Let it Rain

I realize I haven’t said much to offer peace of mind that we’ve stayed above the crocodile-infested floodwaters rumored to have consumed Bangkok.  So…  here you go.  After weeks of warnings that we may be submerged any day, our neighborhood is still dry and is expected to stay that way.

The water situation here truly has been a national disaster worthy of those sensational headlines circling the globe, but there’s always more to the story.

Sandbags near the Chao Phraya river after the tides subsided on Sunday.

Many districts in the north of the city and along the river remain under water and will likely stay that way for some time.   Floodwalls constructed on the outskirts of the city kept the water from drenching the economic center of Bangkok, but required the folks on the other side of the wall to endure more than their fair share of the water.

The impact on those of us that stayed dry has been limited to bare grocery store shelves and the threat of limited supplies of drinking water due to disrupted supply chains.  And, of course, all those that prepared protective concrete walls and piles of sandbags (some even with an inflatable raft out front ready for escape) look a little awkward in light of the current sunny weather and no signs of water.

This panic-ridden season, though, has caused many of us to consider the state of affairs in Bangkok and the rest of the country and let our mind wander to a myriad of flood-related analogies.

In the words of Jim Larson, our fearless leader at The Well, “…when will the flood of teens and tweens into the sex trade subside, and when will God flood this city with Heaven. Let it rain.”

The needs generated by the flood disaster aren’t going away anytime soon as the impact goes far deeper than just the water levels.  Many families remain displaced from their homes and over 350,000 have lost jobs due to factory disruptions. In addition to the millions of individuals affected – many of them in low-income brackets  – the widespread economic disruption will take some time to turn around.

I shudder to think of how few economic options are left for these individuals already living at the margins and now pushed even further. I know all too well what one of the options is.

I can only hope and pray that this nation will come together at every level with a commitment to provide creative and healthy roads to recovery, especially for those at the margins.

What’ll it take?  Well, at the very least it’ll take a lot of folks in government, the private sector and the non-profit sector putting their heads together and figuring out how to put the needs of others first.

Powerful presence, direction and intervention from the One who taught us best how to love our neighbors would certainly help…  Let it rain.

 

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The More the Merrier

Growing up as the youngest of five kids in an extroverted family with constant visitors, I’m no stranger to full houses.  Thailand, however, raises the bar on hospitality.  “The more the merrier” seems to be an unspoken cultural mantra in this country.

October is a funky month in Thailand as schools close for a month between terms, meaning our family at The Well explodes with some new energy for a month as kids and teens from our extended community are around all day, every day.  A new twist on the usual October fun and youth programs… six teenagers and three Thai interns are camping out with us at the volunteer house for the month.  That brings our house occupancy to 13, usually expanding from there as friends and neighbors join in on the commotion as well.

Every night’s a party!

Love the life and joyful noise the kids bring to the house.  Meals turn into parties and bedtime turns into a circus.   There’s something about having teenagers around that brings good perspective and optimism for the future.

Sure – a houseful of rambunctious teenagers isn’t all fun and games; it’s easy to get caught up in the never ending cycle of grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, with a side of complaints about house rules on cell phone use.  (Gaining respect for parents everywhere!)  And yet the frequent sounds of laughter, worship music jam sessions and ‘heart-to-hearts’ more than make up for the minor inconveniences of a houseful.

The kids are getting exposed to a different type of community and family than they’ve known in the past.  And… us ‘big kids’ get a unique window into what God’s doing in their hearts and lives every day.  What a blessing and a privilege!

A couple reasons I’m writing this.

One, so you can pray with us.  For all the kids that are preparing to head back to school in the next couple weeks and, in some cases, back to far less safe family and community environments.  We want these youth to have access to consistent, healthy community and are praying for God to make a way for that to happen.  We dream of these rural kids being the cycle breakers — the ones to break the trends of brokenness in their families and communities.  With that dream, we’re continuing to pray about a possible rural youth center (think Boys & Girls Club meets 4-H) but we’re still a ways off from launching.  Let me know if this piques your interest and I’ll loop you in.

