Archive for the ‘ Thailand ’ Category

1000 Words Aren’t Enough

We easily accept that a picture can be worth a thousand words.  But how often do we stop with the thousand words it speaks?  What about the rest of the story?

I took my camera to Soi Cowboy last week for the first time, trying to get some images for awareness-raising efforts.  And I hated every second of it.  As someone that usually enjoys being behind a lens, this threw me for a loop.

I hated looking through a lens at that place; I would much prefer to look in their eyes and hear the stories of the women we meet rather than “capture” the scenes that can’t possibly come close to telling the real stories of the past or dreams of the future.

I realized going there with a camera was risky.  I was risking looking (and feeling) like I was reducing women to subjects and statistics rather than affirming their worth and value.  Beyond that, I feared what reaction I might get to the photos.  I feared that others might see the photos and pass judgments.  Or even worse, that people might simply react with pity, shake their head and go on their way.

Either way, I realized that I’m terrified to take photos of the hard stuff because I know all too well how easy it is to stop with the “thousand words” and not bother to find out the rest of the story.

As uncomfortable as this makes me, I was reminded by someone I respect that it’s a turmoil we have to face.

I have the privilege of working alongside some incredible people and a handful of ministries that are committed to getting to know both stories of the past and dreams for the future.  Most of these people were moved at some point or another by the reality of the injustices we saw – whether it was through a photograph, a video, or seeing it in person.  “Seeing” it offered an invitation to enter in.

I guess that makes the turmoil worth it.  It’s my hope that any images used from this shoot or any others would not evoke judgment. Or pity. But that they would be an invitation for others to be moved with compassion to come and find out the rest of the story.

Tomorrow we’ll be attending a full day networking event with Thai Christian business leaders and a number of local non-profits. It’s an opportunity for Thai leaders to better understand what God is doing in the country and for ministries like The Well to find committed, local leaders to partner in our efforts.

We would love your prayers for God to move in the hearts of those at the meeting — that they would be compelled to want to learn the stories behind the images.

Whose Daughter?


Malaysia and the Mountains

Playing catch-up after a quick trip to Malaysia to renew my visa directly followed by five days out in Thailand’s hill country near the Myanmar border with a crew of rambunctious youth.   Will try to capture a few of the highlights…

Malaysia was great; overall a successful visa run with a little time allotted to play tourist over the weekend before heading back to Bangkok.  I was hosted by a couple of good friends in Kuala Lumpur while I went through the visa process and was able to spend a day visiting the outskirts of town.  The gorgeous limestone formations at Batu Caves (272 stairs leading up to a Hindu shrine in a cave with 100-meter-high ceilings) made me wish I had thrown in my rock climbing gear, and a visit to the forested paradise of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia made me remember just how much I prefer trees to concrete.  I then hopped up to Penang Island to get a little more taste of Malaysia’s diversity.  I was fascinated to constantly look around and see a mix of Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern cultures;  I left there not quite sure what Malay culture actually was, other than a mix of everything else.

Just days after I got back to Bangkok from Malaysia we turned around and hopped on an early bus headed to Sangkhlaburi in Thailand’s hill country for a five day youth camp.  We took a few handfuls of youth with whom we have relationships either through their parents participating in The Well programs or through other means.

It brought me great joy to see these kids getting a chance to trade in the internet, movies and the concrete jungle of Bangkok for a few days in hill country with fun community, games, music, mountains, rivers and challenging messages.  For some it was the first time entering into community of this sort, sharing their lives with others their age and being challenged with messages about what it means to follow Jesus as a teenager today.

So many beautiful moments (and many, many hilarious episodes) throughout the camp, all culminating in a powerful final evening where we saw kids take hold of the message of the Gospel in amazing ways.  I wish I could capture and share all the sights, sounds and smiles that transpired over the weekend.

On a personal level, I realized how challenging it is to connect with youth when you can’t speak their language.  Having been a youth leader in the States for however many years, I found myself frustrated to not be able to connect with them more and feel like I could really enter in their lives and hearts.  But… I remembered how much my youth at home liked to tease me about being so hopelessly out of touch with anything “cool” — be it music, fashion, slang.  So, it turns out it’s just as fun to make fun of me for my lack of language.  One of my favorite memories from the weekend was staying up late with the girls and listening to them laugh hysterically at my attempts to copy their boy-crazy, teenage Thai slang.

