Vol. 3 - Dave Small - The Free Burma Ranger

by Dave Small

I had 20 pounds of uranium in my backpack, it was 90℉ with 100 percent humidity, and there were more than a hundred miles of hiking left to get to the border. I was looking up a 3,000-foot jungle climb when I wondered, “What decisions did I make in my life that led me to this moment?” 

Whenever I think about that — whether I’m meeting with a potential terrorist, smuggling a chunk of uranium, sneaking through checkpoints or across international borders in the middle of the night — I can’t help but chuckle to myself because I know the answer. I said “yes” to the Father. 

You might be wondering if I am some sort of secret military agent, but I’m just a missionary. An ordinary guy from Canada. About five years ago I thought I would take a couple months off to volunteer with an organization that does war relief work in Southeast Asia. I had just turned 30. I went with the idea that I would spend five or six months volunteering my time, and then come back to comfortable North America and move on with my life. The Father had other plans, though. After six months, I did return, but I returned changed and with a feeling that my regular old life in Canada was done. I had worked as a professional ice hockey coach for a decade (I know, how cliché). I had been immersed in the cutthroat culture of professional sports, and I was slowly starting to climb the ranks. At one point my boss and I had a competition to see who could work the most consecutive days. I did 67 days straight. When I finally took a day off, my boss was angry that I was “unreachable.” The professional sports world is all about who you know and being willing to sacrifice everything for the team. If I wasn’t busy coaching, I was busy networking and promoting myself. 

After my six-month stint, I felt the Father was telling me that my career as a pro coach was over, and it was time to follow Him, if I was willing. I spent three months debating, laying fleeces, and making deals with Him. Eventually I realized I was holding onto “control” and that giving up a career I had worked so hard to build, to follow God, was giving up control. It was scarier than anything I’ve ever faced in the jungle. So I returned to Southeast Asia and for the past five years have worked with oppressed people in Burma. 

Burma (also known as Myanmar) is home to the longest civil war in the world. The military-led government oppresses its people and commits human rights violations daily. You might have heard about the Burmese army trying to eliminate all Rohingya from Burma. In targeted and precise attacks, they moved into peaceful villages in the middle of the night and opened fire on the bamboo huts where families slept. They locked families in their homes and lit the homes on fire, burning them alive. They targeted women and children, wanting the Rohingya ethnicity to disappear. This has led to more than 800,000 Rohingya fleeing from Burma into Bangladesh in one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. I was there. But what people may not know is that the Burmese army has been doing things like this against its ethnic minorities for the past 70 years. The Kachin (a predominantly Christian ethnic minority in Northern Burma) faces attacks every week by fighter jets, artillery, and infantry. The Karen (Southeastern Burma) have been getting beat up by the army since the Brits decolonized Burma after World War 2. Burma has more than a million displaced people within its borders, and over a million have left the country and are now in refugee camps outside its borders. 

Free Burma Rangers (FBR) was founded by my boss, David Eubank, 22 years ago. We have two missions at FBR: Help the people, and get the news out. If the army comes into a village and starts shooting, we help the residents escape and "clear" the village. Our teams are trained to be the last ones in a village that is under attack. If there is a malaria outbreak, we hike for days or weeks through the jungle to give medicine. However we can help, even if it’s just to share the gospel and pray with someone, to tell them they’re not forgotten, we do it. And we also try to shine a light on what’s happening in Burma. The Burmese army loves to spread “fake news” and lies about what is going on. The United Nations has long been banned from going into Burma, and journalists who report on the truth end up being banned or thrown in jail (or just disappear.) So we gather evidence of ceasefire violations, human rights violations, and the actions of the army. We try to get the news out about what’s happening inside the country. Sometimes this means finding a “tin mine” that isn’t really a tin mine, but is in fact a uranium mine, sneaking in, stealing some uranium samples, and bringing them back for the UN and journalists to get reports out. (Side note: Uranium is not radioactive unless it’s “enriched,” and the stuff I was carrying was basically just a big heavy rock. I haven’t gotten any super powers from it yet. I now keep a chunk of it on my desk as a paper weight.)

