Witchy is the nickname we gave her. How horrible, you might think. Actually, it wasn't meant to be a derogatory term, just a moniker to identify her by when we first moved into the village, before we learned her real name. However, the term stuck. Give her a broom, a pointed hat, and a black cat, and she would look the part. Witchy's given name, we soon learned, was "Jume." We also learned that the reason for her haggard and frail-looking appearance was because her body was riddled with Tuberculosis. Yes, Witchy was once a very attractive lady, we were told, but was dying of TB, which was very common to the area with its lack of modern medical comprehension, health precautions and hygienic practices. Thus, Witchy's days were numbered when we first met her. Meaning that she had only a few years to live, or months, if that.
Witchy, or Aunty Jume, had lived her whole life in poverty and the seclusion of a remote rural Nyaw village called Bahn Nah Nai, or
"Inner Field Village," situated in the remote countryside of Nakon Panom province, Northeast Thailand, bordering Laos. It was
into that village that we moved to begin our church-planting ministry among the Nyaw people—a sub-group of the Lao-Isan people—and
Witchy (Aunty Jume) became our next-door neighbor.
Aunty Jume's husband's name was Gaew. Uncle Gaew, whose clubfoot gave him a decidedly identifiable gait, was an esteemed village elder. He was an honest man and later became our trusted watchman and close friend, and would keep track of our home for us when we were away. Theirs (Uncle Gaew and Aunt Jume) was the very first house that I visited in the village while looking for land on which to build our home. I climbed the ladder, and introduced myself, speaking in Central Thai (the only Asian language I knew at that time). I sat on their front porch that Fall afternoon, 1974, along with other village men who were there chatting. I then asked about the nice-looking plot of land, located directly across the road. "It belongs to Mr. Born," Uncle Gaew responded in faltering Thai (not his first language)... "here, he's sitting right here."
I made an agreement with Mr. Born that warm and lazy afternoon while sitting on Jume and Gaew's porch... leasing that nice-looking plot of land on which we built our cozy home-away-from-home. (NOTE: Incidentally, Mr. Born became the first believer in that village, having trusted Christ the following year—summer of 1975. Mr. Born, in his 80s at the time of this writing, was still going strong for the Lord as an evangelist, teacher, and local church elder until his passing, circa 2010.)
Using only hand tools and local construction techniques, we finished construction on our home in the remote Nyaw village of Bahn Nah Nai in about six weeks. There was no available electricity at the time, and generators were noisy and impractical. We moved in Christmas Eve, 1974. Our place was simple, but adequate, like a cozy little cottage. We fell in love with it, soon growing used to the sparse living conditions. The main roof was corrugated gypsum panels, available throughout the area. It had a large open front porch with a nice grass roof that afforded a natural cooling affect during hot season, helping to blend in with the others around us. Our evenings were lit by candles and kerosene wick lamps, which gave everything a warm golden glow, but limited light. For shade, we were fortunate to have two huge trees in the yard, like large landmarks. I'll include a photo of our house later. (We had a packing crate stolen in transit, which contained many irreplaceable personal effects, including a large amount of photos.)
Our village home was modeled externally like the others, but with a few essential "amenities" inside—things like a kitchen table and chairs, a cute little three-burner gas stove with oven and a five cubic foot LP-gas fridge (both being RV appliances I brought from the States), kitchen sink, running water and drain system, cupboards, dressers, beds, and last-but-not-least, a bathroom with an Asian-style manually-flushed toilet (it did the job), wash-sink, and overhead pail shower whereby we could enjoy warm-water showers during cold season. In other words, all the essential comforts of home, more or less. Our home stood on large square vertical integral hard-wood beams, the bottom end being "planted" in three-foot deep holes in the ground, extending vertically up to just under the roof on the inside. The floor level was at the normally-prescribed six-to-eight foot height off the ground, high enough so we could easily walk or drive a vehicle underneath. And yes, our home, although built mostly of used and hand-sawn lumber, was very sturdy, much more so than the majority of surrounding village dwellings.
