Condolences To Family Of Rev. Dr. Robert G. Johnson, Last American Baptist Missionary To Chin Hills
23 June 2009: The Chin people across the world sent their deepest condolences and sympathies to family of the last American Baptist missionary to the Chin Hills, Rev. Dr. Robert G. Johnson, 94, who died of complications from pneumonia at the Health Centre of Plymouth Village, Redlands, California on 9 June 2009.
It was one of the most emotional moments the Chin people have experienced when the tragic news broke out early this month. Chin email groups have been mushroomed with letters and messages of condolences till today, showing their inspirations, gratitude and recalling the works of missionaries in the Chin Hills.
Chin churches and communities across the globe held memorial services in their residing places, paying their last respect and tribute to their missionary, who is better known as Siangbawipa.
Refugees in Malaysia also braved and had memorial services at houses and churches amid fears of being raided and arrested by Malaysian RELA. One Chin pastor in Japan said we had, after the church service, a separate memorial service dedicated to Siangbawipa, where everyone shed tears and was silent in grief.
Rev. Robert G. Johnson, a Baptist missionary to the Chin people in the western mountains of Burma (now Myanmar), has been and will be remembered as a spiritual leader, missionary, architect, Bible translator and author.
Biography In Brief
Rev. Johnson was born in Chicago, Illinois, and graduated in 1938 from Wheaton College in Illinois. He was married to the former Elizabeth Luella Kortum of Decatur, Illinois in 1941.
Rev. Johnson, a graduate of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, received the Doctor of Divinity degree from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in recognition of his missionary work in Burma.
The couple were commissioned as missionaries of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society and designated for service in Burma. War intervened, and Rev. Johnson served as a Navy chaplain in the south Pacific during World War II.
Rev. and Mrs. Johnson began their missionary service in 1946, passing through Assam, India to enter war-torn Burma. The Johnsons served in the Chin Hills for twenty years, raising three children there while running Bible schools, touring remote areas accessible only on foot or by pony, running a dispensary, and doing translation of the Bible, Sunday School materials, and hymns.
Rev. Johnson designed and oversaw construction of many wooden-framed and rammed-earth Bible school buildings in both Falam and Haka (now Hakha) in the Chin Hills. Toward the end of this missionary service, understanding that the mission field in Burma was closing to foreigners under the new socialist military government, Rev. Johnson designed and oversaw the construction of a large stone church in Hakha built almost entirely by hand, with the only powered machinery being a stone saw powered by a single-cylinder kerosene engine and a war-surplus truck to haul stone and other supplies.
The Johnsons relocated to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, near the mission headquarters in Valley Forge in 1966. Rev. Johnson served on the Board of International Missions, overseeing mission work in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Zaire, with continuing work on Bible translation into the Hakha Chin language, until his retirement in 1980. From then until 1988, Rev. Johnson immersed himself in research for writing and self publication of a massive two-volume History of the American Baptist Chin Mission, a serious and authoritative record of the introduction of Christianity into the Chin Hills of Burma by missionaries of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society between 1899 and 1966.
Rev. and Mrs. Johnson moved to Moreno Valley, California in 1988 and then on to the Plymouth Village retirement community in 2001. In 2007, Rev. Johnson released a book entitled On the Back Road to Mandalay, on his and Mrs. Johnson’s twenty years of life and work in the mountains of western Burma.
Rev. Johnson is survived by his wife of nearly 68 years, Elizabeth (Betty Lue), three children (Richard Johnson of Churchton, Maryland, Kristin Knutson of Riverside, California, and Martha Martens of Dallas, Texas), seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Memorial and Funeral Services in USA
On Sunday, 14 June 2009, the memorial service of Rev. Dr. Robert G. Johnson was held at Plymouth Village Retirement community in Redlands, California, which was followed by a visitation at the funeral home.
On Monday, 15 June 2009, the church funeral service was held at 10 AM at the First Baptist Church of Redlands, 51 West Olive Avenue, Redlands, California. His casket was covered with a Chin traditional blanket called puansen at the church and then covered with an American flag at the cemetery.
