Youth Ministry

Judy standing with three teenage girls, faces obscured, whom we've recently been getting to know at The Well in Bangkok.

I have a soft spot for the tough cases. The wild troublemakers that other folks tend to avoid I see as precious challenges. In particular, I love the possibility of getting through to a love-starved teen; cigarette in one hand, smartphone in the other.

We have a few new ones at The Well, ages 15 and 16. I’m cautiously optimistic: it has been a long road getting them to this point, but there is obviously much, much farther to go. 

“Jo” has reminded Judy and I multiple times of her sixteenth birthday coming up on Monday. We first met Jo a year ago, along with a couple of friends selling themselves to local guys under a nearby bridge. She caught the attention of both Judy and I for no apparent reason, so we thought it was perhaps God’s nudging. But we did not see her again until a couple months ago, where we found her hanging out in front of a small internet shop managed by a woman we strongly suspect of pimping teen girls. We connected on Facebook, and soon after she started asking for money for food.

Childhood trauma robs kids of their need for connection. More accurately, it stuffs that need down inside shells of learned mistrust. Survival becomes life’s first objective, followed by finding sources of happiness to replace hurt and rejection. They discover happiness-producing risky behaviors together with other needy kids, but their relationships with each other are tenuous and conditional. The cardinal rule: don’t rat.

We usually do help with a little money or food the first time or two someone asks, simply to make a connection. We know it means that we will be asked again, which we address one step at a time. The survival mind sees us simply as a new resource, not a caring adult, but that’s ok.

We then look for opportunity to explain our purpose. In Jo’s case, she asked for help looking for work. I invited her to interview at The Well, but she didn’t come, because a friend that we had tried to help a couple years ago told her it was “boring.” One day she told me she as at the internet shop, so I sent Cream, one of our assistant leaders, to pick her up.

Sitting by my desk, Jo told me the typical sad story: parents split up when she was 5, and from then on she had been shifted to different places. Currently she lives with her grandmother and aunt. She had repeated eighth grade after being kicked out, then got kicked out again.

I asked Jo what possible careers or dreams she was interested in. “It’s probably not possible,” she said.

“Go ahead, tell me and we’ll see,” I said.

“I’d like to be doctor.”

This answer, along with “I want to be a teacher,” is not uncommon for poor kids with minimal exposure. They have all met teachers and doctors, not lawyers, engineers or pilots. But the details are not important, because any level of ambition sets up our next step.

“Ok,” I said to Jo. “Being a doctor requires a lot of work, and we’d have to get to know you and see if you have what it takes to pull it off. But I can guarantee that if you do, we’ll do anything and everything we can to help you get there.”

This type of exchange sets up our next step. We will help, but with conditions. We won’t help you with a couple of dollars to support a purposeless life, but we are ready to support you through university.

Jo wasn’t quite ready for turn things around at that point, but we’ve learned not to rush or try to rescue, even when we know unhealthy stuff is going on. I messaged her most days, and since she usually told me she was in a different part of town, we suspected prostitution.

“Dad, please send money. I don’t have enough to get home,” Jo messaged one day. She was in a Bangkok suburb.

“Dear daughter, remember what I told you. I’ll help you get through medical school if you work there, but I won’t help you to just run around with no purpose.”

“Ok, I understand. So can you help me?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think you’re getting it.” I repeated the whole speech. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, I get it. Dad, please send money.”

For weeks, were really only saw incorrigibility in Jo, not an openness for change. Shockingly bad manners are common with streetwise kids. As all parents know, simple habits like speaking politely and showing consideration or gratitude usually need to be taught. Uneducated grandparents handed kids by wayward young adults often don’t become conscientious caregivers. Once, Jo and a friend came over. First they invited themselves on a self-guided tour of our apartment, then requested chocolate smoothies and showers. After lunch they went into the bathroom, and a minute later the smell of cigarette smoke came wafting out under the door.

At the same time, something kept us holding onto her. Perhaps it was just a small hint that she did want a relationship, if only in her own, survival-driven way. Finally, three weeks ago she agreed again to come visit The Well and apply. She brought a friend, a classmate who had also been expelled, and Ann, a our Thai worker who handles case management, thought they would be worth a try. A couple days later, Jo brought another friend from the same group, also kicked out of school, whom we accepted on a trial basis as well.

To our pleasant surprise, Jo and friends have been showing up every day on time and responding dramatically to firm love in our Recovery Center. Onn, the center manager, has taken to them like a mother hen. Jo has already had a few not-unexpected rude outbursts, but she has actually responded to correction. Every day I message her, and every day she tells me she is happy and having fun.

On Thursday, Ann went with Jo to meet her grandmother, who spent the entire time complaining about Jo’s behavior in front of Jo. Ironically, Jo had only recently described to me the process that led to her decline from an A student to a delinquent. Looking for attention as a 13-year-old, she got into trouble, and the resulting pushback from authorities drove her away. It’s an “If they don’t believe I can be good, I might as well just be bad” syndrome, and we see it in the lives of many neglected kids.

In these short two-plus weeks, Jo has responded to heartfelt affirmation. Indeed a fun, lovable personality has been peeping out from under the shell. But we also know that this is a honeymoon phase. There will be a long rough road ahead, that may include Jo leaving The Well at some point for one more more wrong reasons.

I’m not being pessimistic or cynical. Experience has taught us to be okay with the two-forward-three-steps-back paths of traumatized people. As with most of the stories we tell, this one does not have an ending, but rather, “To be continued.”

Yesterday I stopped into the Recovery Center to take Judy a latte. Seeing the women sitting on the floor in the next room making jewelry, I stopped into say hi. Jo was near the door with her back turned, so I knelt down to get her attention. She returned a shy smile.

