Ko Tha Byu Leads “Stupid Wild Buffalos” to Enlightenment
This is the second in a series of articles taken from the book, The Founders of the Indian Church, by Donald A. McGavran, which was published in 1937. We present it here for the lessons we can learn today concerning the critical task of establishing a church-planting movement within every people. --Rick Wood
Two days' journey beyond Calcutta is a country called Burma. In Burma there lives a caste of people called Karens. A hundred years ago these Karens were considered savage and ignorant people. They were thought to be dirty and sinful. Men said, "You can no more teach a Karen than you can a wild buffalo." Karens would build temporary houses of bamboo and grass, live in them for a few years, and then abandon them to move on to some more fertile place in the jungle. The civilized inhabitants of Burma despised the Karens and did not permit them to live in the same section of the village with them. The Burman quarter was also separated from the Karen quarter.
About a hundred years ago one of those savage, sinful Karens named Ko Tha Byu achieved considerable fame as a bad man. He was involved in several robberies and was alleged to have committed several murders. He was finally apprehended by the Burman government and sold into slavery. He was big and strong, but sullen and seemingly unteachable. He was purchased by the pioneer missionary, the Rev. Adoniram Judson, and freed. He worked for Mr. Judson as a coolie. Mr. Judson gave him daily instructions in the Christian faith. Mr. Judson was a past master of the Burmese language of which Ko Tha Byu knew a little, just enough to get along in the bazaar and the work-a-day world. But his caste language was the Karen dialect rather than classical Burmese. For six months, Mr. Judson labored in vain. He wrote to his relatives and friends saying, "I have never taught so stupid a man. Here at the end of six months his mind seems just as darkened as the first day." Nevertheless, three months later Ko Tha Byu saw himself to be a sinner and recognized the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior. Mr. Judson was convinced that the man was really converted. He was baptized and continued his work as a coolie and a general handy man.
Ko Tha Byu accompanied Mr. Judson on his preaching tours. He said to himself, "The padre sahib is preaching chiefly to the Burmans. The Burmese will not listen to me because I am only a Karen. I shall preach to my Karen people and tell them of the salvation from sin which comes through Jesus Christ our Lord." He was received with interest by the Karen people. Many of them laughed at him, many of them opposed him, but some of them heard him attentively and a few of them here and there decided to become Christians. Some years, two or three Karens became Christians; in other years twenty or thirty accepted the Christian faith; and in one unusual year ninety adult Karens were baptized. Ko Tha Byu continued to preach and teach salvation from sin through Jesus Christ our Lord to his Karen people. In those days the mission had no system of schools. The country was ruled by a Burmese King. There was no chance for a Christian to get a job. It would have been foolish to hold out to the Karen people the hope of advancement in civil life--jobs, salaries, positions, clerkships and higher education. The thing which was held before them was the great central value in becoming a Christian: salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ. Mr. Judson during those years had been imprisoned by the Burman government and for years had been kept in the vilest prisons, treated with scorn and almost starved to death. It was Jesus Christ that attracted Ko Tha Byu. It was not the prestige of the British Government or the promises of a missionary organization.
The small bands of Christians which were established all through that country were sometimes separated by hundreds of miles. The missionary did not get to see the Christian peasants more than once or twice a year. The only people who could proclaim the good news of salvation were the new Karen Christians. The first missionary of the Karens died of tuberculosis while being carried from village to village on a bed, knowing that he had a fatal sickness--yet preaching to the end. His widow carried on the work for some years. The small groups of Karens were harassed by their own people who considered that becoming a Christian was abandoning their ancestral faith.
However, all up and down the country, Karens were talking about the new religion. Sometimes they opposed it fiercely, sometimes they spoke in favor of it, but it was always news. "Have you heard that so and so has become a Christian?" was a frequent remark. "Yes, my uncle has become a Christian," someone would answer. Someone else would chime in, "My father's sister's cousin and his whole family have become Christians." The village elders in many places would discuss this new religion for hours at a time, sometimes to condemn and sometimes to praise it. Ko Tha Byu worked unceasingly in his spare time. Seeing his devotion to his Lord and his ability, he was allowed to give all his time to preaching about Jesus Christ the Lord. He became a Christian evangelist to the Karens, to his own people. Night and day, in season and out of season, Ko Tha Byu labored that people might know of the Savior from sin. But he received only as much salary or wages as he did when he was a coolie. "My reward is not in money but in my people brought to salvation," he said.
The demands which he laid on them, as the commands of his Lord, were not easy. "We, who have never observed any regular day of worship, must now set aside every seventh day. On that day we must not work and must worship God. We, who have not given except to the evil spirits, must give of our substance to the Church. We who have been nomads must build churches where we can worship God. We who have never known how to read and write, must sacrifice to educate our boys and girls. We, who have always drunk liquor and used it in all our religious ceremonies, must give it up entirely."
The savage, sinful Karens found there a message difficult to accept. They also found that when they accepted it and when with it they accepted the new life which was possible through Jesus Christ, they were lifted beyond their fondest hopes. Ten or fifteen years after the first group of Karens had started to become Christians several large groups of Karens accepted the Christian faith as units. In all the surrounding villages the message spread that "We Karens are becoming Christians." In village after village the elders met and decided to become Christians. Christian leaders could scarcely baptize people fast enough. In three months over 5000 people had become Christians. From that time to this, every year has been a great ingathering amongst the Karens and their allied castes. Some years 500, some years 2000, and some years 10,000 have been won to the abundant and everlasting life in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
At the present time there are 300,000 Christians in Burma almost all of whom are from the once despised Karen caste, or some closely related caste. One story will be indicative of the extent to which Christianity has redeemed them. In the Basin Tahsil there are 30,000 Christians. Almost all of these are peasants or laborers in villages. About ten years ago these Christians decided that they wanted a high school. Since they were a self-supporting Church they decided to raise the money for the high school themselves. By a system of collection in each village they raised in several years three lakhs of rupees. They then applied to the Government for a grant. Their three lakhs of rupees were then matched by three lakhs from the government. The six lakhs of rupees were all used in the building of a very fine high school. Not a piece of it went into the pocket of the collectors. All of it went into the building. As a result the 30,000 Christians of the Basin Tahsil have a high school building worth 6 lakhs of rupees in which the brightest boys of all their villages can read, study and improve their condition. The Karen community found in Christ many things which it needed. Chief amongst them were faith in each other and love for each other issuing in cooperation. These people whose sons are now studying in the high school built it with their efforts and their own money. The principal of the high school is not a foreign missionary. He is an educated Karen Christian. Into his hands each year come over 50,000 rupees. Not a piece sticks to his hands or goes into his pocket. All teachers in the high school are Karen Christians. They are helping people in hundreds of villages to a better life here on earth and to a preparation which will fit them for the world to come.
Basin Tahsil is typical of many other parts of Burma where the Karens have come to Jesus Christ in large numbers. What Christ has done for Karens, He can do for all people who will trust in Him and come to Him in large groups. Remember that if for ten or fifteen years small groups of courageous men had not loved the Lord Jesus Christ enough to accept the Christian faith whether their caste fellows did or not, the Karen people in Burma would still be an ignorant, oppressed, sinful "low caste" group, and the thought of 30,000 Karens in Basin Tahsil building and administering such a fine educational institution would never have entered their heads. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the way, the truth, and the life. No man can know God except through Him. No man can be forgiven of sin except by faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore those who believe on Him, obey Him, and worship Him, receive salvation and are blessed of God.