It is no coincidence that in the Scriptures poverty is mentioned more than twenty-one hundred times. It’s not an accident.
—Bono, 2006 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC
My heart skipped a beat as I saw Marie coming. I had missed her so much.
“Look at you!” Marie said, smiling as she breezed through the arrivals entrance at Don Mueang airport. She was admiring the new white safari suit I had had custom- made while I was in Bangkok. The suit helped me to stay cool and also looked smart for meetings I attended with the UN, government embassies, and other agencies.
Arm in arm we made our way to the parking lot and the old vehicle I was driving—newly purchased by YWAM. I was talking nonstop on this short ride back to the team house, filling Marie in on all that had happened.
The Portales and Wally Wenge and his wife, Norma, greeted us at the house. Wally and Norma had arrived in Thailand for a couple of months to help with logistics in the expanding mission.
After catching up with the team, I went out and hailed a taxi to whisk Marie to the Bangkok Christian Guest House for the night. As we jumped into the taxi, the heavens opened and a Thai monsoon poured down rain. The taxi driver’s windshield wipers didn’t work, so he had his window open and was leaning out cleaning the windshield with a dirty rag—allowing the rain to pour in on us in the backseat, which was actually slightly refreshing in the heat. Marie smiled, commenting on how different Bangkok was from Switzerland, where everything seemed to work perfectly.
Thankfully the guest house had air conditioning, giving some respite from the suffocating heat outside. Despite the noise from the streets below, both of us woke up refreshed and glad to be together after our five-week separation. I realized we needed to do something outside to get Marie acclimatized to the tropical heat. She had arrived during the hottest time of the year.
“Let’s go to the Bangkok zoo!” I suggested after talking to the guesthouse receptionist. Marie agreed, but when we got there, we felt like animals on view. We were farangs (foreigners), tall and blonde, and as we turned from admiring a monkey, we saw a crowd had formed around us. They were staring at us more than the animals they had come to view.
“Let’s go!” Marie said under her breath. We made a quick exit.
The next morning it was time to head to Aran and to our little house on stilts. Splurging, we took the air-conditioned bus for the four-to-five-hour ride, but as we traveled I suddenly remembered to what and where I was taking Marie. I felt the need to prepare her for our basic housing and living situation. As we drove past rice fields and palm trees, I looked for houses similar to ours so she would be prepared.
“It’s better than that one. Oh, not as good as that one,” I said, pointing to different dwellings along the way.
Marie just smiled. I had not given her enough credit; she was going to do just fine.
Eventually we arrived in Aran, where we felt hot and sticky as soon as we stepped off the bus. The torrential rain had subsided, and steam was slowly rising from the steps up to the wooden home we would be sharing with Cindy Albrecht, Dorothea Hoffmann, Marilyn Ahrens, and Paula Kirby. We lovingly called Paula, our Trinidadian sister, “Fro” because of her great hairdo. God had already grafted her into our family tree since our first meeting in the mid-70s.
“Welcome, welcome!” came the cries of the YWAMers as they ran out to meet Marie. They had heard about the wife who was coming and now here she was, slightly overwhelmed but keeping a brave face.
Sometimes our beginnings are not always what we expect. The toilet in our house was a squatty potty. These contraptions are normally floor level, but ours was raised off the ground. We had a bucket of water from our next-door neighbors’ well so that we could “flush” our toilet, so the floor was wet most of the time. On her second evening at the house Marie was wearing her rubber flip-flops when suddenly both feet slipped and she fell, scraping the insides of her legs and ankles. One of the Swiss nurses on the team looked at the wounds, applied antiseptic cream, and bandaged both legs. Marie hobbled to our bed.
To get to sleep, I showed Marie how to take a “dip shower” and then quickly jump under our mosquito net with the fan on us (if we had electricity), hoping to fall asleep before we dried. The bullfrogs, crickets, and tukays (big Asian lizards) tried their best to stop that from happening. The next morning Marie inspected her grazed leg and found it was already infected despite the good job the girls had done cleaning it. It was very hard to keep things hygienic in our living conditions, and this meant that Marie couldn’t come to KID for a couple of days. With all the dirt and disease in the camp, it would have just gotten worse. This was not exactly the introduction to the team and project that she had expected.
It took about twenty-five minutes to drive to the KID camp from our home in Aran. There were checkpoints along the way where our passes were inspected. We obtained the passes from the UNHCR and later UNBRO (United Nations Border Relief Operations), who worked closely with the Royal Thai Army.
