And Now We Can Breathe

After the second Christmas party last night, I feel like I can finally breathe.

The excitement and anticipation leading up to those two events would keep me up some nights and make me very antsy during the day.

I was blessed to spend the evening speaking with a woman, again, about 40 years old, who was working two jobs to support her teenage son and her almost four-year-old daughter.

Her kind, gentle spirit drew me to her.  She was not at all what I had ever expected a prostitute to be.  She was sweet, genuine, and very open with me.  We talked about her son and his plans to enter the Buddhist temple as a monk; she was so proud.  We talked about her young daughter who loved to ride bikes and how she loved doing everything together.  We talked about how her children’s father was still in their lives because he was a good father, but she was not with him anymore because he was not good for her.

I looked at picture after picture of she and her daughter going to the beach, riding bikes, visiting sites in Bangkok, and just hanging out together.  I looked at pictures of some of the soap bars and fruit that she carved, both for friends and family and also for the restaurant she worked in during the day.

She showed me pictures of beautiful farm land in Isaan that she used to live on and work.  I didn’t hear why she left, but I can draw a few conclusions that revolve around better opportunities that awaited her and her family in Bangkok.  I sat with her as she reminisced about her days of farming rice and sugar.  She hoped in the next year or two to have saved up enough money to bring her family back to her farm land in Isaan to live that simpler life again.

What drew me to this woman was her absolutely selflessness.  We did not talk about the work she did at night; this would be shameful for her.  But we both knew where she was picked up for the party.  She was willing to throw away not only her reputation, but also her future job prospects, her health, and her emotional well-being to support her children and give them a better life than she had.

As an introvert, I had fretted over these Christmas parties.

How could I communicate with these girls?  How could we overcome the language barrier?  What would we have to talk about?  What if they didn’t find me interesting?

The Lord calmed my nerves and instilled me with more bravery than I feel I have ever had in conversation.  He blessed me with conversations with many women like this one, who have encouraged me.  These women have shown me what it is to sacrifice everything for the ones they love, and they have shown me what losing one’s self truly looks like.  These women showed me Jesus in a new and refreshing light.


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Our Honored Guests

Why do we throw parties?

To serve and honor our guests.

Plain and simple.

Last night, the guests at our Christmas party were women who are not used to being honored, even uncomfortable being honored.

We arrived to pick up our honored guests at their workplace and escorted them back to the hotel, passing looks of disbelief and disgust on the streets.  Even the beggars looked up from the ground to express their disapproval of these women as we walked by.

But we walked together.  Some of them in front of me, some of them behind me, all of us followed by another American young woman.

It was a long walk from their workplace to the hotel, and the women couldn’t help but remind me of that every few blocks.  I’m sure in their high heels their feet kept reminding them.  One of them even said, “You’ll have to pay me more for this.”

I think they were pleasantly surprised to walk into this:


With wide eyes and smiling faces, we twelve stuffed ourselves into an elevator, and up to the third floor we went to find this:


With our honored guests we played party games and gave out goodie bags and prizes.  Then we sat down to dinner.  All of us, together.

My sweet honored guests wouldn’t let me serve them from the family style plates in the middle of the table; they served me.  I felt so unworthy of this gesture.

After listening to a speaker and watching a few skits, we presented our honored guests with gifts.  Their joy and delight at having been given stuffed animals, make-up, picture frames, and other small gifts permeated the room.

Before the party was over, I hugged my honored guests.  Each of these women had made a sacrifice to be at our party, but it was nothing compared to the sacrifice they make each and every day, working to send money to parents, siblings, and for many of them, their college-aged children.

I am not courageous like these honored guests.  They have given up everything, their life, their health, their reputation, for their family.  Last night they learned that a man named Jesus, or Projou (King), as they call him, had already done all of that and more for them.

Some of our honored guests wanted to learn more about this other King, others did not.

But for one night, these women were our honored guests, something they may never have experienced before, nor ever again.

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First Christmas Party Tonight!

Last night we were able to do our first bits of outreach.  In small groups we went into some of the pool bars (think sports bar or pub) to talk to the girls.

I had been so nervous about that part of the trip, but honestly, I found it to be the best part so far.  We all bought pineapple juices (could we look anymore like missionaries??) and struck up conversations with some of the waitresses and girls working in the bars.  It was refreshing how warm and friendly the women were, and not in the same way they were with potential customers.  It was clear to them when we began asking where they were from and if they had kids that we were not looking to buy sex.  Once that barrier was broken, we saw faces light up.

