“God always gets there before us… thus there is a genuine sense in which we must engage in mission in reverse because the Spirit is present in each and every situation before we get there’ Les Henson
Many of you lovely people reading this have journeyed with our family for the four years that we’ve been slum-blogging! You’ve glimpsed some of our joys and frustrations and encountered other faces along the way. One significant relationship that I wrote about within our first six months here was my birthday twin Preaw! As we clumsily supported her out of a domestic abuse situation, for a time she became our live-in guide for learning the complexities of Thai language and culture.
We’ve since been to some dark places with Preaw and felt her hostility towards us when she is high on drugs. We lose track of where she is living and only hear afterwards when she has been in prison or hospital. However, an unlikely friendship persists and she always seems to pop up at significant times (usually with stuff she wants us to buy!)
After six weeks of sabbatical we had really mixed feelings about being back in Klong Toey. While coming back into the neighbourhood and reconnecting with neighbours and colleagues was wonderful, we quickly felt burdened by some of the tensions of life here and remembered why we had been so ready for the break. A few nights in, just as reluctance was getting the better of us, God sent Preaw to our door to remind us to trust Him and that He got here first!
After convincing me to buy a strapless jumpsuit at least four sizes too small (any takers?!), Preaw began to talk about her hopes and fears for the year. The conversation turned to Buddhism – her efforts to make merit and her concern for us not making enough merit. We always seek to listen and understand our neighbours’ world-views whilst being prepared to answer questions about our own. It takes time to earn trust and listening brings out fascinating stuff! Preaw knows that we follow Jesus and, on this occasion, was responding to a heart-cry to find out more about Him!
She had heard how our previously notorious neighbour Ba’Noi had changed so much in the last year of her life and wanted to know more. She wanted the freedom from fear and striving that she has recognised in us (a timely reminder for us to embrace this) and above all she wanted to learn how to pray! She left late that night excited to try talking to God using her own words and determined to read our Thai version ‘Jesus Storybook Bible’ from cover to cover before going to sleep.
Who knows what this will lead to in Preaw’s life… we may not see her again for a few months and we can only place it all in the hands of the God who was here before us and who goes ahead of us. The Good News was not something for Preaw to attain to but the truth that she is already enough! Similarly, we sensed a renewed invitation to choose the discomfort and the tensions of slum life and ministry, to participate willingly knowing that nothing depends on us; God is always a step ahead of the chaos.
Good in the Hood
The one year anniversary of the fire that destroyed so many homes in our neighbourhood has just passed. Today we joined in a house blessing in the home of the Catholic family who lived with us in the weeks immediately following the fire. It was a joyful occasion and we reflected on how much has changed in one year. The rebuilding project is not yet complete but most of the structures are up and access is much improved.
The period leading up to Christmas was fun with lots of kids activities and special times with neighbours. Our new team member Dianne has moved into her own home in the slum and is such a blessing to us and to her neighbours. Our immediate neighbour P’Oui is currently very unwell and Jon is attending lots of hospital appointments with her to advocate for good care. The fact that she is drug addicted means that she is often dismissed by medical professionals and therefore avoids treatment.
Since coming back from sabbatical we’ve been working hard to get renovations on our new house underway. Pictured below left is the beginnings of a new raised concrete pathway that will enable the five households in our ‘corner’ to get home without wading through swamp water! The rubbish collecting situation on the plot next to our house is completely out of control (below right). For those who recycle for a living this is not merely rubbish but it is getting dangerous; a can of paint recently exploded in the middle of the pile and gave us all a fright! We’ve negotiated with these neighbours that we will employ a team of local men to help sort and dispose of it in the coming month so we can start work on the house. We don’t know how deep the plastic goes but will let you know when we find out!
Christmas sales were encouraging and stressful in equal measure! Last year saw a lot of progress and, although we made an overall loss, we are excited by the direction the business is heading.
The staff had a two week break over New Year but then were back to work in earnest; I was so proud to come back from sabbatical to find that they were already completing a full range of new designs to which each person had contributed! This confidence to put forward ideas is wonderful to see and is such a credit to the hard-work of Nut, our RoyRak manager. We’ll get the new designs onto royrak.net so spread the word!
We loved being back in England! It was a time of snow and babies and pork-pies! We feel so lucky to be at home in two continents. We re-adjusted to heat and time-zones with two weeks travel in Cambodia. We spent a lot of time on buses but it was worth it for exploring Angkor Wat, swimming in crystal clear sea, sampling fried tarantula and uninterrupted family time!
The boys have settled happily back into school and are excited for getting two new baby rabbits from the market as soon as they can persuade us to take them! It is not too long a separation from family as we will be back in the UK from late July to late August 2018 visiting supporting churches and individuals. We’ll start planning our itinerary soon so please get in touch if you would like us to come and speak at a service or event, we are really hoping for some new connections and are happy to travel!
- We have some big decisions coming up as God continues to reveal pieces of the ‘why are we here’ and ‘what next’ jigsaw. Please pray for wisdom and courage as we approach new challenges.
- We are meeting with a local couple to carry out some debt counselling and help them with issues of budgeting etc. This is something we are passionate about and would love to do more of as we see so many families crippled by high-interest loans. Please pray for good relationship and a good outcome for this couple who are in a desperate place.
- Our team is a little depleted on the ground with the MacCartney family on sabbatical after 10 years serving here and Camille on a support-raising trip. We feel the strain on our time and resources but continue to pray that our Thai staff will be empowered.
- Jon has just taken on the role of local team leader and will be using his pastoral and organisational skills to serve us. Please pray that he will be well supported and equipped even when he feels inadequate.
- Please pray for a spirit of mercy in our neighbourhood towards ‘the least and the lost’.
I had meant to ask her for months but it never seemed quite the right time. Now, sitting together on the floor of her home, I asked her what happened to the baby.
P’Prim is in her late thirties and has lived in this community all her life. We take her two girls (aged 12 and 9) swimming at the weekends and have quickly grown to love them. We know that home-life is far from easy and these girls are remarkable survivors. The younger sister, Nong Mem, is gentle and has the brightest smile I know! She has just had her head shaved because the nits got out of control but you could never mistake her for a boy, she still looks stunning. The older sister, Nong Deng, is witty and playful, unless there are boys around and then she switches into teenage mode! Last year they stopped going to school. Now, as a last resort, we pay their school fees. We celebrate them and worry about them in equal measure.
We were concerned when we heard that P’Prim was expecting another baby. She was very unwell. The family lives in one lean-to room and the kids are often hungry. However, unlike some of the homes I visit, there is enough love to go round there and I had looked forward to knowing this baby.
The baby never appeared. I assumed that it hadn’t survived. But when I finally asked her, P’Prim told me calmly that she couldn’t look after the baby (another girl), she had been sent immediately to live with a distant relative somewhere in the countryside. I asked if she had a photo… she didn’t, but she had a picture of her first daughter, taken 21 years ago and not seen since. It turned out that the baby was one of seven children. Her boys are in jail.
I share this story because it is on my mind and because my heart is so changeable in its response. I am as eager as anybody to judge but this story just doesn’t fit the boxes I spent years constructing. Who is the victim here and why can’t I see the villains?
I’ve been reminded recently of the impact our ‘cultural glasses’ or worldview have on the way we approach situations. There is all sorts of bias and assumption at play in every cross-cultural interaction. Sometimes it feels like we will never gain deeper understanding of culture and other times the Spirit surprises us with clarity! It is a humbling experience to be reminded on a daily basis that others see the world so differently. It has caused us to examine our own ‘cultural glasses’ and be more discerning of our dualistic principles.
Richard Rohr writes about the need for ‘forgiving reality for being what it is‘ and this phrase pretty much summarises 2017 for us! We are learning the impossible third way – somehow both ‘letting it go’ and fiercely desiring a better way forward! Rohr continues ‘I used to think it was about balancing all the opposites within me, but slowly I have learned that it is actually “holding” things in their seemingly unreconciled state that widens and deepens the soul.’ It’s a mystery but God is at work in the mess.
In The Community
It’s been a very wet beginning to the dry season! But there’s been lots of fun to brighten things up! Relationships with new families have been slowly developing as a few more kids have joined our Saturday kids club. Last weekend we went to a school fair and the highlight was pony rides… not an everyday opportunity in Bangkok!
Steps towards moving to the new house are frustratingly slow. We trust that God has the timescale sorted and for now prioritise smoothness of relationships. Jon has had opportunity to get to know one of the local builders quite well and help him consider coming off drugs. The drug taking scene around our home is a source of sadness and somewhere we feel very helpless.
We are loving having new neighbours next door and seeing them extend love to others in the community. There are some new faces at house-church and this is a joy!
The run-up to Christmas is super busy with up to 4 local sales per week as well as overseas sales to coordinate! We’re grateful for the busy-ness (and also for our beds at the end of the day!)
After months of preparation it is always nerve-wracking at this time of year to see if we will cover all our costs and be free to continue the same level of employment for all our RoyRak creative team. My dream is that we might sell so well that we can offer more jobs and more input next year!
Lots of you have already placed orders at royrak.net and we hope you are pleased with your products! Anyone thinking of placing an order can be assured that the money makes a direct difference to real people who you can read about on the website.
I’ve been in two minds about participating in ‘Black Friday’ sales but have concluded that gift-giving is a great thing and shopping with RoyRak provides a great alternative to big businesses for people wanting to get organised for Christmas! We’ll be launching a 24 hour sale on Christmas ranges for 24th November. Please come and have a look!
Another tragic pet story for the collection; our poor rabbit ‘Flea’ was pulled halfway out of her cage by a snake and heroically rescued by our teenage babysitters! Unfortunately she never recovered from the shock.
On a happier note, we had a lovely long visit from Jon’s parents who were put to work on our office renovations where we’ve been developing a 5th floor communal space for project staff and house church. It was great to share elements of our everyday life with them! They were with us over Loy Kratong, a big Thai festival which we celebrated with neighbours at a nearby park.
Its always hard saying goodbye to friends and family but this time we don’t have to wait long to see them! Our sabbatical (pushed back a few months) begins the second week of December. We will be flying back to the UK for four weeks and staying with family. Elliot and Sam have already reached fever-pitched excitement and we are not sure they can keep it up till Christmas! They are particularly excited about wearing onesies! The main purpose of the visit is to rest but we really hope to see lots of Shrewsbury folk!
We have a ‘work’ trip to the UK planned for next summer (mid July – mid August) where we hope to catch up with Supporting Churches and individuals. In the New Year we’d love to start planning speaking engagements if you know anywhere that would have us! It would be great to make new connections as well as reinforcing existing ones!
- Our wonderful UNOH team is going to be scattered for a while! Some of us are headed off for sabbatical while others are away for shorter lengths of time. The MacCartney family who have worked here for over ten years will be taking a well-earned break until August next year and we will all miss them terribly! Please pray that their health will be restored as they rest in Grace. Please pray that all those they work with locally will adjust well and relationships be preserved.
- We have a new team-mate! Dianne has been learning Thai for a year outside Bangkok and is now with us on the ground. She has been beautifully intentional as she has explored neighbourhoods and found a house to settle in within just weeks. We are so thankful for God’s provision of her and for her at this time. We don’t envy the upheaval of settling here and know that the learning curve is very sharp in the first year. Please hold her in your prayers.
- We have one neighbour that is placing heavy demands on us and we are finding it hard to love her. She is grasping and needy only because of her circumstances and we are, at least in theory, determined to draw out beauty in her! Please pray for wisdom and patience.
- It is a very early Christmas party for 50 or so of our UNOH employees next week. Pray that it will be fun and everyone will have a chance to reflect on the year and see God’s goodness afresh. Pray for increasing openness and unity across different groups.
- We’d value prayers that we will be able to tie things up well as we leave the community for 6 weeks and not be leaving extra work for people or leaving relationships un-affirmed. We’d also love you to pray with us for Rong Muu neighbourhood during the time we are away; God doesn’t leave just because we do!
