Thailand/Burma (MNN) – The Hill tribes of Thailand are people who are among the most disadvantaged groups of the country.
That’s due largely to a lack of infrastructure, discrimination, limited access to Thai citizenship and delayed land settlement. Hill tribe people also face a higher degree of poverty than other groups in Thailand. Most are either subsistence farmers or rely on wage employment.
FARMS International landed in one of the communities of the Lahu ten years ago. FARMS executive director Joseph Richter explains, “They live up in the hills of that area and it’s also a very good coffee growing area . But, coffee is very expensive to grow and to fertilize. We found a real niche there with micro loans to these coffee farmers. They help them increase their crops.”
Their job: to support the local church by equipping families in poverty with the means for self-support. Richter says, “All of our loan recipients agree to tithe back into their local church. This creates a new mentality, the idea of not just being a receiver of charity, but one that can give and support others.”
How does this break the cycle of poverty? Aside from teaching biblical principles on money, FARMS gives these micro loan recipients a break. “The people that benefit from this really benefit greatly because they’re not paying the high interest rates of the money lenders or even other lending organizations which can be 36% (interest) or more, which makes it almost impossible for the poor to work their way out of poverty.”
When that happens, the faith part of what they’re being taught seems to ‘take’. As this project grew, FARMS partnered with the Thailand Lahu Christian Churches association. The church-planting activity also grew. Today, there are over 50 churches in Northern Thailand near the border of Burma. Being that close, the next step was obvious. “The church had a surplus, actually, of tithing, more than they’d ever had in the past. The church decided to use that to support one of their own people that was a church-planting missionary across the border into Burma.”
“40% of their budget now was going to missions, so this is a full circle for a reached tribe that now is reaching out to their own people across the border”, he goes on to say. Although many sources report that the Lahu are 20% Christian, the Joshua Project estimates that only 3% are evangelicals. Richer says, “Probably just a small percentage of the Lahu are really believers, so there really needs to be an outpouring of God’s Spirit on those people to see many more come to know the Lord.” This also means that discipleship is part of the evangelistic outreach.
Aside from micro-enterprise loans and training, FARMS did some theological training at the Thailand Lahu Christian Church Bi-Vocational Training Center in Chiang Mai. This center has about 50 students in a four-year program designed to train them theologically as well as vocationally.
The aim is to have workers trained to teach others the Scripture and support themselves when needed. “What we’ve also seen is even if they paid back the project and they’re on their own, they continue to tithe as a practice. They have seen how God has blessed.” It’s such a huge shift in thinking. A paradigm shift like this doesn’t just happen. Prayer plays a big role, notes Richter. “Pray for encouragement of these workers. They’re working with very difficult situations and just need to know that God is with them in these pioneer outreaches.”