Beyond that, I had a sweet little 10-year-old from the village attach herself to me and take it upon herself to correct my Thai (often) and make sure I didn’t get lost.  And one of the teenagers paid special attention to make sure that I understood the rules to the games (and then did the embarrassing dances with me if I lost the game… which happened often…)

Talk about lessons in humility; I had a healthy dose over the weekend.  And it was good.

Aside from the fun and games, I loved seeing the responses from the teens as they were challenged to process through what it means to follow Jesus in their teenage years.  It got me excited to see so much potential in a pretty amazing group of teens, most of whom have already experienced some pretty hard stuff in their lives.

Though my role at The Well isn’t focused in on the teenagers, I’m appreciative of the window I got into their lives over this weekend as we all pitched in to make the camp happen.  I loved seeing so many seeds planted and have great hopes that God will supply the increase as they continue to be invested in by the leaders here at The Well.

I’m back to Bangkok now with a full plate of projects and a healthy dose of excitement for God continuing to stir things up and move things forward in our lives and community.   And I’m sure many more lessons in humility await!

Come and See

A dear friend of mine, Amanda Goolsby, flew in to Bangkok from DC last week laden with photo and video gear ready to help us capture some of the stories of those we work with at The Well.  We wanted to give a few women an opportunity to share a bit of their story, their vision for their community and country, and share with other Thai people how they might be able to be a part of what God’s doing.  Though we’re hoping to develop more documentary-style videos in the future, we want to use this footage in the near term to reach out to the Christian business community in Thailand at an upcoming networking event.

Amanda and Jim and our makeshift video shoot set in the Bangkok heat.

The goal is to not only raise basic awareness of the issue and the needs of the ministry, but to move Thai leaders into action in an area that has been long-neglected by Thai Christians and non-Christians alike.

We didn’t script anything.  Jim asked some simple questions and the women took it from there.  And boy did they take it!  I couldn’t help but be inspired by the strength of their passion in imploring their Thai neighbors to get it.

One of the women we interviewed touched on the fact that sexual exploitation, poverty and so many other socioeconomic issues are simply accepted as a reality in Thailand.  Though some will recognize that there are indeed problems that need attention, few are willing to truly see, understand and be moved to action.

And in her words, that’s not ok.

This was the message for her Thai neighbors.  It wasn’t a plea for pity or even for resources, but was simply an invitation to “come and see”.

She invited people in to see their life.  She seemed to want the Thai people to not only know poverty exists, but to see and understand it.  To not only know exploitation exists, but to look in the eyes of someone that has been exploited and abused and know them.  To know their story.  To know their hopes and dreams for the future.

And then, only after seeing and knowing, to be moved by compassion to take part in what God is doing.

It’s one thing to recount stories of what we see with our Western eyes, to hear these stories with our Western ears, to be moved to share our Western resources.  None of those are bad things; we’re called to be moved by compassion by what we see whether it’s next door or halfway around the world.  And believe me, we need as much awareness and as much action as possible from wherever we can get it.

But, we know that for real, long-term transformation to take place here, this vision has to be taken up and carried by Thai leaders.  For that reason, it gets me excited to see Thai women sharing with and challenging Thai leaders on their home turf.  I couldn’t help but get a glimpse of hope that this is a game changer.

Shane Claiborne wrote in The Irresistible Revolution that “when worlds of poverty and wealth collide, the resulting powerful fusion can change the world.”   I’m hoping for a great collision and a powerful fusion here in Bangkok as Thais are given the opportunity to “come and see”.

So thankful that Amanda was able to come and share of her time and talents!  Praying that technology and logistics work out for us to be able to maximize the communication value of their stories and the challenge they issued.

PS… If you’re a videographer and might be interested in coming to hang out with us for a while, let me know. 🙂

Thoughts from the Streets

Two women crouched down on the dirty ground in their high heels, reapplying makeup based on the reflection they saw in the dirty glass shop door.  That image is burned in my brain and on my heart.

