When I first visited Thailand in June 2014, I was invited to “share my story” with girls who were confined to the Juvenile Detention Center in Chiang Mai. These young women (14 – 18 years old) were all serving mandatory 5-year sentences for offenses ranging from theft to drug running to prostitution. Many of them had been trafficked or abused. I had never shared my personal history publicly, and struggled with the idea of “coming clean”.
What will they think of me? And worse (in my mind), what will the missionaries present think of me?
The night before the event, my friend called and said, “Hey, I need a transcript of your talk.” Say what? I’m still wrestling this out with God. Why do you need a transcript? “I need to know the hard words,” she explained. Hard words? “Yes, the ones that might be difficult to translate into Thai.”
Aaaah, I see… Growing up in alcoholism. Childhood sexual abuse. Early exposure to pornography. Promiscuity. Unwanted pregnancy. A rape 6 weeks into college. A difficult marriage. Betrayal. Divorce. Depression. Suicidal thoughts… I’ve got some hard words for you. I just don’t know if I can say them out loud.
“You have to tell the truth, Helen,” my friend urged. Really? Why? “Because,” she insisted, “these girls believe that everyone from America is rich and therefore has had a happy life. Further, they have no concept of forgiveness, of grace, of redemption… You are living proof of a Living Hope.”
So I said those hard words out loud for the first time three years ago in Thailand. (The girls and the missionaries were open and kind, by the way.)
And again last month as I shared with my community of supporters in NC.
And now, on the worldwide web. Yes, it’s terrifying.
But today I can say those words out loud because they no longer define me. I am not defined by what has been done by me, nor by what has been done to me. I am defined by what has been done for me on the cross.
Saying hard words out loud continues to be difficult, but freeing and healing. As my oldest daughter pointed out, “Mom, how will people know how far God has brought you if you don’t tell them where you’ve been?” More than a few times, it has given others the courage to say two of the hardest (yet most comforting) words: “Me, too”.
Burning season in Thailand happens every February – April when farmers set fire to the stubble of their post-harvest fields. The purpose is to clear the way for planting. The side effect is air pollution on a massive scale. Every year, Thai government officials request/threaten/warn farmers and outright ban the ancient agricultural practice. And every year it continues. Why? Because it works. It’s not that alternatives don’t exist, it’s that the alternatives are expensive and time-consuming.
In the anti-human trafficking world, I see a parallel with the current trend of children and teens selling themselves (or photos or videos of themselves). This is what we are witnessing: as youth worldwide become increasingly tech-savvy (and influenced by sexualized media), they are increasingly active in trafficking themselves and other youth. The children are figuratively “setting fire” to their own futures. As a missionary, an NGO worker, and a mother, I want to scream, “STOP. Doing. That.”
Unfortunately, it works.
In the short term anyway. Sadly, it’s not terribly difficult for a 14-year old to justify trading nude selfies (or more) for cash or consumer goods. Lots of kids routinely exchange such material for free. How much easier is self-justification when the kid is homeless, stateless, penniless? As long as the alternatives (education, job-training, citizenship) are expensive, time-consuming, or just plain out-of-reach, no amount of pleading or threatening will be effective.
These are complicated issues with complicated solutions. But solutions must include making positive/healthy alternatives both more urgent and more attainable.
What is it like in Thailand during burning season? It affects everyone. Coughing, asthma, stinging eyes, raw throats, and long term lung disease… The truth is that we are all being affected by the culture of sexualized youth as well. We may not be able to see the haze in the atmosphere, but we are all breathing it.
My grandmother once said to me, “Helen, all you want is everything. You want to have your way. And you want everyone to be happy about it.” I was 21 years old at the time, and trying to convince my parents that they should fund my desire to drive across the US with my then boyfriend as a college graduation gift. They provided the money. But they were not happy about it. Unfortunately, even partial success encouraged me to continue in this thinking and behavior over the years.
In my lifetime, I have expended untold effort not only trying to get people to do things my way, but also trying to get people to see things my way. Surviving a divorce 8 years ago launched these skills to a new level (“But I have to explain my side!”). Even today, I struggle with this tendency- as a mother of grown daughters, as an NGO worker, and as a public advocate for victims of human trafficking. All three of these roles can feed my need to convert others to my way of viewing the world.
