19 Nov 2013 by Karen Ngooi-
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it."
Last year, during my summer break studying abroad in the United States, I went to Bangkok, Thailand for six weeks with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Global Urban Trek. During my time there, I served with a Thai ministry for the elderly poor and lived in a slum with a 70-year-old host grandma, Yai Noi. She lived alone in a little shack over sewage as her husband had died 13 years ago and she felt unloved by the families of her children.
When I first arrived at the house, I was very doubtful on how to live and to survive there for even a day. On the way there, we passed by stinking garbage piles and narrow roads with wastewater on both sides. My teammate, Kelsey, and I are both only 20 years old and we speak very little Thai, if any. All the staff worker told us before we were left to be on our own is to build trust and live life with our host grandma there. Inspired by Jesus’ command to take nothing for the journey when He sent out the disciples in Luke 9, we were only allowed to pack very basic clothing and toiletries, with no money or electronics with us. Like the disciples, we were to be desperately dependent upon God and the kindness of the people whom we were called to serve.
After dinner, Yai Noi switched off the light and taught us how to squat down to take a bucket shower in the dark because the bathroom is not fully covered. It was possible that our neighbors around us could see through. Later that first night, there I was, squatting down in the dark, smelling the rotting garbage beneath the house, washing myself with buckets of water while worrying if someone was watching me, and seeing a cockroach crawling just inches beside me. I was devastated. I felt humiliated and undignified as a human being. I lost control of everything around me. I felt abandoned by God and my teammates. At that moment, I honestly wanted to run away, but I also felt guilty and ashamed of my own response.
On the third day, the Trek director visited and she said, “It's OK for you not to be OK.” So I finally broke down and started crying, overwhelmed by the physical realities and emotional stresses of poverty. The reality for more than 1 billion slum dwellers around the world became real to me. If I were there to show some kind of solidarity with the poor, I had a really long way to go. But, it was also then that I realized I had the choice to swallow all the hardships and sufferings, holding my breath to make it through the summer; or I could be honest with my emotions and run to Jesus to trust that He’ll provide what's needed for me to enter in the experience of my Thai grandma.
The days following that, I saw more brokenness in the slum and injustices where the poor were taken advantage of, having to pay many times more for basic necessities like water and electricity, and I was also powerless to do anything about it. The brokenness around me just revealed more of my own broken self and weaknesses. I was offended more than I would care to admit. But, I later realized that it was a gift from our merciful God that led me to places in my life that I didn't want to look at.
In a way, I said yes to following Jesus into the slum, but I was shown that I had more dying to do, more losing of myself. I learned that conversion to Christ is a process. Many more yeses are needed after the first yes. But when everything was not quite what I expected, I wanted to say no so badly and I realized just how costly the invitation of Jesus to discipleship is.
There was much pain to bear, a lot of pride to swallow, and many sufferings to embrace, but my time there was also one that's marked with unspeakable joy. It was a joy and a privilege to be able to laugh, to cry, to eat, and to sleep – simply living life with my friends and family there. The sharing of our sufferings and connection of our vulnerabilities somehow brought Christ into the picture because in Christ, we find the hope of what could be; we see the redemption on the cross and Jesus who’s broken for us all the more clearly.
A few days before we left, we bought some snacks and fruits for Yai Noi and she said to us, "I don't have anything, I have nothing valuable to give you in return… but only my heart." It was such a precious moment for me because she has indeed opened up her heart to love us and showed us the meekness of Christ. The hope that she demonstrated as a follower of Jesus is not one that’s based on her strengths or successes, but it is a life of gratitude, which embraces all of life, including failures and sufferings, while trusting in the healing of Christ.
I saw a glimpse of how the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor. Then I realized, it's not really the poor who need me, but I need my friends who are poor to help me find the freedom of denying myself, of choosing into weakness, and letting God be God. I learned from the vulnerable to open up my heart for other's to see; it is not that I used to mess up in the past, but I still mess up now. But He said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9a)."
To be honest, I still don’t like the fact that this journey is messy, uncomfortable, and painful. But, I am privileged to have the choice to tie my destiny with those I served in the summer, living with and learning from the marginalized to welcome the kingdom of God in broken places. In the end, it’s really not about me, or you; it’s not about us! The victory has been won on the cross and we simply get to join in to celebrate and follow the humble King who dwells among us and within us. May Christ’s love compel us to live beyond ourselves.
Karen Ngooi has returned from studying in United States. She is now volunteering at Malaysian CARE to serve the poor. Would you like to volunteer for Malaysian CARE?
Find out more about the Thai ministry that Karen was involved in at: