Gratitude and Grief

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

-Psalms 43:5

I have been back home for exactly 24 hours now. It’s so wonderful, so beautiful and peaceful. I am filled with gratitude to be here. And yet… it is all so odd. I’m trying to finish shopping for Christmas, but my heart isn’t in it. Too much has been seen and felt in the past 10 days. Young girls forced to service much older men because their pimp, family, poverty and/or society demands it. Boys made to change themselves to look and act like girls in order to better make money on the streets or in the bars. And then…those little kids in Connecticut. It is too much. Shopping holds no therapy. Life feels heavy right now, and it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.

I was going to recap our trip by hitting all the high notes, sharing hope. Because it DOES exist, in Bangkok and in so many other places where evil has taken over. But as much as their is hope, their is also a time for grief over the evil of it all. My heart is raw. I want and need to be angry about it.  I don’t care about finding the perfect holiday sweater or unpacking my suitcase. I care very much that evil is overtaking the streets of Bangkok and shooting up an elementary school.

The truth is, part of me doesn’t ever want to go back. To Thailand. To watching the news (and that’s ironic for those who know me). To pushing myself outside my happy little blessed existence into facing the darkness and depravity of humanity. I just want to stalk real estate and fashion blogs online, do my ridiculously awesome job from home, be a great mom to Ella and wife to Daryl and friend to those around me. I want to punch the clock at church, eat out, spend money without thinking, go home, sing Christmas carols and pretend that nothing else in the world exists. The problem is that now I know better. There is no going back. There is no reconciling my “normal” with what I have seen, felt, smelled and touched first hand. Living a life of comfort is not what living life as a Christ follower is about. If you want to get “uncomfortable” real quick, go to a place where evil is on display. And never is that more real and tangible than in those red light districts, or in what showed up at Sandy Hook Elementary. It is all so fresh and oppressive though, that sometimes it’s easy to think that evil is winning.

But that’s not where hope lives. Hope is in the phone call that Pastor Nijorn, the speaker at the Christmas parties, received from a girl who works at Soi Cowboy. She went out of her way to hunt him down on the phone the day after the parties because she just had to tell him that because of the words spoken through him and the love she experienced at the party, she knew for the first time ever she had value and that Jesus loves her so much that her past is forgiven. She believes that there is hope for her future, a hope for her life.

Hope is in the girls at Beginnings who have regained much of their childlike innocence, who dance with each other with abandon and hold each other tight when one of them cries out of a memory of abuse. Hope is in that house, where lives go to start over. To begin again. Hope is when those very same girls, who once were put on display on one of those grimy, neon-lit stages or sold their bodies on the streets, walks boldly back into those red light districts–the places of their darkest memories–because they can’t leave their sisters behind without sharing the hope that they have. And yes, hope is even in watching our President emerge from a vicious election to end the year in tears while relaying compassion as a man, a father and a human to those who need it the most right now. A man who surprised many by quoting from the Bible to bring that hope to mourners during the memorial service in Newtown, Connecticut. THAT is hope.

We need to grieve, as a nation and a humanity, when faced with this type of evil. But just like those girls at Beginnings, there is then a time to be bold. To stand up and fight. To share hope and love, and the promise that tomorrow can be better than yesterday. It’s the only way to believe that next Christmas there will be no empty stockings in Connecticut and fewer young girls and boys being sold in Bangkok, and around the world.

But if we hope for what is still unseen by us, we wait for it with patience and composure. -Romans 8:25

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The Christmas Spirit

 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” -Matthew 11:28

 

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The Christmas parties thrown by Beginnings for the girls of the red light districts always proves my faith to be small. Every year, our teams disperse to the bars to pay the way for the girls there to be able to come to the party in their honor for the night. And every year, the results start out slow–many bars say no or only allow one or two girls to leave. This year, on both nights, my team, comprised of myself, Kathleen, Cristina and one of the girls from Beginnings, heard “no” after “no”–to the point that we began to panic and wonder if all the other teams were having the same results. In total, we were able to take just 12 girls to the party from the 13 bars assigned to us. But that doesn’t mean God wasn’t opening doors elsewhere.