It’s not that others cannot benefit from my perspective. I have learned much in the last 50+ years (mostly the hard way). And I’m privileged to share my hurt and my Healer whenever I’m asked.
The key for me is “whenever I’m asked”.
I’m learning (still usually the hard way) that I’m more likely to be “asked” if:
- I am in relationship with this person. Mutual. Genuine. No agenda.
- I ask questions and listen– with a sincere desire to understand the other.
- I am living my life in a way that invites questions.
The “elephant rope” (or false belief) is that I can force solutions, answers, or timing in someone else’s life. I can’t tell someone what to do, much less what to think, or how to feel. What I can do is live joyfully, listen attentively, and love unconditionally… and leave the outcome to God. He is really the only one who can change minds and hearts- including mine. Especially mine.
I am learning that human trafficking sometimes looks less like the film Taken, and more like the Disney movie, Tangled (which depicts the story of Rapunzel- who is, in reality, a trafficked minor trapped in domestic servitude). Absolutely, there are millions of cases of international abduction into the sex trade. The horrific criminal activities portrayed in the movie Taken happen every day in real life. At the same time, other more subtle, but no less devastating, schemes are unfolding right before our eyes. Right under our noses.
Here’s why we miss it:
In Taken: The victim is moved against his/her will across state, or national boundaries.
In Tangled: The abuse takes place in the home (or a familiar home), neighborhood, school, church, or community in which the victim lives.
In Taken: The perpetrator is a stranger. Perhaps from a different country/culture/language.
In Tangled: The perpetrator is a family member (parent, step-parent, sibling, step-sibling, grandparent, cousin, aunt or uncle). Sometimes it’s a close friend, teacher, coach, pastor, or youth leader.
In Taken: The victim is physically bound and gagged by chains or rope.
In Tangled: The victim is bound and gagged by fear, love, shame, deceit, coercion, loyalty, promises, threats, dependence (emotional, physical, financial, legal), affection (or the longing for it), self-protection, the desire to protect the perpetrator, denial, unhealthy attachment, etc.
In Taken: The situation is clear and easy to define. We know who the bad guys are.
In Tangled: The lines are blurred. The perpetrator alternates abuse with affection (or even “staged rescue”) resulting in profound confusion for the victim, and obscured evidence from the outside.
In Taken: The solution is simple: Either “take out” or outsmart the bad guys, and rescue the victim by force. Return the victim to safety, and he/she lives happily ever after.
In Tangled: The survivor has to come to the realization that he/she has actually been victimized– by someone close. Once the abuse survivor finds the courage to face truth and speak truth, he/she then requires an arsenal of services and support: law enforcement protection, legal assistance, counseling, medical attention, rehab, educational resources, family therapy, mentoring, vocational training and placement… All of this takes a tremendous investment of time, effort, and funding. It is a long, long process with many setbacks.
In the movie Tangled, Rapunzel is helped by a “gang of thugs” from the Snuggly Duckling tavern- people she once feared and avoided. I like that metaphor for the Children’s Advocacy Center Thailand. We are an unlikely collaboration of law enforcement, government organizations, and NGO’s working together in unexpected ways to bring justice and restoration to child victims. Yet sometimes we are rescuing them from the only home they have ever known. It doesn’t always look like I thought it would, but I’m learning that a home can be as much of a prison as a brothel. And a child who is abused by family is in just as much need of recognition, rescue, and healing.
Ever wonder how Thailand has remained “free” while surrounded by communist dictatorships? Me neither. Until I moved here. I have since learned that much of the freedom, relative peace, and general unity in Thailand are attributed to the “servant leadership” of the late King Rama IX. In the wake of His Majesty The King’s death, I watched a documentary on his life. Here are some major themes that emerge:
- Show up. In person. The King and Queen would spend 8 months out of the year traveling to visit the rural poor of Thailand and greeting them face-to-face. One result is that the marginalized did not feel forgotten. He left the palace, drove to their villages, and looked them in the eye with compassion.
- Listen. Rapt attention is one of the most valuable gifts we can give to one another. The King would never allow a precise time schedule because he needed to be “free to stop and talk with people” as they presented themselves. This was while attending 826 official engagements per year.
- Protect daily solitude. When asked why he spent time alone every day, the King explained, “I’m not lonely. I have work to do. The way of doing work is to have some concentration, that is, some peace. And then one can think more clearly. It is a way of preparing myself to be able to do whatever circumstances will have me to do.”
