Woke Up in a Slum

Today, I woke up in a slum in Bangkok and I thought, “What? How did I get here?” It's not a new question; I’ve been asking it for the last four years. I’m an ordinary person. I’m a sensible person. ‘Slum-dweller’ was never one of my top childhood career choices and ‘missionary’ definitely sounded crazy. But somehow, I ended up here, a missionary living in a Bangkok slum.

I showed up wide-eyed as a freshman at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. My first semester, I learned a few things: One, I was absolutely horrible at engineering. Two, I liked Jesus a lot. And three, Baltimore had some problems. Past its heyday, Baltimore had high rates of homicide, drug abuse, and poverty. Its educational system was among the worst in the country and there were tremendous gaps in socio-economic classes and race.

Ironically, my first year, the city benches were engraved with the slogan, “Baltimore, the City That Reads” only to be replaced the following year by “Baltimore, the Greatest City in America.” Hard to believe when there’s a homeless guy accessorizing it.

Do you care about this, God?

To me, a Chinese girl from Michigan, this was all so new. It was also disturbing. As I was growing in my faith, I started wondering and asking God, “Do you care about this? Do you care that there are people hurting, forgotten and poor? Are you disturbed by this, too?”  

That’s when I started seeing it. When I read the Bible, I started seeing God’s concern for the poor. I started seeing God’s anger at injustice. I started seeing God’s incarnation and humility in being with the poor. Where I had never seen it before, it now popped out and declared God’s answer, “Absolutely!  I care!”

I now asked God a different question, “How do you care? Can I see it?” I was eager to see God at work so I became a member of an inner-city church, I joined a tutoring program for refugee youth, I served at a neighborhood health clinic, I joined an activist group to save a community being pushed out by university expansion, I led Bible studies about issues of justice in InterVarsity, I changed my major to Public Health. I did whatever I could to see how God cared about the poor. And in the process, I found life. God became more real. My identity became more clear through challenge. Daily life became more meaningful. I loved learning who God loved and being able to love together with Him.

A Summer in Bangkok

The summer before my senior year in 2002, while I was preparing to apply to medical school in the fall, I joined InterVarsity’s Global Urban Trek to Kolkata for the summer to work in a leprosy clinic. I thought it would be great to get some international health experience and see if that might be where I wanted to practice medicine in the future. However, a week before we were to leave, it became impossible for us to go to India because of the India-Pakistan conflict and we decided to spend the summer in Bangkok, where our flight was set to layover anyway.

With only one week before departure, our team prayed about where God might lead us and the team felt like God was leading us to work for releasing women from the commercial sex trade. We would break the bonds of prostitution. Everyone on our team was excited and ready to proclaim God’s freeing Gospel in the bars and to see justice in dark places. Everyone except me.

This was entirely not what I signed up for. I wanted a medical missions experience and I got an impromptu, potentially dangerous, and (I thought) foolish summer project. As college students without any experience, were we going into Bangkok’s red light districts thinking that we’d just open a door and lead out women from a brothel? “Come on guys! Let’s walk in the light! Yeah!” If it were that easy, wouldn’t it have already been done?

Everyone on our team was excited and ready to proclaim God’s freeing Gospel in the bars and to see justice in dark places. Everyone except me. This was entirely not what I signed up for. I wanted a medical missions experience and I got an impromptu, potentially dangerous, and (I thought) foolish summer project. 

But despite my uneasiness and my skepticism about our goals, I sensed something of God in it. I went. That summer I wrestled with God over being in Bangkok. I felt uncomfortable, out of place, uncertain of what to do and felt overwhelmed by the issues of prostitution and poverty. How could this monstrous system change? How could this city change? Is there any hope? Why am I here?

One night studying Scripture, we read over the passage in Mark 6 where the disciples just returned from preaching and healing in pairs and Jesus then invited them to retreat together. The pressing crowds got word and ran ahead of Jesus to their destination where Jesus had compassion on them and began a marathon preaching session. Instead of getting rest, they had to serve the world’s largest picnic with a Lunchable.

Fortunately, Jesus fed everyone with plenty leftover and then sent the disciples on a late-night boat to the other side, where he would meet them after praying. From afar, as Jesus saw the disciples straining to row the boat against the wind, he decided to supernaturally walk on the water to meet them and pass by them. But instead of being amazed, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water and flipped out, thinking he was a ghost, completely missing the miracle of him walking on water. And Mark sums it all up with the verse “They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” (Mark 6:52)

Whoa. Did I get that right? The disciples who were in Jesus’ immediate presence were unable to understand the miracles Jesus performed, despite their participation and experience, because their hearts were hardened. What a shame! Perhaps they were expecting a different experience of resting with Jesus or they wanted to see something different. Whatever it was, though, their hearts weren’t open to what Jesus was actually doing in their midst. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I didn’t want to have my own expectations block my ability to receive what Jesus was actually doing.

A New Foundation of Hope

From that point on, my entire perspective changed. God gave me new eyes to see the people that we interacted with, to see Jesus’ image in the hearts of bar workers and in the men who went to them. I had new hope not in what I could do, but in what Jesus could do. I had so much excitement and life about what God had done that summer.

Near the close of the Trek at the Commissioning Prayer, those who felt called to serve the urban poor incarnationally were to stand and receive prayer. Because of the change God had done in my heart and because of the joy He gave me in loving the poor, I asked God if He would let me serve Him by serving the poor. I stood to receive prayer.

It’s been ten years since then. For the last four years, I’ve made my home in Bangkok. I still wonder how I got here. For me, the call to serve incarnationally among the poor was not a magnificent voice from heaven. My path to this slum community was a gradual walk of faith as I followed the curious and intriguing things of God’s heart.

I saw that God loved the poor, so I loved the poor. I saw that God loved the world, so I loved the world. I saw Jesus sacrifice for the joy set before Him, so I did the same. I often wonder how long I will live in Bangkok in a slum, how long I’ll be far from family, how long it will be before people know Jesus, how long before justice rolls in, and what the future holds. If you know, email me. But, the continual challenge and invitation from Jesus I’ve received is to just be present with Him and follow Him in what He’s doing now. And He will bring the rest.

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