History of Akha Church
The Akha’s traditional belief system is called the Akha Way. It is a combination of animism and ancestral worship, and the village shaman (witch doctor) and ni-pa (spirit medium) are well respected figures in the community. The Akha Way has a very specific list taboos. An extreme example is the taboo against twins, who were traditionally killed at birth since one was believed to have an evil spirit. Whenever a taboo is broken, the shaman must prescribe a solution which often includes killing a chicken, pig or water buffalo to appease the angry spirits. If it is a severe offense, such as having twins, the family is traditionally banished outside the village gate, away from the fellowship and protection of the community. Such practices perpetuate the cycle of poverty. As recently at the 1980s, the Akha were the most despised among all the hill tribes of Thailand, with the lowest rates of education and the highest rates of poverty, opium use and prostitution.
Good News Reaches the Akha
During the decade of 1930-1940, a godly Karen pastor in Burma, Sa La Lo Tu Jaw, trudged around the Kengtung countryside, making endless preaching visits to Lahu, Shan and Akha villages. On one such visit, he noticed three young children being treated as slaves. Upon questioning the villagers he learned that the children’s parents had birthed twins and, after going into debt to pay for the expensive funeral rites for the twins (both of whom had to be killed since one was believed to be a devil), both parents passed away. Consequently, their other three children were left to work off the debt. Seeing the children in such poor condition filled the heart of the Karen missionary with compassion, and he paid the children’s debt and took them home with him to receive an education and begin to walk the Jesus Road. These three were the first Akha believers. They went on to marry Lahu Christians and their children began the first Akha church in Burma.
First Akha Christians in Thailand
In 1953, Peter and Jean Nightingale of Overseas Missionary Fellowship arrived in Thailand as missionaries with the express purpose of bringing the Good News to the Akha. It was not until 1955, however, that the Nightingales were allowed to live among the Akha and their first home in the village was a tiny rice granary. Slowly they built trust with their Akha neighbors, and after two years there were two men seriously interested in following the Jesus Way. The year 1960 saw the arrival of two more missionaries to the Akha, Ruth and Peter Wyss, also with OMF. Finally, in January of 1962, two Akha families in Thailand decided to become Christians. This was no small thing, as it meant being forced to leave their homes and fields, being ostracized from their friends and family and starting over again in a new place. These brave new believers were A Shah and his wife A Jui and A Tsa and his wife A Peh, and their small children. Providentially they had, in addition to the Western evangelists, two Christian Akha from Burma to help them in their walk of faith: Ya Ju and his wife Mi Chu. These ten adults, along with their families, became the founding members of the Akha church in Thailand, and they built their tiny village with the traditional Akha spirit gate significantly absent. This place was known simply as “The Jesus Village.”
The Jesus Village
Learning to walk the Jesus Road was not easy, but these faithful few were determined to blaze a trail for other Akha to follow. Upon announcing their conversion, the Akha families had to leave their home villages almost immediately, and they set about constructing a temporary home in the Jesus Village. The longhouse they built solved the urgent need for shelter, but communal living was not something anyone was used to or comfortable with. Those first few months in the new village were trying for all three Akha families; yet they handled the situation with the grace of Jesus and learned, in a very real way, the lesson of selflessness. Like the early church, they grew in the Lord in close proximity and met daily for praise, prayer and fellowship. The seeds of the gospel flourished under such conditions, and the families began to understand how a Christian goes about living life.
For example, A Peh became severely ill during their first month together, and it seemed that no medicine could alleviate her suffering. Days passed, during which her Christian brothers and sisters were moved with compassion for her and never left her side. Several family members from her old village came to see her and remind her that this pain was a result of her decision to leave the way of the spirits. They did their best to discourage the new believers because they truly felt that health and blessing could only come through appeasing the demons. Though the small church did not know what to tell their family, they firmly stuck to their decision to live for Christ. Finally, on the fifth day, A Peh rose from her mat and announced that she was well. Everyone in the village rejoiced at her miraculous healing, and A Peh never forgot the loving Christian care that was shown to her in her time of need.
