By Laura McKillip Wood
“We knew your father,” the old man said, “and we have heard about you for many years. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Jesse’s lifelong dream had been to return to his father’s remote village, where he too had lived as a child. He had thought about his father’s people, the Jerwang, many times through the years, wondering when he would get a chance to return. But the Jerwang live in a very remote area where China, Myanmar, and Tibet share an ill-defined border area, and visiting them is difficult.
To reach the villages, Jesse traveled from his home in Chiangmai, Thailand, for four days on a journey that included two flights, two days in a truck, and a half-day’s walk through the jungle. Jesse made the trip because he wanted to bring the gospel to his father’s people as part of the last big project of his missionary career.
Growth and Preparation
Jesse Yangmi became a Christian as a child, when a pastor from the Lisu people group walked across a mountain range from China and arrived in his village. After hearing the gospel, Jesse committed his life to Christ. As a result, his father made him leave home. Jesse found refuge with other believers and returned home after his father also became a Christian. His father died when he was young, and Jesse and his mother moved to the plains, away from the mountain area where he had been born.
Jesse’s mother knew he wanted an education, so she allowed him to leave home to attend school. He also began working for missionaries in exchange for English lessons. While working with these missionaries, he met and married Esther, who had already ministered for years in villages of Myanmar.
Jesse and Esther joined in ministry and started a family. After the birth of their first child, a socialist leader came to power in Myanmar and began forcing Westerners out of the country. Instead of leaving, the missionaries with whom they worked decided to move to a remote area of the jungle. The Yangmis and many people from the village left with them. While they were still navigating the dense jungle, the couple welcomed their second child.
They finally established a home in the jungle, where they lived and served for four years with the missionaries and also others from the original village. Since Esther did not have Myanmar citizenship, the family feared they ultimately would be separated if they stayed there. Eventually, they made their way to India and then to the United States.
Jesse studied at Ozark Christian College, preparing to return to Southeast Asia as a church planter and teacher. When he finished his education, the Yangmi family moved to Thailand and began what would become a long-term ministry with the Lisu, the same ethnic group who had introduced Jesse to Jesus.
Serving the Lisu
Jesse’s career has now spanned decades. He helped start Lisu Bible Institute. Young Lisu men and women from remote areas as far away as China traveled there to study in their own language and returned to their villages to serve in churches and start new ones. The institute thrived for many years but declined in enrollment and was almost forced to close its doors until the Lisu churches in the area reopened it. These indigenous churches now run the college and have again begun preparing young people for ministry.
Early in their work, Jesse and the local leadership realized the need for a new Lisu translation of the Bible. After much hard work, he produced a translation which is now being used by the Lisu churches throughout China, India, and Myanmar.
A New Challenge
Throughout these successful ministries, Jesse desired to return to the villages of his father’s people, the Jerwang. He remembered living there as a child, remembered hearing the gospel there, remembered the people, and he wanted to return to them. They did not have the Bible in their own language, and he hoped to help fill that need. Birth records were not kept in the jungle village where he was born, so Jesse does not know his exact age, but he knows he is nearing the end of his ministry. His advancing years and health issues make travel and strenuous physical exertion difficult. He cannot hack through the jungle the way he did when he was a young man.
His work with the Jerwang began in earnest six years ago, after he made that first trip back to his father’s village. He now mentors five or six men who plant and pastor churches. These men are industrious and capable, able to walk long distances to remote villages and educated enough to work with Bible translators from Summer Institute of Linguistics. Their goal is to produce a translation of the Scriptures for the Jerwang people. These local evangelists are Jesse’s legs and feet; they do the work he dreamed of doing. They return to consult with him once a year, to be mentored, and to report about the churches and the work.
“These men see my father as a spiritual father figure,” says Jesse’s daughter, Lucy.
Jesse’s wife, Esther, passed away, and now Jesse has married Ati, who has committed herself to Jesse’s ministry. She travels to the remote villages of the Jerwang and has even learned to speak their language.
Jesse’s story is not one of fame and accolades, but of consistently pursuing God and persistently working to spread the gospel. His life’s mission has been to make it possible for more people to know and love Jesus, to carry the gospel forward one more generation. And the adventure has not ended. Jesse looks forward to the next step in his ministry, when he will make another great journey to reunite with Esther, his father, and the thousands of people whose lives his ministry has touched.
Laura McKillip Wood, former missionary to Ukraine, now serves as the registrar at Nebraska Christian College in Papillion, Nebraska, and works as an on-call chaplain at a nearby hospital. She is mother to three teenagers and wife to Dr. Andrew Wood, professor of intercultural ministry at NCC.