When I go on a mission in the jungles of Burma, I often send out an email to my “prayer warriors” outlining some specifics they can pray for while I’m out there. On one of my missions this past year, I was going to be the only foreigner and only English speaker on the team; the rest of the team was of Karenni or Kachin ethnicity. We were going to do a lot of hiking, a lot of sleeping in hammocks in the jungle, and our estimate was that we would be in the jungle for about a month. As I wrote to my prayer warriors, I felt a bit apprehensive about being “alone” for so long. Normally when I go, I have at least two or three other foreigners with me — people who understand my language, culture, and who I bounce ideas off of while out in the field. But this time I was going to be “alone” for at least a month. I wondered how I’d do. One prayer request I always ask of my prayer warriors is “Help me to love the team well,” but this time I wrote “Help me love and be loved by the team.” Be loved by the team? Where did that come from? I had never really thought of receiving love from the ones I’m there to lead and serve. But it just kind of came out. It was the Father’s way of walking with me. It was so gracious. 

On the mission we’d spend hours hiking through the jungle, sometimes up to 14 hours a day. At night we’d string up our hammocks between some bamboo trees and make a fire to cook some rice over. We didn’t have much to eat other than rice, but the guys were always hunting, always on the lookout for a plant or animal that could be eaten. And they took me into their group in one of the most beautiful ways. Even now, as I reflect on it, the love they showed me, and the love the Father opened me up to receive, was so pure it brings tears to my eyes. Small glances over their shoulder as we hiked up big mountains, making sure I was ok. Hunting squirrel, hawk, and jungle chicken and offering me the best bits (did you know there was a best bit of squirrel?). They would always make sure I had a good place to hang my hammock, and then they would hang theirs close by so I wouldn’t feel alone. In the wee hours of the morning when the air was cold and I was tucked into my sleeping bag, they would get up and light a fire near me, or around 4 a.m. I would feel a blanket draped over me and little hands tucking it in. I knew it meant they were giving me their own blanket and that they wouldn’t have any. Normally I would vehemently refuse it, but on this mission I decided to receive their love. It was so holy. With each small act of love, I felt this incredible nudge from the Father that the love was His. 

In the 1600s when white, English Christians settled America, they formed little colonies. These were safe places away from the indigenous peoples they feared. Yet as Benjamin Franklin noted in 1753, young men would often leave the safety of the colony and move to the tribes. There were many accounts of white young men leaving the safety and security of their settlements to go live among the natives, but there were almost never accounts of natives leaving the tribes to go and live among the whites. Why? I believe it was because of the sense of community in their tribes. They found a place where, as young men, their strength was needed to survive, and where they were surrounded by a loving, close community. 

In our modern society, we live near other people, but we don’t live with other people. We live in apartments, apart from other members of our family. We separate our infants from their mothers at such a young age and make them sleep in their own rooms. Most tribal cultures would consider leaving a crying baby alone in a dark room separated from their caregiver a form of child abuse. Tribal cultures have up to a 90% skin-to-skin contact with infants, and in the “civilized” West it is as low as 16%. We strive for wealth and affluence, and yet the more wealthy we become, the more independent and removed from society we become. It’s no wonder that anxiety, depression, and mental health issues run rampant. 

Coming back to North America this year was hard. I felt more disconnected to our culture. Even in the safety of the western church I didn’t feel the same connection and community that I felt out there in the jungle. I’m an introvert and love my space and quiet time, but once you’re adopted into the tribe you’re never alone. In villages deep in the jungle I stand out like a sore thumb. I am a big, tall, clumsy white guy in places that haven’t seen foreigners in more than 70 years. I constantly have a crowd around me. When I sleep on the floor of a bamboo hut, I often wake up with three or four of our team members spooning me and snoring away. There are moments it can be too much and I just want my space. But I always miss it. When I get back to my apartment and sleep alone, I miss the warmth of a body next to me. I miss waking up and being loved by someone. 

When I work with my Rohingya friends in the refugee camps, they often tell me, “I want to help my people.” It’s all good and noble and nice, but it often leaves me asking, “Who are my people?” My family? My few? My fellow Canadians? Surely it can’t be the hundreds of “friends” and “followers” on social media? Heaven forbid. This year I learned that my “people” are the ones I would feed and fight for. My guys in the jungle who so lovingly adopted me, constantly making sure I was safe and feeding me (even though it was often red ants, snake, or some sort of bug.) They weren’t just being polite; they really loved me. And when I am asked by others why I risk my life for these people on the other side of the world, I have to pause and think. A few years ago I would have given you the Sunday School answer: “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend.” Which is true, and I believe it. Another answer I may have given was that I’m not afraid to die. We’re all going to die one day. Hopefully not today, but one day. “Are you afraid of dying?” shouldn’t be the question. No, the question should be, “How do you choose to live?” 

So why do I risk my life for these people on the other side of the world? The answer that comes from a deep place in my heart is that I love them. I really do. They are my brothers, my family, my people, my tribe. I love them, and when you love someone, you show up.

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