Yet his home here in the Thai jungle is a microcosm of small-town America. His wife dutifully does all the housework and conjures up generous American breakfasts of pancakes and sausage patties from a large gas oven. Long sits in a leather armchair, gulps coffee from a Mister Donut mug and craves Big Macs. He has a dated candor about expressing his prejudices (he won’t fly on an airline that hires Muslim pilots.)

Throughout the day and night, a steady stream of Mlabri appear quietly at the open door of the Long house asking for notebooks, cough syrup, biscuits. One young boy, with the sad, saucer-size eyes and bee-stung lips that are characteristic of the Mlabri, brings Long a recently captured crab. Long stifles a grimace and gives the boy an affectionate pat on the head. He is less indulgent when his cat brings a live rat into his living room. “I’ll have to put it out of its misery,” says Long before grabbing a plank of wood and pounding the rat to death. He hands the still-twitching corpse to a delighted Mlabri boy, who carries it off into the night.

Step 3: The missionaries study the language and culture of the people, and build relationships with them.

Before you convert someone to Christianity, you must know what they already believe. NTM missionaries call this a person’s “cultural grid.”

“You have to know what the receiver is going to understand. It’s like squeezing potatoes through a strainer,” explains Friedhard Lipsius, the NTM missionary from Germany. “

But the Mlabri’s cultural grid has proved hard to plot. “It’s not that they are trying to keep us in the dark,” says Lipsius, an unsmiling giant of a man with neat silver hair and a handshake that could crush marbles. “They are afraid that if they talk about something it will happen, that evil spirits will be exposed and take revenge.” You can’t tell a Mlabri mother that her baby is cute, for instance, in case the spirits come and steal it away. Fear of the spirits also means that few Mlabri will reveal their real names, not even to Long’s teenage daughter, who grew up among Mlabri playmates.

Step 4: Missionaries teach literacy. The people need to be able to read the Bible in their own language for the church to be truly established.

There’s the story of a missionary in South America who, after a year and a half of seemingly successful Bible teaching, discovered the word the tribe had suggested he use for “God” in their language actually meant “Satan.”

Lipsius and his family had a similar experience. After 12 long years of teaching the Gospel to the Lawa tribe in northern Thailand, the tribe suddenly forbade him to come into their homes. “It was like being engaged and three days before the wedding you get dumped,” says Lipsius who was forced to move on, ending up here to try again with the Mlabri. He is currently perfecting his Mlabri language primer. “Especially with our Christian message it’s important we’re not misunderstood,” says Lipsius.

Step 5: The Bible is taught chronologically, from Creation through the Resurrection of Christ.

Long and Lipsius have stopped teaching the Mlabri about the Bible.

Lipsius had taught Mlabri children about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Long hadn’t even finished teaching Genesis (which according to the NTM Web site includes teaching “the lie of evolution”). Neither was satisfied with the results. Biblical stories require context and history that the Mlabri are a long way from understanding. “Take the statement ‘Jesus died for your sins,’ ” says Lipsius. “They’ll ask ‘Who’s Jesus? How did he die? Sins? I didn’t do anything wrong!’ “

So it’s back to the elementary steps. But just how do you persuade someone that everything they believe is wrong and that what you believe is right?

Lipsius might start by pointing to a pipe carved by a Mlabri. “If you hadn’t made that pipe,” he would ask, “would it be here?” No, the Mlabri would have to concede. “If you didn’t build this house, would it be here?” No, again. “So, what about the earth? Could man be the one who made it?” No.

“It didn’t come into being by itself did it? If you dig a hole, can the pile of dirt jump back into the hole by itself?” No. “The things we didn’t make need a maker,” Lipsius would say. “The ground cannot make itself. It is the same with the water and the trees and the sky.”

Then he would introduce the Mlabri to their new divine creator, God.

Step 6: People place their faith in Christ as the Holy Spirit works in their hearts.

So far, the Long and the Lipsius families have only reached Step 5 of the NTM nine-step conversion plan. This makes them unusually slow missionaries. “I don’t think anyone feels the pressure more keenly than we do,” says Long. He says some missionaries are critical of the amount of practical help he gives the Mlabri. “They say our job is strictly spiritual and that we shouldn’t be concerned with their material situation.” The concern is that Long will end up creating “rice Christians” who only believe so they can reap the material benefits he offers. Long replies that without such inducements the Mlabri would “just up and leave.”

“My major job out here is spiritual,” he says. “I’m doing this so I’ll have a chance to tell them about Christ. If all I was here to do is take babies to hospital and patch up sores, I could do it back in Florida and it would be a lot more fun.”

Missionaries believe the heathen are, quite simply, unhappy. Pictures of glum Mlabri in an NTM magazine are captioned, “Faces like this may soon radiate the joy of salvation.” Gene Foltz, chairman of NTM in Thailand, says tribal beliefs can be unhealthy. “Animists are living in fear, a lot of fear,” he says. “They sacrifice a lot of things they really need, like their animals. They even sacrifice people sometimes. We’d like to help them so they don’t have to live in fear.” Animism is also considered the devil’s work. One NTM video on the conversion of the Taliabo tribe in Indonesia documents “God’s victory over demonic forces” and promises missionaries a better understanding of “spiritual warfare.”

