There and Back Again: A Karen Student’s Story

Social work major Ku Gay Nahpay ’20 led a mission trip over Christmas to Thailand, where she and her team engaged with people from a culture not so different from her own.

By Katie Johnson ’19, content specialist

February 04, 2020 | 4:45 p.m.

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Thailand Mission Trip Team

As Ku Gay Nahpay ’20 waited in the Shanghai airport for the flight to take her back home from a Christmas mission trip to Thailand, she felt her shoulders relax, as if the weight she had been carrying was lifted from her. Soon after that moment of relief, a severe cold caught her immune system defenseless, and she grew ill. The trip of a lifetime had come and gone. Planning everything, leading a team of fellow leaders, and visiting the country her mother lived in—though she hadn’t seen her for 17 years—had been difficult to carry. The exhaustion proved all-consuming.

But it was so worth it.

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Thailand Mission Trip Team

Months earlier, Nahpay dreamed to go to Thailand during her senior year. She had been on spring mission trips during each of her three prior years at Bethel, but this trip carried personal significance. “I believe that God is working there, but I wanted to experience how God is working there for myself. It can be so different in Thailand, right? I myself am a refugee and an immigrant. I have painful experiences.” 

Nahpay is one of the thousands of the Karen displaced by decades of civil war and unrest between Burman and Karen in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Karen people have taken refuge in the U.S. and other countries, including an estimated 140,000 in refugee camps in Thailand.

Her own background connected her with Empowering Dreams Foundation, a group dedicated to helping the Karen and the Burman children in Thailand receive an education, find purpose, and experience God’s love no matter their state in life. Nahpay and her fellow friends asked Associate Dean of Christian Formation Matt Runion about making these dreams to support Empowering Dreams a reality. His answer? “Let’s do it.”

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Ku Gay Nahpay '20

Because of her experience and heart for her people, the social work major Nahpay embraced her role as student leader for this trip. Six out of the seven students of the team had cultural roots tied to Southeast Asia. “For many of us, it was like going home,” Nahpay says. “Maybe not so much of going home, but going to the place where we used to come from. Even though it’s not a specific place or location, but the feelings, the smells, the visions.”

Nahpay was clear in her intentions for the trip: They were not meant to be fixers but learners and observers. The goal was to learn and engage with another culture. She was also intentional about defining the difference between observing and proactively observing. “An observer will only observe what they see and know, but a proactive observer is somebody who has questions and at the same time respects how people work outside of their own bias,” she says. Because they were intent on learning rather than fixing, treating others with dignity, worth, and respect was as important as explicitly sharing God’s word. They expressed God’s love throughout every interaction, as they partnered with community members of various religions.

Associate Director of Intercultural Engagement Pang Moua was a staff leader on the trip and found proof that her team was meant to travel to Thailand when watching their interactions. Early in the trip, Moua watched Nahpay and biblical and theological studies major Ratsamee Thosaengsiri ’22, who were both fluent in multiple languages, teach a group of 200 elementary students a few English words, phrases, and questions. “Ratsamee and Nahpay were looking at the audience and seeing themselves reflected in their audience,” says Moua, associate director of intercultural engagement at Bethel. “There was just this energy of community and lightheartedness and confidence. I saw Ratsamee and Nahpay in just complete confidence in front of children, the principal, the teachers, and their peers—us—and I just thought, ‘Wow. We were meant to be here.’”

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Thailand Mission Trip Team

It was not easy for Nahpay to step into that confidence, especially as she led a team of strong-willed leaders. She found it challenging to adjust her leading style, but also fruitful as she put into practice what she has been learning in her leadership experiences. “I'm excited to see how planning this trip and leading this trip impacts Ku Gay’s leadership,” Moua says. “It's one thing to say that I lead this way, and then those are your ideals, but then there is this practicality—this is what my leadership actually looks like in practice. I'm excited to see what this experience taught her and what she will take away from it.”

After returning to Bethel, Nahpay has been able to recover and process what the trip has meant to her and how it has helped her grow. Nahpay realizes that the trip “was a big self-awakening for me. It really challenged me to be a gentle and humble and patient leader.” Nahpay has also learned how to be gentle with herself, since she wishes she could’ve done some things differently. Additionally, the trip helped her find a mentor in Moua, who has intentionally taken Nahpay under her wing.

As Nahpay continues to grow, she embraces every aspect of the journey she’s making, both at Bethel and beyond. “You’re learning, and as you’re learning, you’re awakening yourself in your soul and your spirit. It’s a spiritual journey that I’m making right now and in the future too,” she says. As she becomes a mental health therapist for the Karen communities across the world, she’s eager to see God working in every person she meets and in every culture she immerses herself in—including her own.

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Thailand Mission Trip Team

Mission Trips

At Bethel, we encourage students to step outside their comfort zone and into experiences that stretch and reshape their view of God's world. Bethel sends students to be with, learn from, and serve alongside God and God's people—in the U.S. and around world—through our Solidarity Missions Partnerships (SMP) program. Check out what's at the heart of these trips and see where Bethel students travel as an outpouring of God's love. 

Learn More