It is always hard to explain The Well, or what Judy and I do, in a short time. So this month I have decided to write 31 short posts that each feature an individual, or in some cases a family, with whom I have contact on a regular basis. A few are at The Well now, some are alumni; some I have known since children. For those who have time to read them, I hope they are able to put together a reasonable picture of why we are here and what we do.
A couple days ago I wrote about our approach to the question of which is more important, prevention work with children or intervention with broken adults. A key point was that when we follow Jesus and live with people in need, we do both together.
We have known and loved Dao, our dear friend, daughter and now fellow worker for over 14 years. Her long and difficult story is worthy of a book and movie, and for our ministry, an epic story of the long and difficult process of intervention, beginning when a fellow bargirl brought her to our house in November 2004.
But another part of Dao's story is her four children, now ranging in age from 15 to 23. The early part of their life included a lot of uncertainty and trauma. Now they are amazing; a prevention success. Dear, the oldest, is in her third year working towards a psychology degree. Disk and Porsche are doing very well in school. But I want to highlight Jean, 18. He is in the top 1% of his class, and plans to either start university or take a gap year if he can get an ... Read More
We just got back from a 2-night getaway to a very pleasant resort on the southeast coast. Our son Luke is visiting from the U.S., so it seemed appropriate.
There is no need for our northern readers to be jealous, however. We only make it to the beach about once a year. Our life and work keeps us pretty tied to Bangkok.
While Bangkok has its interesting and beautiful places, most of its neighborhoods look pretty much the same: crowded, dense and dirty. 90% of buildings use the same concrete post-beam architecture. Its extensive network of canals is purely practical, for drainage, not for scenery, so while some have walkways most are far from pleasant, with garbage and a constant odor of sewage.
But Bangkok overflows with the beauty of its millions of people. The Thai word for cute is literally “lovable”, and it can refer to anything or anyone, including a kind gentleman. We use it a lot.
Love is simply ... Read More
From time to time I hear someone state a preference for prevention work with children over rescue and recovery with adults. E.g. something like, "It's better to help children before it's too late." It is a very understandable perspective. And of course prevention is right and all-important. But is it better?
Say you commit to sponsor a child, age two. You plan on staying with that child until adulthood, in other words 16 years. Now, if it also takes years and significant money to help an adult to health, one who was never properly parented or taught, is that not just as worthwhile?
Ultimately, we would rather look at this question another way. Ministry like Jesus is best managed by incarnation, not issues. As Jesus became flesh, we believe it is best to move into a community and seek to be like our neighbors, learning to enjoy their food, their music, and understand their jokes. We invite our neighbors into our homes.
We meet children who are being poorly parented, and get to know their parents, or sometimes grandparents. We seek to love and bless them in any possible way to ... Read More
I have written a few posts this month called “Learning to Wait”, which mostly have to deal with getting used to the fact that it often takes years for people to change. But I haven’t addressed the dynamics of why it takes so long, and why that’s ok.
I just got a message from “Boon”. He sent photos of his 3 sons and photos of gifts he is taking to them this week. The boys are in a boarding school in northern Thailand, and we have helped him earn enough income to go visit.
Boon is one of those nice guys that rocks when he is clean, but has trouble staying on the wagon. He can do very well for months at a time, then fall apart. Each time we have been able to help him and his wife and mother of his three sons reunite. But after a hard relapse this year, the marriage appears to be over.
Sometimes I like to call Boon "teacher", only half joking. He is intelligent, and has good insight when studying the Bible.
But Boon's is another one of those stories of the ... Read More
One of our priorities (see our Core Values), following the life of Jesus, is the elevation of women. Our intent therefore at The Well is not simply to provide safety and healing for women, but opportunity limited only by their ability. I get a laugh when I tell women that if they want to go to Harvard we will do anything we can to help them get there, but I mean it. Of course they have to be realistic and willing to work long and hard, I also remind them.
We find it thrilling to dream of women out of The Well becoming transformational leaders, in whatever field of work. Most had long given up any thought of completing high school, let alone entering a professional career. Next year we’re looking at helping Dao, Junie, Kay and Cream start university studies. Others are doing high school equivalency with hopes for higher learning after that. Granted, many live with the practical reality of motherhood. Their priority for the time being needs to be parenting, but in my mind that simply provides a delay that allows them to continue growing and gaining experience.
God's ethical paradigm ... Read More
In Bangkok the only houses without perimeter walls are slum shacks. Even the houses of the wealthy, in gated communities heavily populated by security guards, have high walls isolating each from the others. As foreigners we cannot own land, but if we could I would buy a home and tear out the yard walls, just to make a statement.
In classic urban style, those gated communities are quiet oases, peaceful islands set apart from the noise and dirt of the city, often adjacent to low-income neighborhoods. Their entrances are like portals to other worlds, where guards take your i.d., write down your license number and dismiss you with a snappy heel-clicking salute.
I am wired to think idealistically, and find everything from social injustice to environmental disrepair frustratingly unnecessary. For instance, there is massive wealth in Thailand; the latest megamall was recently opened, at a cost of US$ 1.5 billion. there is no reason why our daughters should have to resort to prostitution, or why the canal behind our apartment should smell like a sewer.