- Seek common solutions for the common good. When asked if his irrigation projects were evidence that Thailand was winning against communist insurgency, the King answered, “Oh I don’t know. But we are winning against hunger. This is what we are doing… We want to help people have a better life. If we make this (project) and they have a better life, the people you call communist insurgents will have a better life also.”
I struggle with all of the above. Often I’m in too much of a hurry to truly “see” people (much less seek them out), to take the time to listen attentively, to spend quality time alone in thought, and to pursue higher purposes (not just getting my way).
All of this points me to the ONE TRUE KING who not only demonstrated, but embodied all of these concepts (no one ever “showed up in person” in a bigger way). And who not only calls me to a deeper love, but empowers me to live out that love.
For it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13)
I attended a fantastic cross-cultural training session last week. I hadn’t realized how important it is for me to embrace my role as a guest here in a foreign country, and to recognize my cultural biases. One of the most interesting questions we were asked was, “What norms go beyond culture?” For example, most societies value honesty, fairness, and generosity (although those would be defined differently by culture). Another question was, “What norms are universally unacceptable? ” That is, what is “not okay” for most people, regardless of culture? Our speaker proposed the following:
- Complete nakedness (with the exception of some tribal groups and French beaches, most societies agree that some parts should be covered in public- although they disagree as to which parts).
- To cause harm to another.
- To degrade another (take away human dignity).
We could, of course, discuss and debate this list for days. What strikes me about it is that much of mainstream pornography (and certainly child pornography) contains- indeed, promotes- all four elements. That makes porn both universally unacceptable and universally widespread. Interesting.
In January of this year, a former British Monk was arrested on charges of creating and distributing child pornography from Northern Thailand. Hundreds of images were found on his computer. Last week he was given a suspended sentence (for pleading guilty) and basically will provide 48 hours of community service.
As long as there is a disconnect between what we affirm and what we allow, the innocent will continue to suffer.
There are some values that transcend culture- like justice, mercy, freedom, love.
I cannot maintain an attitude of “us” and “them”.
I recently viewed an anti-human trafficking documentary in which one of the ‘rescuers’ declared, “I hope there is a special place in hell for (traffickers of children).” The statement simultaneously resonated with me and made me cringe.
I think that having a heart for justice is completely consistent with- even flows from- being a child of God. After all, Jesus reserved some of his harshest words for anyone who would harm a child: it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6).
At the same time, I find it tempting to cross over the fine line between caring and condemnation. A line over which only a Holy God is qualified to step. The danger for me is to allow my indignation at “heinous sin” to justify, rationalize, and minimize my own “mini-rebellions”.
I have to constantly remind myself that, as Ravi Zacharias says, “We may not all be as bad, but we are all as bad off”. That is, I have the same potential for evil in my heart, and also the same inability to forgive/save myself.
I cannot complete my calling in my strength.
When my oldest daughter was about five, she liked to “help” me cook dinner. She would place her little hand on my Pampered Chef chopper and lightly press it down a few times (sometimes the blade would even touch the vegetables). Then I would place my hand on top of hers, whack the veggies hard and fast, and viola- results! She would look up at me with a satisfied smile, “I did it!”
Recently I heard someone say that every day is “Take Your Child to Work Day” for God. I love that. He doesn’t need me. But sometimes, if I am willing, He lets me put my hand on the chopper and play some small part in what He is accomplishing.
I cannot stay stuck in approval addiction.
Two of the first (and most impactful) lessons I learned from running a business for 25 years:
- It is impossible to please all of the people all of the time.
- It is my choice to frustrate and exhaust myself striving to do so.
In actuality, I have spent a lifetime trying to manage what other people think of me. And I have paid a price for that effort- namely a deep feeling of insecurity, and a nagging sense of fraudulence. I have spent the better part of the last 15 years trying- through God’s grace- to undo those destructive patterns.
That’s why I have been surprised to find myself falling back into those attitudes and behaviors in preparation to serve in Thailand. In the going, I have discovered a strong temptation to believe that everyone has to like me. A lot. Somehow, dependence on others for prayer and financial support has translated into dependence on others for approval.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. – Galatians 5:1
Slavery comes in many forms.