Soccer and Salvation in Thailand's Largest Slum
In 2008, the world's population silently made the momentous shift from a primarily rural world to a primarily urban world. More people now live in urban areas than in rural ones, and roughly one out of every six people not only lives in an urban area, but in an urban slum area.
What does it mean to bear witness to the gospel in an urban world such as ours, with such a large proportion of the people living in slum areas? This question is the focus of Ash Barker's life mission as well as his new book, Slum Life Rising: How to Enflesh Hope Within an Urban World . Barker, an Australia native and founder of Urban Neighbors of Hope, wrestles with these challenges not as an academic but as a practitioner who has been living for a decade in Klong Toey of Bangkok, the largest slum in Thailand.
Klong Toey is home to over 100,000 people crammed into a space of about two square kilometers. Open sewers, drugs, gangs, rampant disease, and unstable housing situations and jobs are but some of the maladies that hinder comprehensive flourishing in Klong Toey and other slums the world over.
Barker and his wife, Anji, lived and worked in urban Melbourne for almost 10 years before relocating to Klong Toey. Their experiences among the urban poor in Melbourne did not prepare them for the challenges they would face in their first six months in Klong Toey, which included floods, dysentery, and multiple bouts with Dengue fever, one of which almost took Barker's life.
Once his health stabilized, Barker first began helping to bless Klong Toey by partnering with a longstanding Church of Christ community center to start a football (soccer) program for youth in the slum. Having grown up playing football in Australia, Barker was an ideal coach for the youth, and the program has grown in size and profile over the past decade. Today the football club works with about 100 youth, and alumni have gone on to play for successful teams throughout the country, including the Thai national team.
Another early venture was launching a preschool through which 60 children from the slum were given the foundation of a basic education. "We want to be preventive," says Anji. "That's why we work with children [in hopes of initiating] structural change."
The Barkers have also been deeply involved in creating economic opportunities for the gifts and skills they found among their neighbors. One neighbor named Poo loved to cook, and the Barkers have worked with her to offer Thai cooking seminars to tourists, through which up to 200 students are now taught each month. They have also worked with Poo to publish a cookbook, Cooking with Poo , which has sold over 7,000 copies and has garnered media attention for its tongue-in-cheek title.
The Barkers have also started a handicraft business in which women of Klong Toey make jewelry and other crafts and are paid double the minimum wage for their work. This business now employs over 60 women and in 2011 exceeded $300,000 in sales. The profits have been rolled back into starting other businesses in Klong Toey, including coffee carts and Poo's cooking school.
A particular challenge to ministering in slums is their inherent lack of stability. In the West, we have our own instabilities, but they are largely conscious choices. "Stability in slums," notes Barker in Slum Life Rising, "can be undermined by many factors in inherent to slums, [which] can include infectious diseases that cause ill-health; turnover of residents seeking more secure housing; demolition or threat of demolition; regular fires and floods." Even the typical institutions that give order to healthy societies, such as schools, businesses, and medical and emergency services, he says, "are [in slums] often established outside of official channels and face a vulnerability that those in regular neighborhoods do not." Christians who choose to move to the slums and who are vulnerable to many of the forces that cause instability bear incarnational witness to the love and compassion of Jesus.
In Slum Life Rising, Barker tells the story of "Jim," a Klong Toey neighbor who was attacked by the mafia and had his arm broken so badly that he couldn't work. Through the friendship of some of Barker's co-workers, who moved with Jim and his family outside the mafia's threat zone, Jim encountered Jesus in a powerful way, and his arm was healed. Jim's family eventually moved back to their old neighborhood, and now host their own house church and provide care to large numbers of young children.
This story, for Barker, epitomizes the new ways of Christian faithfulness that urban slum life demands. He writes:
Many aspects of the incarnational approach to transformation appear in this one story: Christian neighborliness; mutual sharing of life; authentic hospitality; openness to grasp opportunities; answered prayer and spiritual conversations; Bible reading with friends; varieties of people and personalities over time; participatory projects and an authentic approach to church. Not least was that Jim was able to meet people who made space in their lives to intentionally join, follow and participate with what God was doing in the slum. This included what God was doing in and through Jim.
None of these dimensions would have been possible to experience had they only been done instantly, individually or without risk. Jim's transformation in the Spirit involved lots of small, loving actions though Christ in community—these can create a kind of life-building momentum that is irresistible.
Indeed, our attentiveness to the virtues that Barker names here in our own contexts—urban or otherwise—will undoubtedly transform us as Jim has been transformed and as the Barker family continues to be transformed through their work in Klong Toey.
C. Christopher Smith is a member of Englewood Christian Church on Indy's Near Eastside and editor of The Englewood Review of Books. Author of the recently published eBook The Virtue of Dialogue (Patheos Press 2012), he is cowriting a book titled Slow Church (forthcoming IVP/Likewise). He has written for This Is Our City about Indianapolis and his church there.