There are two ways to exist in ... Read More
This title is maybe a little click bait, but now that I have your attention....
When my friend Kevin Kane was in town a month ago, I invited him to interview a couple of women at The Well and write something about it. He interviewed Kay and Cream, two lovely women who have both been through a lot but are in a really good place.
Kevin told me that in his conversation with Kay he brought up Philippians 2, for a reason I don’t remember. That chapter has an amazing poetic summary of Paul’s understanding of Jesus, written to encourage his readers to similarly selfless thinking.
Paul’s language in verse 6 is a bit idiomatic so awkward to translate, but something like, “Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped....” Kay read in Thai and then summarized it perfectly in English:
“Jesus didn’t need to be God.”
In monotheism the main idea that God is all-this and all-that leads people to think of bigness. And obviously the immensity of the universe and the count of hair strands ... Read More
For we who love following Jesus, his birth story not only doesn't get old, but it gets more wondrous. The more we grow in connecting with others, loving to care for and serve them, and find new ones to "seek and save" (Luke 19:10), the more we enjoy thinking about this very cool scheme that God pulled off in sending His Son.
I'm behind, writing late Christmas day, and will have to catch up with posts 25-26 tomorrow. Yesterday was spent preparing then pulling off a community outreach event for Christmas in our nearly completed remodeled garden, with over 100 in attendance.
One thing that troubles us in working with the poor is how little they experience awe and wonder. Many have never experienced a mountain or a secluded beach. We started out planning this event hoping to share some of the wonder of Jesus, but we realized that we wouldn't be able to pull it off for this very reason. Not knowing awe or reverence, folks just don't keep their kids quiet, but just let them talk away even during a serious message. So we kept it a party atmosphere and did state ... Read More
I'm trying to finish a year-end update on The Well. Here is a part of what it covers:
Thanks to advancement in understanding the workings of the brain, a major transition is happening in mental health science. We now understand fairly well how experience, beginning in early childhood, leads to changes in the brain and body that result in mental illness in adulthood, including addiction.
Here is a link sent to me the other day by my long-time good friend Tom McNally that summarizes this new paradigm:
Treating the results of childhood trauma is still far from a slam dunk in every case, but for us even working at the lay level with now higher-degreed specialists, this knowledge has been a game changer. And perhaps it should come as no surprise that this knowledge fits amazingly well with the the Gospel of Jesus.
The number one insight that arises out of the trauma-based understanding of dysfunction is that fear causes disconnection. The parts of the brain disconnect from each other, and individuals disconnect from others. The first ... Read More
I mentioned in Day 10: Learning to Wait that an alumni from 9 years ago got in touch recently. Today I chatted online with "Nat" for a while, and asked her if she had any goals for her future. I already knew the answer, but it was a way to get things started.
"I still can't think about the future," Nat replied. Not only does she have to support her own daughter, Nat told me, but four nieces and nephews whose parents are in jail. She also has to help support her parents. "Right now everyone at home depends on me as the oldest daughter." It's the sad, all-too-normal life of the young northeastern Thai woman.
Nat is bright, but with no diploma she has only one option for an income at the level she needs. She is also pretty and personable, so has earned a lot at that business. But it takes its toll, and has no future. She was only 17 when she was at The Well, had already been "working at night" and with us was hoping for a change, but family pressure forced her back. Now here she is ... Read More
Long day today, getting our new "Connect Garden" ready for the public. A long-planned and slow transition to The Well becoming more community-centered is happening. We will be putting out a report to explain this in a few days. Connect Garden along with Connect Community Center are designed to be safe hangouts for people of all ages and social classes.
We're getting the garden ready for a Christmas event on 12/24, so I spent a good part of the day dealing with lighting and setup. It still won't be completely finished until sometime in January.
I ran into Kay this afternoon. She and her son were sick but she stopped in to work on a song she's doing for the Monday event. Kay was extremely happy, which is now the norm for her. In fact she's become something of a Miss Positive.
We have known Kay since 2005, and she is our son Nathan's birthmom. Kay's journey in life has been a complete odyssey that includes unfathomable hurt and hardship; ... Read More
Woke up late at 8am. I've been kept awake with some lower back pain. Exercise helps, so I walked the mile to The Well.
Checked in at Connect, our coffee shop. Saw Mint, whom I wrote about yesterday. She said she was still happy. Made me coffee.
Prepared some thoughts for our Thai staff on writing personal fundraising letters; then met with them for that at 10. Missionary giving isn't very known in Thai churches, so we know it will take time for our workers to raise support, but we have to start somewhere in weaning dependence off of U.S. giving.
Team prayer 10:30-11, mostly about outreach concerns.
Talked with Dao and Bpop about two people they are concerned with. I haven't written yet this month about these two amazing and dear co-workers and best friends. Dao was one of our first "Well-ers" in 2005; I think we met her then-boyfriend Bpop in 2008. They married in 2014. They are a hardworking, compassionate team, always caring for others.