The villagers proved to be quite friendly, helpful, and accepting of us. However, their own living conditions were comparatively meager and primitive—as if transplanted from centuries out of the past—far beyond any modern conveniences with which we were accustomed: no electricity (we used candles or kerosene lamps—as did they); no running water (we drilled a small well—they used open pit dug wells, and ours); no sewer system (we improvised our own—they used the nearby woods); no telephones (no land lines or cell phones—both are now readily available); no local grocery stores (we shopped in the markets on a weekly basis in the distant town—they "shopped" daily in the surrounding fields and woods in a literal hand-to-mouth styled existence); and, a road akin to a semi-improved ox-cart trail, that was in a constant state of pot-holes, deep ruts, and general disrepair (now the main road is paved, although the pot-holes are still there, and there are narrow cement streets in the village).
The local soil was deep reddish-orange in color. So, during the dry season, rust-colored and sour-tasting dust hung in the air, which coated everything with slippery, rusty-looking mud during the rainy season. During rainy season, everything we owned took on a moldy odor—books, clothes, everything. Since flip-flops were the prescribed form of local footwear, our lower legs, feet, and many clothing items took on an indelible reddish stain (with or without soap and water). We even got used to the look after a while, and only felt embarrassed of our seedy-looking appearance when traveling the thirty-six kilometers (twenty-three miles) into the comparatively-modern town for market supplies and mail run. This, I did on a weekly basis, riding in back of one of the many local small pickup truck-taxis, and later on a used Honda CL 350 c.c. motorcycle that we were able to purchase. After a run to town during dry season, I would return home to the village covered with red dust from head to toe, or red mud in the rainy season.
Concerning Witchy, despite her somewhat scary-looking outward appearance, once we got to know her we discovered that she had a
friendly and warm personality. And, she proved to be a real prankster at times. Her well-developed sense of humor came out
in various ways—like the time Cheryl was collecting language material for linguistics studies. She noticed a group of village
ladies sitting and chatting on Witchy's porch one morning, so walked across the road with notebook and tape recorder in hand. Cheryl,
after ascending the porch ladder and sitting down (just as I had done the first day we entered the village, looking for a place to
build our house), asked Witchy if she would be so kind as to help her by telling one of their many fables or legends, to which Witchy
readily agreed to do. The idea was to dissect the recorded material to learn more about the syntax and grammatical structure of
the Nyaw language—all with the intended purpose of being able to learn to speak this unwritten language fluently, and thus present the
Gospel message in a clear and precise manner. However, instead of telling Cheryl the requested legend, Witchy told an off-colored
joke. Everyone there was highly amused as Witchy played it up, but Cheryl was none-the-wiser, being totally oblivious to what was
happening, since she was obviously unfamiliar with the "terminology" being used in the "story." Cheryl later learned what had
happened and we all had a good laugh, except for Cheryl, that is.
On other occasions, while we were sitting on our front porch eating an Isan-styled meal in normal Nyaw-Isan fashion to identify with the
villagers, curious Witchy would amble on over to taste-test what we were eating. "What is this horrible-tasting stuff?" she would
grimace with a twinkle in her eye. "Let me bring you some good food." In a few minutes, she would return with a local delicacy,
like smoked ant eggs, pickled (semi-decayed) fish, or wok-fried June bugs, all wrapped up in a dirty old banana leaf. These, we were
honor-bound to eat, or at least sample in feigned delight, and in turn, send her home with a sampling of our own "horrible-tasting"
food, which she would make short work of. Believe it or not, we tried many of their local "delicacies" over the years, and lived to
tell about it, but I'll spare you the gruesome details for now. I actually developed a taste for some of them.
Or, Witchy might just saunter on over to chat and relax in the cool of our large shade trees on a sweltering summer afternoon.