After a few days Marie was able to enter the camp. She had heard all about KID: the red dust, the blue water towers, and the refugees who greeted us with “okay, okay, bye-bye.” Her first impression was being overwhelmed by how the refugees had suffered so much. Each one had lost someone dear to them, and it showed in the sadness of their eyes. Marie teamed up with Tove Pedersen, a YWAMer from Norway. The two of them assisted the overworked nurses of the Catholic Relief Service (CRS) pediatric center. Marie helped feed malnourished babies and sat with depressed mothers, encouraging them by holding their hands and crying with them in their vulnerability. She often used the French she had learned in Lausanne to talk with refugees, many of whom were fluent in the language.
Through the night and during the day we heard machine guns and bombs from the fighting between Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge forces on the border. When bombs came into Thai territory, the Thai army responded by firing from their tanks only a few miles from where we lived. We became adept at distinguishing between outgoing and incoming shelling. Sometimes a mine exploded, which was always heartbreaking. More often than not, the explosion involved a tragic end for a farmer or someone walking unknowingly over mined land.
Every night we had to fill up our cars with fuel and park them facing outward in case of a quick evacuation. Each member of the team was allowed a small bag to grab on the run. Living and working in the stress and trauma of a war—having babies die in your arms and seeing people with their limbs blown off—was extremely difficult. We were learning how to care for our team, making sure they took a break from the border for a week every three months to reenergize and recuperate.
There were dangers to face in our own backyard as well. One day we heard shouts from the neighbors and learned they had caught a boa constrictor in the ditch near our house. They had killed it and were inviting us over to partake in the feast. Marie and I politely declined, giving our neighbors more to eat. We were shocked at how close we had been living to such a huge and dangerous snake.
During May and June a wave of malaria and dengue fever hit our team. Dengue comes from mosquitoes that bite during the day, and malaria comes from mosquitoes that bite at night. We discovered that our pottery jars, full of water that we used for washing, were a place for mosquitoes to breed, so we had covers made for them. During the outbreak, we had half the team down with one or the other sickness. About the time one group revived, the other half went down. Dengue in particular is very hard to deal with. It gets into your bones and causes severe pain along with fever and aches—and in some cases long-term depression. Thankfully Marie and I were spared from catching either illness. However, what all of us suffered from was diarrhea. We ended up talking about it like we talked about the weather—it became normal for us. Our parents would have been shocked to hear these dinner table conversations.
Despite the conditions, we were all focused on KID and longing for the broken and hurting refugees to see the love of Christ through our practical service. At the camp we saw suffering every day. Refugees were still coming over the border from Cambodia, and the situation in many ways seemed hopeless. We realized that when you see such pain on a daily basis, the first thing shaken is your theology. We saw that if your trust and faith in God isn’t grounded, you really don’t have too much to keep you during the storm. If you can’t lean into the character of God, even when you don’t understand what is happening around you, the intense suffering and injustices can be fatal to your faith.
The teaching we had had in Switzerland on the nature and character of God helped us deal with seeming hopelessness, but we still had to press into Him for even more understanding of what that love meant in the midst of such pain and suffering. None of us had ever seen this kind of mass suffering caused by war and injustice. The Bible includes over two thousand verses on compassion, injustice, suffering, and poverty. Many of these verses came alive to us, like we had never read them before. I encouraged the team to dig deep into them, to know God’s heart and make these verses their own. I also urged them to listen to tapes and read books by people who were acquainted with suffering and pain, people like Mother Teresa and Francis and Edith Schaeffer. These servants and many others became mentors to us through their books on God, suffering, and our responsibility as followers of Jesus to the poor of our world.
As the months went by, so many YWAM short-term teams came to help out that it felt like we were in a bus station with people constantly coming and going. Because of the high-stress war environment, it was difficult to cultivate a personal, family environment. The challenge of growth and long term development that included communication, orientation, housing, logistics, financial accountability and oversight was getting too much for us administratively. We had to process camp passes in Bangkok for each new visitor, which meant hours in traffic and hours waiting for the passes to come back. This job alone was taking up a lot of our energy and staff power. In the end we decided to accept volunteers for a minimum of one year only. This caused quite a challenge in our short-term operations within YWAM, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions we could have made. With longer-term commitments we were able to draw the multi-national, multi-skilled team closer together in a high-risk environment with plurality of leadership. When we were operating in unity, service to the refugees flowed out of that bond of peace and strength. The opposite was also true: when the team was not working well together, even the simple things became difficult.
