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Portraits of Discipleship (In the Hills of Yunnan)

Originally published on Oct 2015

by Dr. Lai Pak Wah 



Time flies. It’s been 5 years since our family returned from Durham. And yes, we have settled well back into Singapore.

In fact, I have settled down so well that I sometimes wonder whether my faith has become a middle class Christianity, which is more familiar with enjoyments and the comforts of Singaporean life, than what it truly means to follow Christ and carry our crosses.

It is for this reason that a few months ago, in June, I decided to take the family – Rina, Fide & Isaiah, to Yunnan, China, just to spend some time there with the villagers and to experience their lives, so that it may bring a new perspective to our own. What follows therefore are some of the lessons I have learnt from the short two week trip.


Yunnan: A Background 

Let me begin with some background information on Yunnan. Yunnan is located in the Southwest of China, adjacent to several Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

It is a unique place with a diverse geography and culture. In some places, like Yuan Yang (元阳), the elevation could be as low as 240m above sea level, and a hot 42 degree Celsius. In others, such as the top of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Lijiang, it could be 4680m altitude, and 15 Deg Celsius on a summer day! Yunnan is also the province with the largest number of minority tribes, 25 or about 50% of China’s 56 minority tribes. Spatially, Yunnan is 394,000 km2, or about 550 times the area of Singapore (716 km2). A very large & diverse place indeed!

This time round, our aim of visiting Yunnan is to spend a week with Dr Diarra. Dr Diarra is a Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) doctor who volunteers his time in Community improvement projects (such as building wells and toilets in villages, and so on), or conducting TCM training for village doctors (these are self-taught doctors who are the only ones available for most villagers in Yunnan). In case you are wondering that Dr Diarra is a strange name for a Chinese, well, he is not Chinese. Rather, he is a Mali Christian who has been studying and working in China since 1984! I will tell you more about Dr Diarra in a little while. But first, some interesting stories from our first 2 days in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan.



Lesson 1: Miracles of God 

When we arrived in Kunming, we did the usual touristy things, visiting interesting and, sometimes, strange sights of the city- the Stone Forest, and the Caverns of Jiuxiang, for example.

What was more intriguing was the Malaysian missionary whom we met at our Guest house: ‘Amy’, who spent years working in Peshawar, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This, of course, is the same Peshawar where 7 Taliban gunmen raided a school just a few months ago and massacred 145 people, including 132 children. “A missionary from Peshawar!” What seemed to be a far-off place suddenly sounded as real as Clementi or Orchard Road.


Now Amy was involved in ministry in Pakistan for more than 10 years. During this decade, she had the privilege of ministering to the diverse needs of the Christians there, who were the minority and often marginalised. Despite the not so friendly environment, God has never been more real to her than in Peshawar.


Most of us would have read about the Apostle Paul, or Saul of Tarsus’s conversion in Acts 9. One fateful day, while on the road to Damascus, a light flashed suddenly before Saul. Blinded by the vision, Saul fell to the ground and heard these words: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). When we have read these words too often, we may fail to grasp the sheer force of the event; how frightening it must be for Saul! It would be like someone who downloaded a song illegally, and while he was enjoying the music suddenly heard “Saul, Saul, why have you stolen from my people?” While I have yet to hear such a miracle, there are others I have heard which are equally daunting. Such as the news that appeared recently on Christianity Today, where an ISIS militant apparently dreamt of Jesus, who appeared and asked him: “You are killing my people!” the man woke and became sick and uneasy about his brutality.

Shortly after, he killed a Christian, who gave him his Bible. Then Christ appeared again and instructed The militant to follow him. He did. He left ISIS and followed Jesus. I don’t know about you, when I hear miracles like this, I don’t quite know whether to believe or not, until I met Amy.


Amy is a stout and (clearly) seasoned missionary, with lots of stories to tell. The first was her encounter with ‘Ali’. Ali was one of her helpers in Peshawar. One day, while they were in her kitchen, he looked across the table at her new calendar, sent to her by one of her ministry contacts. Ali uttered: “I have seen that man, you know, the one whose face is on the calendar.” Amy turned around and looked. “No, you couldn’t have!” “Yes, yes I did. I have seen Him in my dreams. It’s the same face.” By now, you might have guessed who Ali was talking about. Someone had drew a picture of Jesus on the calendar, and this ‘Jesus’ was the same face Ali saw in his dreams. This is when Amy explained to him that he had seen our Lord. Ali was terrified, of course, for conversion involves significant personal cost and social backlash. When Amy left the country, he was still struggling internally, whether to believe or not. Well, he is in God’s hands now. We hope that he will eventually.


As I found out, such visions are quite common in what we call, Creative Access Countries, countries where we can’t evangelise openly. Well, this doesn’t seem to have stopped our Lord Jesus Christ, from calling those whom He has chosen.