One woman our group spoke to last night was in her early 40’s and had been working in the bar for many years.  She had an 18 year old daughter whom she referred to as “my love” and “my number one”.  She proudly told us her daughter was in school and was going to study to become a nurse.  Without missing a beat, she told us how glad she was that her daughter would have a good job.

It’s hard to imagine a mother supporting her daughter and putting her through school with this job, but that’s exactly what she was doing.  And she wasn’t the only one.

The next woman we met was also in her early 40’s.  (This is unusually old for women working in the bars, but neither of the women we met last night looked even close to their age.)  This next woman’s story unravelled similarly. She was cautious of us until we bought her a drink and asked to see pictures of her three children.  We, in turn, showed her pictures of our babies, which she was delighted to see.

We told both women about the upcoming Christmas parties, letting them know that someone would be coming by to pick them up and pay their bar fine.

As the majority of my readers are waking up and reading this in the morning, teams from our larger group will be in the bars picking up girls to take to our first Christmas party.  I would like to ask for prayer for this first evening.

First, we are asking that God allows LOTS of women to come to the Christmas party; many of these women work 28 days out of 30, and a day off would be a welcome reprieve from their physically and emotionally demanding work.

Next, we are asking for the hearts of these girls to be open and willing to make friendships with those of us working with beginnings tonight; there are 30 of us from all over the U.S. and a few from England.  Each of us is looking forward to meeting and getting to know the women tonight.

We also ask for safety and no conflict with mama sans and customers.  Some mama sans can be difficult to work with, and others may not let any of their girls go to the Christmas parties.  Some of the customers may be just curious about why a group of women is buying prostitutes, but others could be hostile to us.

Finally, we are asking that the girls enjoy themselves at the party tonight, and have open hearts to hear the Gospel presented.  A Thai Christian pastor will be speaking tonight, giving a clear Gospel presentation.  Though we will not understand a lick of what’s going on, the girls will get a better sense of why they are there.

I appreciate all of your thoughts and prayers.  Check back tomorrow to see some pictures of the beautiful hotel where we are having the parties, as well as some of the fun and games from the evening.

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Leading Two Lives

Beginnings is able to serve and help many of the prostitutes working in the bars, but not all of them.  Some prostitutes aren’t girls at all, but young boys dressed as women.  These “lady boys” as they are openly called here, are often sons that come from families that either do not have daughters or their sister is unable to work and earn money.  Because, as I talked about before, Thai women are expected to run the home, raise the children, and provide financially for them, sons are not necessarily very profitable.  A family can send their son to work in a monastery for a short period of time (3 weeks – 3 months), and the family receives payment for their son’s work.  In addition, this short period of work in a monastery will tip the son’s “spiritual scale” heavily toward the good.  He is basicallyIt is not unheard of for families with only sons to choose one of their sons to “become” a daughter and work in bars to make money.  These young boys are often given hormones to help make their bodies look more feminine and sometimes are given breast implants.  These young boys work either on the streets or in separate bars; the demand for them among western men has grown in the past few years.

The longer these young boys stay in the sex industry, the more warped their thinking becomes. It is not uncommon for a young boy or lady boy to be purchased by a western man for sex, then use the money he earned to buy a Thai girl for the same purpose.  They feel, somehow, that they have to prove their manliness after a homosexual assault, and so they take their aggression and pain out on another human being.  They use the girls in the same way they are used to make themselves feel better.

Fortunately, there is one ministry in Bangkok, run by a friend of Benita, that ministers specifically to “lady boys”.  These young men face very different issues than girls in prostitution, and they have to receive specialized counseling. They often face problems learning how to look and act like a man, since they are usually dressed like a girl from a very young age.  They also fear for their families; if they are not able to prostitute themselves and make money to send home, who will provide for their family?

This is a question that is often difficult to answer for any of the children and young adults working in bars or on the street.  If they quit their current job to get an education, they will not be able to provide for their families until they graduate and get a better job.  This can be several years for some because they haven’t yet finished high school.

But that is another question that brings us back to the structure of the Thai family and their beliefs.  Is it really the responsibility of a child (daughter or son) to provide for their siblings in such a sacrificial way?  I understand that there are many places worldwide where children are forced to work, but the idea of being forced to sell your own body to support your family while your father probably does not hold down a job seems ludicrous.

That is a completely Western way of thinking.  I know.