Back in January, one medical NGO had moved out of Khao-I-Dang, and the UN asked if YWAM had doctors and nurses who could take over the outpatient clinic in Section 2. YWAM agreed, and our staff began to see three to five hundred patients a day. These Khmer patients were present in the morning when our teams arrived and still there when the medical team left in the evening.
Inger Kristensen, a Danish nurse assistant, worked in one of the KID camp hospitals. There she met Man “Kal” Mabaskal who, along with his pregnant wife Senghuen, were the only survivors from a family of twelve. Kal became Inger’s translator, and the longer she worked with him, the more he shared about his life. His entire family had died under the Khmer Rouge, and Kal wanted revenge. One day he told Inger that he wanted to kill some former Khmer Rouge soldiers housed in KID camp.
“Do you want to be like the Khmer Rouge?” Inger asked him.
“No, I would never be like the Khmer Rouge. I hate them and will kill them,” Kal replied vehemently.
“If you kill them, then you have become just like them,” she explained.
This hit Kal deeply, and he knew she was right. “I don’t want to be like them, but what can I do? They killed my family,” he said eventually.
“There is something that you can do, but it may be too hard for you,” Inger said kindly as she carried on cleaning wounds.
“What is it?” Kal asked, eager to find a way out. He was not expecting the answer she gave.
“You can forgive them.”
Kal exploded. “I can’t forgive them for what they have done!”
Gently putting down her sponge, Inger looked up and replied. “I know, but when you cannot do it, Jesus can help you to forgive.”
Inger then began to share who this Jesus was and what He came to earth to do, as well as sharing some of her own personal story of this journey of faith. Inger saw that her words were making Kal think. He asked more questions, and it was not long before he accepted Jesus into his life. He then asked Jesus to help him forgive the Khmer Rouge and those directly involved in killing his family. An amazing thing happened. Kal said it was like a huge weight had lifted off his shoulders.
The change in Kal’s life was remarkable. When we met him and heard his story, we were amazed by how he had become a new man through forgiveness and reconciliation with God. The weight of hatred and bitterness had been replaced with a supernatural joy.
Later, Kal and Senghuen were sponsored by a US agency and relocated to California. Kal got a job as a serviceman at a local car dealership. He went on to have three children and work in a large computer firm. He continues to work through Khmer organizations to see those responsible for the deaths of his family brought to justice. In 2012, some perpetrators were being tried in Cambodia for the first time.
Also in the camp were a group of about twenty Khmer families who had miraculously survived Pol Pot’s genocide and a trek through the jungle to Thailand. They were Christians, having come to the Lord through Cambodian missionaries before the Khmer Rouge came to power. They shared miracle stories of how God had awakened them one night and told them to leave their village. They obeyed, hurrying out in the darkness. A couple of hours later the Khmer Rouge attacked the village, leaving no survivors. This happened many times—God guided them and kept them safe. No one from their families had been killed, an astonishing occurrence under the Khmer Rouge. In the camp, the other Khmers began to notice something different about this group; they smiled a lot and seemed to have peace. People were attracted to them and wanted to know more about this God.
As this little group of Christian refugees grew, they wanted a place to worship. They tithed the bamboo allotted to them for their homes and built a church building. Soon there were over twenty thousand people worshiping in multiple services all day long. People sat on the church grounds, listening to sermons and worship transmitted by loudspeakers across the larger community. Small house groups sprang up, and at one time there were more than fifty house meetings going on in the camp.
Going to these small group meetings that were spread throughout the camp was easier for the refugees, and sometimes we were asked to teach. One meeting I spoke at had about three hundred people sitting on the floor, waiting to hear my message. I gave a simple talk about sin, forgiveness, and who Jesus was, which was translated into Khmer. I asked how many people would like to know Jesus. Everyone raised their hands. I thought that they had misunderstood the translation and so I asked them again, but this time I requested that they stand up if they wanted to know Jesus. All of them stood up. Not sure that these people were getting what I was saying, I asked them one more time. This time I said if they wanted to know Jesus they should come to the front. All of them started moving forward until there was no more room. As each one prayed to ask Jesus into his or her life, they began to be discipled by the Khmer Christians living around them. This type of response occurred several times when others spoke during those days. Transformation was happening in the refugee camp!
Khmer people were hungry to know God, to be free from the power of spirits, and to find healing and wholeness. We will never know how many came to the Lord in the refugee camps, but these tens of thousands of new believers eventually planted new churches in Cambodia, Australasia, Europe, and America. Research done in Cambodia in 2012 showed that the Khmer who came to know the Lord in the border camps are playing a significant role in the church and in building up society in Cambodia.
