In Bangkok, Thailand’s megacity, dogs are everywhere. Mostly without owners but indulged by the majority of people, dogs will follow, sniff, jump on and bark at almost anyone walking through the city’s countless alleys and laneways. And for Sunny Yu - a South Korean living and working among the urban poor in Bangkok - this is a problem.
“When I was young I was bitten by a dog. So it’s like a phobia, or a traumatic memory, my whole life,” says Sunny. “Especially in Bangkok, in the urban poor communities, there are so many street dogs. I need to pray every day, ‘Please God protect me from dogs, street dogs.’”
Sunny came to Bangkok after working in rural Northern Thailand among Karen people where she spoke only Korean (with her colleagues) and Karen (with the children among whom she worked). When she arrived it wasn’t only the dogs that overwhelmed her. Bangkok’s traffic is legendary, its culture can be intense and, on top of it all, Sunny joined an international team who spoke English and Thai and worked in ways very foreign to her. She was out of her depth.
“I grew up in a monocultural background only, so my first year here was quite tough,” Sunny says. “I couldn't understand my Thai staff and my international team. Busy city life. So busy. I took time with my God every morning and in the evening, because I didn't have any idea how to adjust here. I took time with God and I tried to understand others.”
But understanding - even beyond having to add two new languages to her repertoire - didn’t come easily. For starters, Rac Chum Chon - the urban poor outreach team Sunny works with whose name means, “love the community” - takes an egalitarian approach that was jarring for Sunny.
“Our team thinks that we have to start with people,” said Steffan, a Swiss German who has been in Thailand the longest of the team. “We have to build them up, train them, and actually let them do things...so that they become leaders...It is very difficult for a hierarchical culture to give the poor, who are on the bottom, some responsibilities. That’s something quite new in Bangkok….this takes a lot of patience. At first [Sunny] was quite surprised at how we do it.”
To say it takes patience is perhaps something of an understatement. In historically and predominantly Buddhist Thailand, few people have had the opportunity to even speak to a Christian, let alone be introduced to Jesus. When they are introduced, the social risks involved with leaving Buddhism can be a significant hurdle. And in the slums of Bangkok numerous social problems conspire to make things even more difficult for people to contemplate following Christ.
Stefan tells about his first two years of working in these communities. In that time only three men believed in Jesus and all three, because of problems related to drugs and alcohol, died within six months of becoming Christians. Stefan’s then-small team mourned and kept going. It has taken a further six years of work and the entrance of several new teammates, including Sunny, to see a handful of Bible study groups develop in the community.
It’s a situation that requires a very different theology of and approach to mission than the one Sunny had been used to in her previous ministry. Gone, for example, is the emphasis on conversion with ongoing foreign leadership and in its place a desire to let people navigate the many hurdles to following Christ at their own pace in order to foster robust faith communities with local ownership.
Dave, an Australian member of Rac Chum Chon tells a story about one couple the team had been visiting and nurturing in their faith for some years: “We were hoping that the man could end up being a future leader of the church...we thought they were growing well in their faith. But one day we came to their house and the husband wasn’t there. [His wife said], ‘he’s kind of gone off in hiding because he’s been involved in drug dealing.’ It turned out he’d been involved with this most of the time we’d known him but we didn’t know.” The team was devastated.
“You can have these hopes and think things are going really well,” Dave says. “And then you find out maybe someone’s not quite ready yet.”
“We want to build churches that can suit the poor,” says Stefan, “not just to sit in and be respected. But also that the poor can church-plant new churches and that the poor can lead. That’s our wish….so this takes time. It takes patience. And we just have to be around….just love them and live with them, be with them.”
Fitting in with all this after so many years working within a hierarchical, performance-oriented structure has been like a crucible for Sunny - one that her team has seen change her.
“She has adapted to a style that is more concentrated on the people,” says Steffen, “on loving them and encouraging them.”
Vincci, one of Sunny’s closest friends on the team puts it most simply: “She changed a lot! I think in the first year she learned a lot from how the different cultures work together.”
“What I learned is patience,” Sunny says. “It was quite a slow process. So slow process. But God worked in us and among the urban poor.”
None of this patience is lost on the people in the communities Sunny and her team are trying to serve either.
“We’re like brothers and sisters,” Pii Uan, one of the new believers touched by the team’s investment, says. “Sunny will call, she’s always ready to talk. Everyone is like that in the group. They have never abandoned me,” she says. “Even if one of them isn’t free they will call and say, ‘I’m not free today’. But they will never just not show up.”
And the team’s commitment to equality has made an impression, too: “We don’t separate between poor people and rich people. We don’t separate at all,” Uan says. “[The Rac Chum Chon team] see me as a sibling - as an older sister. It’s a way of giving love.”
And Sunny, it seems, has gone “all in” with these ways of giving love and with the theology that informs it.
“Nowadays I think about disciples,” she says. “I want to focus on making a disciple of Jesus, not a believer, not a church member. Sometimes some missionaries say, ‘Why don’t your believers go to church?’ But I am more focused on their lives. [They have] so many struggles in their lives. Going to church is important, but I want to make a disciple of Jesus - and as for me, I want to be a disciple of Jesus.”
It’s a perspective that demands not just patience, but consistency and a focus on growing together with those she serves, side by side.
Oh, and spending a lot of time around dogs, too.
“Right now [the dogs] are my enemies,” says Sunny, “not my friends. I need time to become friends.”
Pii Bunmi, one of the women Sunny and her colleagues have befriended - a woman whose family lives primarily on salvage - has a dog named Chang. In Thai it means “elephant” but given his diminutive size, the name is really a joke at Chang’s expense.
“I hope that one day I can touch Chang!” says Sunny, laughing her infectious laugh at the modest dream. And, phobia or not, it’s easy to imagine that, sooner rather than later, she will.