Rak Teh Community : Living out Love for God and Neighbor – Some Transitions More Fully Explained!
How We Got Here What first drew us to Bangkok was seeing the need for a (Christian) response to male prostitution in this city. God used a handful of significant relationships, conversations and experiences to lead Kashmira to pick up her life, move to Thailand, and pursue the notion of starting a ministry that would care for and love men involved in prostitution here in this vast city. That was our initial goal and the people group that we felt called to love. From the beginning Iven has been very candid about his being willing to come alongside that vision but not feeling a specific call to that group himself, and being open to whatever specific or less specific ministry or call God may want to lead him into here. That was how we got in the door. It was looking for men involved in prostitution that brought us to the neighborhood we now live in and love. The first time we walked through it both of us felt a sense of holy awe – it was definitely the place God was leading us to come to call home. And home is has become.
Changes In The Wings Over the past two years of living in our neighborhood, getting to know some of our homeless neighbors and the women and men that sell sexual services near our home, we have increasingly felt the tension between the stated goal of loving men involved in prostitution specifically and the real and pressing (physical, emotional and spiritual) needs of our neighbors all around us. We have complete confidence that God directed us to this neighborhood and even to our specific apartment, and so we have to ask the question, “Why? Did God bring us here just so we can be close to the guys or is His vision bigger than we can see? Bigger than we can dream for?” Last fall we learned that God had been talking to another couple from YWAM Bangkok – seasoned leaders within our community – about our neighborhood, and especially the homeless among us. We were so excited when they announced their plans to move to our corner of the city and commit to seeking God together and being “team” together, in an effort to holistically love our neighbors. As our friends Sam and Pat have now recently relocated and are a present part of our neighborhood life, the four of us have been faithfully praying, talking and exploring together what it is that each of us is most passionate about in this season and what it is that God is speaking to each of us about, both individually and corporately. It is becoming increasingly clearer to all of us that God’s heart and vision is for our whole neighborhood to be reached with His uncompromising and unquenchable love…not just the homeless and not just the men involved in prostitution. As we have mentioned before, in addition to being a neighborhood with an excess of “street life” (homelessness, prostitution, alcoholism, etc.) it is also a historically and culturally significant part of the city at large. The “City Pillar” (a shrine erected for the purpose of dedicating the city of Bangkok to a handful of specific spirits when Bangkok was first being built) is less than a five minute walk from our home, Sanam Luang (a place of great significance for Thai people, where important royal ceremonies have been held for generations) is almost within sight of our home. At the same time the total lack of Christian presence (70,000 people in the district and about 70 registered Christian residents, according to the government statistics on religion – no church of any sort within walking distance) and the abundance of real tangible need among our neighbors are significant matters for us to consider.
Looking Back in Order to Look Forward As the birth of our first child has given us cause to reflect back on the last few years of pursuing active ministry here in the Pra Nakon district neighborhood in which we live as well as in Silom, it seems clear to us that through we have been seeking to be faithful with our time and our energy, we have spread ourselves too thin to be effective in a deep and lasting way. This is hard for us to admit, though we don’t feel any real regret at the same time. The choices and time and energy that we have invested over the last few years have all produced fruit in some form or another. We have loved some people. We have spoken life words to some guys and some neighbors. We have become a known and regular part of the lives of several communities. And, God has been growing us as leaders, Thai speakers and as disciples. All of that is valuable. However, looking to the years ahead, it is our deep desire to be most faithful with the resources we have, which is primarily our own time and energy. Partnering with Sam and Pat, and focusing our relational energy, prayers, and tangible efforts on one specific and immediate neighborhood community seems for us to be a clear and faithful direction to go, and one which we are eager and excited to take.
Its Our Neighborhood Now We have become a part of our neighborhood and believe that God wants to transform the lives of our neighbors as we pour our lives more deeply into this place. We know that in and of ourselves we have very little to offer but as we come in the name of Jesus and live in obedience to Him in this place, He will be faithful to reveal Himself as the Loving and Alive God that He is. We believe that His desire is to reconcile families and relationships, to open doors for work that people are proud to do, and to experience a fuller vision of abundant life and identity for the residents and workers of our neighborhood.
Will We Still Reach Out to “The Guys”? Yes, absolutely. They are still our neighbors and many of their lives are still very much lacking “real and authentic love”. However, with our shifting family needs and growing girl, we will likely be moving towards doing less nighttime outreach until God brings other teammates who have a desire to focus on this specific group of people within our neighborhood. On the day that we first wrote this letter, during the afternoon we went out to connect with some of our homeless neighbors and for the first time identified and talked with three men who were clearly selling sexual services – during the day in our neighborhood. We see men at night every time we go out but this was the first time in two and a half years of living here that we saw and talked with men selling sex as freelancers during the day. This was a real encouragement to us, that God will indeed be faithful to keep this special people group in our path, as we are faithful to follow and seek Him. We do believe that God led us here to Bangkok initially to care for these men, and if it is really God who did that then He will be faithful to bring teammates and co-workers who share in that call, in His perfect timing. Pray with us for these people to respond to God’s call.
