Burma closed its doors to foreigners from 1962 to 1972. In 1972, it opened a crack-just for a few hours on one day. The Navigators swept in, and Thein Htay, a young medical doctor, responded in faith to a teaching on 1 Corinthians 3 to the effect that we will all be judged according to what we have done with Jesus.
Htay then hit the ground running with the gospel and found himself no longer welcome in his Sunday school position, the pastor being uncomfortable with his suggestion that salvation lies in relationship with Jesus and not in being baptized. Htay looked around in horror at his church and realized, "They are all going to hell." So he requested permission from the government to leave medicine (it took two years) in order to spend the rest of his life telling people about Jesus.
Htay went to work for the Far East Broadcasting Company, signaling from Manila to Rangoon. He answered the approximately 400 letters a month from all over southeast Asia, finally writing pamphlets to address some of the more repetitive questions: "How can I know Jesus?" Burma is a land of tribes, and people from the frontier areas of the Naga, Chin, Kachin, Lisu, Lahu, Karen, and Kayah came to the Discipleship Training groups that God put on Htay's heart to pioneer.
Now he is in Philadelphia, courtesy of our Department of Homeland Security, and sponsored by Lutheran and Children's Family Services. He came from a refugee camp in Thailand after leaving his native land to avoid government arrest. On a recent Sunday I spent the day with this great man you have never heard of, one of those people who are famous in heaven only, "unknown and yet well known" (2 Corinthians 6:9).
I kept interrupting his narrative to ask how he supported himself all those years in Burma. He kept saying "by faith," which I finally caught on to mean that he didn't draw a salary. "The Burmese people are kind-not the Christians; they ask you what denomination you are."
Government cadres fanned into villages convincing the people to give up their children, with the promise of better food and education. Unbeknown to their parents, the children were brought to Buddhist monasteries, where they were not particularly well fed by the monks on the government dole. Many ran away and ended up begging on the streets.
One former monastery ward from the northern Naga tribe, who at some point got saved watching the Jesus film, told Htay of the children's plight. Thus did the peripatetic evangelist and Discipleship Training instructor become a reluctant founder of orphanages. (He confessed to me that at the beginning he had no heart for children.)
This work was also "by faith." A friend from Singapore put up the money for a two-story building. Htay started rescuing children from the streets. A widow who had graduated from Htay's Discipleship program became housemother. Htay's most recent church plant, 400 miles away in Rangoon, sent support money through a business contact. The house swelled to 110.
Htay wanted to register with the government so he could buy rice and firewood cheaper. Instead, the government repossessed 44 of his children from one of the orphanages. They also caught up with him at one of his children's summer camps, interrogating him about foreign backers, and ordering him to cease all religious activities.
A military officer who was a secret Christian confided to Htay that he was in Intelligence and had once been sent to the Discipleship School to arrest him-and that if the government learned he was the same man who was running orphanages, all his ministries would be in jeopardy. He counseled Htay not to put anything in his name. Htay decided it was best to flee country. He leaves behind several children's homes, discipleship training schools, and church plants.
"Your story sounds like George Müller's," I told Htay as we parted. "I translated his autobiography," he replied. "And the lives of George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Sadu Sundar Singh."