Another instance of this compassion was demonstrated when one day a dejected, dirty Akha family showed up in the Jesus Village. The father was addicted to opium, the mother had one blind eye and the other was severely infected, and all four of their children were filthy and malnourished. It was a major decision to allow the helpless family to live there, as it would mean providing food and shelter for them for several weeks until they could plant their own rice fields. Additionally, there was some doubt as to how much value the people would add to their community, but with characteristic faith and kindness the Christians graciously invited them to stay. In the end, the sad little family grew into strong, healthy believers and a wonderful addition to the small fellowship.
A Contexualized Church
Upon examination, it is obvious that this infant Akha church was truly guided and taught by the Holy Spirit, just like the early church in the Book of Acts. They were not bound by human inventions and doctrines; they simply took God’s Word and applied it to their daily lives within the context of their culture. Rather than fretting about the fact that they had no bread or wine for communion, they pragmatically decided to use rice and Akha tea. Instead of feeling obligated to always use Western hymns to praise God (although they did enjoy learning the four-part harmonies), they felt free to sing Christian words to the tunes of their Akha chants. They even made gramophone records of testimonies sung as if they were traditional Akha ballads. It is truly awe-inspiring to observe the hand of God in the growth of this young fellowship, for they were so full of wisdom that they were able to increase their knowledge of the outside world while retaining the essence and beauty of their culture.
In 1962, the year the church was founded, the only Akha in Thailand who could read his own language was Ya Ju. At this point in time the New Testament was not even completely translated into Akha; however, the OMF missionaries anticipated the arrival of the Akha scriptures and began to teach everyone in the Jesus Village to read and write Akha. For the work-weary adults this was a slow and painful process, but their children drank up the lessons like little bamboo shoots. In addition to the daily meetings, the church studied the Bible together on Sundays and everyone was so hungry to learn more that the missionaries planned a special four-day Bible school. During that time no one went to work in the field, instead, they spent the days deepening their understanding of Scripture. This short study period was not enough for the enthusiastic believers, it merely whet their appetite for more. However, the Christian educational resources available to them were extremely limited, and before long were completely used up.
Finally – An Akha Bible!
Finally, in 1966 a book of Old Testament stories printed in the Akha language became available to them and they received word that the New Testament was on the way, but the four-year-old church longed to have their own Akha leaders study the Bible in-depth. Part of this dream came true in February of 1967, when the first Inter-Tribal Bible Conference was held at Phayao, a Thai Bible school. Then, in September, “Peter Nightingale met Pastor Ya Ju and deacon A Tsa in Maechan and, for the first time, a bank account was opened in their names on behalf of the Akha church in Thailand. They wished to save up some money, so that one day an Akha student could be sent to Phayao for the long term Bible training in Thai” (Nightingale, 2001, p. 123).
Hungry for Training
Three years later the congregation, which now counted eleven families, had saved enough money to send a young married couple, A Ju and Bu Do, to Phayao as full time Bible students. They planned to live there during the school term – about five months – and then come back to the village to harvest their rice. This went well for the first year, but afterwards the two confessed that their illiteracy in the Thai language made it almost impossible to keep up and they did not feel able to return to study for another year. Hoping that it would be easier for unmarried men to grasp the language, the church sent A Jo and A Byeh the next year. Although A Jo went on to study for a second year, he strongly doubted his ability to finish the third year at Phayao. These problems caused the leadership to consider developing a month-long Bible school in the Akha language.
Plans turned into action, and “In 1974, the first Akha Bible School was planned for four weeks in June, at Phayao. It met the need of the growing church, where no young people had learned to speak, or to read and write the Thai language. For the four OMF missionaries, it was like a dream come true! Fifteen Akha assembled at Phayao, almost all of them emerging church leaders” (Nightingale, 2001, p. 150). The twelve-year old church was thrilled to finally have training and teachings in their own language and the school was specially designed so they would not have to leave their fields for long periods of time. Indeed, the Akha church leaders were becoming clearer and clearer in their desire to lead their own church, and a meeting was held to discuss the possibility of forming an Akha church association in Thailand. Everything was moving forward at an exciting pace and “by February of 1976, between 75 and 100 families, in five different areas, claimed to be Christian disciples, learning to walk the Jesus road” (Nightingale, 2001, p. 159). However, soon after that tragedy dealt a debilitating blow which slowed the church’s progress almost to a halt.