Although we rejoiced at the decisions of many Khmer refugees to accept Christ, we were also concerned about people becoming “rice Christians”—people who thought that if they became Christians it would be easier for them to be sponsored for a new life in a new country. The UN required that we sign a contract that we would not proselytize. This meant we would not force people to become Christians in any way nor provide inducements to come to faith with things like rice, clothing, or money. We agreed with this requirement, as Jesus must be followed for who He is. He does not force, bribe, or threaten people to know Him. We also knew that the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18, states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion . . . freedom . . . to manifest his religion or belief.”
To comply with the UN we did not conduct weddings and funerals or give out literature unless it was asked for. Khmer Christians could fill these needs. The UN was generally happy with us, but we fell in and out of favor with individuals because we were a Christian group. Some did not like it when we took over the KID hospital ward from World Vision, the previous organization serving there. One UN official said to me, “You may have your foot in the door with World Vision’s withdrawal and someone in Bangkok saying you can have this ward, but mark my word, I am going to slam that door shut.”
I tried to be gracious and just prayed for God to somehow give us favor with this man who had authority to stop our work. We regularly checked in with God to see if we were doing what He wanted us to do. It seemed He wanted us to serve where we were most needed.
YWAM leader Jim Rogers arrived with Joe Portale just before a YWAM Strategy Conference in Chiang Mai, in northwestern Thailand, and wanted to visit one of the border camps with me. It was a dangerous situation. The Vietnamese were trying to control Cambodia and didn’t like pockets of refugees gathered together on the borders. There would often be soldiers—or at least people with arms—in these groups who were part of the resistance. We had been told that an attack on the camp was expected before the monsoon season, so we were on high alert. We made sure the team got home before the six o’clock curfew each evening.
As Jim, Joe, and I reached the camp, we realized we were witnessing an attack. Suddenly we heard machine gun fire very close and saw water buffalo running in every direction. Refugees were rushing along a muddy track, fleeing in the rice fields to escape the crossfire. As we turned our car around to get out of the situation, we saw a little boy carrying a baby in a sling on his back. We felt desperate knowing there was nothing we could do but pray that lives would not be lost. Thankfully the battle did not last long, and as far as we could see no refugees were injured.
We finally made it to the Strategy Conference in Chiang Mai. It was packed, and we were so busy in training sessions we didn’t have a chance to debrief with anyone. Don Stephens visited the border camps with us afterward. As we drove to the border in our Nissan pickup truck we talked and talked—we told him everything that had happened and all we had been learning. I guess it was an intense debrief while driving. We were so full of all the experiences over the last few months.
Marie and I sensed God was speaking to us about our time in Thailand. There was much need and we thought, How can we leave? But at the same time it seemed impossible to stay. We had commitments in Lausanne—to lead the January 1981 SOE—and we felt we needed to honor that. At the Chiang Mai conference some leaders expected us to stay in Thailand, while other leaders were expecting us to return to Switzerland. We felt torn and needed to hear from God.
After patiently listening to everything we had to say, Don was very enthusiastic. “That all sounds incredible! After being so stretched and challenged here, can you honestly come back and lead the Lausanne SOE and be as fulfilled?”
There was a pregnant pause as Marie and I took in what he said. “I, er . . . um. Well, I don’t know!” I stammered after a while. We had never looked at it like that, and being asked to voice the option of staying in Thailand seemed to us a very big deal. Marie and I were much quieter during the second half of the journey as we thought about what Don had said and started to imagine life, longer term, in Thailand—whatever long term meant.
The next day we were in the same vehicle with Joy Dawson, who had also come to visit the camps. We poured out our hearts to her. “I’m confused—we made a commitment to the SOE—people are depending on us,” Marie said. She didn’t know if it was even right to be asking the question about staying in Thailand.
“Honey,” Joy said, turning to Marie with a smile, “your responsibility is to be obedient to God. That school is God’s responsibility.”
Later as we prayed about the direction we should take, we were reminded of what God had spoken to Marie after my second surgery in Memphis. She had been crying out for my healing. She hated seeing me go through the surgeries and worried that the reason she was not getting pregnant was something to do with my injuries. Marie felt God say we had a choice: my healing, a pregnancy, and our longed-for baby—or His maximum for our lives. It was one of those sacred moments where we sensed that the choice was really ours to make, one that would set a direction for our lives. Tearfully we chose His maximum, knowing that whatever that would be, we could trust Him fully. Now at this point, we felt Him say we had a choice again—we could go back to Lausanne, or choose His maximum, which seemed to be staying in Thailand. We chose to stay.