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On the night of Soi Cowboy’s party, one bar alone let 19 girls go. And on Nana Plaza’s night, a whole bar shut down to send all their girls! By the time we arrived at the party, the ballroom at the hotel was nearly full, with more than 100 girls present each night and ready to play, laugh, eat and listen to the message. And this year proved to be the most moving of the three years I’ve experienced so far. The speaker, Pastor Nijorn, always does a great job at engaging the women, making them laugh, and clearly presenting what Christ did to offer them freedom. But this year, it was the testimony of one of the girls at the house that had everyone weeping.

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As tears rolled down her face, and her sweet friend held her close, this girl (I will call her “Bo”) relayed to a room full of women how her mother sold her for sex at the age of 8, and she suffered years of abuse and neglect following that. Her transformation into a beautiful, kind and quick-to-smile young woman is nothing less than remarkable. Read more about Bo’s story here.

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Many of the girls present wept openly as Bo told her story–one that so many in the room could identify with. This outpouring of emotion is unlike one I have seen before from these women who are taught to smile through pain, but Bo’s story clearly struck a cord. At Lindsey’s table the first night–Soi Cowboy night–every girl at her table was weeping. In a gentle and sweet moment, Lindsey quietly took the hand of the girl next to her and held it while the girl’s little body shook with tears.

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At the end of the night, many hands were raised to accept Christ and many took Bibles as they left. We know this is not the end of the work needed to bring these girls to full freedom–in fact, for many, it will be a long, difficult process and some may never be able to escape the sex industry due to family pressures. But after being present at the parties, each girl there walked out with a knowledge that they were created to be free of their bondage, and they are loved so much.

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From the giving of presents to a sweet time of bonding, singing and playing with the amazing women of the red light districts, these parties were not only able to allow them a night off from the horrors of their job, but also allowed them to enjoy each other and life for a moment in time. Most of these girls never get an opportunity to spend time together outside the bars, since they work 28 out of 30 days a month, but for this one night, most smiled and laughed freely and soaked up a rare moment of being cherished, sparkling brighter than the crystal chandeliers above their heads.

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I’m Not Lovin’ It

The scene: An 80-something-year-old Western man with his Thai teenage companion, getting a bite to eat at the McDonald’s around the corner from Soi Cowboy before they go to do whatever they plan to do next (shudder). This is the SECOND year in a row I’ve witnessed a scene like this at this exact McD’s and I gotta tell you, it really takes the joy out of your first Thai-side taste of American fries. As our team sat there last night staring him down, I mentioned that since he already had one foot in the grave so we should just help him with the other. Not the correct, loving response, I know! The truth is, this man makes me sad (although I don’t pity him). I know he is likely longing for companionship, and to relive his “glory days.” Perhaps he spent time here in the military many years ago and just wants to remember what it feels like to be young again. Still, on the flip side of the coin, Father Time better get a move on with this guy or I’m going to help him out!

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Black & Blue

“Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.” -Psalms 130:1

Dignity is a tricky thing here. In one small act, or one defining moment, it can sometimes literally be stripped from a girl working in the sex industry for the rest of her life. For some, theirs was taken the first time they were sold to a man–perhaps by their own parents, or by a trafficker or boss. For others, they made it through that first atrocity and many others, but when the abuse began, their spirits broke. Here, bruises are one of the only outward signs on these ever-smiling-on-the-outside girls that their dignity is being lost, bit by bit.

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Last night, we went back to Soi Cowboy, and once again, she was one of the first people my eyes rested on. I mentioned her in my last post–this very young and tiny girl working at a go-go car called The Dollhouse. It’s clear that the bar owners finds her age and size profitable, because last night they had her back on the pole outside to lure customers in. Remember that bruise on her little leg I was telling you about? You can’t miss it in this photo.