Now, if you think this story is miraculous, wait till you hear the next one. While Amy was in Germany, she visited a friend, who used to be a missionary in Peshawar. During their dinner conversation, ‘Kevin’ asked whether the Green Jeep that the ministry workers used was still around. “Yes, it was.” “Well, let me tell you a story about this Jeep.”


“One night, while driving home in this Jeep with my wife, the Jeep slid off the road and hung dangerously from the edge of a cliff. Everyone panicked, of course. Those who could get off hopped off the Jeep, tied some rope to the car, and began heaving and puffing to pull the Jeep up. My dear wife, to my horror, couldn’t get out! At that moment, a group of young men appeared, and offered to help. Together, they heaved the whole Jeep to safety! Now, while they were heaving the Jeep up, I took out my SLR camera (this was before DSLRs!) and took a snapshot of everyone. When I returned home and developed the photos, I saw something that made my hair stand: There was the Jeep, his fellow workers, but no young men were around…” Hebrew 13:2 spoke about the fact that Christians can sometimes encounter angelic beings, and “have entertained angels unaware.” Perhaps, this was how it looked like…


What’s the point of all these stories? Basically this: Despite the so-call predictability of our lives, our God is still in charge, actively guiding and helping us, just as He does with people in the less accessible countries.


May these stories help us remember that, and to pray fervently for all things. This is because, our God is the living God; He will hear us; He will lead us and answer our prayers according to what He thinks is best. “Nothing happens by chance; Everything is by God’s providence.” So, keep praying. When you pray, remember that God is truly listening and responding, just as He had responded to Kevin, Ali and the ISIS militant.


Dr Diarra’s Ministry 

Now let me share more about Dr Diarra whom we spent 5 days with. Dr Diarra arrived in China in 1984, on a scholarship to study Biomedicine. Due to unforeseen  circumstances, however, he lost his place and was asked to take a different course instead. That night, while sleeping… he had a dream. God spoke to him saying: “Chinese Medicine is also medicine…” So, when Diarra woke up the next day, he promptly went to the Chinese officials and asked to be trained in TCM. They were shocked, of course. This black African who can’t even speak Chinese, was asking to study TCM! In the end, however, they relented. Off Diarra went, to Guangzhou, where he not only studied TCM, but also learnt Mandarin, Ancient Chinese, Cantonese and Taiji Quan. Later on, he even completed his doctoral studies in TCM, and is now happily married with a Chinese wife and 2 children.


Since about 2000, Dr Diarra was involved in various community project: building Wells, Toilets, funding poor children; and anything that can help alleviate the poverty of villagers in Yunnan and other places. As a TCM doctor, he also actively trained village doctors (about 4,000 of them now) so that they have the practical medical knowledge to meet the needs of the villagers. This was because the villagers are often hours or even days away from the nearest hospital.


This time round, my family and I were involved in a Village Doctor Training Clinic at Hong He District, Niu Kong Village. When we arrived, we were warmly greeted by the government officials. Though room and sanitation facilities weren’t ideal, we learnt to make do. (Isaiah had an interesting encounter with a rat while doing his business in a toilet).


The village was a beautiful place and its people, including the officials were very friendly and hospitable, providing us with the best could offer! Indeed, we had lots of good and exotic food! We also did our own part, with the kids conducting oral hygiene class for the primary school next door, while Rina and I taught some muscle relaxation exercises for the village doctors.


After a long day of teaching, where he instructed his students in acupuncture, moxibustion and so on, we awoke to another long day. From 9 am to noon, he had to see patients about 200 of them, and treat all sorts of illnesses – many due to the tough living conditions in the villages. Thereafter, we had to distribute medical supplies to the village doctors, before heading out to another town four hours drive away. All this time, it was Dr Diarra driving! When we arrived, we thought we could just have a simple dinner. It was not to be! In good old Chinese style, a friend appeared and insisted on giving Dr Diarra a treat. Lo and behold, His mother, father and brother appeared at the dinner table, and we found out what was planned. Not only did the friend asked tired Dr Diarra to treat his mother, but also his superior as well. Now, if you were Dr Diarra, what would you do? “Thank you for the meal. But I am dead tired from the day. Sorry, but I can’t see them.” He didn’t, however. Dr Diarra obliged instead, and saw the two patients (giving them acupuncture and so on) up until almost midnight! By then, the rest of us passengers, who did no driving, were already deep asleep. It is here that I see genuine Christian love and witness at work. Dr Diarra has been working with the government officials and locals for years. Often his love has been taken advantage of, but he has kept on loving and giving generously. They all know that he is a Christian, and all he has done, has something to do with his faith. And you know what? During the times when he is tried, when he is asked to do things even though it is inconvenient, even though he would be taken advantage of or lose personal time with family, he did so. Why? Because He knew that He was Christ’s Ambassador, and that his actions will, in one way or another, help these friends come to see and know the love of Christ.


