Finding, Not Fixing

One thing we really appreciate about the West is the strong tradition of activism. People really want to get involved; they really want to help.

Of course there can be mixed motives in anything. Our desire to do good can be easily mixed with a need for significance or a thirst for adventure. Mission trip organizers usually build in at least one sightseeing day. But the fact that Western people care so much and want to help others is a wonderful thing.

Another challenge: there is a tendency in activism to become focused more on principles and action than the actual people we want to help. And in our focus on solving problems we naturally move to trying to fix people. But when we work with broken people we begin to discover that trying to fix them is sometimes the worst, most hurtful thing we can do, and the biggest and most difficult lesson to learn is how to stop.

The focus on fixing or solving also leaves many paralyzed. They want to help but don’t see themselves with the necessary ability or know-how. They are afraid to reach out to folks in need, thinking they won’t know what to say or do.

But the reality is that only God can fix people, and he simply wants us to watch it happen. We see in the example of Jesus, from birth to his entire ministry, that what God wants is for us to show up. Go meet people, love them for their beauty as God’s creation, and respond to what happens. They’re out there, primed and ready for transformation, just waiting for us to take our seat and watch the miracle.

For the last two months we have been witnessing “Su” transform. The change has been rather sudden and drastic.

We have known Su, 33, for a few years since a former member of The Well brought her to meet us. She spent a few days with the program at that time, but was too unmanageable to stick around. We also started learning that she was actively “sending kids”, the Thai euphemism for prostituting young women, usually teens.

So we were praying for her and discussing the problem among our team. One day Ann, our social service director and intake manager, confidently announced to me, “I want to give Su another chance, and invite her to spend a trial week. Give her a choice to stop ‘sending kids’, along with a clear warning that we will involve the law if she continues.”

I agreed, but cautioned that we had at least one teen already in the program that she had “sent”. But all said they would be fine, not at all frightened, so the next Monday Su came for her first day.

It was like a switch was ready to turn on. Her very first week, Su started expressing gratefully a new understanding of love, God’s way. She came into my office one day, excited, wanting to tell me all about it. “Do you know why we love you so much?” I asked. “It’s because God made us all and wants us to love each other,” she replied with a shy grin. A few days later she popped in again. “I just learned about Psalm 23!” She then sat down and proceeded to walk through each scene by memory, relating it to herself. “This is how God cares for me!”

I find myself thinking often about Luke 19:9, where Jesus exclaims with joy about Zaccheus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” What Jesus did that day was find a guy who was ready to change, but was simply waiting on someone to give him permission to flip the switch. That’s all we have done with Su. Now we find ourselves seeing a kind, caring heart that was living out of desperation. “I have been a prostitute for 18 years,” she told me. “I just didn’t know what else to do.”

Now Su is actively telling others, including those she used to “send” about her new life in Jesus. Last Friday she hosted a gathering of kids in her small one-room home, led by an outreach team from The Well.

Do Like Me

For most of my life I missed a key part of Jesus’ “Upper Room Discourse” in John 13-16. The scene take place shortly before Jesus is arrested and, the next day, crucified. The writer, whom we can reasonably guess is indeed John, Jesus’ disciple, has let us know that Jesus clearly knew what was about to happen.

Looking back now it seems silly, but for years it never really occurred to me to think about how one might feel looking ahead to an excruciatingly torturous death the next day. It would kind of weigh on the mood. John’s portrayal also suggests that for all the injury that Jesus knew he would endure, the insult would hurt even worse.

As I write this at 8:30pm, Mook and her older cousin Sai are trying to visit a young teen in an apartment complex we know well. The teen and her friend came to church on Sunday, and connected with Mook. Then that night she was in a fight with “Daeng”, a seventeen-year-old that we have tried to work with for a few years, an abandoned girl who has learned the toughness of the streets and has resisted all of our attempts to help. Someone took a video, and it got sent to me. Daeng easily overpowered the younger girl. I’m told it was over a boy.

In the video the young teen got up right away, but today she said she was vomiting all day, so Mook was concerned. She requested my permission to close the coffee shop a little early to go check.

Mook, 20, knows the ways of the street as well. She grew up in Bangkok’s largest slum, abandoned by her mother. We first met Mook at the beginning of 2018, when a friend brought her to The Well, and she spent a few months in our program. She had been involved in a lot of risky behavior and had a baby son. But Mook showed the spark of a good and teachable heart. She left The Well in good standing, getting a job running a small coffee shop near where her son lived with his father’s family.

Judy and I visited the coffee shop and were impressed with Mook’s work. Seeing a possible fit, I began talking with Mook about a deal: she wanted to finish high school equivalency and university, and we needed someone with barista expertise to help get our community center off the ground. We could provide the schedule flexibility and adequate pay to support her son. Mook did rejoin us in February, and began her first college classes last month.

We also got a bonus. I have a particular burden for tough, hopeless cases, and especially teens. However I am obviously limited in what I can personally do. Here, when people see an older man talking to a much younger woman, they think one thing. I am well-known in that neighborhood as “Pa Jim”, and I am extra careful to safeguard a clean reputation.

A few women have gotten involved a bit, but all have either been limited by family responsibilities or busy caring for other types of needs, of which of there are many. Mook is the first one who is actually stepping out on her own with teen girls, for which I am beyond grateful. Sai only recently came to us at Mook’s invitation, and amazed by the transformation she sees in Mook, has joined right in.