It’s difficult not to get upset at this perceived injustice and perpetuation of poor examples of true masculinity.

It just reminds me that in order to break these generational strongholds, these young men need Jesus.  They need the example of God, the ever-loving, mighty, yet gentle Father, and they need their example in Jesus Christ.

As I have seen lady boys on the streets here in Bangkok, my heart breaks for them.  The pain and confusion they deal with on a daily basis is completely beyond my understanding.  Although we will not be specifically ministering to lady boys this week, they are welcome to the Christmas parties and will be directed towards ministries that can help them.  Please join me in prayer for this growing group of children whose childhood and identity have been stripped from them and replaced with lies, deceit, and pain.

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We haven’t even been in Bangkok for 24 hours, and I’m already amazed, and shocked by the things I have seen.

Last night, our small team took two taxis from the airport to the hotel.  Although our cab driver was silent, the driver of the other cab had some things to say about the neighborhood we are staying in.  We are staying in a hotel in Nana Plaza, an area of Bangkok known to western men as a place to buy Thai prostitutes.  When we gave the taxi driver the address, he remarked that that is a place where men go, but not where women go.

Yet, here we are.

As we drove closer to the red light district, you could see many more people walking in the streets, even though we were arriving at the hotel close to 3 am.  I had already seen a group of what I thought were middle-school aged children crossing a street earlier in the drive, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to see this many adults out and about at such a crazy hour.  I was surprised, though, to see just how blatant and obvious the transactions between prostitute and customer were.  All up and down the street we saw middle-aged western men walking with teenage-looking Thai girls, and the Thai girls that were not walking with a western man were clearly seeking them out but reaching out to grab people’s hands as they walked by.

We pulled into the hotel, which was much nicer than I had expected.  As we checked in, a white-haired man was escorting his “date”, a beautiful Thai girl who couldn’t have been more than 18 years old, out of the hotel.  There was no violence, no anger in the transaction.  The man seemed pleased with her service, and she was happy to be paid.  I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it felt as though such a defiling act should come with more obvious anger and violence.

I learned more today about why this is true, why these young Thai girls willingly sell themselves to western men.

We were able to go into the Home of New Beginnings, the ministry that we will be working with while here in Bangkok.  We met several of the girls living in the home that are currently studying in either high school or college; these young girls, as young as 16, have all been welcomed into New Beginnings while working in bars or on the street as prostitutes.  I was so taken back by the hope I saw in each girls’ eyes.  These were not girls still broken by their past and the abuse they had seen.  These were girls with driven by love, passion, and ambition.  These girls had met Jesus.

This wonderful ministry was started by Benita, a 70-something year old California native who moved to Thailand with her husband in 2004.  The Home of New Beginnings was opened just two years after they moved to Bangkok.  This afternoon our team was fortunate enough to sit with Benita and to hear stories about the girls in the home, as well as ones that have moved on from Beginnings to lead lives free of the sin and shame that brought them there in the first place.

Thailand is mainly a Buddhist country, but in a similar way that the United States is a Christian country.  There are few that truly follow Buddha’s laws and guidelines, but for many, Buddhism is simply part of family tradition.  They go to the temple on important holidays (similar to our Christmas and Easter), but aren’t necessarily an active member in the religion.  Nonetheless, Buddhism plays a key role in Thai thinking.  Each person has a “scale”, so to speak, of good and bad acts, and the balance between these two determines what kind of life your next life will be.  One who dies with more bad acts than good will be reincarnated into something lesser than a person, an insect, perhaps.  One who dies with  more good acts than bad will be reincarnated into something greater than they were, a king or queen, maybe.  It does not matter how much bad you do in this world, just so long as your good outweighs the bad.

As in many countries worldwide, in Thailand, women do not share the same status as men, and so they have to work harder to earn more good deeds.  A woman is expected to care for her home and her children as well as work to provide financially for her family.  This lifetime of work and sacrifice is what may be able to outweigh all of the bad deeds she does in her life, earning her a higher position in her journey to enlightenment.  Men, on the other hand, are able to earn enough “good” to outweigh all of the bad in their lives by doing a short working term (3-12 weeks) in a monastery.  After this, men are free to lead their lives however they please:  working or not, being kind or not, committing crimes, taking advantage of others, etc.

Most girls that are working in these local bars come from poverty-stricken rural regions in Thailand, north of Bangkok.  Each girls’ story is unique, of course, but many of them follow similar plot points.  It all starts with how the modern Thai family is structured.

