I got up early last Friday morning because the sawngtaew driver said he would pick me up at 7:45. He drove 30 minutes from the guesthouse along the Maeping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand, into the country where the Lahu Bible School is located.

I wanted to get there early to be in time for their morning prayer service. The Lahu are one of the 10 or so hill tribe groups living in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. They tend to be poor, and not completely legal, residents of Thailand. They scratch out a living by farming on the sides of mountains on land no one else wants.

The main reason I wanted to be with the Lahu for their morning service is to hear them sing. The 28 students in the school sing with strong voices and in perfect harmony. Hearing them on a CD would be a treat, but what moves me is their faces. These tribal people have not been “spoiled” by Western Civilization.

As I listened to their powerful singing, I kept thinking, “This is what it was like in the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. These young Bible students are so innocent. I felt too educated, too experienced, too sophisticated to be around them. There is something about being in the presence of such kind, respectful innocence that shames me.

I don’t regret all that I’ve learned. It helps me survive in our urban world and even contribute something to our society. These young adults wouldn’t survive in our world. Our society would eat them up. But being with them makes me realize once again how much we’ve lost in our sophistication. We’ve been able to solve many problems with our science and technology, but when you think about it, many of our problems have been created by the very science and technology we use to solve them. Talk about a dog chasing its own tail.

After the service, I went out and watched the students thresh the rice they had cut a few days before. Good physical labor done with humor and a communal spirit that balanced out their book learning.

I had no desire to become part of their way of life. What I did want to do is put some of what they had in a bottle and take it back home.

My next stop that morning was the Linguistics Institute at Payap University where folks work to put tribal languages into written form so that hill tribe people can preserve their culture while at the same time trying to survive in the modern world.

Missions have often been criticized for destroying indigenous cultures while trying to spread the Christian religion. Much of the criticism has been justified, but here I saw missionaries trying to preserve tribal cultures by giving them the tools to pass their cultures along to future generations.

I’m so glad they are doing this preserving, conserving work because I have a feeling that we sophisticated Westerners have a lot to learn from these simple people.