Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson’s Funeral Service
Sermon by Rev. Stephen Hre Kio
(December 2, 2017, Emmerson Memorial Chapel
Redlands, California, USA)
The Beauty of the Johnsons
The day Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson passed away on Wednesday, November 15, 2017, marks the end of the physical presence of American Baptist missionaries among the Chin Christians of Myanmar, who reside both in Myanmar and throughout the world. It also marks the close of 118 years of missionary activities among the Chins. It is a sad day for Chin Christians; indeed a great loss for us. This is the first time when, in the history of the Chin Christians, no missionary is present among us. Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson was our last missionary. Missionary epoch is ended from among the Chin Christians.
Although today, December 2, 2017, is a sad day for the Christians from Myanmar, particularly for the Chin Christians, it is an honor for me to bring a short message on what I want to call, “The Beauty of the Johnsons” on this sad but special day – the funeral service for Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson – the missionary lady we loved and honored so much. It is with a heavy heart that I bring this message.
I do not presume to know the details of their commitment and the degree of their sacrifice for their Lord, but I have been in association with the Johnsons since 1950s, in Hakha, Chin State. Personally, I have been blessed in so many ways because of the Johnsons. It was the Rev. Robert G. Johnson who invited me to teach at Zomi Baptist Theological School in Falam, at the end of 1962 – even when I had not yet finished my theological studies at Serampore College in India. The Rev. Dr. Robert G. Johnson was one of the three, along with my Dad, the Rev. Sang Fen, and Rev. Lal Hnin, (President of HBA) who laid hands on me during my ordination in March 1964. It was Rev. Johnson who conducted my wedding with Sayama Klem Kyin, in Falam Town and it was Mrs. Johnson who invited my wife and me to spend one week with them in their home in Hakha for our honey moon celebration, in May of the same year. I was also honored to conduct their daughter Kristin’s wedding with Bo Knudson here in California some twenty years ago, and also had the privilege to preach at the funeral service of the Rev. Johnson eight years a go. And so with this long association with the Johnsons, I hope that my assessment of the facets of their lives would not be too far off.
The first fact: What I like to point out first of all is the hard realization, on our part, of the depth of their commitment. Only after coming to the United States in the 1970s did I began to grasp how deep their sacrifice truly is – for the mission work in Burma. Their sacrifice is indeed enormous – when they left their home and family and friends – in fact everything – in short, the comfort of their lives in the USA for a poor third world country like the land of Burma. This realization brings a sense of awe and respect to this missionary couple; at the same time, it also brings a sense of shame to our conscience that very often we would not hesitate to bring complaints and even criticism on them. We had uttered what we didn’t really know! Often I prayed: Lord have mercy on us!
The second point: I like to bring out the fact that the Johnsons had their share of pain and suffering. The Johnsons arrived in Assam, India to go into Burma from the NE of India, in the middle of 1946. After a few years in Burma, Mrs. Johnson was pregnant, and theirthird child Peter was born in Tiddim town, in Chin State, when Rev. Johnson was away on tour at the time. Unfortunately, Peter passed away in less than an hour after birth, and the few Christians in Tiddim buried him, bringing tears, heart-aches and very deep sorrow to the lives these young missionaries, casting doubts as to the wisdom of their missionary commitment. There was another abortion in Hakha a few years later – adding another pain and suffering to their lives.
More than once did they leave Hakha – their mission station – where medical treatment is in- adequate, if not non-existent, and went down to Rangoon for more hopeful treatment. By God’s grace, they happily returned to their mission station in Hakha, to continue their mission works. But a huge one of pain was coming: And that was on November 17, 1953, the day when 4 American missionaries were coming from Rangoon to Hakha. These missionaries were: Dr. John Skoglund from New York, Dr. Richard Cummings from ABC HQs Valley Forge, Rev. E. E. Sowards from AB Mission HQs in Rangoon, and the Rev. Robert G. Johnson – the first time ever for four American missionaries to visit the Chinland. At the place of uphill climb 14 miles from Hakha, their jeep went off the dirt road, falling 100 feet into the rough terrain. All were badly injured and Rev. Johnson’s injury was most severe: the hit on his head made him dizzy, almost unconscious; his jaw-bone, his nose-bone, and his collar-bone broke. His left eyelid-bone too cracked. His left hand just hanging useless.
