By April Alston
It was the summer of 2001 when I got the opportunity to travel to Thailand to meet and work with Rick and Ellen Burnette, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) Field Personnel. I heard about them years earlier when my mom saw them commissioned at the annual CBF meeting. Their work in Thailand had always intrigued me and then, through a mission immersion class, I was offered the opportunity to meet them, see their work, and be a part of it. At the time, they were serving in a small town in Thailand, helping refugees from Myanmar (it was called Burma then) resettle and learn a new way to farm. The people of Myanmar were used to the slash and burn method of farming, but now as refugees they were landlocked and needed to learn crop rotation and how to farm in different soil and terrain. While there I saw firsthand how Rick taught them to grow rice on the side of a mountain and pineapples on the floor of the jungle. There were greenhouses full of crops in different stages of life, rows and rows of new vegetation growing in all sorts of places in and around the thick jungle like forest surrounding the Upland Holistic Development Project. UHDP was a center that Rick and his wife Ellen started as a teaching farm so that they could teach these farming techniques. We were all amazed at all of the fruits, vegetables and grains that Rick was able to grow, especially since Thailand has very long seasons with no rain and other seasons with constant rain.
More impressive than the gardens, was the spirit of welcome that we saw and experienced while there. In addition to the UHDP property, Rick and Ellen often made voyages out to remote villages to teach people about creative irrigation techniques, how to propagate seeds for future growing seasons and how to get more use out of their land. They traveled down clay roads where the potholes were created by elephants and fallen trees often created new barriers in the roads. Our group was fortunate enough to travel with Rick to one of these villages and even spend the night there. While the chickens and pigs scurried along under the bamboo and straw huts, we were able to soak up the community and joy that was so prevalent in the village. Rick and Ellen created a ministry through farming that was so much more than seeds and rows of crops. They created welcome and a place at the table for refugees, native villagers and so many more. One of my absolute favorite memories of the trip was worship under the picnic shelter at UHDP. Gathered that night were native Thai speakers, refugees representing at least two additional languages, a group of students from another country, and our group. There were more than five languages represented as we gathered for worship. Prayers and sermons were offered and translated into several languages and then we sang together. We sang “As the Deer” together, each in our own language, but in unison. Hearing all of the voices in so many languages singing their praises together brought me to tears in that moment and still does each time I think of it. I could probably go without the black bean popsicle and fish jerky for the rest of my life, but I would give anything to be back in that moment. The welcome, grace, understanding, joy, and love were palpable.
These memories are why I was so excited to see Rick and Ellen’s work highlighted in this year’s Offering for Global Missions. Rick and Ellen are now serving in Florida, teaching a different group how to grow their own food and share it with others. They are still creating a space and culture of welcome by sharing the love of God with all they meet. You can learn more about them and their ministry here. Rick and Ellen do not do this alone, they are part of a team of field personnel around the globe serving in creative ways, all creating a place at the table. I am thrilled that through this offering I can support the work of my friends Rick and Ellen, as well as CBF Field personnel around the world. I hope that you will join me in helping them create a place at the table through your own gift.