Day 13: Letter to Daughter (in prison)

Today I’m going to show you most of a letter I just sent to a young woman, 25, in prison for two years. She had a hard life before we met her; when she was in sixth grade her mother died. With her father already in prison, she was on her own. But like everyone else, she learned to survive. Intelligent and confident, she was a leader in some pretty bad stuff; in fact when we first met her we considered her too big of a risk for The Well. But as we stayed in touch and saw a desire for change, we agreed to give her a chance. Indeed there were rocky spots, but she began to warm and change; and we saw even more of her potential. As so often happens, old thinking patterns snuck in, and she got arrested not long after leaving The Well. I consider it God’s mercy.

I am drawn to tough cases. I view wild and hard young people as wonderful challenges, because inevitably if and when you can build trust, you find a vulnerable heart that was forced into self-protection. Provide safety and affirmation, and the diamond begins to shine. This woman did not easily trust Jesus. She’s smart; a deep thinker. But I’ve found consistently that when we see clues of God’s touch on a heart, in the long run we see His work growing in completion. 

This letter reflects that perspective. Early on, when I see someone open to God’s love, I start inviting her to be my future co-worker. “You’re going to be able to help people so much more than I can,” I let them know. I’m in no hurry at all for it to happen; I just know God can outlast the hardest heart.

I’ve translated from Thai back to English, and have let it be a bit awkward. In informal Thai conversation, familial terms are generally used in place of personal pronouns. So I say, for example, “Paw rak luuk”, i.e. “Dad loves (his) child”. I’ve decided to translate literally because it does provide a warm nuance that might be unfamiliar to Westerners. (Similar to John calling his readers, “dear little children”.)

Dear Daughter,

The truth is that Dad misses Daughter very much. Dad thinks of you often with love and warmth of heart. Because Dad thinks about the beauty of Daughter; how Daughter wants to love and care for people the same as Dad likes to do. Dad still considers us as a work team. Dad has a plan that we will always be close. Dad hopes Daughter is okay with his plans … 🙂 Daughter is taking care of herself for Dad, right? 😀

Dad hopes that Daughter is seeing time there as an opportunity, not a waste of time. Because in God, there is no such thing as wasting time. God did not create us to accomplish anything, because God can do everything. He doesn’t need people to help, hahaha. God created us only for this: that we will see with amazement. And we can see like this in every place and every situation, and then we do what God has already accomplished. Doing like this is so fun.

“For we are the workmanship of God, made in Christ Jesus to do the good things God already has prepared for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

Daughter has joined the Christian group, right? Dad is sure Daughter has grown a lot these two years in understanding life. And more than that, in understanding the unconditional love of God. Dad believes that Daughter is a leader for sure, leading people in good ways. Dad is excited for when you will get out, and we will see each other often. And we will be a team helping each other in living life, and also loving others in need.

With so much love,
Dad Jim

Day 12: Learning to Wait, Part 3

Twelve days into this project it’s starting to weigh on me. I don’t feel like I write well naturally–I have to work at it, so these posts are certainly not the best writing I have ever done. To make things easier on myself, and for a bit of a change, I’m going to post a conversation I had today with an alumni who contacts me from time to time via online chat. She has been at The Well a few times, at first as a 15 year-old about a dozen years ago. Since then it has been, well, a journey. But she’s settled down now, with a good husband and a son. 

Mention to almost anyone that you like to work with difficult teens and you’ll get an eye roll. But I really do. I don’t recommend it for those who need to see quick results. But I guarantee this: anything we do that shows troubled kids that they are precious is not forgotten. It may not look like it at the time, but any Word of God that we say and back up with unconditional love will stick, take root and grow.  

“How are you. Dad”  [She often likes to write in English.]

“Hi beautiful daughter! I am fine thank you. How are you?”

[Sends animated photo GIF of a guy exclaiming, “Oh my G…”] 

“Am OK.”

“Good. How is your family?”

“Yes. So happy.
Do you work today.”

“Yes I am working.
Where are you?”

“Korat”  [A province]
“Miss you daddy.”

“Miss you too.”

[Animated cartoon GIF: a dancing bear.]

“I will hope to see you .
55555″ [“hahahahaha”. The number 5 in Thai is pronounced “ha”.]

