The School at the End of the World


The brown waters of the Irrawaddy River, swollen by monsoon showers, stretched wide on either side as we chugged south toward the delta. That we were even on a boat making this trip to a remote destination seemed almost surreal.

The day before, we had landed in Yangong, formerly known as Rangoon, capital of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. For 30 years access to this country had been limited, but now the generals who had seized control opened the door a crack, which permitted our visit.

My traveling companion, Pastor Al McClure, and I had hoped to visit a mission school at Myaungmya, a remote village in the delta of the Irrawaddy, accessible only by boat. But arrangements for the trip had fallen through—we had been unable to obtain the necessary papers.

At 2:00 p.m. on this particular afternoon, we were seated at a luncheon hosted by church leaders when we suddenly received word that the authorities had granted us permission to make the trip. We had just one hour before the boat left! We rushed back to our hotel, checked out, packed a small bag, and hurried to the river. Right on time at 3 o’clock the gangplank lifted, and we were on our way.

The boat was very crowded. About 500 people packed the upper and lower decks; they had rushed aboard to stake out a few square feet of space on which to spread a cloth for themselves and their possessions. Al and I were among the few fortunate passengers who had a tiny cabin (about 5 by 7 feet).

Still, it was anything but luxury class. Our tickets cost the equivalent of 84 cents each for the overnight trip; for the upper deck it was 32 cents and for the lower deck 25 cents. With the weather hot and muggy, we found two chairs by the railing and caught a slight breeze. Our presence on the boat attracted considerable interest; foreigners had not made this journey for many years. Monks, children, men, and women stared hard and long at us but treated us kindly.

We stayed outside for hours, enjoying the evening air and the passing sights: houses on stilts, a rain squall, four people in an open boat pulling hard against the waves, vendors in small boats from the villages we passed, barges, monks in boats.

At last we went into the cabin and turned on the light. We saw that various lower forms of life planned to spend the night with us. All night we tossed and swatted in the hot, humid air.

Just after we fell asleep, we wakened in a ball of sweat to banging on the door. It was 5:00 a.m.; the 150-mile trip had taken 14 hours. We gathered our things and hurried off the boat. Wet with sweat, unwashed, hair standing on end, we came down the gangplank to find a welcoming party from the school—and they wanted photographs!

They had rented a small pickup (the school owns no vehicle), and we bounced over roads that grew progressively worse. About the moment that my body began to shout that it could endure not one more mile of torture, we arrived at the school.

Al and I agreed that the overnight trip would be one we would never forget. We thought we had journeyed to the end of the world.

The day that followed was unforgettable also—in a pleasant sense. It overflowed with love, appreciation, and eagerness. The hunger of faculty and students for contact with church leaders from abroad, for news, for fellowship and spiritual food made all the rigors of the night more than worthwhile.

Twelve hours, that’s all we had. But they were packed, every moment filled: banners, welcome parade, songs composed for the occasion, meals with faculty and their families, a cultural program. The students had practiced songs and national dances for weeks. Little girls in blue and white sat on benches behind us, leaning forward, squirming with excitement like jumping beans.

It was a poor school. Many of the buildings were decrepit; the “roads” were mud tracks. The students ate only twice a day—8:00 a.m. and 5 p.m.—with the same menu: rice and dahl (lentil curry). But it was a rich school.

Rich in healthy, beautiful students. Rich in hard-working faculty. Rich in devotion. Rich in love. Rich in spirit. The school located at the end of the world was one of the richest that I ever visited.

The authorities do not permit private schools in Burma. They do, however, allow seminaries. Thus, the students were considered part of a seminary, with some 250 students enrolled in a 4-year curriculum and about as many in the junior seminary (elementary and secondary levels). Garlands, speeches, food, photographs—the day sped away. We wanted to do something for these wonderful students, leave something tangible of our visit. We asked the principal if $20 would provide for a small treat for everyone.
After a little while he came back to us: “Instead of giving them sweets, what would you think of giving each student an egg to add to their evening meal?” he inquired. “They hardly ever see an egg, not even once a month.”

So each student received an egg for supper, and Al and I received a blessing.

An egg—such a simple gift. In our culture, the gift of an egg would be met with incredulity, but at the school at the end of the world it was something long to be remembered.

Jesus of Nazareth loved to tell and show the people of His time how loving and generous is God, our heavenly Father. On one occasion He asked, rhetorically, what sort of father would give a child a stone if he asked for an egg. None but the most twisted dad would act like that. And, said Jesus, in the same manner your Father in heaven delights to give good things to us when we request them.

For Al and me, the long day was over. Teary farewells, more songs, bumping back over pot-holed tracks, and back on the boat again.

I stretched flat out, feet poking beyond the end of the bed and hitting the cabin wall. Oblivious to whatever forms of life wanted to crawl or chew on me, I was immediately asleep. Al wrapped himself in a blanket to keep the bugs off and had a free, night-long sauna.