June 2012 on a train heading North out of the Megacity that is Bangkok; slum housing lines the tracks in a confronting disarray of closely packed pallets and canvas. I catch the glance of a woman hanging out her washing. She seems unfazed, or resigned perhaps, that I can peer into her makeshift home from the comfort of my cabin. Something connects. It is exactly this contrast, this chasm disguised as proximity, that has made the holiday uncomfortable. I ask myself the question that will continue to bother me ‘how do people live like this?’
Maybe God gives us questions that are near to his heart so he can go about answering them in ways we don’t expect! It’s September of 2012, later the same year, and I am learning that living ‘like this’ is more than possible and is the reality of life for much of the world. It’s after midnight, Jon and I lie awake in a hot room unable to switch off from the unfamiliar sounds of the slum. More than this, we can’t switch off from the stories we’ve heard that day; too many stories of pain and injustice and no easy answers. We want to go home. We pray that God will show us hope amidst our feelings of despair. The next day is different and by the end of the week we don’t want to leave!
This visit to stay with the UNOH team in Klong Toey slum kindled a passion in us for seeing God’s love at work in forgotten places. We felt at home in this crowded urban space in a way that we perceived to be nothing less than a gift. God was changing us as we encountered those who held little control over their lives and was inviting us to let go of the tight control we had insisted over our own.
A few more twists and turns on the journey brings us to October 2014, one year ago as you read this! We’ve arrived with our suitcases to live in Klong Toey slum, our hearts full of expectation and ‘what ifs?’. To the kids’ delight we’re travelling from the airport in the back of a pick-up truck watching the skyscrapers get closer on the horizon. Our teammates point out Rong Moo, ‘the slaughterhouse slum’, and we get our first hunch that we will find ourselves there in the future. We turn a corner on the raised expressway and suddenly we can look down on the familiar sprawl of tin roofs, one of which is about to become our home. From this viewpoint Khlong Toey is beautiful and at this moment life is beautiful.
Later in the year a Thai celeb snaps the same view from her car window and posts it on social media with the comment ‘tumour of Bangkok’. We share the pain of our neighbours as this slur casts a dark shadow.
Last month. A shaven head pops shyly around the door and for a second I don’t recognise her. Somehow she looks thinner with no hair and she is skipping kindergarten again. Min is inspecting our cereal boxes intently. Jon pours her a bowl and she spoons it ravenously until something else catches her attention and she is out the door again. This is long enough for us to notice the sores on her head. The lice infestation must have been bad. Later I follow her home to a shack by the railway line. It is stark and unloved even by slum standards and I fear for this girl. As she disappears inside I stay glued to the spot and a wave of powerlessness overwhelms me.
Gently, the Spirit reminds me of the time three years earlier when I looked out from the train into a house not dissimilar from this one and saw it as a different world. I am thankful that I am here on the other side of the glass and, for now, just being here is enough.
These are a few significant moments that have brought us to the place we are today – far from home but certain of God’s leading. A year feels like a milestone we want to celebrate. At the same time a year feels like nothing and we spend a lot of time dreaming about how we might serve here in the future.
One week ago we moved into our new place in Rong Moo. It is a joy to be living here at last! Moving day passed in a blur as neighbours at both ends brought pushcarts and ferried our stuff around! I gave up trying to be any help and just supplied bags of coca cola on ice at regular intervals! We expected to feel very self-consious with our lives on display but we felt genuinely cared for. It was a wonderful goodbye and welcome! Since moving in we’ve all been ill; not quite what we planned! Where we have had time to get out and explore we’ve prayed that God will lead us to friendly people and we’ve had some great conversations. Jon and Elliot have even been invited on a 5 day fishing trip with neighbours next month…update to follow!!
We’d value your prayers for:
- Elliot and Sam navigating another transition at the same time as a hectic international school schedule! They are both taking Thai classes at school – an answer to prayer as sam was originally denied this – and growing in confidence and interest. Please pray for some new friendships with Thai children outside of school and that this place will quickly become home.
- A healthy adjustment to the new rhythms of living in Rong Moo. We very much miss our teammates Lish and Camille who have lived next door to us the last year and become family. Although we will see them most days we still need protection against feeling isolated.
- All of our team as we shape our future here together and help each other discern how God is leading us to serve. For boldness and vision and wisdom in this.
- Our team mates Jo Stroud and Jodie MacCartney heading to the UK on a speaking tour in Oct/Nov. They’ll be visiting Jo’s hometown and a lot of other places (including Shrewsbury and Carlisle where our churches/families will be hosting events aimed at filling in some of the gaps about the work of UNOH and ‘what the Fletchers are actually up to!’)
- Giant leaps in language as we begin to build relationships in Rong Moo independently of team mates who speak better Thai! Please pray specifically for a better grasp of the very informal Thai used by some of our neighbours as it bears little resemblance to what we learn at school!
- That over time God will reveal to us what role he has for us in this new neighbourhood. For eyes to see the real needs and respond thoughtfully. In the meantime that we can share life with our neighbours in mutually helpful ways… please pray that a planned prison visit with a neighbour goes well next week.