And two, so you might think about your own roof.  Who’s under it?  Who are you inviting into your community?   Are you seeking out and inviting in community not only as a means of being a blessing to others, but as a means of allowing God to stretch you, teach you, encourage you and remind you just how precious and beautiful His family is?

If you’re not, you’re missing out.  After all, the more the merrier!

24 Hours

Saturday morning alarm set for 5 AM I wish I could say it was done with a joyful heart, but I’d be lying.  It had been a long week; I was tired and grumpy.  Nothing seemed to be going as planned.  Expended energy seemed to be yielding little fruit. But we knew we had to go.  Motivated by the fear of regret, we went.

Three sisters, part of our family at The Well, had a family crisis.  And when one in our family has a family crisis, we go.  A child was in the hospital in critical condition, and we hadn’t seen two of the sisters in some time.  We wanted to give hugs, prayers and encouragement. To do so would require an eight hour bus ride upcountry followed by unknown local transport to their rural village.  A few hours into the trip, a phone call informed us that both sisters had been called away to work and wouldn’t be able to meet us after all, and the child in critical condition had been taken away by his dad to a different hospital.

My first reaction?  Resentment.  Not a glamorous missionary reaction, right?  5 AM wake-up followed by an 8-hour bus ride on a rare, open weekend and nobody would be there. Seriously?  Isn’t my time more important than a wild goose chase literally across the country?

Jub smiled at my clear disgruntledness and settled in to her bus seat to catch some sleep on the way. Her calm attitude convicted me.

Almost to our destination, we called the girls’ mom directly since she was likely the only one still home. She had gotten very sick and asked us to meet her at the hospital.  We met her at the local clinic where they had given her a shot of morphine and sent her on her way.  (Thai health care at its finest.)   We followed her home, sat with her, visited, and played with the sweet one-year-old that had spent his first six months of life at The Well before going back to live with his grandma.

Mom’s signs of sickness worsened and we helped her get to a more legitimate hospital for better medical attention.  Off she went, and that was it.  Jub and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and started looking for a creative transportation mode to start our trek back to Bangkok.

We walked in the door at home almost exactly 24 hours after we had left.  Over 20 hours in a moving vehicle of various shapes and sizes, less than 4 hours of visiting, and nowhere close to fulfilling our originally intended purpose.  And yet, it seemed God knew more than we did.

Mom got the hospital attention she needed. Sisters felt cared for.  Jub got some sleep on the bus.  And I got my weekly dose of humble pie-in-the-face.

Wild goose chase?  Perhaps.  A weird way to spend a weekend?  Yep.  Thankful that God takes extraordinary measures to remind me that He’s not only in charge, but actually knows what He’s doing?  Absolutely.

Harvest

Harvest is wrapping up on the Idaho home front. My cousin sent a report a while back that one of our fields registered a record-breaking 133 bushels per acre.

I got that report during a particularly rough week in Bangkok during which I was struggling to hang on to hope of a fruitful harvest with a few cases here.  A series of drug relapses were causing downward spirals among a few students.  These added to several health crises and a myriad of other issues in our community, not to mention a few more heartbreaking nights of outreach where we realize just how much it’s going to take to break these cycles of broken rural families sending broken women to work in broken bar districts frequented by broken foreign men… Taken together, it tipped the scale enough to trigger questions and emotions that I didn’t particularly want to face.

I sat reading this bright email from home, 8000 miles away, and feeling much further even than that from a bountiful harvest.

And then I remembered.

I was around eight years old. We had a bumper crop in the fields; just waiting for another week of sun to ripen it and ready it for harvest.  We came home from church, shared our Sunday family dinner, and sat on the porch to watch a storm roll in.  But this one wasn’t an ordinary storm.  It carried enough hailstones to destroy that bumper crop in a matter of minutes.

I wasn’t very old, but I knew enough to know the consequences of those hailstones.  Completely out of our control.  Completely devastating.  But oddly, I don’t remember the devastation as much as I remember the reaction of my dad.

We watched in silence as the storm came and went.  He calmly got up, smiled, and said “There’s always next year.”