And so it is with us. We may find that most in our workplaces or classrooms may not be Christians. Nonetheless, trust that God has placed us there for a purpose: That our friends may see the loving work of Christ in our lives, that they have someone to pray for them, that through all these, they may begin their journey of coming to know Christ. Many of us have come to faith because of the love of Christians. We too are called to do the same thing. Yes, as in the case of Dr Diarra, things might be inconvenient sometimes, or we can get taken advantage of. Even as Dr Diarra died to his personal needs sometimes, so must we do so, for the sake of others, that Christ’s love be declared. So I commend all of us, wherever we are, to be a good ambassador of Christ’s love. Love others as Christ has loved us, so that our colleagues, our neighbours, and others may know that Jesus Christ is Lord! This is your calling.


You know what? After so many years of loving labour, Dr Diarra was awarded a Charity Prize called Good Samaritan of Kunming. More recently, he was also awarded the Chinese Charity Prize by Premier Li Ke Qiang. While not many of us will have this privilege, be sure that the Lord of the Universe, God our Father will be pleased with our love, and bless us as we serve Him.


Lesson 3: Small But Doing Mighty Things of God

After a week of exploring the hills of southern Yunnan, we took a more relaxing trip to Lijiang, in northern Yunnan. Initially, we thought this would be a simple, relaxing trip: where we will only torture ourselves climbing gorges and mountains, before rewarding our stomachs with loads of wonderful food! On the last two days, however, we bumped into some Singaporean Christians, who, in turn, introduced us to a missionary in Shangri La. ‘Cindy’ was her name. She and her husband had set up various businesses in Shangri La so that they can provide work for the local minorities and improve their living conditions. Mind you, things are not easy. Just last year, a fire broke out in the village and wiped out all their businesses in one night. And ‘Cindy’ found herself having to rebuild everything from scratch. Nevertheless, like Dr Diarra, she was welcomed by the locals, and regarded as Christ’s Ambassador in their midst. Beside ‘Cindy’, we also met a local Christian, ‘Karen’. Karen and her husband became Christians years ago and decided to register their church with the authorities. Although they grew to 300 strong, they continue to struggle financially. Small and poor, though they are, they are now doing amazing things for God in Lijiang. Firstly, by faith, they started a hospital that provided free treatment for victims of burns. Their aim is clear: share the love of Christ with the locals in practical ways, so that they may see for themselves, how much God loves them! Karen told us about a patient who was so scorched that her lips could barely open! Yet, after reconstructive surgery, she managed to eat better. More than that, she became a believer and decided to bring an audio recorder to the village square, where she broadcast the Gospel to others. In this way, she made herself a faithful witness of God’s love to her relatives and friends. (The hospital welcome short and long term medical assistance and support – for those interested, feel free to contact me). Besides this hospital, over the last year, Karen’s church also obtained approval from the local authorities to repossess an abandoned Church that was built in 1940s. This was after two decades of negotiations with the authorities. God willing, they will be able to worship in the ‘new’ church by the end of the year.

Now, they are doing all these with very little funds in hand. Indeed, by our standards, they are very poor. Nonetheless, they are optimistic: since God has led them to all these work, God will provide for their needs.


Conclusion: God’s Providence 

And so is it with us. God provides for our needs differently, through our work, or our parents, our friends and so on. In all these, He has a plan: that we may be blessed. And not only that, that we may be His ambassadors, His representatives to our friends, to the world, so that the world may know that He is the Living God! And that He wants to share His love with all. So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, remember: “Nothing happens by chance; Everything is by God’s providence.” So, whatever the circumstances we find ourselves, whatever the stage of our lives, whatever the blessings or difficulties that God gives us, He has done this in order that we may experience His love, in order that we may be His light of the world there. Indeed, no one is insignificant. Everyone has a role to play in the kingdom of God. But the question is:


Are we willing to be used by God to do great things for Him?

To love those He placed around us?

To love until they see that Christ is Lord?

Will we do so, for Christ’s sake?



Principal of BGST and Lecturer of Church History and Historical Theology.

A graduate from BGST himself (Grad Dip CS) and Regent College, Vancouver (MCS, ThM), Dr Lai completed his PhD at Durham University, where he specialised in Christianity in Late Antiquity, that is, the history, theology and spirituality of the 2nd – 5th C church fathers (Patristic Studies) with particular research on John Chrysostom. He has also published The Dao of Healing: Christian Perspectives on Chinese Medicine. Previously, Dr Lai was a full-time lecturer at the School of Business, Singapore Polytechnic, and engaged in investment promotion work with the Singapore Economic Development Board.

Contributor: Lai Pak Wah
Presented by:  BGST