Wednesday, January 28, 2015

House of Grace Thailand

"If you have a story of grace, you have a story of grace to tell."

Almost two years ago I boarded an airplane, crossed oceans, and nearly 24 hours later landed in Bangkok. Twelve days later I came home with a full heart and every intention to blog about my time in Thailand. The problem was that every time I tried to write about my experience there, I could never find the right words to use. I finally gave up, tired of sitting down to write and getting nowhere. Until now. I know this is a deviation from the Europe trip, but with January being Human Trafficking Awareness month, I've felt compelled to share what God is doing in a mountain village halfway across the world. 
The story really beings before I boarded the plane, though. It actually began with a Facebook message on an ordinary night in September, 2012. The Facebook message was an invitation from the directors of the Institute of Photographic Studies to be a part of a missions-photography team, filming a promotional video for a ministry in Thailand. In June of 2012, I had spent 3 weeks at Bearing Precious Seed, El Paso, and had done some photo work for them. I love photography and I love missions, and getting to combine the two was amazing. So, when I got the invitation to join the Thailand team, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.  

Let me just pause here for a second and say that God changes plans and His plans are infinitely better than ours. In one of the rooms at Bearing Precious Seed there is a huge map of the world. One night, a group of the summer workers were looking at it and talking about places we'd like to travel to. Someone said they'd like to go to Asia, and my response was that Asia was the last place I'd want to go. Now I was being asked to go to Thailand and I actually wanted to go!

After the initial invitation, there were a few months where the trip was up in the air. The couple that was going to originally lead the trip ended up not being able to, so we weren't sure if we would have any team leaders. They found another couple - both photographers/videographers who were willing to lead a team - with their 15 month little boy in tow. Peter and Mandy - you guys are truly an example of being willing to go where God calls. 

So, on January 5, 2013 I put a down payment on a trip to Thailand. It was one of the scariest things I'd ever done. The thought of being so far from home with people I'd never met was a little intimidating. And while I had the money for the down payment, I didn't have enough money to pay for the rest of the trip or the $2,000 plane ticket. I firmly believed that God wanted me to go, though and that He would provide the money. After making that payment, I noticed the verse that was on our perpetual calendar that day, a verse that served as a reminder of God's faithfulness: "The Lord is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed." 

I sent out support letters, and offered people photo shoots if they donated a certain amount towards my trip. What happened next was overwhelming. Donations started coming in and didn't stop until just a few days before I left. Not only did I receive enough donations to cover the remainder of the trip and the plane ticket, but also enough to cover all the additional gear I needed to buy. Along with the donations, I received so many encouraging notes and promises of prayer for my journey. It was truly a remarkable faith-building experience.

The next four months were filled with video assignments and some team chats. The "Thailand" box I had in my room began to spill over with gear and supplies as the trip drew nearer.

Finally, April 28 arrived. I said goodbye to my family and started off on the journey of a lifetime. After the quick hour flight to Chicago, I took a shuttle to the International Terminal and finally met one of my teammates, Leah, in person. I was so grateful to have someone to travel with on the 13 hour flight to Seoul. We chatted, watched the Hobbit, flew over Siberia, and slept, until a strip of land appeared out of the ocean, and we landed in South Korea. After a layover, we boarded yet another plane - just for a short ride though - only six hours this time; and around 11PM, two tired travelers were very happy to be picked up by Peter and taken back to the hotel in Bangkok. I'm not sure that a shower and a bed had ever looked so good. 

Upon waking the next morning, I caught my first real glimpse of Bangkok from the hotel balcony. It was a sultry day - an indication of how the weather would be for our entire stay. A breakfast buffet was served at the hotel, and it was there that I met the rest of the team. Our fabulous team leaders, Peter, Mandy, and Hannah, fellow videographers Leah, Meagan, Andrew, and Nathanael, and our little mascot, Caleb. After breakfast we headed back to the airport for our final flight. It was almost surreal to walk outside the airport and climb the steps to the little plane that would take us to Chiang Rai. From there, we took a cab to the place we would call home for the next 10 days: House of Grace Thailand.

House of Grace is a house that tribal girls ages 5-22 can go to escape the horrors of human trafficking and sex slavery. Each girl at House of Grace has a sponsor family in the United States. The girls are given food, shelter, an education, and most importantly love and the knowledge of Jesus.
*this photo isn't mine, but I'm not sure who to give the photo credit to though...

From the moment the cabs pulled inside those gates, there was never a shortage of sweet girls waiting to hold my hands or walk with me across the grounds. The cabs were literally surrounded before we even had the chance to get out of them. Our team was directed to the gym where they had a short welcome ceremony for us. I'm don't think I've ever gotten so many hugs or been handed so many drawings in the span of half and hour as I did that night. 

The next week and a half was a blur of activity. Brainstorming. Videoing. Interviewing. Transcribing. Voice Overs. We were happily interrupted at least two times a day to eat some of the most amazing food I've ever tasted. Meal time was definitely a highlight as it gave us all a little break from work and a chance to have some non-video interaction with the girls. When our lunches and dinners were ready a group of them would always come to the guest house, which we had claimed as our work zone, and tell us our food was ready. By the time we made the short walk to where we would eat, we would be surrounded by girls getting smothered with hugs. We would then be treated to the best Asian food I've ever had accompanied by fresh mangos or pineapple. It was like a party in my mouth. 

Amidst the activity, there are a few memories in particular that stuck out to me...