I was far enough along in the language-learning process so that I could effectively present the Gospel to her—starting with creation
since they first need to know God as their Creator before they can understand about Christ. Witchy's TB condition had robbed much
of her hearing, so I had to speak very loudly. In doing so, other villagers nearby got the benefit of hearing the Gospel as
well. At other times, I'd use colored posters depicting Gospel truths for story-telling visuals, or put "Lam Lao" narrated Gospel tapes
in the battery-powered cassette, give her the earphones and crank up the volume, whereupon Witchy would sit and listen intently.
These tapes contained stories of creation, the fall, and redemption in Lam Lao story-telling song form, sung by balladeers. (Lam Lao
is a popular local art form used to sing-tell oral history and other narratives with accompanying local-area background music. It
works extremely well to present stories of Creation, the Gospel, etc.—and the people simply loved to listen to it, even though they were
slow to believe.)
At intervals, as I had for numerous other villagers, I would drive Witchy (Aunty Jume) and her husband, Uncle Gaew, the one-hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles) distance in my old 1964 VW Van to a regional TB hospital, located in nearby Sakon Nakon Province. There, she received chest X-Rays, check-ups, and a fresh supply of TB medication. Because most Isan villagers had little or no concept of germs or bacteria—thinking that things they can't see can't hurt them—any admonitions to maintain cleanliness and isolation of eating and drinking utensils usually went unheeded. Witchy's household was no different and so she continued to share the coconut-shell drinking cup used by other family members, ignorantly risking the spread of her TB to her loved ones. She would probably have been cured by that time if she had continued on her medication from the beginning, but like most other Isan villagers, she would quit taking the medication as soon as her cough showed signs of improvement—thinking she was fully cured—which made the TB even more resistant to medication.
Once, when Witchy was not responding to the TB medication, and her health had declined further, Uncle Gaew summoned the help of a local-area spirit doctor or medium—a specialist which was called a Maw Yao (or "Yao" doctor) to seek answers as to the cause. Considering himself a strict Buddhist, this was a practice in which Uncle Gaew "claimed" not to believe, but decided to try it anyway to see if it might help, he later confided. Customarily, a Maw Yao was only summoned in a last-ditch effort, after all other avenues had failed, in hopes of discovering the cause of the problem, and thus affect a cure and save a loved-one's life. These types of spirit doctors were typically always women, chosen by the spirits through hereditary lines. The Maw Yao, a rosy-cheeked and somewhat rotund older woman, came and conducted a seance late into the night. There was music played on indigenous instruments, ceremonial dancing, tobacco and liquor. The offended spirit—the one that was said to have caused the medication to fail—was summoned. I was there, sitting in the background with my Bible, observing the proceedings. (Missionaries, to be truly effectual, must observe and study the peoples' beliefs and cultural practices to be able to understand and thus more effectively present the Gospel.)
The ceremony apparently wasn't going well, I was told by attendees, because the spirit was hesitant to "descend" upon the Maw Yao since it feared me as God's emissary, and feared the Bible I was carrying. This brought a chorus of oohs and aahs from those present. They then assured the "spirit" that I was a friendly neighbor, so "it" reluctantly descended anyway. The alleged proof of the spirit's presence was evidenced in the Maw Yao being able to cause a short sword to balance erect on a tray, all by itself—which she finally managed to accomplish after numerous tries. Then, the Maw Yao placed a boiled egg in the palm of her hand, which—to show affirmation in response to yes or no questions—rotated and stood on end all by itself, to reply yes or no to questions! This, I also witnessed.
NOTE: I observed closely to see how these two "supernatural manifestations" (so-called) were accomplished. I then reproduced them the next day to everyone's astonishment, showing them to be hoaxes. Of course, this new revelation, however enlightening, did not bring an end to this long-held belief and practice. This gives the uninitiated reader an idea of how resistant these people are to any type of change or outside influence—a small glimpse into what the missionary who works among them faces in attempts to effectively spread the Gospel message.
