NAKHON SAWAN, Thailand (BP) – The banners advertise a free medical clinic with American doctors, and a Thai man looks at the signs, trying to figure out where to go.
But his interest stretches beyond the clinic being conducted by volunteers from Joplin.
He finds a Thai woman in the crowd who looks like she knows what’s going on and asks,
“Where do I register to be a Christian?”
The woman can’t believe her ears. Just an hour earlier the village’s vice-mayor welcomed the volunteers from “Joplin’s tornado,” then reminded the 150 villagers that they were all Buddhist.
“These people are Christians,” the vice mayor pointedly explained.
The vice-mayor told his neighbors they are welcome to take all the free medicine the Americans give, but under no circumstances should anyone become a Christian today. Then he led the entire village in praying and offering sacrifices of incense, flowers and juice to the Buddha statue he placed in the middle of the clinic area.
The lone Thai Christian in this village isn’t surprised by the declaration. She endures daily abuse because of her faith. Neighbors and family call her “crazy” or claim that she is “disloyal to her country” because she does not follow traditional Buddhist teachings. She is not easily deterred, though.
She wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to pray for her village and the six other nearby villages. In fact, she’s been preparing for a day such as this for years when fellow Christians come to help spread the Gospel. A day when, despite the vice-mayor’s warning, six neighbors pray to receive Christ as their Savior and seven others agree to meet in her home to hear more about this “free gift.”
“Thank you,” the woman tells the volunteers from Forest Park Baptist Church in Joplin, tears streaming down her face. “Thank you for not letting the tornado keep you from changing the fate of my village.”
When the EF-5 tornado hit Joplin on May 22, Paul and Dianne Eckels say it never occurred to them that they should cancel the church’s ninth mission trip to Thailand, which was just weeks away. The mile-wide tornado ripped through six miles, or one-third, of the Missouri city, killing more than 150 people and destroying more than 8,000 homes and businesses.
“My first thought was, ‘who’s dead and who’s alive,’ on the mission team,” Dianne recounts. “After I found out, I talked to Doug and Cheryl [Derbyshire] in Thailand to ask them to pray for our city and church members. They said they understood if we needed to cancel our mission trip.
“Honestly, it never occurred to me to not come – never!” the team leader exclaims.
Others on the team echo the same sentiment. Only two of the original 16 could not make the trip, and then only because their passports were blown away in the storm when their house was destroyed. Replacements did not arrive in time for them to board the plane.
Most on this team are returning volunteers and understand the value of teams like theirs in villages normally resistant to the Gospel. Meshelle Thompson, a five-time volunteer, explains the American presence often helps give credibility to local Christians and opens doors for the Thais to share more about their faith. If the team had canceled, it could have caused a “black eye” for the Thai believers.
“I’m not about to let a tornado be the reason someone gets persecuted,” says Thompson, a kindergarten teacher. “If anything, my family encouraged me 10 times more than normal to go on this trip. We just felt like it was something we needed to do; it’s important to share the Gospel and not miss an opportunity.”
Normally, when Forest Park travels to Thailand, people in the Asian country have no idea where Joplin or even Missouri is located in the States. But, bad news travels fast – even halfway across the world. Paul Eckels says many Thais expressed sympathies to him about Joplin’s disaster. The Thai Baptist Convention, in fact, donated money for Joplin relief efforts through the Missouri Baptist Convention.
Twirling his finger around, Paul shows how he and a grade school principal talked about the tornado. The Missourian pulled out his phone and shared photos with the man. Though the principal’s English was limited, the two men talked about Paul’s team coming to Thailand to share God’s love – something the principal never would have talked about with just anyone.
“This disaster has united us with people around the world who have also endured hardships. Simply by our presence here, we are able to communicate how much we love these people, how important it is for us to be here and how much we value them,” Paul says. “He [the principal] will be able to relate to the kids that ‘the tornado people’ came to love them and tell them why.”
Dianne Eckels is thankful the team pushed through the obstacles mounted by the tornado to make the trip. She says it’s like something good is coming out of their city’s horrible disaster. Because Thais recognize “Joplin” now, more people than normal stopped to listen to their message.
“I feel like God pushed us on. It was through no energy on our part; we were all tired with the tornado. God just put us in the flow,” Dianne says. “I’m thankful that He did. We were able to help our brothers and sisters share their faith in very difficult circumstances.”
SUSIE RAIN/IMB writer