We’ve had a few heartbreaking nights of outreach lately.  Not that they aren’t always heartbreaking, but they’ve been hitting particularly hard lately.

Outreach is a generic term we use for the time we spend building and maintaining relationships with women in Bangkok’s red light districts. There are a few specific areas that are hubs of Bangkok’s sex tourism industry, either targeting foreigners or local residents, and this is where we spend a couple evenings during the week.

A few observations:

First, I’m not a particularly violent person, but outreach tends to bring out the fighter in me.  As heartbroken as I am for the women, I’m equally outraged by the men that are perpetuating the demand for this.  Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not just the men that are to blame.  There’s plenty of blame to throw around at the system as a whole.  Knowing this doesn’t change the fact that it’s all I can do to keep my fists to myself.

Second, I get a deeper understanding of God every time I go.  I learn how fiercely He loves His children.  I see women that are hardened from abuse. Women that have left a rather uncomfortable life in the countryside for an even more uncomfortable life working in the bars. So many unique individuals with unique stories of their road there. I catch a small glimpse of what He must see when He sees His kids broken and hiding in some pretty dark places.

For some it’s a conscious choice.  University-educated, world traveled, and working a corner to make more money than she would be able to otherwise.  For some it’s not a choice at all.  They are sold into it, guilted into it, or essentially forced to make value concessions due to economic demands placed on them.

Regardless of past or current motivation for being there, I just want these women to see more than this distorted reflection of themselves.

A few women we’ve met recently left a particularly deep impression on me.  One is a 30-year-old with a college education in communications and art. She spoke English and Japanese and served as the “big sister” or protector of three other women we met on the street.  She told us she chose to go back to prostitution because she liked it.

It’s actually not uncommon for women to respond this way early on; often the stories change greatly after you’ve had a couple more conversations. Many have a history of abuse, leading them to discount their value as a human with inherent beauty and value beyond that of their body, and making it “easier” to succumb to the allure of those neon lights, attention and cash.

Regardless of her motivation, I just couldn’t help but see the natural leader in her; a fiercely protective, loyal and obviously bright woman. She was dripping with potential.  It left me both frustrated and oddly inspired – inspired to know that God is about restoration and transformation of lives, and I can only imagine what He might have up His sleeve.

The other young woman is 19 years old with a two-year-old son that she had to leave with her mother-in-law in rural Buriram while she moved in to Bangkok to work in the bars. She didn’t want to be there but said she was pressured into it and didn’t have anything better to do.  She’s been there a month.  She said she cries a lot; she misses her son and doesn’t like it there.

Another girl from Buriram.  It gets under my skin.

Such beauty.  Such potential.  No more reflections in dirty glass windows; I want them to see what God sees.  And I want to get back out to Buriram…

All About Community

I’m three weeks in to my time here and am starting to feel settled.  I even caught myself saying “I’m heading home” today after spending the day in language classes and meetings downtown, and it didn’t freak me out to realize I was referring to “home” here.  House keys, a few essential pieces of furniture, some “artwork” from my niece on the wall and some comfort food in the fridge have helped make that happen.  But even more than real peanut butter and homemade raspberry jam in the fridge, what makes this home is the community we have here.

Geographically speaking, we live just a short walk from The Well.  For those not familiar with the organization, this is where opportunities are provided for women coming out of difficult situations to learn English, develop vocational skills and most importantly be counseled and discipled.  It also provides a safe and healthy environment for their children.  It’s the bricks and mortar of the organization here, but the heart of it is so much more than bricks and mortar.

One of the greatest blessings of being here so far has been to have my understanding of this ministry transformed and deepened.  I no longer view it as simply an incredible ministry with a sound mission and vision, but it’s an extraordinarily unique family and community that is living out the principles of the Gospel with every breath.  If there’s sickness, the community comes around them.  If there’s mistreatment, the community comes around to teach and correct.  If there’s a relapse, the community continues to love and show support, welcoming them back with open arms if and when they are ready to return.  It’s an environment of continued healing and transformation made possible by relational investment.  It’s not without its messes, but even in the mess it’s beautifully Biblical.

