SOUTHEAST ASIA Summer Cole* steps out of a wooden long-tail boat and walks along a narrow path at a lakeside village in Southeast Asia. Straw lays scattered across damp soil while an unmistakable scent wafts through the morning haze. The scent, akin to a barnyard, rises from the large quantities of pottery produced at the village, often sold in tourist markets on the opposite end of the lake.
Behind Cole, Mo Kham* jumps out of the boat and runs to catch up. Cole, a missionary, and Kham, a national believer, step carefully through a maze of broken clay pots, scurrying chickens and bleating goats, en route to the home of potter Thant Lin in the village populated by the region's Tai people group.
Lin serves a cup of tea to Cole and Kham and then places tiny figures on a low-lying table in the center of the dwelling.
The fragile clay pieces, when assembled in a cluster, depict Christ's birth.
The tiny figures have brought Cole, who is raising four boys with her husband, in contact with Lin and his family. She visits Lin's home a couple of times a year and helps to develop his business while sharing the Gospel.
Cole, setting down her tea, recounts the excitement of discovering nativity sets in one of the local markets 10 years ago. "I was amazed that in a staunchly Buddhist country, there was this little nativity set and I wanted to find out more. So I went and found what village they come from."
During a subsequent trip to a nearby town, Cole ventured to the village to find the Lin family, who invited her in for a visit. She learned that the potter had started making the nativity figures on the recommendation of a French resort owner's wife who had taken note of how many tourists stopped to look at the nativity her husband had received from a priest in France.
"I realized they did not know much about the figures they were making," Cole said, "so I made a plan to come back."
Cole's return to Lin's village required a one-hour plane ride, one-hour taxi ride and two-hour boat ride. She brought a children's Bible so the family could look at the pictures as she shared the Christmas story. Though they listened carefully, Lin and his family did not fully understand the heart of the message, having never heard the Gospel before.
"This is something that they'll probably have to hear many times to begin to catch the significance of it and understand why I would be so interested in these [nativity sets]," Cole said.
Crafting and learning
Ten years later in the village, Cole and Kham ask Lin how his family is doing. Before responding, he picks up a wise man and coats the hardened clay with a hand-mixed deep maroon. Lightly brushing details into the crown of the wise man, Lin finally tells them everyone is healthy, his eyes never leaving the terra cotta figure.
"After I heard the story, I want to bring honor to it. It gives me great honor to be a part of telling this story," Lin says.
He gingerly sets the piece on a tray and goes outside to prepare a new ball of clay for the next set of figures.
Finishing the new ball, he walks back into the house and retrieves several molds he carved by hand. Cole and Kham ask if he remembers what each piece signifies and he nods.
"I believe this story is true," Lin says.
He quickly selects a portion of clay and presses the mold together, creating a replica of Mary. While doing so, Kham leans forward, talking once more about the significance of Mary in the Christmas story. While believing the story is true, Lin and his family have yet to accept Christ.
Molding complete, Lin slowly carries the tray of pieces to a corner of the living room, leaving them to dry. Once dry, the pieces are fired in a kiln and painted to match the other figures.
Cole says this is the first time she has seen the process from start to finish. Observing Lin as he places the pieces into firing pots, Cole notes how involved he is in every step. Looking upward she notes how God is involved in every step of bringing this village to Himself.
"I see God's hand at work [here]. I can only point to God's divine planning," she says.
Cole visits the family two to three times a year, sharing Bible stories when she comes, confident God is working His redemptive plan in this village.
"The story is not [finished], the vision not achieved, but there is definitely a door opening wider," she says.
Kham, in her second visit to the village, feels God calling her to minister more intently with Lin. Gazing over the village, she says, "I felt something the first time I came here. This time, I have asked God to give me this village. I feel God has a plan here."