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I’m sure it’s arguable by some that she simply had a spill or ran into something. But if you spend any amount of time in the red light districts, you know better. Bruises are par for the course for these women–as is abuse–from customers, handlers, and bar owners. The first year I was here, I witnessed a Mamasan whacking the legs of her girls on the stage with a long stick if she found their dancing unsatisfactory. Bruises running down arms, legs and even necks, where hands have gripped them too tightly, are as common as the stifling heat here. You could trivialize it by calling this an occupational hazard, but hopefully I’ve explained enough by now that you realize that these women never wanted to work here in the first place. If bruises are the outward symbol of a broken spirit, I wonder what these girl’s hearts must look like? And what this does to the heart of God? I know what it does to mine!

Tonight, we have the joy and honor of throwing our first Christmas party for these girls. Last night, we were encouraged to hear from several bar owners in Soi Cowboy that they plan to let their girls attend–but as I’ve learned, what is said here is not always what is done when it comes down to it. Again, I ask for prayers that many, many of these amazing girls will be able to come to a party designed to let them play, be girls, be loved and be shown a way out.

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Deeds of Darkness

“The night is nearly over, the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” –Romans 13:12

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Soi Cowboy has a way of breaking my heart like no other place I have ever been. More than Nana Plaza. More than the beggars on the streets. More than anything I think I have experienced in life—and none of these things are insignificant to me. No matter how many times I journey down the neon-lit, one-block stretch of bars, the grief experienced when I walk into Soi Cowboy is always instant and profound. I always tell myself I am ready to go again, but how can you ever get used to the evils it holds?

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Perhaps it is the fact that the girls there are so darn young, even compared to Nana Plaza. Perhaps it is that so many of them are forced out front of their bars, scantily clad, to solicit men walking by. Or maybe it just comes down to girls like this one—12 or 13 years old at best (you should see how little and malnourished she looks in person).

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Soon after I took this photo, her mamasan (bar manager) instructed her to start dancing on a pole outside her bar in the open air—a tiny spectacle for all to stare at from any point along the strip. What choked me up the most about this girl is something you can’t see in the photo—a big bruise running down the side of her right leg, the likely result of abuse by a handler or client. Bruises on these girls are so common that they almost fail to stand out, like an individual tattoo on a sleeved out arm would. But as she moved along the pole just barely enough to constitute “dancing,” there was no missing it.

I walked three of my team mates through Soi Cowboy for the first time, and as they got an eyeful, I literally had to clench my fists as hard as I could to hold back the tears. When you see precious girls holding signs like this, flagrantly humiliating their already degraded coworkers in the bars, or see the blank and detached expressions of the girls working there, it grips your heart so powerfully it is sometimes hard to breathe. Soi Cowboy is the stuff of my worst nightmares. But it’s real. It’s so incredible, painfully, sickeningly real.

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The strongholds over this red light district have always been great. There are bars in this strip that the owners won’t even let us or anyone connected to Beginnings into anymore, because they have figured out that we are not there to improve their bottom line. And while Soi Cowboy has always had plenty of young, beautiful girls lining its streets, I’m told that in the last year about half the bars mandated that their girls be even younger—13, 14 or 15 at the most. The younger, the better is the motto of the red light districts. Tonight, the youth and robbed innocence there was so excruciatingly evident. On Wednesday night, we will throw our first Christmas parties for the girls of Soi Cowboy. If I may ask you to pray, please plead that many, many will be allowed to attend—for us to pay their way for a night to honor them. Pray that for one evening, their night will be nearly over before it even begins, and that the truth that can free them will be clearly heard.

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A Word of Clarification

Many of you have reacted strongly to this photo, and it’s no wonder why. But after talking with the leaders at Beginnings today, I feel the need to clarify. We don’t know for certain that this man purchased this girl; it is possible that he could be related to her–he could even be her father. Plenty of Western men marry and/or have children with Thai women. Since we can’t know for sure that he bought her–or that he DIDN’T–let this photo act as an example of what happens here.