‘Nondual consciousness is about receiving and being present to the moment, to the now, without judgment, analysis, or critique, without your ego deciding whether you like it or not. Reality does not need you to like it in order to be reality. This is a much more holistic knowing, where your mind, heart, soul, and senses are open and receptive to the moment just as it is, which allows you to love things in themselves and as themselves. You learn not to divide the field of the moment or eliminate anything that threatens your ego, but to hold everything—both the attractive and the unpleasant—together in one accepting gaze.’
Richard Rohr, ‘A Spring Within Us’
‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’
I began writing this newsletter more than a month ago as we were visiting our neighbour and dear friend Bah Noi in hospital. End stage liver disease with the added complication of TB meant there was not much that the doctors could do… but we had seen her defy death before! I wrote optimistically, full of hopes for when she came home.
Shortly after writing, Bah Noi’s condition deteriorated rapidly. We received a confused phone call at night and the next day found her tied to the bed. The nurses were not unkind but they just didn’t know how to cope with her. When we found that she was no longer able to feed herself we took it in shifts to try and be there with her. She was so afraid, seeing strange shapes in the room. Our fiercely independent Aunty was slipping away from us.
On the day she died, she asked Jon to pray to Jesus for her. He had only spoken a few words when she took over, a long fervent prayer which was incoherent to Jon but clearly came right from her heart. When we returned together that evening we found her slumped over and struggling to breath. She was rushed to ITU and we fetched her estranged family members to say goodbye. It was agonising to watch her struggle.
Funeral plans began the next morning. A Thai funeral begins the same day and, depending on the status of the deceased person, can last for many days. The temple will perform a one-day ceremony and cremation for free. This is what the very poorest families can expect. Bah Noi’s greatest fear was of being forgotten; she had voiced to us many times that she feared dying alone and her body not being found. This was our opportunity to demonstrate to the community in their own cultural language that her life was valued. Way out of our depth, we began organising a four day funeral at the local temple.
Seeing how Bah Noi was disregarded in our community, we were astounded by the number of people from other areas of her life that showed up to grieve. While the immediate community she had grown up with were unable to see past her violent, drug addicted past, it seemed that she had touched the lives of many other people in her final few years. All the monks at the temple knew her as she went to do their washing in her free time! Whether or not she knew it, she was certainly known and loved! We saw this as evidence of God’s transformative work in her life.
Amidst the darkness of death and the emptiness of ritual, the care of our house-church, to which Bah Noi belonged, shone out brightly. Along with staff from the UNOH projects they came to cook for guests at the funeral and support each other through loss. Our usual meeting that Friday night was dedicated to remembering Bah Noi. One person spoke of how they had been afraid of her at first, she had been a notorious figure and they didn’t believe she would ever be ‘one of us’. This same person was now in tears at the thought that Bah Noi would not be joining us on the camp she had been so excited about. This group of faithful Jesus followers was able to show love and acceptance because they have experienced it themselves.
I don’t want to remember Bah Noi for her illness or for her reputation or for her body lying pale and swollen in a coffin. I choose to remember the woman who called our rabbit ‘child’ and spent her meagre earnings buying crazy amounts of fresh veg! I choose to remember the time that she hammered on our door for 10 minutes to alert us of fire rather than rescuing her own possessions. I will always remember how we teased her for getting cold at the mere mention of air-conditioning, for how she developed a taste for expensive British chocolate and for how she made up the words to worship songs because she couldn’t read! I remember her coming home black from head to toe but a huge grin on her face because she had been paid for working in an oil tank all day. Determination!
No rose-tinted spectacles could make me forget how annoying she could be at times; she could argue all night when she disagreed with us and got us into regular scrapes by association! But she taught us to love. More than anyone else, she led us into her world where we met systemic injustice face on while snatching hold of every opportunity to celebrate life. Her favourite bible character was David, the least in his family but chosen for great things by God. Any future impact of our presence here in Khlong Toey will undoubtably be shaped by the experience of knowing and loving Bah Noi.
This picture shows Elliot and Sam standing on the start of a new pathway leading towards our house. The tall white house is the one we have always completed the process of buying and the white house on the right is the one we live in now. To the left of where the boys are standing are about 40 new houses. Soon the swampland to the right of the path will be full of houses again! There is the sense of a new beginning for lots of long-term residents here.
There are also new families moving in! Our front door will open on to a little square of houses opening up new opportunity for relationships. Excitingly, our good friend Buey and her five daughters (Boon, Bin, Boom, Bam and BunBun) have moved from their home in another part of the slum into the house next door to us! Having a Thai Christian living close by will add a new dimension to our witness in the neighbourhood. Please pray that they integrate well, these first few weeks will be important in a community that regards outsiders with suspicion.
We are increasingly aware that the parts of our community that didn’t burn down are not benefitting from any improvements. Escaping the fire was a mixed blessing for some; the very poorest households were probably least affected by the fire and the contrast is now even more stark. We are fighting for path upgrading to extend further into the neighbourhood but finding the process a bit of a nightmare. Please pray that we will be able to get permissions from the right people and navigate the cultural protocols well. Please pray for unity in our small neighbourhood of ‘Rim Khlong Wat Saphan’, that mercy and compassion will take root and grow deep and strong.
RoyRak; Beading Love
Christmas has come early in the RoyRak room! This year our decorations are pom-pom themed and the scene that greets me when I walk in is even more colourful than usual! The garlands and wreaths hanging on all the walls have transformed the outward appearance of the room in a way that reflects the beauty of relationship I see blossom in this space. There is some really heavy stuff in the lives of these women; a sister dying of cancer, a husband expecting a child with a second wife, a boyfriend addicted to drugs. As they work they talk, and I picture the healing threads of shared joy and sorrow knotted seamlessly into the products they create.
I also have an exciting new plan! A sample set of all the jewellery available on the RoyRak website (including the new kids range and some promotional material) has been dispatched to the UK and its first port of call is… Shrewsbury (of course!)! Knowing how hard it is to buy jewellery without trying it on, customers may like to see the products before ordering them online. The kit is available to be passed around for jewellery parties (think tupperware party but 100% more fun!). The concept is a kind of virtual sale – would you be willing to display the products, perhaps even show our RoyRak video and then be responsible for placing and distributing an order? Please get in touch, wherever you live!