They wanted to make sure that a 16 year-old street prostitute Dao has worked with for some ... Read More
I just got a text message from "Mint", 19. She is at a Christmas outreach that a group from The Well is doing for women that work the street in another neighborhood. Mint wanted me to know that she is happy as a clam.
Mint is on her second round at The Well. She spent several months when she was 17, left for nearly a year, then decided to come back, saying she really wanted to change.
For most of the year, Mint was rarely happy. When I learned her story, that included some abandonment and rough street stuff I won't share here, I was not at all surprised. She generally wore a blank expression that could either look sad or hard. I often ask women if they're happy and if so, how much. Most days Mint reported either none, or just a little.
What I've learned to look for, and usually do find in these cases, is a gentle, tender heart dying to connect, but bound up in years of self-protection. Sadly, of course, to the untrained eye it's a wall, which causes an impasse as others throw up their own defenses ... Read More
Social skill did not come naturally for me. I was the kid who shrank even more when adults would comment, "Oh, bashful." ("You're not helping," I would think.) Even well into adulthood I couldn't naturally look people in the eye, and had to force myself by rote. I wished I could be like others who seemed to smile warmly and naturally when greeting others.
Now at age 61 and after years of practice, I love looking people in the eye and smile easily. And I would like to encourage other naturally shy people to work on becoming healers.
This line jumped out at me more than any other in Bessel van der Kolk's watershed book on trauma recovery, The Body Keeps the Score: "Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being."
Indeed we've been stunned at the level of hurt that people have caused some of the folks we know, but we have also been astounded at healing we've seen, along with the exciting realization that it's only going to get better as our small community becomes ... Read More
Today Tanya and her friend, Phern, traveled to Su-ngai Kolok, a town on the Malaysian border. It is Tanya's third trip and Phern's second, to help Kylie Hobern and her team do some outreach for Christmas.
Two and a half years ago Tanya came to live with us, just after she had finished high school. Her mother was at The Well, but they were not doing well together. Tanya was depressed, and despite being a good student, had not applied to a single college. With the help of See, our staff counselor, we convinced Tanya's mom to let her join our family for a while.
I could brag about a lot about Tanya but won't embarrass her since she might read this. Suffice it to say that it's been a joy having her in our home, and not only because she's a great Thai cook. When she came, we sat down to lay out expectations. "We don't know how long you'll be here," we said. "A month, a year, we don't know. But while you're here, we'd like you to be willing to be accountable and let us teach you as a daughter." Tanya agreed, ... Read More
A well-known Thai proverb is "Where there is effort, there is success." It sounds good and most would agree with it. However sometimes I change it a bit.
Where there is effort, sometimes you get nowhere.
I sometimes make this cynical statement to people who resist our offers for help. While we have to fight dependency when helping the poor, we also do run across those who feel either too proud or too undeserving to receive any help at all. This includes women so ashamed to receive charity that they would rather sell their bodies.
Folks in poverty culture know bottomless pits all too well. And while Thailand has a growing economy and opportunity, there are common prerequisites that close doors to many, such as lack of a high-school diploma, or a prison record. Another infuriating one is age bias: many corporate employers won't consider an applicant over age 35.
The minimum wage, at $10/day, makes it very difficult for parents to save money. Insert one unplanned expense, and people have to borrow. Pawn shops of course run a thriving business, but for those with nothing to hock, their only ... Read More
If you've been reading some of these posts, you may have picked up that I like talking about the precious 'children' we've been blessed to love. Some of these and their families have changed wonderfully and dramatically while others still struggle. But just as with 'real' children, love doesn't depend on them. God made each one amazing, whether he or she gets it or not, and we hold out hope that God will complete His purpose for each, and that maybe we will get to see it.
I set out on this project with a rough idea of stories to share. But I have been keeping it day-by-day for a very specific reason: while we always need support and prayer here, it is my biggest dream that perhaps the kind of thing we do could catch on more. We know that people are increasingly hurting just about everywhere, and indeed there are folks doing some wonderful stuff to reach them, but clearly too many are being missed.
For the most part I don't see this lack of laborers as disinterest as much as paralysis. People don't know where to begin. "I could never do what ... Read More
One thing I like to share with folks in the West is that the Good News is amazing. This perspective comes partly from from living in a culture where few know anything about the life and message of Jesus. But more than that, living in a culture that views and prioritizes life differently from the West has broadened and deepened my appreciation of the Gospel, not as a formula for getting people to Heaven, but as a life-and-joy-giving world view.
In Romans 5:2, Paul notes that through Jesus, "We have gained access, by faith, into this Grace in which we now stand." (Capitalization mine.) The writer of Hebrews calls it a "new and living way". The Gospel is far more than a message: it is an existence.
On Thursday "Dtaan" was cleaning the floors and restroom on our office floor. I like to snatch every opportunity I can to encourage someone, so called her over and we talked for a few minutes. I knew Dtaan was from the same slum community as a couple of alumna from The Well, at least one, "Gaan", who is a serious addict. As we talked about her family and ... Read More
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 ... Read More
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.... Read More
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 ... Read More
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 ... Read More
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 ... Read More
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, ... Read More