Stepping Out of Silom As part of this shift – broadening of focus in terms of people and localizing it in terms of geography – we have made the decision to take an extended break from regular outreach in the Silom (bar) neighborhood, in which we have been working for the past year and a half. We will still stay in touch with the handful of young men who we have real connection with there, but we will no longer be actively seeking to develop any new relationships in that area. This was a hard decision to make, but we feel very confident that it was a necessary one. We are able to give and love our immediate neighbors much more deeply and faithfully in this next season than we would be able to respond to the needs of those we know in the Silom neighborhood. Unlike our direct neighborhood, Silom is a very difficult environment for Izayla to be in (too much noise, people and lights) and our availability to a neighborhood which we need to travel to is much more limited as parents of a small child. We are fully confident that God spoke to us about wanting to give us the “good gift” of a child, in Izayla, and that her birth and addition to our family is by no means a distraction or set back in our work and ministry. We do recognize, however, that we need to look honestly at what changes need to be made now that we have a small, growing person in our family – she brings with her some wonderful additions (there is no mistaking that she is at times our most valuable teammate!) but also some limitations. Aside from this, most of our small collection of staff and volunteers that have been serving in that neighborhood are unable to continue outreach on a regular basis for this next year because of other life commitments. Our hope and expectation is to eventually restart outreach and ministry in that neighborhood at some point in the future, when we have a more developed team, including someone that can serve as leader in the Silom neighborhood ministry. For the time being, it seems important for us to commit ourselves locally and be able to go deep with a few rather than spread ourselves out too much to have significant relationships or impact.
A Byproduct Blessing From This Change In Focus… One of the beautiful things about this transition to becoming a localized, neighborhood based ministry rather than a prostitution-focused ministry is that it will avoid immediate stigmatization for people associated with us or Rak Teh. This means that in the future, anyone that is connected with Rak Teh will not automatically be labeled as “former male prostitute” or “Oh….you sold sex”, which is a difficult label to overcome and move beyond the sigma that generates when people come out of prostitution via a sex-worker focused ministry.
How Does This Fit With What You Were Telling Us About Last Time We Talked? (Outreach, Networking, Community) We see this transition as directly related to all three of the different ministry strategies we were sharing about last time we were in America – as we reach out to our neighbors we continue to pursue “Outreach : Evangelism”, as we connect with government agencies alongside and on behalf of those neighbors we are developing our “Networking : Partnership” relationships. And as we begin to gather our neighbors together in a deeper pursuit of understanding what it means to follow Jesus we are pouring into the “Community : Transformation” ministry emphasis. Same basic ideas, just a few more seats at the table… think about the story of the great banquet – some people were specifically invited, but they weren’t interested – so the poor, the disabled, and the outcast were invited to take part in the party also.
So What Are We Actually Doing? Its very simple, and at the same time incredibly difficult to faithfully live out on a day to day basis. “Love God. Love neighbor.” As a small and growing team, our hope and focus is to concentrate on the simple commands of Jesus among our neighbors. Meet felt needs. Be the church. When we say “be the church” we don’t refer to having a meeting on Sunday mornings, although we do very much hope that in not too long there will be community gatherings (church) of some form for those interested in exploring what it means to follow Jesus, but right now our desire is to be active in relationship with our neighbors, and respond to their physical, emotional and spiritual needs as we are able. In essence, as we work to develop the “Community : Transformation” element of the ministry we’ve realized that needs to involve all of our neighbors and our neighborhood in order to be truly authentic. This looks like spending hours upon hours sitting on the street with homeless and “working” friends and neighbors, listening to life stories, praying for and with them, letting a working woman hold our little girl as she shares about having lost her own only infant child, buying meals for hungry friends, baking a cake to celebrate the 24th birthday of a woman who lives in our neighborhood and “works” on our street, helping some street friends talk through and reconcile a conflict that developed between them, letting Izayla steal the hearts of guys on “the loop”, going to government offices to help a disabled friend obtain official disabled status and the $15 a month that entitles him to, meeting with our team to talk, pray and dream for our neighborhood and city, interviewing community members about their felt needs and experiences, taking sick people to the hospital, and generally doing whatever we can to help life, hope and the Kingdom of God grow fully in our community.