It’s closing time at a modern, brightly lit restaurant in eastern Thailand. Kanya Johnson* and Malai Kunakorn* laugh together as the two Thai women are shooed out through the restaurant doors by the waitress. Trailing behind is Kanya’s American husband Aaron* and a few co-workers who are young Tang* people from a neighbouring country.
Suddenly, Kanya and Malai start doing a jig in the parking lot.
“It’s the cowboy dance,” explains Aaron, the Wycliffe Thai Foundation office manager, who watches as his wife, the 32-year-old Tang Bible translation co-ordinator, continues to show off dance moves in the dimly lit lot.
Aaron, a 32-year-old native of Dayton, Ohio, looks unsurprised by the outburst of energy by his Thai-born wife, as he waits patiently to drive home after a long day. For Aaron and Kanya, and their young team of millenial staff, fun and games are part of the program.
And so is a fearless calling to bring the gospel to the 95,000 Tang people, a marginalized mountain people in a neighbouring country.
* pseudonym used due to sensitivity.
Despite growing up on opposite sides of the planet—Aaron in Ohio, and Kanya in Bangkok, Thailand—the married couple of six years have similar stories of how they met Christ. For both, their faith journeys began in their adolescence.
Aaron’s faith was forged as he hit a point of crisis when he was 12 years of age, searching desperately to find where he fit in. Looking for answers, Aaron was led to Christ by his Sunday school teacher, who was also a high school science teacher. Before deciding to commit his life to Christ, Aaron tested his teacher, asking him every question he had. Each Sunday, the teacher would ask for one week to study the Scriptures for answers to Aaron’s questions and then would return the following week with answers. After several weeks, Aaron ran out of questions and was ready to give his life to Christ. In the coming years he became a youth group-junkie, finding belonging and friendship at church.
Across the pond in Bangkok, Christianity was just a minor part of Kanya’s upbringing. She attended church only on occasion with her mom (who was a Christian) and her sister. Their Buddhist father stayed home. Then when she was in junior high, Kanya attended a church that opened her eyes to the Christian faith.
“Everybody treated us so well and we could feel the love of God through them,” she says of the Zion Presbyterian Church. “I decided to accept Christ for real when I was 14; got baptized at 15. Fourteen years later this [same] church sent us to become missionaries.”
Despite growing up in Thailand, where only one per cent of the population identify as Christians, Kanya found important fellowship through a small Christian group at her high school and activities at her church. As she moved along into post-secondary education, receiving a degree in French studies, God was bending her heart toward the missions field.
“I really have a heart for people who don’t have enough opportunities in life,” she told her friends at the time. However, despite praying sincerely about a future in ministry, she didn’t pursue opportunities in missions, but instead took a job as a teacher.
How They Met
Kanya was sitting with a table of fellow teachers during lunch hour at Bangkok’s International Community School as gossip turned to the school’s new, attractive American Bible teacher.
“Oh, look at this new guy coming,” said one of the young single ladies.
Kanya, looking up at Aaron, a recent graduate from the Olivet Nazarene University in Chicago, Ill., thought that he was cute. But she says today that she wasn’t interested in having an American boyfriend.
“I thought having a Thai boyfriend was difficult enough,” she explains. “Someone who speaks the same language is already so difficult because relationships are not easy.”
Aaron on the other hand, didn’t even consider Kanya because he wrongly assumed that she was a student.
“Which one of the teachers is your mother?” he asked Kanya one day at school. When she replied that she was a teacher, he thought to himself: Oh, this changes everything.
The two became friends and soon started dating. However, they still weren’t sure if each of their strong spiritual callings lined up with one another. At this point, Kanya had taught at the school for three years and felt God was calling her to the mission field. She was planning to resign from her position to serve God full time.
“Working in the international school to me was like a fantasy, like a comfort zone,” explains Kanya of her thought process at the time. “Whenever I went to neighbouring countries for short-term trips, I felt like, ‘what a difference.’ ”
Aaron, though, at the time didn’t have a heart for missions and hadn’t considered staying in Thailand full time. Regardless, as Kanya planned to move to Chiang Mai to study linguistics at Payap University, they decided to continue their relationship long distance. Often chatting for hours on Skype (the Internet video chat service), their relationship deepened and solidified during the next 18 months. By January 2010, they were married.
So much for Aaron not staying long term in Thailand.
Newly married, Kanya was now finished her master’s degree at Payap University and was working part time at the Thailand SIL office (SIL is Wycliffe’s key field partner), translating books and doing administration work, while Aaron was still teaching. Often interacting with Bible translators from around the world who visited the office, Kanya heard many compelling stories of their lives and work. Although intrigued, she wasn’t interested in confining her ministry to just Bible translation, because she felt the Great Commission shouldn’t be so limited. She wanted to do much more.
“I love youth group, I love student ministry, I love church planting,” she explains of her desire for holistic ministry.