Dad illustrated a lesson for me that year that I’ve revisited many times since: We have the responsibility to plant and tend, but ultimately we’re asked to hold loosely to the work of OUR hands and instead trust in the work of GOD’s.

Put differently, harvest doesn’t always look the way we’d like it to look.  It doesn’t always fit into nice spreadsheets or “win” columns.  For me, that year of a destroyed crop provided more fruit than a bumper crop would have. It gave me a picture of faith, and of faithfulness.

It’s a picture that reminds me that success doesn’t always mean seeing the fruit of our labor in the near term.  Success means faithfulness over the long term.  It means faithfulness to the calling you’ve received, and more importantly, to the One who called.

“…if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday…”  — Isaiah 58:10


The Sweetest Melody

Bar outreach in Bangkok is a key part of our work here, but not one that I write of often.  A good friend of mine that visited this last week wrote the piece below and offered to share it as a glimpse into the world of outreach.  Thanks to Erin for joining our community here and for sharing her reflections.

The Sweetest Melody

by Erin Manfredi

You’re all out of options; this is the last resort.  You show up and sign over your name.  They give you a number and you pin it on.  It’s your new identity.  They make you stand out front so everyone can have a look; they look and they think evil thoughts about you.  The nights are long and there is so much pressure.  You have to meet your quotas or you will pay.  All they care about are numbers.  How many men, how many drinks, how many dollars.  And that’s all you are to them.  Another number.  You feel it from your family, too.  They’re all counting on you.  So you keep going.  Night after night, you continue to count.  The days turn into weeks and the weeks turn into months.  This is your life.

Tonight is just another night.  No one has come to take you away yet.  You are standing there hoping they’ll like what they see so that you can do what you have been trained to do.  Then you will walk away with a large number in your pocket.  They live for your number and you live for theirs.  It isn’t even a fair exchange.  But it’s enough for you to get by.

All of a sudden you hear your name called out over all the noise.  It sounds sweet like a melody.  It startles you.  It’s been a while since someone has called you by name.  Who could be asking for you like this?  You turn to see.  Her eyes shine from the inside out and her smile is overwhelming.  She walks towards you.  Her arms are wide open and she wraps you up in a hug.  She takes your breath away.  She says your name again and all you can do is smile.  You repeat it in your head.  It’s a beautiful name.  You feel like a person again.

She tells you she has a place for you; a place where you can leave your number behind.  You won’t need it there.  At this place, they call each other by name.  She asks about your family and about your life.  You take a seat and lift your tired feet. You wish you could go away with her.

Then your boss comes out; he’s looking at you.  You stand up and your smile disappears.  With that one glance, you remember your number.  You’re just a number.  You go back to your spot.  A man comes to you.  He buys you a drink.  You see the girl smile at you and bow her head.  One day you will go.  One day you will join her.  You watch as she waves goodbye.

You don’t know but she prays for you.  At 6am she wakes.  She writes your name in her book and she calls you out to her Father.  She reminds him constantly about you.  He looks down on her and smiles.  He smiles because he knows; He knows you by name.

He also uses numbers but not like the others; his are different.  He counts the hairs on your head.  He counts the times you sit and the times you stand.  He counts your thoughts and he counts your tears.  He counts because he loves.  He also has a place for you and he is waiting to welcome you in.  One day you will overhear him calling your name.  It will be the sweetest melody you’ve ever heard because it is written just for you.  Yes, one day you will join Him.

How ’bout Eggs?

I mentioned in the last blog post more details on some of our Buriram projects… and then I promptly fell off the face of the planet.  A quick follow-up to that.

My Father’s House is a children’s home for abandoned children and orphans in Buriram province.  The home is led by Pastor Narin Torbprakon and his wife, Kraneung, who have a heart to help at-risk boys and girls further their education in order to increase employment options outside of prostitution.  Pastor Narin and his wife have a compelling story and emulate creativity and innovation in how they run the home and desire to move toward self-sufficiency.

I spend a fair amount of my time in Buriram learning from and partnering with Pastor Narin and his family.  He’s a key partner in putting together a replicable model of self-sufficiency agriculture and spiritual formation that can be used in other villages and, hopefully, other provinces.