Jo reminded me again of her birthday coming up on Monday. When I stood to leave, she called, “See you!” in English and grinned proudly.

Day 31: Prevention or Intervention 2

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 opportunity to learn in an English-speaking country.

I have corrected just a bit of grammar and style, but what follows is Jean’s own writing in English:

I like to read the Bible because I understand a lot of things in it. I feel understand many things in the Bible. I feel God told me to tell His story. I tell His story to my friends at school. My friends like to hear His story. I think God gave talent to me.

In my future I would like to be an engineer because I think engineers are important in developing countries. I think God said to me that I have to do something to make people aware of Him. But what can I do? I like math and physics but it can’t make me an engineer. God can do it. God can do anything.

I like to fix something that is broken. I think if I can fix something, God can repair me so I can repair others. I have to start walking with God and walk to succeed.

In Thailand there are a lot of poor people. They don’t know the story of God and they don’t have an education. I think one day God will come and help them. God will send me.

When I was 4 years old, my mother and me didn’t have shelter. One day we met the servants of God who helped us to learn, to work. My family felt happy. God gave me a lot of things. Once I wanted a bicycle, and I prayed because we were poor, and God sent a bicycle to us. I don’t know how [the one who gave it] could now. I believe God gave it to me, and I believe God will send me as His servant. I can help everyone because God will stay with me.

Day 30: What is Love

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.

Sunset at Kung Wiman beach
A distant storm competes with the sunset at Kung Wiman Beach.

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.

I pass this sluice gate when walking to The Well.

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 this: recognizing value, and responding appropriately. A healthy person loves God, others and self not so much in that order but as an integrated unit. “This is how we know what love is,” John writes. “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 John 3:16) We love ourselves and others as God-made images of Himself. We become aware of the capability God has placed in all of us to bless Him and others, and then we make ourselves actively available to do so. Being in Bangkok allows us to do this on a daily basis.

I have written mostly this month about the usually long process of loving people through years of slow growth and relapse. But I do not want people to get the wrong picture. It is a hurting world with really not that much love. People look past each other, not at each other. When we live to let others know that they have importance, we can touch people in a big way, and sometimes quickly.

“Som” just messaged me. I wrote about her severe depression in Day 18: Power to Heal. I had an opportunity to connect, give her a hug and just let her know that she mattered.

She won’t be coming to The Well after all, Som wrote, because she says with the love and encouragement she got from her time visiting she began praying, and got up the courage to apply for a job she was interested in. She feels positive and hopeful, that God is taking care of her. She starts tomorrow. “You are my dad now,” she told me.

We will maybe visit the beach again in a year or so. There is plenty to do here.

Day 29: Prevention or Intervention

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 earn their trust. Some, drawn to God’s unconditional love, begin to trust Him and change. They begin learning about raising their children safely and positively.

If the children are clearly unsafe, we take steps to move them to another setting, but without dropping the parents. Recognize their shame in being unable to parent, usually because of addictions, we work to keep letting those parents know their value.

Right now The Well is moving to more and more of a community focus, so we are excited about seeing this happen in a bigger way, Lord willing. The principal of a local school has agreed to start a partnership where we visit families of kids having trouble in school or dropping out.

Day 28: Learning to Wait 5: Relapse is ok.

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 nearly inevitable slide to destruction that we see repeated so often. After his parents died at a young age, Boon was “raised” by his older brother, who according to Boon mostly led him into delinquency. Without a healthy role model anywhere, he never really had a chance.

One of my favorite paradigm words in looking at mental health and recovery is ‘self-regulation’. We begin as infants with none, and when all goes well, we are able to take care of our own needs by adulthood. We can solve problems in steps, even when under pressure. But getting to that point requires a combination of safety and challenge. A growing mind needs to feel safe, and it needs stimulation, including by coercion as necessary. With kids like Pon, these are either absent or unbalanced.

I remember very well the transition as a teen from dreading hard farm work to enjoying it. It was the same with physical conditioning and studying. You get there through doing it, plain and simple. But teens who lack healthy environments that are introduced to drugs and risky, addictive behaviors never arrive at that point. Their brains never develop far enough to get the cleansing feeling that comes from a difficult job well done. Instead their brains learn to calm stress with addictions.

So just as the process to healthy self-regulation takes time in a growing teen, it will also take time in the recovering addict, only with the added handicap of relapse triggers. Their brains will scream for calmness in the ways they know how, and it is only normal that they should sometimes give in.

Given this understanding, I no longer consider relapse a setback. Each month that someone is clean and sober is a month that he learns to handle stress. And indeed we do see progression. Boon has been clean for a couple months now, and is showing extra diligence in his life and work. I still believe God has a plan for him to teach others.

One day at a time.

Day 27: Women First

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 is, quite simply, lift up the vulnerable. It is stated no more strongly than in Mary’s song, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In God’s reality (which of course means we can drop “God’s” and just say “In reality…”), we win when we bless others.

Lifting up women then, not only protecting them but giving them opportunity to follow their own gifts and call, blesses men. One advantage is simply diversity, the fact that different types of people leading produce strength, whether in an organization or a society. But living to elevate others strengthens our character and gives us joy.

There is a curious omission of the word “and” in the Greek text of James 1:27. The NIV reads, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” (emphasis mine). Most English translations insert the “and”. But I believe it points to the fact that the activity of helping others helps keep us morally clean as well.

Occasionally a male visitor has asked how I avoid sexual temptation while doing this work. I tell them that, interestingly enough, when we do outreach in bar areas populated by hundreds of beautiful sexily dressed young women, I have never had the slightest thought of sexual temptation. My masculine instinct to protect and rescue completely pushes out any other thought. I only see vulnerable but precious ones needing help, and that anything else would be just wrong.