More than 20 Chins of about 60 people in total attended the funeral service. Two Chin songs A Hme Ram Laitlang and the City of Gold (Chin Christian Hymnal No. 440) requested to be sung over his casket by Siangbawipa were choired by a group of 20 Chins at the service where Rev. Dr. Stephen Hre Kio preached and Dr. Mang Tiak read the scripture.
The Johnson family advised the Chin people, mostly based in the USA, to rather have memorial services at their churches and communities, instead of coming to the funeral service in California.
In lieu of travelling and sending flowers, donations are to be made in his memory, designated for the Chin Christian College to: Friends of Burma, 548 Home Ave., Ft. Wayne, Indiana 46807, USA.
The funeral service was attended by some Chin pastors and leaders: Rev. Dr. Hre Kio, of Indiana Chin Baptist Church, Indianapolis; Rev. Dr. Chin Kho Khai, of Burmese Christian Church, Los Angeles; Rev. G. K. Nang, of Manipur Baptist Church, India; Rev. Dr. Duh Kam, Executive Minister of CBFA and CBMC Pastor; Rev. Dr. Mang Tiak, of Greater Houston Burmese Christian Church; Dr. Vei Kho Ning, of Kuki Chin Baptist Church, USA; Dr. Kenneth Van Bik and wife; Rev. Rollin Van Bik, Pastor of Lai Baptist Church, Maryland; Salai Daniel Sakhong, CNF representative to America; Tawk Hnin, Chairman of Jacksonville Chin Baptist Church; Victor Biak Lian, Chin Churches, Canada; Salai Bawi Lian Mang, of Chin Human Rights Organisation; Tial Kham, Val Hre Uk and Dr. Lawma, dentist from Los Angeles; Pi Carren Luis, of Chin Baptist Church, Dallas; Rev. Dr. Van Ni, Pastor of Chin Baptist Church, Dallas; Val Siang Lian Sang, Chairman of BYF of Chin Baptist Church, Dallas; Churchill Chan Ceu Cung, photographer; and Rev. Dr. Chum Awi, Pastor-In-charge of Chin Baptist Church, Dallas.
The interment was held at the Riverside National Cemetery, Riverside, California at 2 PM on Monday 15 June 2009.
What Were Said Of Siangbawipa At Funeral
In a CACC’s (Chin Association for Christian Communication) condolence letter, among many others, read at the funeral by Rev. Dr. C. Duh Kam, Executive Minister of Chin Baptist Fellowship of America (CBFA), Siangbawipa Johnson was described as the spiritual leader of the Chin people.
Recalling the time with Rev. Robert G. Johnson who was then translating the Bible in Hakha, Rev. Dr. Stephen Hre Kio, Bible translator in Falam dialect, said that Johnson and Van Bik were translating verse by verse while I was translating and typing word by word. He added: “In 1966 while Ne Win’s government was ordering the American Baptist Missionaries, the Johnsons, to leave Burma, an army colonel told Johnson to pack up and go. With no signs of fear and surprise, Rev. Johnson replied to the colonel who got red-faced over his words, ‘Let be it if it is God’s willing but what I would like to say, though, is that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”
Former ZBC (Zomi Baptist Convention) General Secretary and Principal of Zomi Theological College, Rev. Dr. Chum Awi, said at the funeral: “Rev. Johnson is a good servant of God and is the father of Chin Christians. We greatly value his last words about help for Chin Christian College through Friends of Burma. We believe this college will become and stand as Chin Christian University in the future.” His speech ended with a Bible verse of Matthew 25:21 reading: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; … enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”
Salai Daniel Sakhong gave a short speech on behalf of Chin National Front, extending gratitude and thanks to Rev. Robert Johnson, his family and American Baptist Mission: “90 per cent of the Chin people are now Christian. Christianity, which becomes our strength and is transforming into our identity, has been attacked and attempted to destroy by the military regime. This Christian persecution can be clearly seen in CHRO’s report and documentation. We, CNF, work hard to protect our self-determination and human rights. On behalf of CNF, I hereby would like to pay tribute and respect to Siangbawipa Johnson.”
Victor Biak Lian from Canada stressed the fact that the American missionaries were the ones who bridged the relationship between the American government and people, and the Chin people, and that it has become one of the most important to the Chin people.
Van Biak Thang