Tragedy and Setbacks
That year, 1976, the Akha’s beloved missionary Peter Nightingale was diagnosed with advanced cancer and had to return home to London for treatment. Then, on March 16, 1977, Peter Wyss was shot to death by two Thai robbers as he was hiking out of an Akha village. God called Peter Nightingale home to heaven on the Sunday before Christmas, 1979. The Akha church mourned the death of both Peters for many years and since Peter Nightingale and Peter Wyss were the main teachers and motivators of the Akha Bible School, the entire project ceased in their absence. Five years later, “Freddie Gasser, OMF missionary, listed in his annual report a total of twenty-two churches, including emerging groups of new believers who worshiped together but had no resident teacher” (Nightingale, 2001, p. 174). As the Gospel began to spread to more and more Akha villages, the need for Akha leaders who could teach the Word grew even greater. It was during this time that Akha parents began sending their children to the city for an education. Many were placed in Christian hostels that presented the Gospel to them as part of the curriculum. In some cases they remained Christians, but most of them did not continue to seek God once they left the hostel.
Akha Christians in Thai Bible School
The late 1980’s and early 1990’s saw a huge increase in Akha who had completed either a ninth or twelfth grade education in the Thai language, and some were able to attend Thai Bible School. Though Akha was their first (heart) language, Thai was their academic language and they were fluent in Thai. Most of the Bible school graduates had a good understanding of the Word, but were unable to pray, preach, read or write in their own Akha language. Often their sermons did not fit the needs of the Akha church. In many cases, the Akha graduates would end up serving in Thai churches because they felt unprepared to minister to the Akha church. Sadly, most of them had been removed from the Akha language and culture for too long and were, culturally, more Thai than Akha.
The Need for Akha Leaders
In 1999, a long-term missionary to the Akha noted that since 1993, the Akha church as a whole has seen a great response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That response has been primarily the result of the Gospel being presented to the Akha in a culturally relevant way. Prior to the 1990s, the Akha were considered the least evangelized and most resistant to the Gospel of all five tribal groups residing in Northern Thailand. This missionary also observed that the greatest strength of the Akha church is the people’s simple, child-like faith. The greatest weakness, however, is the lack of mature Christian leaders to go before and lead them. Indeed, the church was long overdue for a Biblical educational system targeting Akha who were called to minister within their culture.
By the Akha, for the Akha
Akha Bible Institute was birthed in May, 2002 with fifteen students eager to fill the need for Akha leaders for the Akha church. Many of the students arrived unable to read and write the Akha language; in fact, some had never been to school before and those who had been studied solely in the Thai language. To Akha Bible Institute fell the huge task of helping these budding leaders become fluent in reading and writing their native tongue and recapturing their heritage. Therefore, ABI purposed not only to teach the Bible in the Akha language, but also to use the rich redemptive analogies, legends and proverbs already found within the Akha culture to reach people for Jesus. This concept of contextualization started out as a single class and grew into one of the core values for the school. Another unique quality of ABI is that it operates simultaneously on the same property as an Akha orphanage (House of Joy) for children ranging in age from four to eighteen years. The Bible students are extremely helpful in caring for and loving the orphans, and the orphans return the love which helps to heal to the students’ emotional wounds. Everyone has a sense of nurturing and belonging in a warm, loving family. The educational program combines theory with practice by including weekend internships as part of the three years of classroom study. The fourth and final year is a full-time internship during which the interns work alongside a minister at a church or organization, returning to the school each month for three days of teaching and evaluation. In addition, ABI has a monthly, three-year training program for pastors currently in the ministry. By 2010, Akha Bible Institute had graduated fifty-five students and fifty-eight pastors.
Nightingale, Jean. Akha Christians of the Golden Triangle. Eastwood, Australia: Snap Printing, 2001.