There was thought to be no hope of survival for him. Hearing the bad news in the evening, Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson started to travel from Hakha on horseback 14 miles in the cold and rainy night. Walking on muddy road, I remember holding a gas-light for her, and other young people from Hakha Baptist Church were prepared to carry the missionaries on stretchers to Hakha, throughout the whole night if necessary. However, the Chins from the whole surrounding villages took all the injured missionaries from the accident location to Falam where there was a better medical facilities. The three injured missionaries were transported to Rangoon, and after a week or two, the Rev. Johnson too was moved to Rangoon and then to Chicago, in USA for two months of attentive care and treatment. By God’s grace, Rev. Johnson survived the deadly ordeal. Throughout this horrific period of hardship, tears and uncertainties, the serenity and magnanimity in the life of Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson was remarkable – something to be admired, an amazing composure! There was calm and peace in her life! What an incredible beauty!
The third point: Their commitment is matched by their skills. Their achievements in their mission works in a period of 20 years is too many to count and recite in this short period of time. Just to mention a few: Their running of Bible schools in Hakha, Tiddim and Falam, their project of “Seven Weeks Leadership Training for village church leaders” and their organizational formation of Chin Baptist Associations and Convention, had served as the backbones of Chin churches in the Hakha Subdivision, as well as in the whole Chin State. That impact and reality still stands true even today – 50 years later. Rev. Robert Johnson was a Missionary who could justifiably be called a “Civil Missionary Engineer”. It was he who built a “stone” Church building – solid natural stone building in Hakha that still stands today as part of his legacy. It is known as “Johnson Baptist Church”. We can call Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson an Assistant Master Planning Engineer, without whom Bob Johnson would not dare to move forward. She was a cool and wise counselor to him. “He would not leave home without her”.
In Bible Translation: Rev. Robert G. Johnson was assistant to Rev. David Van Bik in the Hakha (Lai) Bible Translation. They started translating the Bible in 1955, and I was hired as a typist of the Bible manuscripts. I realized to my dismay that typing Bible Mss is harder than any other sort of typing. There was no computer then; all that was available was a 14” remington typewriter made of steel. To my surprise I found Rev. Johnson was a “hard master.” He would not accept a single error on a page, not even a single over-typing on a page, and he often made me re-type the same page three times. Being a “hard master” in Bible translation was indeed a good trade which I realized later on when I myself became a Bible translator and a Translation consultant. You don’t mess up with Bible manuscripts! In Bible translation, an “iota” is as important as the big words “justification” and “sanctification”.
But Mrs. Johnson came to the rescue of my dilemma. She offered me a typing-class for a month. She was my teacher for that period. She was a sharp, but kind, teacher. She made me a reasonable good typist. That Bible “Lai Baibal Thiang” was finally published by the Bible Society of Myanmar in 1978. Rev. Johnson saw the fruits of his hand. He was indeed a faithful servant of the Lord, (Mat 25:21; one of the favorite Bible verses of Mrs. Johnson.) Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson was a good-singer much better than her husband. She also was a good, indeed a better musician. She also was a song composer and a song translator. Many of the songs in Hakha for Sunday School children, and the curriculum they learned then bear the mark of the skillful hands of Mrs. Johnson. One of the songs she translated into Chin still clings to my memory.
Here is one in Chin:
Jesuh nih ngakchia a dawt hna, vawlei cung ngakchia vialte,
A nak a rang si hna seh, Jesuh nih a dawt cio hna,
Jesuh nih ngakchia vialte a dawt dih hna.
The Fourth: Their courage. When they left the USA in 1946, it was a time when the world saw widespread destruction because of the Second World War. Leaving the USA with its hard earned security and peace, for a land where there was none, took a large amount of courage and dedication. In spite of their young age, they were mature Christians facing cruel uncertainties of life. Maturity involves the ability to make a decision and stand by it. Maturity means the capacity to face unpleasantness and frustration, discomfort and even defeat, without complaint and collapse. The Johnsons have those qualities and there is beauty in it. Beauty is not what we see on the external aspect of man’s life; it lies rather in the degree of their dedication, and in the “content of their character.” And I have seen those aspects of life in their character – a beauty to be admired!