Our first formal partnership was in the building of an egg-laying chicken house.  (Add it to the growing list of innovative projects he has in the works, including aquaculture, hogs, vegetables, specialty rice, frogs, meat-chickens and I’m sure I’m forgetting more.  Not to mention starting the district’s only church.)  Thanks to the financial support of so many donors, I was able to partner in up-front capital costs for the chickens and start-up feed while they covered the cost of the building and materials.  The result?  Check it out.


A group of youth from the children’s home will manage the new chicken house, developing skills and responsibility and also helping move the home toward self-sufficiency as they consume and sell eggs.

PS… because I’m an agriculture geek I have to share.  In case you’re wondering why the chicken house is built over the pond?  (I’m sure you were wondering…)  The feed boxes are situated in a way that the chicken feed that naturally drops from the boxes during feeding will fall into the fish pond below and help reduce the feed costs associated with the fish operation.  Cool, eh?   

Looking forward to reporting back after the next visit how the chickens (and kids!) are faring!

Trendy

“My older sister finished school, but I can do even better.  I want to quit school, move to the city and find a foreign husband.”

This is a common attitude among Buriram girls starting in their early teens.  Many rural youth will study until the age of 11 or 12 and drop out.  Many because they’re pregnant.  Many with plans to move to the city to find work with older siblings, relatives or friends.  Some will make it to 9th grade, but are susceptible to a similar fate as those that quit three years sooner.  Even those that finish primary school with dreams of further study face a tough future as money is short for university, jobs are hard to come by close to home and the return on the few available jobs simply can’t compete with the jobs in the city.

It rattles me to see the economic situation in Buriram, to talk to community members aware of the issues, to see the blank faces on a few young girls lacking hope for a future different than that of their mom or sisters….  And then to come back to Bangkok, head out to the bars for outreach and sit down with a new friend.  Hear her story.  Hear her say she quit school and moved to Bangkok when she was twelve.  She worked in a food shop for a few years and now is working in the same bar as her older sister.  Where from?  Buriram province.  Prakonchai, to be exact.  Funny – yet not funny at all – that Prakonchai neighbors Prang’s village and is home to my oft-frequented bus stop in Buriram.

I wrestle a lot with this picture; the urban migration patterns are obvious to the naked eye.  Bus stops in Buriram populated with men and women making their way to Bangkok for work.  The men most often in construction.  The women in small food stalls, restaurants, or often in one of Bangkok or Pattaya’s abundant entertainment establishments (read: sex tourism industry).

Packed buses leaving broken villages.  One or both parents leave kids to be raised by grandparents while they seek work in the city.  Kids grow up with little or no parenting and little motivation for education.  Abuse.  Neglect.  Poverty.  Brokenness.  This is often all they know.

Except they see that their neighbor or relative or sister or friend went to the city and sent home a wad of cash from her work there.  Another came back with a foreign boyfriend and she now has a big house and money.  She might not love him, and he might not stay around long, but at least she has money and something going on.

And now this young pre-teen girl wants to have something going on too.  She decides that’s her goal.  She’s going to go find a foreign husband.  The best way to do that is to move into the city and find a job, the location of which is a detail often omitted from stories back at home.  As my Thai counterpart tells me, “this is Thai trend, Cori.” 

Oh, how I wish Thai teenage trends were as simple as boy bands and bracelets.

What can compete with these trends?  What can break the cycle of parents going to the city for work, and daughters and sons following suit?  What can restore hope and pride in these rural villages?   These are questions too complicated for a blog post, but they’re what rattle me at night and get me up in the morning.  They’re the focus of my prayers, and an invitation for you to join in prayer as well.

On a happy note, because I would prefer to end on happy thoughts:  There are some powerful things happening in Buriram right now.  I spent a couple weeks there this month, doing some research prep and helping with a two-week community-wide music camp hosted by a local agriculture-based orphanage and church.

Teaching guitar lessons and pouring concrete for a new chicken house made my heart happy.  So did the thought of God redefining what’s trendy in Buriram.  I’ll save more on that for a later post…