We have a big problem,” the young king explained. “The government has been ineffective in stopping opium production in my country. The people are poor, and the drug lords are taking advantage of them. Mr. Armstrong, would you please help us?”
It would seem that something too large for the government would certainly be too large for a small church. Yet here, on his first meeting with His Majesty King Bhumibol of Thailand, was a plea for help. Why would the king even ask? Was God planning something in this small country? Was this some place we should be sowing seed?
Jesus Christ, in the parable of the sower and the seed, told of seed being sown by the master. Some was sown by the wayside, some in stony ground, some among thorns and some in fertile ground. Only the fertile ground produced a bounteous harvest. Certainly there could be no more dry, thorny or wayside a place than the hills of northern Thailand. It hardly seemed “fertile,” and though it seemed unrealistic, Mr. Armstrong decided not to turn down this plea for help.
Helping the Hill Tribes
The problem was rather complex. The hill tribes, poor and cut off from society, were trapped. They had no formal education and had little to viably contribute. The only people offering them work were the drug dealers. For pennies, they could grow poppies, the only cash crop available to make money and improve their impoverished condition.
It was decided that education and employment was the key. These were simple people, so agriculture seemed the best bet. Growing food, they would be able to live, yet they were very limited on what they could grow that would prove economical. They would need a way to get anything they produced to market since there were no roads.
It was decided that Mr. Armstrong, through the Ambassador Foundation, would provide a couple of portable buildings and finance some agricultural teachers. They would be taught how to grow and care for fruit and nut trees and be introduced to some Western vegetables. The king agreed to buy the produce from the people so they would have an outlet for their goods. The people had to agree not to grow any more poppies.
Another decision made by the king seemed equally “infertile.” He decided to place the fledgling project in Angkhang, the poorest of villages right on the Thai/Burmese border. Poverty wasn’t the only obstacle; Angkhang also lay directly in the path of the heavily armed drug smugglers. In essence it was almost a challenge to the drug lords: “If you want to go through here, you have to go through me.”
When the king approached the villagers, they were apprehensive. The king showed them photos of the damage their “crop” did in the drug market. They did not wish to harm others. Not growing meant worse poverty and perhaps death from the drug lords, yet continuing meant killing other people in lands far away.
Though the chief was willing to stop with no promises, the king explained the proposition. A group from America would set up schools and teach them how to grow fruits and vegetables. The king would buy their crops from them for the same money the drug lords had been paying. He would defend them.
This was a lot to believe. They were not Thai citizens, but hill tribe people with no international status. Would the king really protect them and keep his promise? Their history was one of exploitation by the outside. Many young men had been taken as soldiers by drug lords and many of their daughters were taken for the city brothels. The others worked the fields for pennies. They had to have faith in this king, much like we have faith in God and the promises Jesus Christ delivered.
So the project began in the early 1970s. They planted vegetables and orchards. The king bought their meager produce and gave it to other poor villages for food at minimal costs. There were as yet no roads to take it to the city where it could be sold for a decent price.
Indeed the drug lords were furious. Not only had they lost their cheap labor, but because of the layout of the steep hills, they now had to move their smuggling route. They would have to travel much farther in the more volatile Burma. Although the drug lords were heavily armed and willing to fight the tribal peoples, the king stood his ground, and the drug lords soon learned the futility of taking on the king.
A Kind Queen
The first time I saw Angkhang was the spring of 1984, a little over a decade after the project began. Her Majesty Queen Sirikit asked Mr. Armstrong if he would like to see, both figuratively and literally, the “fruit” of his and her husband’s efforts. At age 90, the trip would not be easy, but he wanted to go.
It was nearly a two-hour ride before the three military helicopters deposited us near the small rural village of Angkhang. Soldiers had gone in that morning to check the area and provide security for the queen and her guests. There was a lot of excitement, for rarely did members of the royal family visit.
They were still poor, but proud and happy at what they had accomplished. The gardens were lovely, and the trees had matured and were producing. In jeeps we were taken through the lovely little valleys. The terrain was steep, and more than once my wife, Michelle, ended up in my lap. She feared we would tumble down the cliff as we drove. My 90-year-old friend and boss would also have been unnerved at the precarious drive, but it was on the side of his bad eye, so he didn’t really notice just how steep it was.
We stopped for lunch at a small grassy area where there was a stone table covered by a grass canopy on a bamboo pole. The local village musicians were playing music for their guests. The queen’s daughter, Princess Maha Chakkri Sirrindhorn, joined them and began playing one of the simple stringed gourd instruments. We were impressed with her skill.