Long believes Christianity will be “liberating” for the fear-stricken animist Mlabri. The NTM conversion process will introduce the tribe to new concepts — guilt, for instance. Long turned to Christianity after a near-death experience jolted him into the realization that Jesus Christ had died for his sins. “It had never dawned on me that I was personally guilty.” Nor has it dawned on the Mlabri, who have so far proved reluctant to swap fear for guilt.

NTM missionaries believe in the “unending punishment of the unsaved.” In an NTM journal, one missionary describes how he felt when a woman from the northern Pwo Karen tribe in Thailand died after complications in childbirth: “Satan’s savage and fierce grip had taken its toll and . . . a soul slipped away into a Christless eternity, the blackness of death . . . forever! Why? Why? . . . Can we not hear this woman’s moans and groans of agony from the grave, at the reality of eternal hell?”

Unconverted Mlabri face the same fate, believes Long. Although he steers away from fire-and-brimstone ranting, his distress is obvious when he tells the story of a terminally ill Mlabri boy. The prospect of the boy’s eternal damnation proved too much for Long, who decided to do some last-minute preaching. “I threw caution to the wind and told him everything,” he tearfully recalls.

In the past, NTM attempts to reach the unsaved had tragic consequences. Around the same time as Long was first trekking after the Mlabri in northern Thailand, NTM missionaries in Paraguay were using armed bands of Indians to hunt down “uncontacted” rival Indian groups. Witnesses saw Indians dragged bleeding and vomiting into mission camps to be converted. As recently as December 1986, an NTM manhunt resulted in the deaths of five Indians.

Survival International, a British-based group concerned with the rights of tribal people, documented these atrocities. Campaign Officer Sophie Grig is particularly concerned with missionaries like NTM because they target the world’s most vulnerable people. NTM work in isolated areas where lack of scrutiny means brutal conversion tactics could go undetected. “The potential is always there for that sort of thing to happen again,” says Grig. “We have to be on the lookout.” (The NTM Web site is currently calling for prayers and cash donations as their planes scour the jungles of Papua New Guinea for “unreached” tribes.)

Long is part of what Paul Kurtz calls “the largest mass missionary effort in history.” Kurtz, the chairman of the U.S.-based Council for Secular Humanism, warns that fundamentalist mission work stunts the growth of democracy in developing countries. “The reversion to biblical values undermines science, technology, independence, autonomy and critical thinking,” says Kurtz. He believes that tribes have no defense against this evangelical onslaught.

Foltz disagrees. “The old traditional missionary used to go in with his Bible and shake it in the face of the people and try to convert everyone that came into sight,” he says. “We’re not that way at all. We’re thinking of the people’s health, their education, what we can do to help them. At the same time, we want people to hear about what we believe to be the truth of the Bible, but we don’t force it down people’s throats.”

Long responds similarly to the charge that Christianity will change Mlabri culture. “We’re not doing it to make them change,” he says, pointing out that not all change is bad. “The kids used to be covered in sores and boils. Now they bathe and don’t have sores. You could probably find someone who thinks it’s better they sleep in the dirt.” He calls his critics “dyed-in-the-wool cultural bigots” and argues that they are stamping on his beliefs. “How come you’re allowed to impose your will on people, but it’s not OK for me to offer my beliefs to someone else?” he demands.

NTM is clearly image-conscious. In January, it changed the name of its magazine about harvesting souls among tribal peoples. It used to be called Brown Gold. Now it’s called NTM@work. The NTM training program is no longer referred to as “boot camp.” Even the name New Tribes Mission is being phased out. “We’re just calling it NTM these days,” says Foltz. At Long’s house, a visiting missionary corrected himself when he used the term “nonbeliever” and said “villager” instead. As Foltz says, “We’re learning to be sensitive to other people. That’s the heart of what Christianity should be anyway, isn’t it?”

Three steps remain till the NTM program is complete. First, a church must be established, then Mlabri church leaders will be ordained and finally, in a system NTM calls “spiritual multiplication,” Mlabri believers will go out as missionaries to convert more of their kind. Long is confident. “I’m very encouraged,” he says. “It’s really starting to take off.”

Three teenage Mlabri girls come tumbling out of the Lipsius house balancing Bibles on their heads. They are the only Mlabri who have said they want to believe in a Christian god. Now the girls spend their time with Lipsius’ 13-year-old daughter, reading the Bible and singing Christian songs. They also pray before meals.

To become Christian, the Mlabri will have to give up all their animistic beliefs. But when you strip away all Mlabri belief, what is left of Mlabri culture? Long has instant answers for every question but this one. “A great deal of knowledge,” he says after a long pause. “They are great hunters. They know what plants you can and cannot eat. They won’t lose that.”

And they will still remain Mlabri when they become Christians, he insists. “Truth is, if you go back far enough, nobody is the same religion their ancestors were. How about you? Do you live the way your parents lived? People change.”