Back to school day couldn’t come too soon! Elliot and Sam were super keen to see their friends and get back to lessons after almost two months off. Unfortunately we got called to the hospital just three hours into the first day! Elliot sprained his ankle ligament playing that dangerous game known as… tag, and was in a cast for most of August. We’re thankful that it seems to have healed well. Having won the music award for his year group last year, we had been worrying about how to fund music lessons to encourage Elliot’s interest. We’re thrilled that he has got in to a free electric guitar club this term… watch this space!
Sammy spent the summer months painting, our walls are now an art gallery! He is excited to be on the basketball team at school but is struggling to re-adjust to early starts. He took part in his first inter-school swim competition yesterday and surprised himself and us with his confidence! He gets lots of joy from playing with Poppy the puppy who is always waiting when he gets home from school! It was a very sad time losing our second puppy Patch (with the black patches over his eyes) recently. Both dogs contracted blood parasites from tics passed on by their mother and Patch just couldn’t fight it. He is missed!
There was much excitement from Elliot and Sam on meeting their first ever cousin Jude last week! He is totally gorgeous at eight months and took the strange new place in his stride. The boys can’t wait to spend quality time with him and with their new cousin Caty at Christmas. Please be praying for an especially busy couple of months in the meantime. Jon is about to do a week of intensive study on contextualising the Gospel for Thai hearers before running a big family camp next weekend. Elise is entering a busy period with jewellery sales and also hosting ‘mission exposure’ groups. Pray that we can take care of each other as a family and for good physical and spiritual health too.
We are so very thankful for the regular gifts from churches and individuals that quite literally keep us here.
Since moving to Thailand exactly three years ago today (!!!) the exchange rate has dropped by 20%. Our support has consequently reduced in value by one fifth and we have gradually eaten into our reserves. Our living costs remain the same but our ministry costs are increasing just around the time that funds are running short.
We thought it would be helpful to clarify how support raising works with UNOH. Each worker is responsible for fundraising to cover all their own costs. Any money donated to us is handled by admin staff who pay a set living allowance (based on the Henderson poverty line) into our Thai bank account each month. This is comparatively small but enough for us to eat, travel, pay rent and utilities and still be generous to those around us. Other costs associated with living overseas such as health insurance, language learning, children’s school fees (half-price missionary rate but still expensive) and visa/work permit fees are further claimable. Any remaining funds are considered ‘ministry funds’ and, with approval from our team, can be used creatively to bless our neighbours.
Our ministry in the community is presence-based and generally costs us our time and energy rather than money; we believe this sets us apart from the many other organisations working here. When asked for money our protocol is to invite people to eat with us, accompany them to hospital appointments, help them dream big dreams etc. The past few years have been primarily about investing in relationships and we subsequently find ourselves deeply embedded in the life of the neighbourhood.
With increasing knowledge of our context we are now taking on some commitments that cost us money. Some examples are taking teenagers to activities outside the slum, funding schooling for the very poorest children in our kids club, providing medications for neighbours with chronic conditions, supplying water and electricity to the few homes that can’t afford it, building bathrooms and improving access pathways. While we won’t always get it right, we trust God’s Spirit to lead us in these judgements as we seek to redistribute wealth in a way that reflects the Kingdom.
We know that this also requires your trust as supporters. We seek to be open with you about how your gifts are used and see you as direct partners in loving those God has placed in our lives. We have experienced a God who provides for our needs as they arise!
If you are a regular reader of this blog would you consider setting up a small monthly donation? Are you part of a church or small-group that would consider supporting a mission partner? Could you do a one-off fundraiser towards a specific cause that has been mentioned? We would love to hear from you! More information about giving through Stewardship is available on the ‘Partner with us’ page at the top of this Slumblog.
With our love,
Jon, Elise, Elliot and Sam
‘Despair is global. Hope is local.’ – Jonathan Cornford #tearconference2017
A friend passed on these words recently and the more I dwell on them the more they have impressed their truth into my soul. I’m learning that Hope is a precious seed that needs tending with care as it breaks through parched ground. It can’t be hurried or imposed and its growth looks different in every setting. Real Hope does not take root in denial but embraces the suffering of the world while choosing to dream of something better starting right here and now.
Where do we see Hope taking root in our Khlong Toey Community? There is Hope in the brightly painted new homes springing up in the swamp around us; under the ever-present threat of eviction some people are choosing to believe that the future is worth investing in. There is Hope in the noise and bustle of the local school where teachers do their best in hot classrooms, taking jobs with very little pay because they believe in these kids. There is Hope in the glimmer of understanding from a friend who seems at last to ‘get it’ that we share our water supply with drug addicted neighbours even when they cause us hurt. There is Hope when someone who regularly comes asking for food wants to ‘repay’ me with a nail varnish in my favourite colour. Blink and you might miss it but it is here!
A lot of the time it is hard to recognise Hope, and despair creeps in with the fighting and the rumours and the rats. There are shattered dreams; a fifty year old neighbour believing she is pregnant and carrying a doll around, fourteen year old boys willing time away in the gaming room, dulling their disappointment with cheap drugs. There is a choice to look away or to look more closely and tend the small seeds of Hope.
Our family committed to an initial three years serving with UNOH in Khlong Toey slum. As we approach the end of this period we’ve given some time to looking back over the journey and to discerning what God is asking from us in the future. We have a strong sense that God is still calling us to love the same place and the same people. We have more insight into how he has shaped us and how our calling can be outworked here, but essentially nothing has changed. We are excited to recommit for a further four year period.
I doubt that comes as much surprise to anyone! The surprising thing for us is that it has been harder to weigh up the cost second time around. Staying put, we face a lot of uncertainties and, once again, grieve the loss of a more ‘normal life’ (I doubt that really exists but it is still a big pull!). We’d value your prayers as we dream for the future and find ways to sustain our family life in the next phase. We are confident that God is faithful and he will continue to bring Life to us and direct our witness here. Thanks for standing with us in prayer and giving!