One day, we drove up into the mountains and visited some villages where some of the girls had been born. It was like stepping back in time as we walked through and filmed in villages where houses were nothing more than straw huts, lunch was cooked over an open fire, and livestock and water buffalo roamed free. The satellite dishes that were mounted to so many roofs stood out like sore thumbs. We were told that if a house has a satellite dish, the parents have almost certainly sold a daughter - it's the only way they would have enough money to buy one. As unimaginable as that sounds to us Americans, you have to understand that so many of these are families that make less $1 a day. Traffickers come to the family and promise that their daughters will be educated, get good jobs, and be able to support the family. 

As part of the video project, Leah, Meagan, and myself interviewed some of the girls who make or have made House of Grace their home. As we listened to their stories through our interpreter, we heard of tragedy, triumph, and love. We watched as these strong, beautiful girls opened up their lives to us. Through tears, we heard of parents who died. We heard of the safety and love they felt when they came to House of Grace. And from an alumni, we heard how she went to college, and now runs her own house for at risk children. It was an honor to sit down with the director of House of Grace, Jutiporn and listen to her story. She was one of the first girls House of Grace accepted when they opened their doors in 1988. Her story has come full-circle as she now extends the same love she received to the 114 girls who live within the safe confines of House of Grace. 

Sunday was a highlight of our time in Thailand. Watching the passion with which those girls worshiped Jesus was amazing. After lunch, the girls got a special treat - ice cream cones. It was so special to watch how such a simple thing could light up so many faces. Our team also enjoyed our own private time of worship on Sunday evening. A few hours to step away from the project that was consuming all of our attention an sing, pray, and talk together. 

One afternoon, I came out of my bedroom to find two of my sweet little friends, Aria and Suda, the two that would always grab my hands and be waiting for me to come eat meals. They were just the sweetest little girls. They were waiting for me with excited smiles and boxes in hand. I opened their boxes of treasures - gifts for me - to find necklaces, money, their Bibles, and some little bracelets they had made. And while I gave them back everything but the bracelets, their gesture of giving me some of their treasures was precious. 

One night we needed some footage at the night market in Chiang Rai, so Ala, Jutiporn's husband drove us there. While we scouted the market looking for shots to complete our video, Ala crossed paths with a girl who had lived at House of Grace. She, her husband, and their four children now serve as missionaries. It was such a blessing to hear that the work that is started at House of Grace causes ripple effects that are felt across a nation. 

Another favorite memory of the trip was the incredible team I had to work alongside. Whether it was brainstorming how to turn a concept into an image, figuring out to to create the scene we needed with only laptops, iPads,and red ovals, or just offering an encouraging word, I couldn't have asked for more a genuine, driven group people to share in this adventure. Oh, and crossing things off that giant whiteboard? Major happiness. :)

The day before we were to leave Chiang Rai, we assembled the staff and showed them the finished project. Tears streamed down their faces as they watched the promotional video. I was so glad we got to see their reaction and to know that we told their stories in an accurate and impactful way.

All too soon the morning of our departure arrived. With a heavy heart, goodbyes were said, gifts were exchanged, hugs given, and many, many tears were shed. My last view of these precious girls was as they flooded the street waving at our van until they disappeared out of sight.

Our team spent the next day in a half in Bangkok touring. A boat ride down the river, a tour around the Grand Palace, Thai massages, and street shopping, were some of the things we packed into our waining hours together.  

Peter and Mandy dropped the  team off at the airport, and before we parted ways and returned to our homes all over the United States and Canada, we grabbed some Starbucks, sat down on the airport floor, and watched our video together for one last time.

Nearly every time I watch it, I get tears in my eyes as the dozens of beautiful faces flash across the screen. Faces that have seen so much hurt, but now experience so much joy. Girls, who once faced hopelessness, but now have futures full of hope. Girls who can laugh and play and get their nails painted. Girls who are allowed to just be little girls. Girls who grow up knowing about the love of Jesus. Little girls who were saved for big destinies.

As you watch this video, please remember that these girls at House of Grace are the blessed ones. There are literally millions more girls -and boys - just like them. Children with families and dreams. Dreams that will never be realized and families that they will never return to. Slavery is not something that has been relegated to the history books. Until I went to House of Grace, 27 million was just a number. We talk a lot in big numbers. Debt in the billions and trillions. 27 million people in slavery. It's just a number. Until it becomes a face. And then it becomes personal. As William Wilberforce, the great champion of slaves in the 1800s once said "Knowing all this, you may choose to look the other way. But you can never again say 'I did not know.'" It is my hope that by reading this story of grace that you will be stirred to stand up for the 27 million who have not yet been rescued. Those 27 million with dreams and families desperately waiting for the day when they can walk free. Ignorance is not longer an option. 

If you'd like to join the fight and shine a light on modern day slavery, I'd suggest checking out the following organizations:

House of Grace, Thailand:  Obviously this is a ministry I'm passionate about. I firmly believe in their mission. They do what they do with great love. And it shows. God is using this ministry mightily.

End It Movement:  Donate. Shop. Join the Movement
International Justice Mission: Learn the magnitude of the problem. Find how you can help solve it.
Compassion International:  Another ministry I'm passionate about. Not only do they provide physical needs like food, clothing, education, and medical care, they teach children about Jesus - the only One who can truly set them free from bondage. And they even have a special category so you can sponsor children who are at high risk of exploitation and trafficking.

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