“Yes I hope so.”

“II ask my parents to be healthy.” [She means, Judy and me.]

“I forgot to tell youI talked to a friend.” 
[Name of another former teen alumna from 2006]

“Oh good.
She told me she will go to church on Sunday.” [The friend had also contacted me out of the blue the other day.]

“We talked to forget about the beat and return to love the same.” [This is probably Google Translate for, “We talked about forgetting about our fighting and love each other again.” 

“So good.”

“We gossip with you.,
We talk about love at a young age.
We are very stiff to escape you.   [Google again: “We were stubborn and ran away.”]
But thank you for the love of you and God.
That makes us conscious of grace all the time.”

“Love you an daddy.”

[Animated photo GIF: two cats sleeping cuddled together.]

“Awwww so sweet.
“Thank you.

[Animated cartoon GIF:5 rabbits spinning around a heart.]

Day 11: Learning to Wait, Part 2

Yesterday I wrote about learning to wait on the often long healing process that people need to go through. Today I’m going to look at the time it takes to reach our ultimate goal of building a transformational leader.

Call me an old fuddy-duddy or a slow learner, but the older I get the more I am convinced that in general, we start people in Christian ministry before they’re ready, and retire them in their prime. Judy and I have been at this business together for 39 years–we first started in 1979, visiting people in a run-down Chicago neighborhood, and teaching Bible to chronic mentally ill folks. And while admittedly we have focused on the harder side of life, we feel we still have so much to learn.

With the folks we work with, there are extra obstacles. Very few come to us with a high-school education. Many have finished sixth grade or even less. Many also work to support children, and sometimes other family, so finding time to learn is difficult. Then there is the sad reality that reading for self-improvement is simply not a valued habit among the lower class. The Thai Bible is generally difficult to read for many, including not only high vocabulary but specialized, royal language. 

So I’ve learned to be very ok with leader development taking a really long time. And it has been well worth the wait.  We now have some precious, hardworking co-leaders on our team, and some are are beginning to have influence in other places. I have written so far this month about Junie and Prang. Sorn and Gik have M.Div. degrees, and Gik now works with the Thailand Bible Society. Dao and Bpop reach out to others constantly. Onn and Ann are stable mentors to many. Sa has worked tirelessly to keep our non-profit in the good graces of government bureaucrats. 

Yesterday one of our alumna, Faang, 28, stopped in to our cafe. She credits her administrative experience, managing our Narimon stock and shipping, for giving her useful work skills. She now is working in real estate, mostly with condo rental and sales. “I made a goal this year to lead two people to Christ,” Faang told me, and I made it. But next year I really want to disciple them.”

Today Faang was back, her two beautiful daughters in tow. She had made an appointment with one of our alumna who has been struggling a bit. Faang was there to teach her how to make a snack food that she could sell for a decent profit. “Next year I hope to start volunteering at The Well three days a week,” Faang told me. 

Day 10: Learning to Wait

We have loved living and working in Thailand for over 14 years, and are very grateful to God for moving us here. But one of our biggest disappointments, that has required the most adjustments, is the time factor. In our reach-teach-send mission of The Well, the teach-send part has taken far longer than we had hoped. 

One of the hardest lessons for anyone working with hurting people is dealing with the self-destructiveness, in the form or addictions, that can result from multiple traumas. This was especially hard for me early on here, seeing how hurt and vulnerable were the women we were meeting. Their stories of being terribly mistreated only lit a fire in me to save them from such horrible unfairness. 

And indeed they need salvation. But it if only it were so simple as leading them to safety. As someone working with trafficking rescue in Cambodia told me, “When you open the door of a closed brothel, the girls don’t come running out.”

The heavily traumatized mind has been taught to think wrong. It knows nothing of living for meaning and connection with others. Getting through another day is success enough, and if that requires a few stiff drinks to handle the stress, so be it. Trust no one. Lie often.

The way out of this trap takes time. And for the caregiver wanting to help, it requires patient waiting and praying. Well-intended attempts to speed up the process instead become stumbling blocks to the shame-riddled mind of a childhood trauma survivor.  