I overlooked Jesus’ mood in that upper room simply because the tone of his speaking was in no way dark or depressing. Instead John shows us someone who, about to lay down his life for dearly loved friends, was overcome with the meaning of it all. “Having loved his own who were in the world,” John writes, “he loved them to the end.” Jesus didn’t wash their feet merely to teach them a final lesson in humility. He was in awe, honored at the privilege of serving and yes, dying for these men.

This scene was the story ending that was the beginning. From waking up helpless in a manger to this, it all made sense now. I can imagine Jesus wrestling with his Father at times: “Why did you pick these goofheads?” For years he had been preparing them to do just like him, faithful, and full of faith. It wasn’t pretty, with impending treason and a best friend’s denial, but he knew they were going to come through. This was joy that could lift a heart even so heavy.

I happily do not have a torturous death before me, but I get it. Judy and I aren’t looking to retire, but it is beyond reassuring to know that we now could, and the way and work of Jesus will continue. The blessing of giving is incomparable to the joy of seeing people follow our example, as we follow Christ’s. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does everything becomes worthwhile.

Mook, whose name aptly means “pearl”, is reaching out on her own now, empathically caring for these lost younger ones. She just messaged me that this girl’s last period was in August. So it’s probably not a head injury–she is pregnant, at age 13.

Grateful to Go

The Christmas story is just as much about going as about giving. We all know why giving gets the spotlight. In God’s way of working, the two are twins–you don’t have one without the other. So to try to balance things a bit, I like to focus on going.

I’ve been getting to know “K”, 26, our newest member of The Well. K has identified male as a reaction to years of repeated abuse by men since childhood. God gave her model-quality facial features; often a major liability in a culture with rampant male sex addiction.

K is a veteran sex worker, following her mother’s footsteps. When K was 21 her mother brought her to Chinatown, where women working the streets lead men into dingy, smelly buildings.

Four years ago, a trusted friend told K that she could make way more money for the same effort in Bahrain. All she needed was a passport, and to show up at the airport. K didn’t even ask how much was the plane ticket.

It was the typical debt-bondage trafficking scheme that preys on ignorance and powerlessness. Three years later an Arab man pitied K and paid her way back. She returned empty-handed, after serving hundreds of men at all hours, day or night.

Bahrain has been a well-known sex-trafficking destination. K saw many dozens of other Thai women. Her handlers were all Thai women.

K ended up with us because of going. A team of workers and volunteers went out and found her waiting for customers in Chinatown. Over multiple visits they began earning K’s trust. She is now grateful and hopeful about finally being safe and accepted. K is clearly bright, thankfully resilient in spite of her trauma, and is excited about where this could lead. In asking about her interests, K brought up jewelrymaking. Her eyes lit up when I told her about our studio, currently undergoing remodeling.

This and so many other stories make Judy and I continually thankful that God chose us to “go”, Jesus-style, and show a great light to people walking in darkness. We have had enough life experiences to verify that nothing comes within ten country miles of helping lead someone out of a life of hopelessness. Ahh, but wait. Without the generous giving of so many, none of this would have happened. Judy and I would be working in the U.S., and K would be waiting for her next customer.

This is Our Season

After writing 31 blog posts last December I fell silent for 334 days. I find it hard to balance writing with day-to-day work. We have so many stories to tell that it’s hard to pick. I start on one, don’t quite finish, and then another happens. Then there is my big-picture wiring that constantly sees connections. Cori Wittman calls it my popcorn brain. I try to be careful not to ramble when I talk, but often fail and have to apologize. This same tendency makes it difficult to keep focus when writing.

I wasn’t really thinking to write daily posts again this December. There is a lot going on. The Well in a major ramp-up phase, with our team launching new outreaches and partnerships. One initiative is social media, where we hope to release dozens of short video clips aimed at Thai audiences over the next year. Our daughter Jaimie and fiancé, Bryce, will be spending 12 days here working on initial projects this month.

But something just happened that made me change my mind. Last Thursday and Friday I interviewed 6 women that we are in the process of bringing into The Well. All are between 20 and 26, and all have really rough stories of abuse and exploitation. Most experienced sexual abuse at home. One was sold at age two, to a family who raised her as a slave. She has no ID and no way to reach her birth family. One was trafficked, in a typical debt-bondage scheme, and held as a sexual slave for 3 years in a middle-eastern country. Each precious woman spoke with sincere appreciation about experiencing unconditional acceptance for the first time in her life. And as I always do, I explained to each what a great honor it is to be able to serve her.

So I just thought I have to do it again. I keep up with Western news, so saw lots of headlines about Black Friday deals. And I am reminded, as I am every year, that this should be our season, not Amazon’s or Walmart’s. Nothing better explains our whole motivation for our being here than the little baby Jesus–the immense, powerful God getting tiny and poor among lost and broken people. That is what we live and breathe daily.

So I’m claiming it. This is our time of year, time for us to humbly but firmly point people to the real deal. What we have to share is extremely good and right. It deserves an audience.

So if I can pull it off, I will be writing 30 more posts about how we see this Jesus. Last year I pretty much wrote random stories, as they happened in real time. This year I intend to do the same thing, but more directly connected to the advent/Christmas story. My hope is that you might find some new insights, grow in love with Jesus yourself, and maybe make some priority changes of your own.

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.