In usual manner, the spirit conversed with Uncle Gaew through the Maw Yao or spirit medium, letting him know that to which Witchy's plight was due. Apparently, someone in the household had cut down a bush in their fields, which allegedly offended it. Uncle Gaew was told that only a blood sacrifice would appease the offended spirit, which in turn would restore the medication's power, and Witchy's health; i.e., a chicken, sacrificed under a designated tree. This belief and practice is known as Animism, and of course most is just superstitious hocus-pocus to us, but these people live under its spell, so it is real to them, which keeps them in dark ignorance and bondage. And, apart from the freeing power of accepting Christ and experiencing the New Birth, they remain lost and chained in spiritual darkness by these Satanic deceptions.
During the days following the Maw Yao ceremony, other cleansing rituals were performed. These included a Suu Khwan or soul-calling ceremony. This important ceremony was presided over by village elders, wherein Witchy's "wandering" soul-essence or Khwan (difficult to translate) was beckoned to return to her. Essentially, this ceremony is designed to restore one's sense of confidence and well-being after an upsetting event or strenuous experience has occurred, interrupting one's normal lifestyle. During this ceremony, friends and relatives pronounce blessings as they tie cotton strings around the wrists of the person receiving the ceremony. This promotes harmony and solidarity, further restoring the person's sense of well-being and personal confidence. Translated directly as "live good, have strength," well-being is a core cultural theme of all Nyaw, Isan and Lao people.
Years went by and we went on furlough, returning to our home in Ban Naa Nai village only a few brief months before moving into the provincial capital of Nakon Panom to expand our ministry and initiate the Isan Bible translation project. By this time, many others had come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior and a church had been planted in a nearby village. However, Witchy and Uncle Gaew had not yet believed, despite our prayers and best efforts to teach and encourage them, and remind them of God's goodness.
Shortly after moving into the provincial capital, I heard from a coworker that Witchy had taken another turn for the worse, but also that she had recently accepted the Lord! Greatly blessed, I sent word back to Witchy with the missionary that I was rejoicing with her, and that I would try to get out to visit her soon. However, being tremendously busy, as usual, the promised "soon" never arrived.
A few weeks later, the missionary stopped by to break the sad news that Witchy had finally died, and that her relatives had invited us to attend her funeral. It was the normal type of rural Isan funeral where, with the body of the deceased in an elaborately-decorated, multi-tiered, homemade coffin, and with ear-splitting music blaring over a generator-powered loud speaker system, a house-full of guests eat, drink and visit around the clock. The prolonged merriment is designed to lift the hearts of grieving relatives and turn their thoughts to other things. This continues for a few days, followed by cremation on a large funeral pyre at a designated site in a wooded lot, outside of the village. I was given opportunity to speak. The loud speaker system carried my voice throughout the whole village and beyond. Using the Nyaw language, I told the people that Witchy was now safe and sound with the Lord Jesus Christ, and that if they desired to see her again, they too needed to turn and accept Christ.
While at the funeral, and wanting to get the facts, I inquired of Witchy's younger sister as to how events had transpired during Witchy's last days on earth, upon which she related a very interesting story. It seems that about two months previous, Witchy was lying on a thin grass mat in their home one evening, the normal "mattress" for poor Isan people. She was very weak and almost gone, or so it seemed. In fact, friends and relatives had been summoned and were busy sawing planks for her coffin, within earshot, just outside in the yard. How gross, you might think. However, to the Isan and Lao this is a good thing, reassuring the person that their earthly remains will be disposed of properly, so that they can go on and be reincarnated into the next life span, a very important theme in their culture and Buddhist worldview.
All of a sudden, Witchy stirred and seemed to revive a bit. She mustered up what remaining energy she had and sat upright, ripped all the spirit strings off from her wrists and body, and proclaimed, "I've been under the spirits' control all my life, but now I want to be in God's care," a vocal testimony by Witchy that she had reached out in faith and accepted Christ. Everyone there was terrified, thinking she had already expired and that it was her ghost that got up and was now walking around. Witchy then went down stairs and took a cold-water dipper bath. So what does that mean, you might ask? When Isan people are sick, they avoid taking a bath, but when they sense they are getting better, they bathe again. This also was a testimony to those around. I can only surmise that the night-to-day experience of accepting Christ and the regenerating power of God's Holy Spirit taking up residence in her life, infused her with the real sense of "well-being" that she was now better, which she truly was in a spiritual sense, having received the gift of eternal life and experienced peace with God through the Lord Jesus.
