“I do not plead for returning calls, handshakes, chairs, dinners and teas as such. I do on the other hand plead for all of them and more if they can be expressions of a friendly feeling, if these or anything else can be the outward proofs of a real willingness on the part of the foreign missionary to show that he is in the midst of the people to be to them not a lord and master but a brother and a friend.”
“Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self denying labors of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We ask for love. Give us friends.”
During a seminary missiology course and a visit to Edinburgh, I came across these quotes from Bishop V.S. Azariah at the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference. Especially at times like these when I feel like I want to do more, and I wish others could join me in the struggles of learning more about migration and human trafficking and then doing something about it. That’s when I remember that friendship from the global church can be the greater and the greatest gift. Some of these people might never become my Facebook friends, yet they are friends because they have helped shape my perception of the world beyond the facts and figures during my first visit to Thailand:
*Originally Pastor A is from Myanmar and settled in northern Thailand. He crossed the border only now to fight discrimination because of his lack of ID card. Without this card, he has no identity and no rights. In multiple attempts to complete the paperwork, he paid countless fees to shady government or law enforcement officials and was arrested over 30 times. After many years, he has received his ID card, granting him permission to work, vote, receive medical assistance, and to travel freely. I am confident that his story of perseverance gives hope to his congregants for their process which can last anywhere from 2 to 10 years and include exorbitant fees from more shady government officials.
*Girl B lives at a residential facility for at-risk young girls called the New Life Center. Her family includes her, brother, mother and father, and they are tribal minorities. When she was old enough and no longer lived with grandparents, she found a job in construction and worked alongside other children. She lacks education. Her father encouraged her to claim her ID card, so that she could receive benefits. She also has abusive father who attacks her mother, and soon turns against her in multiple attempts to sexually assault her. Each time she screamed loud enough and ran away far enough to get people to help her and to evade these attempts. Eventually her mother believes her, leaves her husband, and Girl B can begin a new life at this facility. Her strength and courage to run away from her father, must be a source of strength and courage to her fellow residents.
*Girl C lives in an immigration detention center in Bangkok. She and her sister and their family have been detained for over one year. They left Pakistan because of attacks against their family members who are Christian. On the same morning of the U.S. election returns (12 hours ahead of EST), I spoke to her and her family mostly through yells and screams. In a noise-filled room, there is an arbitrary separation with moveable gates about 2 feet apart on one side for detainees, and another side for visitors, we introduced ourselves and quickly connected because of our common faith. She dreams about becoming a missionary pastor and already reads the Bible regularly and preaches to the women in her same room. Her favorite story and character is Daniel. She and her family are waiting for the UNHCR to grant them status as refugees.
*Rev. Sirirat Pusurinkham is a Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) pastor serving the Prachakittisuk Church. As a schoolgirl, some of her friends were sold into prostitution by the families. Some of the children in her current community have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, leaving them in vulnerable situations where other family members might not be able to care for them and open to options like forced labor or sex trafficking. The women also lack education and skills which could leave them to consider moving to the city for better opportunities. Many pleas and prayers later, there are now two extra buildings near the church to serve as the orphanage. Through the church and its orphanage and livelihood projects, the children and women live in relative safety and security, away from the conditions that lead them susceptible to trafficking.
For the first ten days of November, I traveled to Thailand, with a Presbyterian Church USA delegation that included General Assembly co-moderator Denise Anderson, Carl Horton (Peacemaking), Ryan Smith (Presbyterian Ministry to the United Nations), Barry and Shelly Dawson (regional liaisons of southeast Asia). Many thanks to Barry and Shelly for preparing this informative and engaging visit. This will be the beginning of many more visits to come, since Thailand is considered my secondary site of service with partners such as the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) and Christian Conference of Asia (CCT) and other organizations.
In these first eight months of living in the Philippines, I have been learning about how best to represent the PCUSA and UCCP at different activities and events. For the first time, I would not be the sole PCUSA representative because now I could enjoy the perspectives and insights of my fellow Presbyterians. All of us knew something about human trafficking before this visit, but all of us left Thailand with new awareness and information and people. It was as much a time getting to know Thailand and the church, the government, and culture, as getting to know one another and exploring ways of working together as colleagues in ministry.
Our 9-day schedule included visits with church leaders, staff members of non-profit organizations, representatives at embassy and international offices, and at-risk children in residential facilities. We also met more people in living rooms, community centers, conference rooms, rice fields, hospital and an immigration detention center. Filled with loads of information to scribble into notebooks, to read later in papers and reports from different organizations, I was humbled to learn through the sharing of life stories from these new friends.