I waded through the crowds of people in the muggy Bangkok heat. Cars, buses, and motorcycles whizzed by. Everywhere you looked there were throngs of people and carts filled with exotic food and colorful merchandise. Aromas rose into the air mingling with the unbearable heat. I piled onto the number 46 bus, standing up amongst the other weary travelers as the ancient automobile inched along through the thick traffic. I lost myself in thought gazing out the dirt-streaked windows at the grungy cement apartments overshadowed by the fancy high-rise buildings reaching up into the sky. The bus traveled into the heart of this giant city, and tunneled in amongst the gargantuan man-made monuments, finally spewing us out at Nana Plaza, the red light district of Bangkok.
There underneath the blinking neon lights, the spirit of Sodom and Gomorrah lived on in full debauchery. Blaring music echoed down the street, tumbling out of every bar. Over 60 thousand women work in bars and brothels every night all across Bangkok. There they sell their souls nightly to provide for their families; abused and broken, they are forced to keep coming back. Women lined the streets, their apparel making it instantly obvious they were for sale. Inside the bars, women laughed and sang sitting alongside their foreign customers; but it was all a lie. The women smiled at me with dead eyes. Many of them were young. You see, young girls fetch the highest prices. Girls that should have been in school walked the streets desperate for love and affection. They were dehumanized, turned into little more than objects for the pleasure of wealthy tourists. Many of them had given up hope. Their spark of life was gone. Each day was a living nightmare. Any naïve hope once infused in their hearts had long been ripped out and trampled on the dirty streets of this unforgiving city. There was no escaping. They were trapped.
As I watched, tears rolled down my face and my cheeks flushed with anger. How dare these men come and take advantage of these women! How dare they bring their pain and brokenness and force it upon these poor souls! How dare they stoop so low as to defile the very image of God marked upon each of these beautiful women! I collapsed onto a dirty street corner and put my head in my hands. It was too much to take in. The horror of this place was too great to comprehend. I heard the souls of the abusers and the abused crying out for hope, but there was none to be found. “Where, oh where, is God?” I asked myself. “Where, oh where, is he who swears to protect the widow and the orphan? Where is the God who said ‘Be still and I will fight for you.’? Where is the God of love and mercy that I cling to?” I opened my eyes and still he wasn’t there.
I returned many times during my stay in Bangkok. Each night I rode the bus to Nana Plaza. Each night I was struck by the darkness and the pain of that place. Each night my heart burned with anger at the men who walked the streets. Each night I wondered where God was. Here at home in America I am removed from the sounds and smells of Bangkok; they are but a distant memory. But the questions still remain. I close my eyes and see the faces of those women. I hear their hollow laughter and see the tear streaks in their makeup.
I have heard God whisper, “I chose you to be my hands and feet to the broken and abused. You, my Church, must go. You must cease to live your safe, selfish lives and venture into the pain and darkness of your world.” I asked where Jesus was and he in return asked me where I was! I cling to his mercy and pray that some day those responsible for places like Nana Plaza will be held accountable before the Almighty God for their actions, and the abused women and children will at last receive rest and comfort.
But for now, the question is not where is Jesus, but where is the church? The question is how much do we really want to be the hands and feet of Jesus? Remember, those hands and feet were nailed to the cross and mutilated. Are we content to show up at comfortable church services and drop undesignated checks into the offering plate without ever getting our hands dirty? Is it enough to give a $20 present to a poor child at Christmas and then ignore the poor for the next 11 months till Christmas rolls around again? When will we begin to realize that our responsibility to the needy will come at a cost? When will we begin to stop living small, selfish lives and stop justifying our selfish behavior in a myriad of different ways? When will we tear off the chains of mediocrity and strive to be world-changers whose lives are marked by radical faith and generosity? When, oh Church, will we rise up and boldly live out the good news? When will we take our eyes off ourselves and see that we are surrounded by a world of pain and suffering? When will we take up the command to love our neighbor as ourself and realize that these women in Bangkok and India and Cambodia are our neighbors? Only as the church begins to take its call seriously will we see Jesus walking down the streets of places like Nana Plaza and even here in Pittsburgh. Then and only then will the chains of darkness be broken.
In this Christmas season it’s easy to forget about those who are suffering. It’s easy to hone in on the list of presents that need to be purchased and all the church events we need to attend. But let us remember that Christmas is about Jesus and his coming to save the lost and the wounded, and that he has called us to do the same. I close my eyes and see faces staring at me; I pray that you too will see their faces, because they are the many faces of Jesus.