In the Neighbourhood
A highlight last month was taking neighbourhood kids to The Festival of Friendship at Harrow school. Once again the boys walked away from the football tournament with the cup! All the kids had a blast and are eager for International School term to start up again so we can resume swimming trips on Saturdays! Please be praying for these children, some of whom are supported through school by those of you who give to us financially.
We are working with members of our community to improve access in the neighbourhood. Pathways are broken and rotten due to flooding and proved inadequate as escape routes in the January fire. The Port Authority, who own the land and originally allowed labourers to settle here, have taken some responsibility for rehousing victims but they do very little upkeep of the infrastructure. The work is quite extensive and we are seeking funds to make improvements. Alongside this we are hoping to fund toilet facilities for three households who currently have no toilet/water supply. If this is something you would specifically like to support please get in touch.
Thank you to those of you who supported the RoyRak team by trying out the new website! Sales have been slow but feedback from customers has been positive so I’m hopeful the online brand will catch on! The last month has been spent designing so look out for new products being added soon. If you know of any retailers that might be interested in selling RoyRak products, we also offer wholesale prices.
This month we made enough sales to be able to take on a new employee from the Rong Moo community. P’Appen is a delight to work with and has some previous jewellery making experience which is a bonus! She lost her job at the local fish canning factory when she had to miss work to care for a dying aunt. She approached me in desperation, little knowing that she was exactly the person RoyRak was looking to recruit!
Puppies and Parents
Poppy and Patch have slotted right in to the family and bring us lots of joy! Caring for them is a community affair as their kennel is outdoors and both doggy parents live right on our doorstep! Trying to convince well meaning neighbours that chocolate milk and fried eggs is not a suitable diet can be hard work especially when the Puppies contradict us! It’s been great to see Elliot and Sam enjoying their new playmates and being happily occupied through the long school holidays!
My parents have just returned to England after spending three weeks with us (including some wonderful beach holiday!) They particularly loved the opportunity to conquer their fear of motorbikes by being our passengers as we wove through Bangkok traffic! It was good to give them an updated taste of our normal lives so they can picture the people and places we talk about. It was also good to get some quality time out of Bangkok as we hadn’t been all together for a full year.
For Your Prayers
- We’re so excited for UNOH’s Second Chance team to be opening a second shop on the ground floor of our office building! Not only is this a great opportunity for Khlong Toey residents to buy good quality second hand clothes, it will provide a public space where neighbours can come and chat over a coffee during the day. Pray for the Second Chance team as they get this up and running and for great relationships to come about through it.
- Pray for the health of team members and colleagues which is often under strain. Pray that those who are burdened will know the rest that comes from God and that broken relationships will be healed beyond expectation.
- Nothing is straightforward, we’ve encountered lots of obstacles in the house-buying process and it’s a big weight at the back of our minds. We are all increasingly frustrated by the current lack of space and by rats in the bedroom. It is hard not to pin our hopes on the two-storey house that came available close-by at the same time as a church approached us with Capital funds. Please pray that we will trust God’s timings and that there will be a way through all the complications even if it is not the outcome we expect.
- The boys are halfway through school holidays and it has been a blessing to reconnect with them and see them wind down. We have planned in some one-on-one time and pray that it will be fruitful, especially as the boys process what it means to commit to a longer stay in Thailand.
- Pray for our good friend Buey and her five daughters who are members of house church. Pray that they will know God’s comfort and leading in the upheaval of seeking out suitable new housing and considering moving to live next door to us.
- Jon and others will be running a Missio Dei discernment course in a few weeks time to coincide with visitors from the UK. This is open to anyone approaching a time of decision-making or evaluating God’s call on their life. Pray that it will be a really profitable and Spirit-led time.
- Please continue to pray for safety, especially from people or powers who dislike our presence here. Pray that we can live in freedom from fear.
Chris Holmes, the former director of Shelter, concluded that ‘housing poverty is now the most extreme form of social inequality in Britain, with those who experience the greatest inequalities being those living on housing estates.’ (1)
When neighbours in Khlong Toey ask me about England the conversation often turns to how people affected by poverty are treated in my home country:
‘But you don’t have slums in England, do you?’
‘The English government looks after people and gives free money and houses, doesn’t it?’
The more I read about the appalling Grenfell Tower fire, the more I feel that the problems I live amongst here in a Bangkok slum are the same as the problems behind the Grenfell fire.
Last night I was having this conversation with a neighbour. She was asking about what she had seen on the news.
‘Who lived in Grenfell Tower?’
‘Really? I thought only rich people lived in towers! But they want to live there, right?’
‘No, not really. It is probably the only housing available for them. People who are poor from fleeing horrors elsewhere in the world, poor from chronic illnesses like mental health problems and addiction, poor from lack of decent education and job opportunities. (2) In one London tower block estate 80% of the residents wanted it pulled down, they don’t want to be living there but have no choice’ (3)
‘That’s just like here in the slum.’
‘But I thought London was a rich city?’
‘It is mixed, and often poor people are grouped together in certain areas.
The rich people living around the tower did not want to look at it’s ugly appearance and be reminded of the poor quality housing, so the tower was covered in a pretty face. A flammable pretty face which caused the fire to spread quickly.
The inside has decayed over years of neglect. The fire safety was inadequate. It seems that suitable, safe housing for the poor is not a priority in England.’
‘That’s just like here in the slum.’
‘So England can’t afford to help poor people?’
‘Um.. well actually the rich borough in which Grenfell Tower is found has been making such effective cuts to it’s services for poor people that it has been handing out the underspent surplus money to the richer people. (4) The money seems to be there, just not the care for the people who need it most.’
‘That’s just like here in the slum.’
‘But the people affected will be helped out, won’t they?’
‘While people are interested there will be care and charity.. but the underlying injustices probably won’t be a priority to address.’
‘That’s just like here in the slum.’
All over the world we are failing to provide for our most vulnerable. This is worth shouting about.
I am reminded of Isaiah hearing the Lord’s assessment of his nation:
7 Your country is desolate,
your cities burned with fire;
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
Isaiah 1: 7, 17
What action could we take, locally or nationally, to seek justice?