After 20 years of service in Chin State, there was a time when the Military Government of Burma ordered all missionaries to leave the country in a period of six months. That year was 1965. Rev. & Mrs. Johnson were summoned to the Office of the Chairman of the Military Administration in Chin State. Rev. Johnson asked me to accompany him and I gladly did it. The Colonel’s name was Col. Myint Thein, and his office was located in Falam, where I was a Baptist Church Pastor. During the process of their conversation, the Colonel told Rev. Johnson to pack up his bags and leave Burma in six months. Rev. Johnson’s response was immediate and on target. I could see his face turning red with anger and said, in effect:
“I have been called to preach to Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world without hindrance or restrictions. I have committed my life to this call. The Military Government should not order all missionaries to leave Burma without any rhyme or reason. Your Government grasps power from the people; Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
At that point, I felt strongly that the Colonel would arrest him and send him to jail. But he didn’t. Instead, he slowly and steadily said: “Mr. Johnson, you can say that and all you want in your own country, but not in ours. You pack up your things and leave our country in six months”. And he dismissed us abruptly. Rev. Johnson was greatly disturbed, to say the least. I saw the raw material of Rev. Johnson’s courage, and I just admired his stand. In six months, i.e., in October 1965, Mrs. Johnson left Burma, never to see Hakha mission station again in their earthly lives. Rev. Johnson left a year later: in April 1966.
Fifth point: Love transcends boundaries. Love is truly eternal. And there is beauty in it. When the Johnsons left Hakha, in summer of 1965, never to return to the land they loved, in their lives time, it was a sad and memorable day for them and for the Chin Christians. The like of which may never be repeated on this earthly life. The well-wishers of the Chin Christians came to bid their last farewell, not by the hundreds but by the thousands, lining up the road from their residence in Hakha Old Bazaar Quarter to the New Hakha Town – a distance of at least two miles.
They lined up on the sides of the road, everyone weeping and even loudly crying. For the Johnsons it was impossible to shake hands with everyone; they could only weep and shed tears – walking slowly, sadly, and silently! Who could measure the depth and height of the love that binds them together? Where else can we find that kind of love? And who did all these? It is God who did it! During their term of service with the ABC in Valley Forge, USA for about 20 years, they traveled to Burma often with the hope that they may be allowed to visit Chin State, at least for a night stay. With the Military Government in Burma, that was not going to be. Rev. Johnson came to Kalemyo, the closest point to the Chin State, as far as No. 9 car gate. At one point in time, he was allowed to take a 500 steps into the Chinland. And that is all he was allowed to do. He was forced to go back! He went back into Kalemyo in tears! How cruel is life for them! And yet their love for the Chin Christians, and the Chin Christians’ love for them still remain strong, even growing stronger.
At one point, during their visit to Myanmar, the Chin Christians came down from Chin State to Yangon, showering them with gifts – in terms of foods, clothes and other presents. They were so overwhelmed and pressured that at one time, Rev. Johnson said, “The Chins are almost killing us with their kindness”. Actually, love does not kill them; rather it sustains them! Yes, the favorite Psalms of Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson with a fitting verse is (90:15)
“Let us, your servants, see your mighty deeds;
Let our descendants see your glorious might.”
Yes indeed, Rev. & Mrs. Johnson have seen “the Lord’s mighty deeds,” among the Chins. And we, their descendants – both physical and spiritual descendants – have also seen “the Lord’s glorious might”. Their three children are strong and faithful in the Faith of the Church. And Chin State is the only Christian State in Myanmar today. There too is beauty. Praised be the Lord!
Conclusion: Now that both the Rev. & Mrs. Johnson have gone to their eternal home, in the loving arms of the Lord our God, the Father, and of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who loves them through the Holy Spirit more abundantly than we can ever imagine or think, we should be greatly assured that we can truly sing the song together, “It is well, with my soul. It is well, it is well, with my soul”.
May the God of Rev. & Mrs. Johnson – the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit – bless each one of you and give you peace, Amen.
Rev. Stephen Hre Kio, Ph. D.
Indiana Chin Baptist Church
Indianapolis, IN, USA