I now hang on to three go-to statements of Jesus, that are my paradigm as a caregiver (I credit Henry Blackaby for pointing them out):

  • “My Father is always working, and I am working.” John 5:17
  • “The Son can only do what He sees the Father doing.” John 5:19
  • “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.” John 6:44

These statements are immensely helpful. I can’t change anyone, but I can trust that a) the Father brought her to us and b) therefore the Father is working in her, drawing her. It’s ok if it takes many years.

Indeed, over the last decade many have left and come back, some multiple times. It is still a cycle of hope and disappointment, but now with more optimism. The seeds God has planted are growing.

Last month a woman I hadn’t heard from in about 9 years got in touch, promising to visit. Another wayward alum contacted me yesterday–she just moved and wanted me to help her find a church. Another asked for prayer. Another told me recently that she is part of a small group of alumni from The Well from about 8 years ago that keep in touch regularly. 

“We talk about The Well all the time,” she told me. 

Day 9: Prang: Fellow Servant

In 2004 I came with a small team to visit Bangkok, a few months before we moved here. On our first night visiting one of the Western-oriented sex tourist spots, we met Prang. She was standing in front of an agogo bar, wearing hot pants and tall boots. “Do you like working here?” Kate Wagner (now Kate Allen) asked. “No,” was Prang’s emphatic response. We paid the bar fee for Prang and her cousin to spend time with us, and a few nights after that. By the end of our 2-week trip, Prang had given herself to Jesus.

Over the past 14 years Prang has grown immensely in following the Lord and serving others, hanging in there, mostly in her small home town in the Buriram province. All while raising a son and daughter as a single mom. Prang came back to work with us in Bangkok in 2015, but earlier this year returned home.

Prang has an immense servant heart. I have never known her to say no to a request to help someone in need, even when it means going out of her way. She regularly tells me about someone that she is reaching out to, whether a neighbor or a fellow alum from The Well.

Prang is working on supporting herself through small farming, but one option we have tried to help her develop is silk products. Northeast Thailand is known for its fully handmade silk, so we’ve made some attempts at finding new export markets that could perhaps help keep more young women from leaving for the city. A promising item that has done fairly well are these scarves, woven by women in a co-op that Prang helped to start and coordinate. 

These pictured are 30x180cm, and may be ordered from Thailand for $25 each plus shipping, with quantity discounts available. You can still order in time for Christmas. 

Day 8: Fragile “Marriages”

When Judy and I were first getting to know bar girls, we often heard women say, “I got pregnant and dropped out of school. He was good for two years, then….”

A key cause of the sex industry is a cultural milieu, at least among the lower working class, of quick, fragile sexual relationships, starting in the teen years. The vast majority completely follow their feelings into informal marriages, that then fall apart when feelings change. Of course often by that time there is a child, sometimes still on the way.

So we spend a good bit of time trying to help repair these young families before they break apart. Few couples that we meet are legally married, but we have chosen to view them as common-law while we try to help those that can more towards a legal union. Some really have no chance, simply because either or both is also involved with someone else. Others have ended with a multi-year prison sentence for drugs. But we have to try.

I chat frequently with “Da”, 23, whom we have known for several years. Da was always a bright girl, full of potential, and had she stayed with our assistance could have a university degree by now. Instead she now lives in her home province and works a retail job six days a week, supporting not only her two children but her young “husband” while he runs around. 

“I do everything for him,” Da laments. “I chose him even though my family didn’t like him. I thought I could put up with his bad character. But I can’t. I cry every time he does the same things I don’t like. It’s been 4 years. I can’t go anywhere. I love him too much to leave. I have so much fear. 

“I feel sorry for my children.”

That last statement comes up often when talking to women caught in these relationships. Most of them grew up fatherless, so feel desperate to hang on, even at great sacrifice. 

Naturally we do our best to coach and counsel. At the very least we are able to provide encouragement and a listening ear. When we see a true harmful situation we help get her and her children to safety. In other cases we encourage her to stop fighting, complaining etc., following Peter’s advice in 1 Peter 3:1-6. Indeed we have seen a few couples become fairly healthy.

Da says her man is not violent, so I am encouraging her with that strategy. “It’s going ok,” she told me today. “Not fighting, so I figure that’s good.”