‘The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future. The next step discloses itself only out of a discernment of God acting in the desert of the present moment. The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signalled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise’
Brennan Manning ‘Ruthless Trust’
There are times when you catch a glimpse of another person as God sees them and in that moment there is simply no questioning his love.
Bah Nee lay shivering on the floor drifting in and out of sleep as we met on Friday evening for house-church. Tears rolled down her cheeks and the usual bravado was replaced with a confronting vulnerability. We’ve often seen her unwell but never like this; never so close to breaking.
Jon drove her back to our house and examined her, concluding from her high temperature that it was a bad infection. With end stage liver disease we wonder how much more wear and tear her body can take. Bah Nee refused to go to hospital that night… even with company she is fearful of mistreatment. We pleaded with her to stay in our house but I guess she needed the familiarity of home. She was under strict instructions to hammer on our door if she got worse during the night. All we could do was pray.
We hardly slept. Imagining the worst, we found ourselves contemplating the prospect of life without our noisy, soft-hearted, dependable, generous, more-than-a-little-bit crazy Aunty! Love has that way of creeping up and surprising us with its depths sometimes.
At 7am Jon went to check on Bah Nee and found the door locked from the outside. A neighbour had seen her leaving at dawn and not noticed anything amiss. As we had left her the night before it seemed impossible that she could be on her feet, it didn’t make sense! We began a search of the local clinics, her workplace and her usual hangouts. Nobody had seen her at the motorbike taxi stand or at the whisky stall. We didn’t know whether to be cross or relieved!
She strolled up whistling later in the day, swinging bags of vegetables for our rabbit and completely unaware of the scare she had given us. It seems her body is not giving up yet! The next day she brought 15 family members along on our UNOH trip to the seaside. She was in her element collecting shellfish and singing louder than everybody else on the coach! What a privilege to share the experience with her.
This place we call home brings such contrasting emotions. It is hard to explain to someone outside our setting that we can experience a pull to engage more deeply and a desire to flee almost simultaneously! The promise of familiarity, of fitting in and feeling some level of control is never far away. How do we cling on to a sense of calling when there is crisis and disappointment in equal measure to joy?
Bah Nee is one tangible tie to the place God has our family right now. An unlikely relationship, we give and receive the honour of being known, of belonging, of encountering Jesus in each other. Faced with losing her, we were reminded not to overlook the blessings that are unique to here!
In The Neighbourhood:
We’ve had a few fun weekend trips with local children and families this month. Our network of local relationships is slowly expanding as we build mutual trust over time. Its been rewarding to see some of the children we’ve worked with for a while learning to swim. The extremely last minute wedding was exhausting but a huge success! We discovered our inner florists and basically blagged our way through (photos at the bottom of page)! With the start of rainy season, work on the new houses has slowed down considerably. Our house is not as watertight as we would like but it dries out quickly!
For various reasons, mostly triggered by the recent fire, we are exploring a move to purchase and slowly renovate a derelict two-storey house just a stones throw from our current house. This is only a possibility because of Trinity Churches inviting us to be part of their Living Stones Appeal and we are so grateful for the way they support and share our vision for incarnational mission. There are many hurdles to completing this plan but we are holding it lightly and trusting that God will provide for our future here.
We are working hard as a team to build up stock and finalise the process for online selling. We were super encouraged by the social media support last month and feel hopeful that we have a great customer base for launching sales. The practical demands of the business have been quite overwhelming for Nut and I recently. We’ve tried hard to look after each other but are looking forward to a quieter season where we can pour energy into the social elements of the project that we so enjoy!
One member of the RoyRak team is taking a huge step this week in moving out of the house she shares with her partner, his mother and his children from another marriage. She is not permitted by her mother-in-law to use the bathroom in the house so has to go to a local shop even if she needs to use the toilet at night. When I first met her she seemed resigned to being mistreated. She has truly blossomed in the stable environment of RoyRak and has taken on a confidence and creativity that I didn’t foresee.
Please pray that this young woman will settle well into her rented room close to friends. There are already frustrations with water and electricity supply slowing the process down and I worry that she will lose the momentum to complete the move. Pray for these practical considerations (she also owns almost nothing) and for a sense of peace.
- To own a puppy or not? Or two puppies perhaps? Our two favourite slum dogs have had a litter of two black and white fluff balls! We are already smitten and thinking of keeping one or both of them even though having a dog is not so practical when there is no space (think walking, pooing, fighting etc!) Its a head v heart battle – maybe not one to pray about from the front of church (could that be taken as a dare?!)
- Please pray for Ba Nee’s health, especially for easing of her regular symptoms. Pray that she will know how deeply she is loved by others and by her Maker and that this knowledge will continue to transform her and flow out to others.
- Pray for the kids in our community starting in their first few weeks back at school. Some are dropping out already and its hard to know what to pray.
- We’d value your prayers for our Bangkok UNOH team in a new season of leadership and trialling some new decision making structures. Please pray for overarching unity and for growth of exciting new signs of life.
- Pray for refreshing of our Thai language ability which gets stale from time to time and needs the Spirit’s empowering!
- Pray for Jon as he spends 10 days back in England enjoying time with our new niece Caty and new nephew Jude. We hope this time is refreshing and a significant time of reconnecting with family and friends.
‘Don’t think that every gift of grace, every act of kindness, isn’t a quake in a heart that moves another heart to give, that moves another heart to give, that grows into an avalanche of grace. Don’t say this isn’t what a brokenhearted world desperately needs, don’t say it isn’t how to change a broken world’ Ann Voskamp ‘The Broken Way’
Do you still have the bracelet?’ she asks me every few days. Of course I still have the bracelet – a few wooden beads on elastic, it doesn’t look like much but it means a lot to me and she knows it!
I first met P’Mon by accident. Our team had the opportunity to take a bus full of local women for mammogram testing at a breast cancer clinic. Not the most appealing of offers, it took a fair amount of home visiting to drum up interest! This not only pushed me out of my comfort zone but quite literally opened doors that I had never knocked on before. Behind one door was P’Mon, her face purple with bruises and creased with fear.