This past weekend we celebrated all the August birthdays.  All the families, staff and other Well volunteers joined together for an evening of games, music and food.  All were equals; all were celebrating what God has done in our lives, our families and in our community.  I can’t describe the joy that overflowed that place and felt so privileged to see it, and even more to know that I have been given the opportunity to become a part.  To walk alongside our neighbors as God works on all of us together.

That’s the macro community.  I love it.  I want more of it.  I can’t wait to see God continue to grow and transform it as He continues to touch and transform lives.

On the micro side, I’d also like to take a minute to give you a glimpse into our immediate family/community at the Volunteer House.  (We’ve also been coined “the Love Shack” but that sounds misleadingly scandalous…)

I live with three other amazing people.  First, Brooke.  The HOH.  The boss. Our friend and counselor.  She’s from North Carolina and is another long term volunteer with an incredible heart for and gift of counseling.  She coordinates the short term volunteers coming through and is being instrumental in putting together a more intentional counseling process for the women and their families.  She also “counsels” me often and has been a great friend.

Then there’s Jup. She’s stinkin’ fabulous.  She’s on staff with The Well, takes seminary classes at a local university and has about eleventy billion other responsibilities.  She brings great joy and laughter to this place and makes sure we speak Thai often. I get to have guitar jam sessions with her on demand – I love it.

Frank is also pretty stinkin’ fantastic.  (There’s a theme here… have you noticed?)  Originally from North Philly, he has an incredibly genuine, generous, passionate heart that is driven to chase Jesus and see the Kingdom advanced with no regard for personal safety or gain.  He’s playing a vital role here at the Well as a strong, devoted man of God in an environment in which male role models are hard to come by. He’s been in Thailand for a couple of years; his Thai is ridiculously phenomenal and he has been a lifesaver in helping us transition into life, culture and language here.  We’ve also dubbed him our personal bodyguard.

Beyond the blessing of the macro community, these three have been an extraordinary blessing as we face what can be daunting daily challenges in life and ministry here.  Together.

Talk about an answer to prayer for this little extroverted farm girl…  Community is a beautiful thing.

The three stooges, amigos, whatever...

Wondering what monsoon season looks like in Thailand?  This:

Very soaked but very happy housemates

Looking ahead….

Beyond the day-to-day activities and projects at The Well, I’ve started an intensive Thai language course and am starting to make some connections in the agriculture community here in Bangkok.  I’m also starting to dive into my Master’s thesis process with the goal of landing on a research topic that will lay the groundwork to address some of the deeply rooted socioeconomic issues of Thailand’s rural provinces which are “home” to many of the women we meet in the bars. It’s a crazy, daunting idea and I’ll need some significant divine intervention (and some time….) to pull it off, but I’m looking forward to the challenge!

Future posts on that front, but prayers are appreciated in the meantime!

PS….. As I write about community here, I can’t help but give a shout out to YOU reading this, wherever you might be.  Though I have entered into a new community here in Thailand, I feel doubly blessed not to have lost my community at my “other” home.  Your continued support, notes of encouragement, investment of prayer, (and the simple fact that you care enough to read my crazy posts) mean the world to me!   THANK YOU!  I couldn’t be doing this without you.

Dreams of Transformation

There are no simple issues here, nor are there simple answers or solutions.  I haven’t even been here two weeks and have already been floored by the complexity of the needs, the depth of the challenges facing the people of this nation, and the amount of time and energy it will take to see any sort of real, measurable progress by which we westerners measure “success”.

I’ve realized how much I have left to learn.

Thanks to Wikipedia you can quickly read statistics on the scope of Thailand’s deeply-rooted sex tourism industry.  The NY Times recently did a piece on the complex issues facing Thailand’s rural countryside, highlighting growing issues with drugs and violence facing the youth, added to a lack of economic opportunity, particularly for women.  Books are written about sex trafficking or sexual exploitation; causes spring up on Facebook; magazines are published to highlight the issues.

Each time I read a new article or see a new statistic I realize there are about a dozen underlying issues that are unimaginably more complex.  I’m overwhelmed enough just reading about it; seeing it firsthand and hearing the stories of individuals that are living it is exponentially more heartbreaking.

