Blessings and Faith in a Hellish Place
Sunrise volunteers encounter joy and hope in troubled Thai village
Lindsey Lanham looked pensive as she recounted the people, places, tragedies and triumphs of an experience she’d found both harrowing and life-affirming. “People are people” she mused, recalling a remote Thai village, the power of faith, and precious time spent with the sweet, vulnerable children who would remain with her always.
“I still see their faces,” she said quietly.
A call from within
In 2015, Lindsey, Lauren Early and Ginger Smith from Sunrise Children Services in Owensboro answered a call from within. During a visit to Lauren’s church, Lana Vazquez of Life Impact International, a worldwide missionary organization, had shared a heart-rending account of poverty, abuse and exploitation in a village near the Thai/Myanmar (formerly Burma) border. There, volunteers and missionaries were hard-pressed to meet the needs of a community caught in the crosshairs of a decades-long war and victimized by human trafficking and child abuse.
Seeing an opportunity to put their faith and skills into action, Lauren said she felt as though the decision had been made for them. “One day I looked at Lindsey and just kept saying, ‘We’ve got to go, we’ve got to go over there’” she said. “We had the resources and training that they needed. God intervened.”
Kenny Williams, vice president of Community Based Services at Sunrise, fully supported sending volunteers and secured the approval of Sunrise’s board of directors. Lauren, who had visited the village in October 2015, joined Lindsey and Ginger there in early 2016 to support a group home where children, many of them victims of abuse and neglect, were cared for by house parents from villages on both sides of the Thai/Myanmar border. The house parents showed remarkable dedication but needed training, especially in dealing with children rescued from years of trauma and life-threatening circumstances.
There is a small space, which neither Thailand nor Myanmar will claim, a no-man’s land where refugees live in huts made of boxes and brush. Here, impoverished parents sell their own children (some are simply exchanged for cigarettes), though Life Impact tries to discourage the practice by providing essential needs.
“Myanmar’s been fighting a civil war for 70 years, so there are lots of refugees,” Lauren said. “There’s no law.” The area receives considerable humanitarian aid, and the Thai government has certified Life Impact as a medium for rescuing children along the border. But the trafficking continues unabated: at least 60 kids a day are sold at the crossing.
A few miles away, children wander naked through a landfill, known locally as “the dump,” hunting for scraps of food. Sexual predators watch for children in need of medical attention, offering transportation to the health clinic in exchange for sexual favors. Packs of stray dogs are a constant danger.
Lindsey, Lauren and Ginger toured the area the day they arrived. Appalled by the scene, Ginger found it a morbid indicator of how bad things are in the border region. “People sneak over from Myanmar, fleeing the war,” she said. “I thought, ‘How bad would things have to be for them to find safety and peace in a dump?’”
A journal entry written during her visit describes Lauren’s anguish over the misery she witnessed:
“We toured the town today. It’s unbelievable to see such extreme poverty and injustice. We saw the border which is guarded by armed soldiers. We saw people living in trash piles and boxes. We saw children begging for food for their entire family. At one point we stopped and gave food to a girl no older than 4 years old who was begging on the streets as her mother sat on the ground holding her newborn.”
It’s a bleak scenario, an environment in which child sexual abuse and neglect thrive, where even medical professionals are insensitive to the suffering. Lindsey said it was especially disheartening to find that many abused children do not receive the emotional support afforded to victims in the U.S. She described a case in which a Thai doctor treating a young girl with especially sensitive injuries showed little patience for the child’s fear and vulnerability, despite repeated pleas from a missionary to be gentle.
A universal language
The scene is starkly different just a few miles from the dump and oppressiveness of the border crossing environment. Upon arriving at the group home, Lindsey, Lauren and Ginger were delighted to see a lovely green space and hear the sounds of children playing. The aroma of a meal being prepared filled the air.
It was here they conducted training sessions from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day with the help of welcoming and resourceful translators. Lindsey noted that while some key words, such as “trauma,” have no precise equivalent in Thai, the interpreters were still able to convey meaning. The Sunrise volunteers engaged house parents in role playing, observed their interactions with the children, offered individualized case-oriented training, and organized recreational activities. Together, they made a human connection that transcended language and cultural context.
“I was nervous about the language barrier. We were presenting master’s-level material to people who hadn’t graduated from high school,” Ginger said. “I felt that within moments there was a bond with the interpreters.”
Lindsey said cultural competency was one of her greatest concerns in going to Thailand, but soon found that their common humanity minimized cultural differences. The Sunrise volunteers had come from the other side of the world, but quickly recognized some very familiar behaviors among children in the group home, things like reluctance to do homework or spending too much time playing video games.
They were not prepared for the grinding poverty and abysmal living conditions they found, yet the villagers showed tremendous inner strength and the Sunrise volunteers never lacked for sources of inspiration, never felt hopeless or emotionally overwhelmed by the experience. The village’s schools hold the promise of a brighter future, and Life Impact ensures that the children they care for are educated, an important factor since “the number one predictor of whether a kid will make it is if they’re involved in school,” Lindsey said.
“The people were so joyful that it energized us,” Lindsey said. “To see the resilience of the kids was heartening.” Teenage girls with “awful” personal backgrounds ministered to hundreds of local women. “They are very happy despite not having much, (and they) love Jesus,” she said.
Witness to God’s work
Today, Lindsey, Lauren and Ginger stay in contact with the group home via email and Skype, offering advice and information. All three hope to return one day soon. In the meantime, they continue to reflect on their visit, an extraordinary opportunity to see God at work in another culture. Lauren characterized it as “supernatural,” something that can’t be explained in conventional terms.
“There are things that only God can do, things that don’t make any sense,” she said. “We work with kids here that experience severe trauma; some of the heartache and emotional damage is so difficult to overcome. We went to Thailand expecting we’d see what we see here, but because of the Christian organizations that have professed the Gospel, their faith and joy sees them through.”
Written by Chris Jones, Sunrise Associate Director of Communications.