Way out of my depth before even speaking a word, I just stood there feeling as helpless as the woman looking back at me. She whispered sadly that her partner wouldn’t let her join the trip to the clinic. I felt that she wanted to say more but suddenly he was blocking the doorway. Somehow I convinced him that this was an opportunity that she shouldn’t miss, I didn’t fully believe my argument but I knew that time with this woman was important.
On the day I called for P’Mon repeatedly as she battled her fear of leaving the house. After numerous changes of clothing and keeping the coach waiting for 15 minutes we had jumped the first hurdle together. Through the day she swung between ecstatic and tearful. She poured out her life story, bitterly familiar and yet so far from my own experience. Despite the abuse, she had no intention of leaving the situation.
There was something incredibly unifying about sitting together as women of all ages in hospital gowns going through an undignified procedure together. The clinic had arranged for beauty treatments too. P’mon had her nails painted but then insisted it was wiped off before she went home. She ate ice-cream that was too frozen and lost a tooth. She giggled all the way home even though the air-con was broken and the bus felt like a sauna; you would think we had been to Disneyland!
We walked reluctantly back to her door that afternoon. I gave her partner leftover food and stressed to him how lucky he was to have her. I knew that saying too much could have painful consequences for P’Mon yet I felt the tension of being complicit in a culture that stays silent. Discouraged, I made sure she knew where I lived and asked her to call by anytime. She assured me that she would not be doing that – too many scary dogs along the 2 minute route! She pressed the bracelet into my hand as I left.
I so often anticipate a neat outcome; I want to fix people, my desire for justice racing ahead of all the messiness in the here and now. Yet here I was once again, walking away wondering if I had been more blessed by this brief interaction than the person that I had deemed ‘needy’. The words of Jesus rang in my ears ‘ Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the Earth…’ (Matthew 5:3-5). Even when the climb towards transformation is slow, I am assured that there is blessing here in the ache and the mess at the bottom of the mountain, these wooden beads like precious pearls of hope.
So I take small steps to extend love as she did to me, a different route to my motorbike in the mornings which passes P’Mon’s house and allows a quick chat as she washes the dishes out the front. I long to affirm the image of the Servant King that I see so clearly in her.
Watching the film ‘The Shack’ (twice!) this week has been a beautiful reminder of God’s presence in and through the most unimagineable human pain. The depiction of the Trinity fitted our family’s experience of God’s tenderness and helped us to once again let go and embrace mystery. At the end of the film the protagonist, Mac, asks if our actions can possibly make any difference and is assured that they make all the difference; ‘Every time you love, or forgive, with every act of kindness, the universe changes, and nothing is ever the same again.’
In The Neighbourhood
The rebuild is coming on amazingly! We really feel for the workmen who are working through hot season with temperatures around 40 degrees. The building methods are innovative and fascinating to watch! The trees in front of our house were chopped down last week to clear way for 15 new two-storey houses. It is going to feel very different being surrounded on all sides again but we are excited for having new immediate neighbours.
We are deeply saddened by the death of our 48 year old neighbour P’Lert. He shared a tiny shack adjoining our house with his sister P’In. He was doing heavy labour on a building site and suffered a burst blood vessel in the brain, possibly linked to his amphetamine use. P’In is distraught as she had argued with him the day before he died. She is terribly afraid of his ghost and the false rumours spreading that she refused to pay for an operation. Please pray for peace and comfort in this sad situation.
It is a busy time with the jewellery project preparing to get online sales up and running, hopefully by the end of June. The logistics of this are pretty daunting and the future of the project is resting on sales being a success! We would value your support as we begin raising our profile on social media in preparation for the launch of the online shop. Please like and share and encourage your friends to buy our fair-trade jewellery!
I’m encouraged by the growth of individuals on the RoyRak team and the level of motivation at the moment. We recently took a large and complicated order for a regular customer which involved threading multiple strands of tiny seed beads and then knotting them together with wax thread. There were 30 of these time consuming pieces ready to send, the wax just needed neatening up with a hairdryer. Nut, our manager, usually does this herself but she asked another member of the team to do it. Unfortunately the heat was left on a bit too long and when the jewellery was lifted the wax thread broke and the beads went everywhere! Not so long ago this would have been a disaster leading to all sorts of fallouts! But the team pulled together and worked through the weekend, taking it in turns to handle childcare until the order was finished. I couldn’t be more proud!
UNOH International Retreat
Our UNOH teams across all locations meet to plan and reflect together every 18months. This time we were hosted in and around Auckland and got to soak up some stunning scenery. We hardly saw our boys for a week as they ran wild wild enjoying the company of friends! It was a special time of discerning together where God is leading us as a larger body and hearing where each person is at. We really love these likeminded co-workers and are humbled by the sacrifices they make to see God’s kingdom come in hard places.
We followed this retreat with a week of Air BnB in the Bay of Islands. After narrowly missing the worst of Cyclone Cook we had glorious sunshine and spent most days in the sea. It was long enough to relax and realise how exhausted we had been! The constant heat, noise and general chaos of Bangkok puts our bodies under huge stress and it is helpful to stop and acknowledge that sometimes. Returning home, we feel refreshed and have more energy for relationships.
- Elliot is growing up fast and we are needing to spend more one-on-one time with him. He is lovely company but super sensitive at the moment. He has been teased at school for not owning as many gadgets as the other children and this has opened up all kinds of discussions at home. Please pray for parenting wisdom and also that Elliot will grow in confidence. He is training with the pre-squad for swimming which is a great acheivement!
- Sammy turns 7 on the 7th and is looking forward to a painting party and ‘not being cute anymore!’ He is remarkably settled at school and home and amazes us with his perseverance at most things. He ice-skated for the first time at the weekend and totally mastered falling headlong at high speed and then jumping back up! He doesn’t like change so please pray for him as he experiences big changes to our neighbourhood and the end of a school year coming up in June.
- A member of our house-church is getting married at the weekend! We are hosting the wedding at the office with very short notice…nervous laugh! Please pray that our team will navigate the cultural stuff well and grow in relationship with her family.
