Ashley and I have had a GREAT but challenging time recently at the bars of Chiang Mai. Yes I said visiting the bars; That was meant to ensure you were paying attention...Missionaries at bars? Really?
I think to who Jesus worked with. Except for Luke, who was a physician, there were not a lot of respectable people among the disciples. There was Simon the Zealot (religious idealist/terrorist) a tax collector (liars and cheats), 3 fisherman (blue collar workers), Doubting Thomas, and Judas the betrayer. Jesus himself, in Matthew 11:19 alludes to criticisms that he is “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”. This is our example, We seek to work among those needing redemption while modeling Christianity without condemnation or judgement.
So for the past month, Ashley and I have been befriending and getting to know many girls at one of the bar areas of Chiang Mai. This particular area is well known for many girlie bars. This loosely means that everyone there is an "independent contractor" who have no set salary. Their only way of income is to dress in whatever they feel will draw in men into the bars to buy ladydrinks (overpriced bar drink of which they get a percentage) OR get the men to hire them for one to two hours. With the devastating loss of tourists I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen women go with men. There are no "customers" to buy them drinks, no customers for sex-work and therefore no pay. Around 90% of these girls have children, many from the poorer Issan region. Compounding the problem, 100% of them were forced to raise their children alone as the fathers have all left. Single, with kids, from a poor region and maybe lacking education, these women trade one desperation for another.
So 2 stories that give an idea about the life:
1) A girl named A......., we met last week while frequenting a bar with many women we have connected with. She is 21 and already has a 5 year old child. She moved from Issan to Chiang Mai 3 weeks ago because her friend recruited her to come work at the bar. (There is little work in Issan). She was learning the ropes the night we met. It was the first time we had seen here there. She works at the bar about 10 hours a day and lives above the bar with the other women. This is common because pay is so low they do not have enough money for rent, electricity or sometimes even food.
We left the bar and walked down to talk a friend from Myanmar (Burma) who was injured by landmines. He is missing one leg but generally a very friendly fellow. As we are talking and praying with K.....,the girl we met at the bar walks by. A customer has seen her and hired her. She genuinely looks both excited and nervous, but I can't help thinking how much her heart will hurt (jeb jai in Thai) after the transaction is completed. Ashley says she is going to be sick. The girl seems so innocent but we cannot buy her way out of the bar. There are too many girls with too many needs. More and more are waiting to gain employment as a sex worker due to continual availability from high turnover and poor economic conditions.
2) A.... (a different girl) is a great story with a sad ending. She is in her 30's and therefore it's sometimes harder to compete with the youngest girls. She too is a single mother.
A..... has worked in bars for a long-time but, like many others, this is not what she wants to do. She wants to open a small shop where she can sell goods like a small convenience store. She smiled a lot and was very happy to meet me. We exchanged contacts on the Line app after it was understood I was Christian and did not want any physical relationship.
A few weeks ago, A.... sent a picture that she had only some meager grains of rice for food. The board at Bread for Life (Bethany Mowad, Shaun Futch, Mary Bill, Rob Rugloski) quickly approved a request for 6,000 baht ($200) for 10 packets of food to be bought and bagged that day. Each bag contained 5 Kg. of rice, 10 cans of mackerel and tomato sauce (a staple here), 1 liter of fish sauce, 1 liter of cooking oil, 100 grams of salt, 40 packets of Ramen Noodles, 20 packets of instant chocolate drink and a 6 pack of sweet crackers. I was so excited to see the faces and sure this would last a few weeks. I was wrong.
When I got to the bar, A.....was so excited to have the food. She beamed proudly. But the other girls also asked for food as they had no customers and were also hungry. Now down to 5 packets. As I walked down the long street, every girl I had previously met expressed a need for food. At the end of the night, every bag was gone and some were left wanting. What this did though was provide a door to greater conversations as these girls know we care and we want what is best for them even though we cannot single-handedly "rescue" each girl with finances alone.
Yesterday A..... lost her job and is feeling like there is no hope in this life. A single mother in her 30's with (what she feels) are limited possibilities for a supportive husband or better pay, she feels there is no light at the end of the tunnel. She doesn't like the bar but doesn't know how or have the money to do anything else. Ashley will be meeting with her tomorrow and talking about what she wants. She is Ashley's "Person of Peace" who desperately wants to know more about this God and Jesus but needs to understand it is not a recipe for financial rescue alone but a redemption story of grace.
Ever feel stuck? We sometimes feel stuck but also energized and optimistic because we work with power and wisdom greater than ourselves. We want to rescue these girls but first we have to build a friendship of trust focusing on 4-5 key girls as "People of Peace" who will compound our future efforts as over-comers of this life and be our organic Thai disciples (we pray) moving forward. "People of peace" is the goal, discipleship is the mission.
More to come soon.....