Certainly, girls this age and younger are bought by men here everyday. Many consider the younger the better and will pay a premium for them. What caught our attention about this situation is that they were walking together past the red light district, in an area notorious for Western men with purchased Thai companions, and the fact that the man would periodically put his arm around the girl. Again, not an unusual gesture for this area or culture, but worth noting. We would never want to do anything to compromise the ministry at Beginnings by giving misleading information, so please note that while this photo represents a shocking truth that happens here every day, it may not in reality show a real live example of it.

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Shock Therapy

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” -John 16:33

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There is no real way to prepare for the shock factor of the red light districts. I remember the feeling of utter, overwhelming grief the first time I experienced them three years ago. This is my third go-round here and I have to say, I was worried coming in that I would be more numb to it and less heartbroken. But my prays for refreshed mourning and discerning eyes are being answered–in just two days, my heart is already raw once again to the women and girls around me. I’m not sure you ever get used to sights like this, where straight-faced teens do what Bonita calls the “junior high shuffle” while holding a pole on a stage for ogling men to watch, choose, grope… and worst.

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I blurred out much of this photo so as not to reveal and shame the women who are already shamed on a nightly basis, but you get the picture. And this is what I call a “starter bar”–it’s not topless, it’s not a show bar. We had a Thai man ask on the street today if we wanted to buy tickets to a “Ping Pong Show” … he almost got slugged. Show Bars are another level of sick, where women are expected to do “tricks” onstage. I won’t go into the details but the depravity and dehumanization involved is staggering.

Our team experienced their first red light district last night and I recognized the looks on their faces–stunned expressions covered by a well-practiced “game face” as we made eye contact with hundreds of girls and the men who were there to purchase them. Let me be honest and say that here, it is often so difficult to believe that there is hope. When you are swimming in a sea of sexual slavery, at every turn getting hit by an unexpected and stronger wave than the last, it is easy to feel that the situation will drown you and everyone else involved.

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This is one of the new Lady Boy bars in Nana–and let me say this caught me totally off guard. Three years ago, Lady Boys were present, interspersed with the other girls in bars, but they were still pretty taboo. They DEFINITELY didn’t have a bar devoted just to them, let alone THREE that are now in Nana Plaza alone. This is a ministry in and of itself, and our friend Celeste has a beautiful one set up for them not too far from where we are staying. More about that later…

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A lot of you reacted strongly to the photo I posted in my last blog of this middle-aged Western man with a very young Thai girl. Our best guess is that she is 8 or 9 at the oldest. We actually saw this situation play out twice yesterday on the streets outside Nana Plaza–in broad daylight. Please not that we don’t know if this man has bought this girl–he could be her father, in fact. But this photo represents a reality that happens here daily–girls this young and even younger are bought for sex every day by men.

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I thought I had seen a lot to this point–and I have, far more than I can ever erase from my mental images–but this scene tonight stopped us all in our tracks. It’s kind of hard to make out, but the man in the middle is not only holding the hand of the European woman on the right, but also of a Thai woman on the left. It’s possible that the woman on his right is his wife or girlfriend and the Thai woman is their purchase for the night. I’ve seen this once before in the bars, where a couple comes in and picks out a girl together for kicks. But this scenario looked different. The European woman here had the same detached, miserable look on her face as the Thai women we see. It’s hard to understand or guess at what’s going on with this trio, but one thing was clear: neither of the women were happy about it.

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In these moments where it all seems too much to handle, when we fear we may cry openly, or take out our anger on the next white guy we see, I’m reminded by my dear friend Martha that God has already won this battle for us.  Exodus 14:14 says, “The Lord himself is fighting for you–you need only to be still.” Now our job is to be still and listen, and then to act on what we hear. It’s perhaps the hardest job I can imagine, but when I introduce you to the rescued and free girls at Beginnings, you will rejoice in the fact that the fight is worth it.

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