As described above, a Thai mother works to support her family, while her husband is free to do as he pleases.  Often when a family has many children, or they are very poor, an eldest daughter is required to go out and seek work to help support the family.  From rural regions, the eldest daughters will find jobs working in factories in the cities, and then as they find new jobs with better pay, they often eventually find themselves in Bangkok.  The promise of great pay working in the bars is typically what attracts a young girl to work as a prostitute.  They carry the burden of having to help provide for their family, and they can make much more money working as a prostitute than they can in any factory.

Sometimes their families back home know the type of job their daughter has, but they won’t persuade them to leave that work.  They, instead, will accept whatever money the daughter sends.  It is what we would call in the U.S. a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of situation.  Some families do not know what kind of work their daughters are doing, but are nonetheless pleased with the large sums of money their daughter is able to provide for the family.

Many of these young women have been abused before they ever work in the bars.  Some are physically abused, others sexually abused, and some even ostracized from their family because they are the product of rape.  They carry these wounds and scars with them to work everyday as they serve western men’s sexual fantasies in exchange for money.

Benita was able to share with us a few redemptions stories, tales of girls the ministry has helped.

We heard the story of a girl who was the product of a violent rape.  Her mother kept her, but did not accept and love her as her own child.  She had a great relationship with her grandfather, who sadly passed away before the girl’s sixth birthday.  After that, her mother and grandmother kicked her out of their home, which is when she fashioned herself a bed in a tree in the family’s rice fields.  She lived in the rice field for a few years on and off until her mother married and had younger children.  This girl was useful now as a babysitter, and was allowed back in her home, still not as a full member of the family.  At the tender age of eleven, this young girl hopped on a bus to find work in a factory.  She worked long hours, sending her family money in hopes that her mother would love her for her sacrifice.  She didn’t, and after a few years working in factories, this girl fell into working as a prostitute in a local bar.  She earned even more money there, and was able to send a great amount to help her family.  Still her mother was not pleased with her.  So she took a husband at the age of 15 (which was not terribly young for a rural Thai girl).  He was not a kind man, and he beat her.  After she was hospitalized three times by this man, the girl came to Beginnings, the ministry she had heard about from outreach in the bars but had never been to.  It was there she met Jesus and devoted her life to him.  She finished high school, then began attending a Bible College in Thailand.  Soon after she learned that her younger half sister was going to be sent to Bangkok, and she knew that it could only be for one purpose.  Heartbroken, this girl approached Benita, begging her to take in her sister, even at the cost of going back to the bars to work herself.  “I can go back there again,” she said.  “I have Jesus now, so I will be okay.”  Of course, both girls stayed at Beginnings.  The older sister was able to finish Bible College and is now married with one child.  The quality of life she enjoys now is miles above the life she once lead.  Her little sister, whom she had been willing to sacrifice her life for, went on to finish high school and college; she is currently a chemical engineer, making more money than she ever could working in the bars.

Most of the bar girls are sending money home to help support their family, and many of them are doing so to help keep a younger sister from sharing their fate.  Some of them have hopes of saving up for a college education and finding a job away from the bars.

The truth of the matter is, though, that often these girls are so bound by their obligation to provide for their family that they are unable to save up enough money for their education.  Others may not live long enough to realize their dream of an education because they have succumbed to a sexually transmitted disease.

The Home of New Beginnings exists to give these girls a true chance at education.  They are taught not only basic skills like cooking, baking, sewing, and crafting, but they are provided education through high school and university.  For many of these women, this is a huge sacrifice for their family.  Although Beginnings is able to minister to and help the prostitute, it does not send supplemental income to her family, and so the family loses income that it used to depend on.

It can only be by the grace of God that these girls are able to step away from the job that provides income for their families to receive the healing they need.  Some of them are able to reconnect with and regain a relationship with their families, visiting them regularly.  After they are educated, often paid for by resources at Beginnings, these girls are able to find better, more fulfilling jobs that pay more than they were able to earn working the bars.  They are then able to help support their family again, but are not living in shame to do so.

Finally, for those of you worried about my safety, the Lord gave me this last night before bed:

“Don’t be afraid, but keep on speaking and don’t be silent.  For I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to hurt you, because I have many people in this city”

Acts 18:9-10

Sitting down with Benita and meeting the girls at Beginnings really affirmed for me that God is here, and He is working. And I am so thankful to be a part of His plan here for this short time.

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