Witchy's sister went on to testify that during the last two months of her life, Witchy wouldn't be quiet—"Jesus this" and "Jesus that," was about all she would talk about, Witchy's sister related to me. In my mind's eye, I could see Witchy wending her way back and forth on the footpath, going to and from their family's fields. Whereas before, Witchy was walking in the depths of heathen darkness, lost and without hope and stooped over under sin's heavy burden, accompanied by the evil spirits and their enslaving power that had controlled her whole life from birth. Now, she was walking in the light, freed, forgiven and rejoicing, accompanied by the life-giving Spirit of her newly-found Lord and Savior.
As it turned out, Witchy finally did expire a few weeks later—going to abide safely in the loving Arms of her Creator-God—and amazingly, she was a testimony even in the hour of death. As with all Isan or Lao funerals, friends and relatives travel from near and far to sit around the house for a couple of days and all-night watches, in hopes of giving the place a sense of warmth and comfort, not to mention being served free food, strong drink, loud music, and smokes. Yet, everyone involved knows what is really occurring. Despite the levity and feigned smiles, close relatives hover in fear during the night throughout the festivities, waiting for the now-malevolent (vicious and hateful) spirit of the recently deceased loved-one to come haunting during the wee hours—to tap on a house post, play mean tricks to scare them, as well as demand to be fed and cared for in a spiteful, trick-or-treat manner.
This type of practice is part of their non-Christian worldview and resultant Animistic belief system, and as such, was normally expected to occur during Witchy's funeral. However, God, in His glory and power, and in tribute to Witchy's newly-found faith in Christ, overruled any demonic-induced activity or influence that would have caused villagers and relatives to presume that Witchy's newly-saved spirit was back frequenting the area and haunting them, as per usual. Witchy's sister related to me that all was completely quiet, meaning that nothing occurred. "It was different this time, she really was gone," Witchy's astonished sister testified to me in relieved amazement. Lastly, Witchy's sister told me that, after Witchy's death, she dreamed that she saw Witchy high and lifted up, young and pretty again and dressed in pure white robes. As she spoke, I imagined Saint Witchy, now residing the the Heavenilies, basking forever in the eternal brightness of King Jesus, her newly-found Lord and Savior.
NOTE: The Nyaw, Isan, Lao, Thai and many other unreached or partially-reached people-groups are inherently superstitious, meaning they believe in dreams, as well as auspicious events and occasions. As missionaries, we recognize that God, to proclaim Himself and verify the newly-arrived Gospel message, often utilizes these and other events to impress and impact unregenerate hearts, i.e., get their full attention. This is especially so where the Gospel is just entering into yet-unreached areas, and the Word of God is not yet fully accepted or understood—as with Witchy's sister. However, although we recognize that culturally-specific events such as this may occur, we focus on getting the Good News out, on proclaiming God's written Word, seeing people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, taught and discipled in God's Grace, and growing churches established. Thus, with the Apostle Peter, we adhere to the fact that: "We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts..." 2 Peter 1:19
Pray for the salvation of Witchy's husband, Uncle Gaew. He too has heard the Gospel many times over the years and seems to understand. He witnessed Witchy's salvation and powerful testimony first hand, evident even in her death. However, social pressure from the villagers has prevented him from following through so far.
In closing, thank you for your faithful prayers, gifts, and missionary spirit. God has called us to this ministry and because of your backing, testimonies like Witchy's are made possible because you helped send us, and someday you'll get to meet her in Heaven. Pray now, that our support will soon be raised to the level where we can return again to minister among the Isan people and expedite the completion of the Isan Bible translation project. "For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods." Psalms 95:3
Ron & Cheryl Myers—Missionaries to the twenty-plus million Isan People of Northeast Thailand
Baptist World Missionary Outreach Ministries
PO Box 3303, Chattanooga, TN 37404