Posts Tagged ‘ Bar Outreach ’

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.

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A Boy Named Solomon

I met a precious family on a concrete overpass over one of Bangkok’s busiest thoroughfares the other night.

A 32-year-old mother with two little girls – ages 4 and nearly 1. Her son joined us a little while later.  When we asked how old he was, he asked his mom whether he should tell his real age or the age he uses when he’s asking for food or money. She told him he could tell us the truth. 11. But he gets more money and food if he tells people he is only 6, and he could certainly pass for that age based on his small size.

But what he lacks in size he makes up for in personality and wit.  As much as I fell in love with the mom and her sweet daughters, I was fascinated by the little boy.

I call him Solomon.

They’ve been in Thailand for some time, having migrated across the border from Cambodia after her husband left her for another woman and sold their house, leaving her with nothing except her sweet children. Cambodia had nothing for them – not even food. They’re able to at least find food in Thailand, though that doesn’t mean it’s easy. One of the many dangers, she’s left to fend off a Japanese man who approaches her on a daily basis offering her 100,000 baht (~3,300 USD) to buy her beautiful little 1-year-old daughter.

Jup and I had a blast playing with the kids, singing Thai kid songs with them and listening to Mom sing an old Christian hymn in her native tongue, all the while getting weird looks from passers by, both foreign and Thai.  Some looked on with pity.  Others looked somewhere between perplexed and disgusted as we sat on the dirty ground sharing food and laughs in the “home” of this homeless family.

At lot about this particular night left me unsettled.  The thought of people lurking waiting to purchase and traffic homeless kids. Juxtaposing the kindness of the poor street vendors that had purchased a mat for this family so they didn’t have to sleep on the ground with the ambivalent wealthy folks passing by in their rush to the next entertainment stop. The list goes on.

But I was distracted from the injustices of the situation by the sheer potential I saw in little Solomon.

When we asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, he said he wanted to be a soldier because “I want to protect Thailand. I love Thailand. Thai people have good hearts.” Hungry for knowledge, he wants to be able to speak good Thai and English…and he threw in Chinese for good measure too.

We took him and his sister to the 7-Eleven nearby to buy some milk and food and a couple simple art supplies. Solomon’s sister wanted an expensive art set, but he quickly told her that he found one that was just as good but much less expensive.

We then went to the milk aisle and asked Solomon which kind he likes to drink.  Of the two options, he pointed to the first one and matter-of-factly stated that, though this one would make him healthy, the second one would make him clever.

He chose clever.

Precious.

I sincerely hope this isn’t the end of the story. We’re exploring ways to help this family, but the list of complications is long.

What will it take to give clever little Solomon some hope for his future?

I can’t help but think that if Solomon and his family are given some hope for their future, it might help give Thailand and Cambodia some hope for theirs.

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

1 Corinthians 1:26-29

Christmas All Over the World

90 degrees notwithstanding, it’s Christmas-time in Bangkok.

Caroling over the weekend in and around our neighborhood ushered in the Christmas spirit in style.  For the record, I’m a fan of caroling Thai-style…. shorts, flip flops, piled in the back of a songtaew (converted pickup truck with benches in the back) and each stop generally results in being invited in for food in mass quantities.  Ice cream might replace hot cocoa and “kha haai mii kwaam suk nai wan Christmas le suk san wan bpii maai” takes the place of “we wish you a Merry Christmas”, but degrees of Christmas joy certainly aren’t contingent on language, climate or any other tradition that we hold so dear for Christmas in America.  My personal favorite part of the caroling evening was a random stop at our local open-air market (adjacent our oft-frequented 7-Eleven) for a few songs, much to the embarrassment of half the singing crew as they felt overly exposed in our Santa hats and reindeer antlers amongst n0t-quite-strangers-but-not-yet-friends.

An evening of Christmas songs in Thai and English laced with laughter made for good soul food, and the nine stops with meals/food at each one ensured I won’t actually need another meal until Christmas.