I just got back to Bangkok after spending a few days out in Buriram province – a province located in the Isan region which is known as Thailand’s poorest region.  Agriculture is the main economic driver there, but the area isn’t as productive as other parts of Thailand due to the socio-economic conditions and a hotter, drier climate.  It is a region from which a large number of men come to Bangkok to find work or women come to work in the bars.

Being there for a few days provided only a small taste of the countryside, but a taste that got my wheels spinning and my heart pumping nonetheless.

What did I see?

  • Beautiful scenery – bright green rice fields with some sugarcane, cassava and eucalyptus peppering the countryside. But it’s also peppered with small, rural communities that are clearly hurting.
  • Absent men – either physically absent as they’ve had to move to Bangkok to find work, or effectively absent as they’re caught in a vicious cycle of drinking, drugs and gambling.
  • Beautiful women and children – This truly is the “land of smiles” but behind many of those smiles is an environment where there is a severe lack of hope or opportunity for so many women.
  • Potential….. I saw a handful of Thai men and women with hearts and potential to invest in transformation.  Men mentoring young men.  Women popping up as leaders, willing to host educational seminars for family and neighbors.  I saw a few innovative economic ideas popping up with potential, spearheaded by a couple of motivated Thai families.

One of the current economic generators for women is silk-making.  It’s a tedious process but one that provides a unique opportunity for women to be able to stay home to care for their children, make some beautiful products and generate some income if they have some help marketing their products.  It’s not a panacea, but it’s one thing that can be (and is being) done now.

Women grow the worms, extract the silk, spin and dye it, and make gorgeous silk weavings.



Despite the glimpses of potential I’m seeing, it would easy to be overwhelmed and discouraged by the challenges here.  It’s overwhelming for this western mind that wants to identify a problem, come up with a solution and fix it “yesterday.”  Or at least set up a plan where it can be solved and I can report back to donors and supporters and say “Look!  Check out your return on investment.”

But I’m afraid that might not be realistic.  It’s hard for me to comprehend just how long it might take before we see real change here in Thailand.  Waiting around for results is a hard thing for me to do, but I’m going to have to be ok with it. And I’m praying that those supporting my time here will understand and be ok with that.  Even more than that, I hope that we all will realize that it’s actually a good thing in the long term.  That this is a long term investment from which we may or may not be able to see the tangible fruit in the near term, but that this is what God meant when He told us to “preach the Gospel” and “make disciples”.  It’s to invest in transformational change, understanding that transformational change takes time.

It takes time to build relationships.  To understand cultural nuance.  To understand root causes rather than surface symptoms.  To wait for God to reveal His intention in changing people and building character, which is the only way that lasting change will happen.

That said, I’m going to have to get out of my accomplishment-oriented, results-based mindset and settle in for the long haul.  And I’m going to have to ask you not to hold your breath for riveting stories about the issues going away overnight.

However, what I do hope to be able to share is stories of the road to transformation.  The cultivation of character, and how that cultivation of character will lead to changed lives and families and, eventually, communities and countries.

What does that look like?  It’s my dream to see men invested in as leaders of strong character – regaining economic opportunity and a drive to produce and care for their family.  Women experiencing healing and restoration, along with economic opportunity that enables them to stay home and care for their families as they wish to do; not requiring them to move to the city and work in the bars in order to pay to fix a leaking roof.  Children with educational opportunities and strong male and female role models, raised as the next generation of Thai leaders that wish to invest in continued development and transformation of Thailand’s rural areas.

There are a lot of people that have been here a lot longer than me and that learned these lessons long before I did. They’ve been making this investment and dreaming this dream for a long time.  The folks at The Well and the other long-term volunteers I’m working with here are an encouragement and an inspiration and I feel privileged to be able to come alongside and learn from them.

It may be discouraging to face the depth and complexity of the issues here, but our encouragement comes from knowing it’s not up to us to fix everything.  It comes from knowing that God’s heart is all about transformation and He’s the one moving here.  We’re just along for the ride.

We just have to be ok with the fact that it could be a really long ride.

All Things New

New things can be scary.  New sights, people, language, culture, climate, smells, foods, routines.  And that’s just the short list.  Add to that new lessons, new paradigms, new worldviews… These are the things I’m absorbing on a daily basis.  I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that it’s downright terrifying at times.

