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.” 

Day 7: Excuse Me, May I Love You?

A while ago a short statement of Jesus hit me in a new way: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)  It’s a familiar statement to anyone who grew up in Sunday School singing, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man….” Clearly he had reached a point in life where the money and benefits of his tax-collector profession weren’t working for him anymore. He was ready to be found.

That idea, and Jesus’ statement, sums up the heart of the missionary. We don’t go to other places looking to “spread our religion”. Instead, I like to think of it as, “Excuse me, may I love you?” We go looking for hurting people, knowing they are everywhere, and that perhaps by just showing up, as Jesus did that day in Jericho, a miserable life, resigned to hopelessness, can be turned around.

Indeed, in our 14 years here we have seen some pretty amazing turnarounds. We are all works in progress, and these precious lives are no different. But there is progress, where before there was only struggle.

Today “Jane” snuck up from behind me in our coffee shop to give me a hug. Last night she had messaged me about feeling terrible about her parenting. Indeed, living for years “out there” she had done some wrong things, not to mention the extra challenges she faces as a single mom.

But Jane is bright and insightful, and in all her struggles she works hard at healing and growing. Today she was happy. She had just read Isaiah 29, and felt like its promises were directly for her:

In that day the deaf will hear words read from a book,
    and the blind will see through the gloom and darkness.
The humble will be filled with fresh joy from the Lord.
    The poor will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.

Last night Jane’s 11 year-old daughter became her encourager and counselor, asking her to pray and not punish herself. “My daughter is leading me,” Jane gushed. “Thank God so much that He brought me to The Well.”

Day 6: My Young Boss

Despite the difficult topics I have written about in the first five days of this project, the truth is that I always have a great day at The Well. I work with wonderfully precious people, much younger than me, who call me Dad.

I remember meeting Junie, then 19, in 2013. She seemed quiet and timid. Indeed Junie had her shy side, and still does, but it soon became clear that there was a lot going on in her 90-pound frame.

Like many we work with, Junie’s mother worked in the sex industry, and was absent from home. She remembers her father being good to her, but he left to start a new family when Junie was 16.

On her own, Junie protected herself with the ways of the street–and a boyfriend. She moved in with a boy, and they were married after she became pregnant. Her husband was irresponsible and abusive, so after a couple of years she fled. When she was 19 a friend introduced Junie to The Well.

What Junie lacked in size she made up for with sharp wit and a sharp tongue. She brought these two untamed talents with her to The Well, and on a few occasions we had to do some correction.  One day she and another young woman got into a physical fight and had to be pulled apart. Junie’s small face contains wide eyes that seem to double in size when she is frightened or concerned. Junie was sent to me in the business office to calm down. She sat in  a chair staring up at me with silver-dollar-sized pools of tears, so pitiful that it was hard work to keep myself looking serious.

Junie got pregnant again and had to marry again, but thankfully she got a good man, gentle and soft-spoken. Junie now fully trusts Jesus and is praying and waiting for her husband to join her. He does allow her to go to church and has expressed gratitude for our love.

Once Junie began to become stable and grow, her gifts came alive. She has a brilliant mind with managerial talent, and also a playful, disarming sense of humor. She finished high school equivalency, and we invited her to join our team as administrative assistant. Down the road, we expect Junie will start university courses next year.

Because Junie is such a good worker, not only dependable but proactive–willing to point out mistakes and oversights, I like to embarrass her by calling her my boss. I also occasionally remind her how proud that makes me feel.

When “Sundays at 10 AM” doesn’t work.

The beginning vision of The Well was to reach many, starting with women at risk. We remembered Jesus’ words that the Kingdom of God is like yeast in dough, small but with incredible transformative potential. Disciples of Jesus come together to serve in ways that ultimately change societies, so we knew starting churches was a goal.

We started small gatherings immediately, but these groups weren’t impactful. Thai poverty culture strongly discourages people from going against the crowd; an underestimated obstacle. New believers who visited old friends relapsed into unhealthy activities. We once took a couple former bar girls on outreach, and I watched approvingly from a distance as one talked at length to a mamasan, thinking they were discussing her new life in Christ. Later she confessed she was asking about working there.

We were discouraged, but felt the Lord say to stay faithful. Yeast takes time. Practical challenges also forced us to seek creative answers over the years …

Continue reading “When “Sundays at 10 AM” doesn’t work.”

Day 5: Girls Who Lost Their Moms

So far in this project I’ve written 4 mostly sad stories in 4 days. One of the reasons I kind of stopped writing the past few years is just because so much happens every day and I just couldn’t keep up.

Today is Father’s Day, so I could write about the dad who has been making progress in recovery but was arrested yesterday with 6 tablets of “ice” in his possession. He’ll get 2 1/2 years, we’re told. On the positive side, I could write about strides that one woman with a severe trauma background has been making lately in understanding God’s love and forgiveness. “I don’t feel shame anymore,” she told me yesterday.

But I’m still kind of teary from a phone call that just came this morning, so I’m going to write about this:

Probably a majority of women that we help have unhealthy mothers. We have cared for quite a few daughters of drug addicts, prostitutes and of course, both. A couple of those moms have passed away in the last few years, one while in prison in China for drug trafficking.

The call was from “Gade”, a pretty and personable 16-year-old we met earlier this year. Another teen friend brought her, and she ended up spending about 5 months at The Well before returning home to a distant province. Gade called to say that her mom had just totally rejected her. “Don’t try to call,” she was told.  “I’m not going to talk to you any more.”

Of course this was not the first time, but it was the most emphatic. Gade grew up raised by others. But there is always that natural longing for Mom. Because we are wired to love and respect and our parents, a child only thinks one thing when abandoned or abused: “It’s my fault.” This sense of worthlessness can stay rooted in the mind well into adulthood.

In the “fight, flight or freeze” response of trauma victims, Gade is predominantly a fighter. All three types of responses are bridge burners, adding to the isolation, but fighters perhaps end up more blamed, including by parents such as Gade’s mom. The good news is that when we are able to see through the behavior to the heart, we can help heal.

We find this heart-focus in Jesus’ ministry, starting right out with the paralytic brought by his friends. “Your sins are forgiven” was an unexpected but powerful message of acceptance in a victim-blaming society. And certainly while physical healing is wonderful, no one who knows both would choose a healthy body over a sick soul. “You’re safe, you’re precious, you are loved,” we repeat to these broken hearts. It takes a long time to sink in.

Gade is smart, bright-eyed and gregarious. She loves to connect with people, and when I answer her video calls I know am usually going to be greeted with a wide happy smile. I have seen her fighting side too, but even then her desire simply to be understood and valued is obvious.

She wants to come back, and I told her we would pray and see if God would provide a way for us to care for her. Gade knows God’s love is real. “The Well is the only place with real love,” she says. “Everywhere else is just people using each other.”