Caroling was just the start, though.  Tonight kicked off a series of Christmas parties of varying shapes and sizes, hosted by a number of ministries in Bangkok with hearts for men and women in the sex industry.

A group of us from The Well spent the evening in Chinatown sharing gifts with women with whom we have relationships and meeting some new friends.  We find some of the hardest of the hard stuff in our trips to Chinatown; stuff that’s not comfortable or particularly fun to share.  A picture: One woman with two young boys, ages 9 and 11…  They sleep in a storefront on one of the main streets where the girls work and the boys suffer from major skin problems due to mosquito bites from sleeping in the open air.  The 11-year-old brother recently “ran away” for a while, which we later found out consisted of leaving with some foreign customers; he was back tonight.  We went to see them earlier this week to bring them to The Well (at their request) but an abnormal cool/dry season rainfall foiled our plans and they didn’t show.  After spending some time with them tonight, they said they will come check out The Well tomorrow.  We’re hoping  and praying they actually will.  Please pray for this precious family and the many others with whom we’re developing friendships in Chinatown.

Tomorrow night Jup and I will be joining a group of volunteers from the “Home of New Beginnings” ministry as they host a Christmas party for women working in Soi Cowboy and Nana, two of Bangkok’s main red light districts.  Between 400-600 women are expected to join in the festivities over the course of two evenings.  These parties provide a beautiful opportunity for women to experience a gift of love and hear about the true meaning of Christmas; for many it will be the first time they hear the story of Jesus.   Praying that those that attend will experience a love beyond anything they’ve known and be given real, tangible hope for new beginnings.

We’ll be hosting a “smaller” gathering here at our house over the weekend for the women with whom we’ve developed closer friendships — just an evening of food, fun and an opportunity for some of the women at The Well to share their victorious stories with women who face what they too once faced.  Spaghetti’s on the menu at the request of a few of our girls — not exactly a traditional Christmas dinner, but their wish is my command!  (Green curry will also be on the menu since Thai people rarely truly enjoy Western food even if they request it…) Praying that it will be an evening that blesses the girls this Christmas and gives them yet another glimpse of love and hope for freedom.

A good friend that has begun a ministry (called dton naam ministries) specifically reaching out to ladyboys will be hosting a Christmas gathering next week as well at their coffee shop which is nearing completion.  I’m a huge fan of this ministry and heart to provide opportunities for ladyboys to leave prostitution and gain legitimate job skills while receiving healing physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Please keep Celeste, her staff and this unique and very important ministry in your prayers this next week and heading into the new year!

Parties, gift giving, preparing to pour out joy and messages of hope … it’s all very “Christmas-y” and yet not at all like any Christmas I’ve experienced.   My prayers are much different than they used to be; I find myself unsure what even to pray.  It seems trite to pray for ‘peace and joy” for women, men and families that have endured so much and have so little to look forward to.  I can pray that they experience the love of Christ and a message of hope, but even that seems…well… tired, for lack of a better word.

Isaiah 25:5 leapt from the pages this last week:  “You subdue the noise of the foreigners; as heat by the shade of a cloud so the song of the ruthless is put down…  God will wipe away tears from all faces… let us rejoice and be glad!

Amazing how God gives new pictures and fresh perspectives at just the right time to remind us what to hope for and how to pray.

I’m praying this week that “the noise of the foreigners” and the “songs of the ruthless” would be subdued completely.  Those noisy voices of customers that tell women they’re worth nothing more than $10-20 per night.  Those songs that tell them their destiny was written when they were born into their respective social class or economic situation. That they’re “used goods” that have no worth or value.  That their situation of poverty and/or exploitation is hopeless.

I’m now envisioning — and trusting — that God will use these opportunities over the next week to turn down the volume knob of that noise.  That it would be silenced if even for a moment to allow room for messages of truth, love and hope to seep in.  And that these moments would lay the foundation for a more permanent silencing of those voices; for tears to be replaced with rejoicing and for many ‘new beginnings’ as we head into a new year.

We would love your prayers as we continue through what is a big week for many ministries here in Bangkok.

Bring on the Christmas cheer!

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…

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