Timeout  for a quick example?  “Ordering” lunch (read: pointing and grunting) from a street vendor and having NO idea what I just received.  I found out later it was noodle soup with pig’s blood. Quite good, actually.  So good that I ordered it on purpose today.

The thought of not knowing how quickly or slowly I might absorb the language and culture here and regain my independence is unsettling.  The thought of not really knowing what my time here will look like or what I may or may not be able to contribute or “accomplish” is awkward and uncomfortable.  The thought of not using a western-style bathroom or a normal shower for an unspecified amount of time is….well….frightening.

Above all, the thought of being here in a new place, facing the immensity of the issue of sexual exploitation and the magnitude of the hurt and brokenness that results from it, with seemingly little to offer other than an available heart and willing hands is downright terrifying.

But I confess I can’t help but find joy in the “new”.  I’m sitting here wondering where this inexplicable peace – this comfort in the uncomfortable – is coming from.

The Revelation passage that speaks of God making all things new has been ringing through my head these last few “first days” in Bangkok where everything is new.  In the process, I’ve seen a different side of this verse.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said,

“Behold, I am making all things new.”

Revelation 21:4-5 (ESV)

In reading this passage, I’ve always simply absorbed the imagery of  God taking away all the “bad things” and replacing them with “good things” in His time, and I’ve found great joy in anticipating that day when all things are new. It can’t seem to get here soon enough, particularly when I’m exposed to sides of this life that are far from what I would consider “good” like the devastating issues of poverty, hurt and brokenness.

But I’ve always put this passage in a box.  I’ve only ever thought of it in the context of the end of time.  No more tears.  No more death.  No more “bad things.”  It’s going to be one big, happy party.  But we have to wait around for it. It’s not in our nature, I don’t think, to seek the “all things new” that God might have for us in the meantime.

We tend to think new in the here and now is scary.  It’s usually challenging and sometimes highly uncomfortable.  Sure, we all know and generally like the thought that God can make us “new creations”  (2 Corinthians 5:17) but we don’t generally like it when we’re thrown into a situation where we actually have to be new.  Or seek something new.

The little box that I’ve put this passage in is getting thrown wide open. And I’m sure my first week or so in Bangkok is only the beginning.

What I’ve learned so far:  I’ve learned it is indeed the nature of God to call us to “all things new” in the here and now.  Of course it won’t be truly finished for a while, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t chase it now.

Don’t get freaked out by this.  I’m not saying everyone should move to Bangkok.  (Although I would LOVE it if you did….)  That new can look different to everyone.  For me, it was being thrown into a new culture with a new commissioning, in order to see a new side of God’s character as He changes the lives of those around me. For many of the women I’m meeting, it’s God calling them to a new environment where they are cared for, invested in and challenged as they experience healing and restoration.  I have no idea what it might look like for you.  Maybe healing. Maybe re-commissioning.  Maybe a change of heart or a restored relationship.  Maybe something totally different.

But I’m convinced that God doesn’t call us to homeostasis.  He calls us to allow Him to make “all things new.”

We just can’t be surprised when the way it happens isn’t comfortable.  Healing and restoration aren’t comfortable.  Restored relationships aren’t comfortable, whether it’s to God, ourselves or each other.  The process of discovering and pursuing passions and callings isn’t comfortable. Being repurposed or re-commissioned isn’t comfortable.  Moving across the world – or even across town, if that’s what you’re called to do – isn’t usually comfortable.

Pretty much everything outside of complete homeostasis is uncomfortable.  On the cover, it doesn’t look like a “good thing”; in fact, we tend to equate uncomfortable with bad.  And that incorrect equation robs us of greater, “new” things that might be in store.

So, my conclusion.  Finally.  It’s the anticipation of what this “new” actually represents that’s causing this inexplicable peace and joy.  This is God’s way of yanking me out of homeostasis and re-commissioning me to live with, learn from and learn to serve these beautiful people halfway around the world.

Thailand is my “all things new” right now.  And it’s not comfortable, particularly.  But it’s good.

What’s yours?