- We have a British couple coming to stay in three weeks with a view to joining our team here. Pray that their discernment time will be clear and life-giving. Pray that they will have good health and safe travels
- Jon’s sister Beth is expecting a baby anytime! Please join us in praying for a safe delivery and for Beth and Tim as they adjust to new patterns of life.
After the quiet of shock and loss, and the babbling of stories being told, the sounds of hammering and of grinding metal have become the new music of our neighbourhood. Rebuilding is well underway.
The huge fire of January 21st showed us some beautiful aspects of life here. The neighbours pulled together to help and support each other, there were hugs and kind words, old differences put behind as the great leveller of human suffering forged bonds of care.
And now the attempt to return to life as normal. Where there was a pile of charred remains, a new house springs up, completed within a week.
But the grasping for life brings back some of the uglier aspects of life here too. Suspicion, self interest, the jostling for position and status. Those who ‘have’ asserting themselves over those who ‘have-not’.
There are shifting uncertainties about what help people may or may not receive from the government.. will we all be kicked off this patch of land?
There are changing allegiances, old friends and neighbours left out of any help because they were only renting. The landlords buildings better houses to get higher rent, the poorest being pushed out of the community.
There is the deep pit of insecurity that drives the grasping for material things.. What does my future hold? Will I be able to continue a life here?
We have felt these same things with our neighbours, although our house was only damaged and not destroyed. Will our landlord want the house back? Will the government clear us all off the land? Will there be a next fire?
As every day we watch builders sink concrete piles into the unstable boggy clay of an already sinking city we identify with the desire for rootedness, for stability, for a place in this world.
Our heart response is not the desire to run from this insecure location, but to dig deeper roots in the neighbourhood. This is slow work building relationships with our neighbours. Witnessing to Christ’s love takes a long time and a lot of shared experiences. We need to go with our neighbours through the ups and downs.
So we will seek to stay. The fears and insecurities are part of what we share with those around us.
But we also do not fear completely as our neighbours fear. And not just because of our white skin, British passport and access to outside resources. We know the fears run deeper than the expression in grasping after the material needs.
The Deeper needs are of knowing we are loved, that we belong and that we have value.
In a world of comparison, self-seeking and injustice we know the One who holds us firmly and, with unchanging gaze, looks upon us as His beloved.
We have no guarantee of personal security or comfort. May we sink our foundations deeply into this Rock and hold out firm hope to those around us.
The psalmist says “Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.” Psalm 71:3
- Pray for peace and justice in our neighbourhood. Pray particularly for the poorest, who get the worst deal.
- Pray for Elise’s role with the fair wage jewellery project, RoyRak. Things have been particularly busy for the last few months as they are trying to get online sales up and running, alongside the usual routine and relationships
- We have UNOH International meetings in Auckland at the beginning of April – please pray for renewal of purpose and for there to be great encouragement in being together with the teams from Australia and New Zealand.
- As a family we will then stay on for a week of holiday in the mild weather! Pray we be refreshed and ready to get back to our work here when we get back.
It’s like the party has come to our place – young men sit around drinking coke and laughing, their wives and girlfriends and children join in as the evening gets later and later. Sharing food, inviting stories. Our new neighbours are able to join in and laugh along.
There is also a motorbike in pieces.
One of the difficult aspects of our neighbourhood is the separation and competitiveness, one group sets itself against another, one family quietly feuds with another over years of bitter grudge holding. The old people against the teenagers, the better-off against the poor, the non-drug users against the drug users, the established against the new. Jealousies, old hurts, regular annoyances, hierarchies of perceived worth – we see these expressed repeatedly in the complaints and grumbles of our neighbours, their harsh words of judgement and their ability to make an extreme sport out of talking each other down!
We saw it most powerfully when our new neighbours moved in and experienced cold stares, gossiping and signs of animosity. They are new people, from a different neighbourhood – they don’t belong here. They are young with a baby, they are poorer, they are from different religious backgrounds – they don’t fit in here. They are receiving help from us – they are taking up resources..
In this physically crowded space new people cannot be accommodated, self-interest has centre place when there are limited resources. But more than that, our hearts are crowded and new people cannot be accommodated, self-interest protects our limited ability to love and to welcome and to share. Our hearts see little enough worth in ourselves.. certainly not enough to go around for others.
So Jon being approached by these young men offering to restore his old motorbike for free was a sign to us of something new. A gift of helping each other out.
So the motorbike is in pieces.
But the community has a little bit more togetherness. It is not just the motorbike being restored, it is our hearts being restored to love and welcome and share.
In a place of jostling for position and honour, for people accustomed to being used and using others, this show of reciprocal generosity and open-heartedness is, to us, a little sign of the Kingdom coming. This is what we long for.
Other highlights this month include welcoming our new teammate, Dianne (above right), who joins us from Australia. Please pray for her as she begins language study and transitioning into our crazy cultural setting!
Also November saw lots of celebrating around Elise and Elliot’s birthdays, and welcoming Jon’s parents and Granny as they visited our team. It was also our third Loy Kratong celebrated in Bangkok, the Thai festival where beautifully lit flower creations are floated away to symbolise letting go of the past. We bought our Kratongs from neighbours who made more money in one night than they would usually make in a month. They subsequently gambled it and ended up worse of than before. Sometimes letting go of the past is tough and change is frustratingly slow.
Please pray with us;
- For Bah Noi, our adopted aunty, who is currently out of work whilst her employers at the street-side restaurant have gone to harvest rice. She is prone to be chaotic but the lack of structure just amplifies this. She has worked some odd jobs with Jon but has a lot more time on her hands. Her friend died this week and she told us that they had made a pact to die together. Please pray for her as she ponders big life questions and becomes more involved in Housechurch.
- Our young neighbours reach regular crisis points as they try to juggle working and caring for a baby. This is not hard to relate to and yet there is little encouragement for them to keep trying. Please pray for peace in their relationship and good health/safety for their little son. Pray for us as we affirm them whilst managing the complex dynamics of being a boss in the jewellery project and a landlord.