The queen’s staff took out carefully packed lunches that had been brought from the palace. The queen herself walked over and helped Mr. Armstrong unwrap his food. I could see the staff whispering and pointing as it was rare that the queen would do such a thing for a guest, but such was her respect for her friend.
It was not the usual “sack lunch.” It was filled with delightful vegetables diced with chicken and served with flavorful Thai herbs and spices. The staff had asked, and I had explained our dietary restrictions, so we did not encounter some of the more exotic dishes native to Asia.
Michelle excused herself to use the restroom and walked toward what was little more than an outhouse. The queen jumped up and asked her to wait a minute. She entered first and checked the restroom to make sure it was clean. She handed Michelle some wrapped wipes, and said, “It’s OK now, but use these. The water is not good for you.” Needless to say, she did not expect this from a queen.
After lunch we had the opportunity to watch the queen interact with the people. For us this was a tour, but it was a working visit for the queen. We watched the queen as she spoke with the impoverished illiterate villagers. We had noticed many of them had notes written in Thai pinned on their clothing. In order not to embarrass them, the staff had written of the needs of the person so the queen would be aware of their problem.
Squatting down in the dirt with these people she would listen, and give orders of help for medical or other needs of these people. It was marvelous to watch this interaction of the queen with the toothless old woman and a hunched-over old man.
Most remarkable was a young man who came with a newborn baby. The muffled cries of hunger from the infant showed he was close to death. His mother had died in childbirth and there was no milk, and indeed the baby was dying. Mr. Armstrong asked if we could help, and a plan was devised. “Mr. Armstrong, you have saved this child’s life,” the queen told him.
I was offered some small handwoven bracelets and was pulling the equivalent of a dollar out of my wallet when I noticed the queen glance at me and shake her head. “It’s too much. If you pay that, they will never be able to sell them for that to anyone else, and yet they will expect it.”
She signaled an aide, who handed the young girl a few coins, purchasing several bracelets. Wearing them made us honorary members of this little village.
At the end of the day, we once again boarded the helicopters for the return trip. We had one additional passenger, the small day-old baby, no more than 5 pounds. Indeed the baby would be saved. Learning the child would be taught English, Mr. Armstrong offered the queen a scholarship to Ambassador College when the boy came of age. Unfortunately neither Mr. Armstrong nor the college is here for that young man.
That was my one and only visit to Angkhang. Did we sow in fertile ground? Certainly the village was better off than before, but still virtually cut off and poor.
This past year, Leon Sexton took a group of people at a small Feast in Thailand to the village called Angkhang. They went by bus, because there is a road now. They saw the farms and orchards and homes and little restaurants and businesses.
You see, the village of Angkhang, once the poorest and most exploited, is now a growing vibrant community. The king no longer has to buy their produce, for they own trucks and can market it themselves. They grow so much more than they themselves can use that they now can fruits and juices for export. They have become a healthy and reasonably wealthy community and a model for others.
Indeed this tiny seed did fall on fertile ground. As usual, God takes the weak and makes them strong, while Satan takes the strong and brings them to destruction.
When I look back, I see that we cannot always know where fertile ground is. Indeed some mocked many of the small projects started in far-flung places on the earth. They considered them worthless and a waste of money. Many would avoid such “little children” in the same way that the disciples tried to keep little ones away from Jesus.
Humility and Faith
We can’t afford to miss opportunities. “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’ ” (Matthew 25:37-40 Matthew 25:37-40 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we you an hungered, and fed you? or thirsty, and gave you drink?
38 When saw we you a stranger, and took you in? or naked, and clothed you?
39 Or when saw we you sick, or in prison, and came to you?
40 And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.
American King James Version×).
We must look for ways to help each other. We must be pure and sincere. We must be willing to unwrap the sack lunch or clean the restroom, even if our position in life makes it look like we should be served rather than serve. Do we have this kind of humility? Do we recognize that God saw us as “fertile ground” for His Holy Spirit? That we can overcome the obstacles that come before us and put sin out of our lives?
Do we have the faith to believe our King will protect us, just like these hill people had to trust King Bhumibol? Like the baby, we were dying, but through Christ we accepted a promise so we can live. Do we have this ever-living faith?
If we find humility and faith, and practice God’s way of life, the way of give instead of the way of get, walking honestly and uprightly, and “stop growing the poppies,” then we will indeed see the fertile ground before us. And like Angkhang, we will grow spiritually wealthy and become a model for others, just as we must try to model Jesus Christ.
We can take the Passover each year with a clear conscience knowing God sacrificed His Son so that we could be nourished and protected as we do our part in overcoming.
“But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 13:8-9 Matthew 13:8-9 8 But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundred times, some sixty times, some thirty times.
9 Who has ears to hear, let him hear.
American King James Version×). UN