Then she and Aaron found the opportunity they were looking for. One day after work at the SIL office, Kanya came home and told Aaron a story about an older couple in Mukdahan, Thailand. The veteran translators, John and Carolyn Miller, were in their 70s and had spent most of their lives faithfully translating the Bible for more than 80,000 Bru people across Southeast Asia.
It was discovered that the Bru language had a sister language called Tang, spoken predominantly in a highly sensitive neighbouring country. Kanya explained to Aaron that a Bible for the Tang people could be translated relatively quickly from Bru to Tang through a special computer program called Adapt It.
However, the Millers, with their decades of experience working on the sister language of Bru, were looking to pass the baton to someone else to lead the work.
“She brought home that story of Mukdahan and I’ve never felt such a heavy burden on my heart to pray,” says Aaron. “I couldn’t get Mukdahan out of my head.”
Soon Aaron and Kanya travelled to the Mukdahan translation office, to meet the Millers and to teach the indigenous Tang staff English and translation principles. When the Millers met Kanya, they saw her as the perfect fit to take on the Tang project.
“It would be good for someone to help,” Carolyn told Aaron and Kanya. “This is just ready to be translated and all we need is people who are interested.”
They left, believing that if they didn’t take the torch from the Millers, no one else would.
With a relentless urging in their hearts that they should accept the Millers’ offer, they took the plunge into the world of Bible translation with Wycliffe Thai Foundation (see related story, "Seeds for a Harvest"), finishing the Adapt It-assisted New Testament translation in four years.
Sharing the Gospel
“This is groundbreaking,” says Aaron, as he watches Toon, a young Tang literacy worker, read a Tang picture book to an elderly woman. They are sitting on the porch floor of her home in the northeast Thailand village of Woen Buek.
Engrossed in the children’s story about the friendship between a monitor lizard, a fish and a frog, the elderly lady is seemingly unaware of the Tang translation team watching with anticipation for her understanding of the story.
“Word-for-word comprehension isn’t there but most of the verbs and grammar are strong,” says Aaron, with excitement about her understanding of the story.
Realizing that the elderly woman understands Tang quite clearly, Toon’s co-worker Pong* transitions to reading the newly translated Tang New Testament to her. However, with the change in literature, her countenance changes as well. Now a puzzled look appears on her face as Pong reads from the Gospels.
“She doesn’t know the words for God or faith,” says Aaron, explaining why she is confused. In Buddhism there is no word or concept for one supreme God and creator.
Now, Toon and Pong tell her about Jesus. In the neighbouring nation Toon calls home, he could be sent to prison for being so bold. In fact, that’s what happened to his brother. Toon tells her about an amazing God who loves her and prays that the God from the story will bless her.
Without Tang Christians like Toon and Pong, the Bible translation work would be severely hampered. Both in their 20s, brave and sold out for Christ, these friends are able to do what Kanya and Aaron are unable to do in the neighboring country: freely visit the Tang people.
“Every time I go, I have to cover myself and just show my eyes,” explains Kanya. “If I stay at anyone’s house, that house takes a risk . . . I just feel so bad for them. They have to try so hard to hide me.”
Each time Kanya visits (Aaron doesn’t go at all), they are concerned that she may accidently do something that draws attention to her presence, prompting the police to detain the locals and escort her to prison, where they may fine her or ban her from the country entirely.
“The worst-case scenario for them is they put the pastors in prison for six months to a year and they can’t come out,” says Aaron of the government, which has one of the worst reputations globally for persecuting Christians. “We’ve had translators die in prison . . . and get terrible diseases.”
Although Toon and Pong have yet to be sent to prison, they’re still persecuted in their home country, even by their animist neighbours. When Pong led his family to Christ in their remote mountain village, being the first Christians, they were treated as turncoats.
“They [neighbours] destroyed our properties and belongings, and reported to the government officer about us,” says Pong calmly.
Despite being attacked, Pong hasn’t lost heart. The fire for Christ runs deep in his heart. He says he can’t turn back because his people need the Word of God.
“Only God’s Word can penetrate their hearts,” he says.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
Since moving to Mukdahan four years ago, it’s been go, go, go for Kanya and Aaron. Along with working with her team to finish the Tang New Testament, Kanya has also been busy training Tang people (who’ve come across the border to the translation office) to teach literacy and the Bible in their heart language.
“I can say now that at least 100 people in the tribe can read the Bible in their language, where before no one could,” says Kanya. She estimates that there are more than 1,500 new believers since they began ministry.
On top of Aaron’s day job as office manager of the Wycliffe Thai Foundation office in Mukdahan, he and Kanya spend countless hours leading ministries in their church and in the community. This includes teaching English, and running prison and hospital outreaches.
“We feel that integration with the Thai church . . . is not only beneficial, it’s necessary,” says Aaron. “When we bring . . . the Tang people over, we want them completely involved in all the ministries that are going on with the church. We want them to see the liberty and the freedom that can happen on the Thai side.”
It’s with youthful energy and a passion stirred by the Holy Spirit, that the Johnsons focus on their calling—and the future.
Aaron already sees the progression.
“After Bible translation and literacy, must come evangelism, discipleship and deeper church missions.” ***