Last Tuesday began just like nearly every one of our days so far in Bangkok’s largest slum, Klong Toei. Moki, Tim, Sherien, Tiffany, and I grabbed a quick breakfast from a street vendor and made our way to Baan Chiwit Mai, the House of New Life. When we arrived at the Baan Chiwit Mai daycare, we greeted the other teachers, greeted the children, and then went upstairs for a short time of worship, prayer, and reflection with some of the other staff. We began reading a daily devotional, published in both Thai and English.
The author of the devotional, a Pastor Chris, writes that, “God wants you to be healthy, happy, and prosperous… He wants to give you the perfect life.” We looked at each other anxiously: isn’t this another one of those attempts at equating following God with getting rich, so memorably dubbed the “Prosperity Gospel?” If this isn’t it, then what is? He even uses the word “prosperous!” In both Thai and English, the table discussed the implications of what Pastor Chris was claiming, and as far as I understood, we disagreed that God would actually give us a Benz if we prayed hard enough. But it was still disorienting. After all, if God does love us, more than anyone else ever has or ever will, why would he not want to give us comforts and happiness? God does not want people to suffer or be poor. Is that not the whole point of this mission trip—that poverty is an affront to God and his good creation? Maybe the Prosperity Gospel was not as misguided as I had previously thought.
The meeting came to a close and we went downstairs to go take care of the kids. I still felt like everything was spinning, whipping past my eyes and knocking me off-balance. I had come on the Global Urban Trek with a number of questions for Jesus, and one of the chief ones was about something he had said. In both Matthew’s (5:3) and Luke’s (6:20) accounts of the Gospel, Jesus says that the poor are blessed, and that God’s Kingdom belongs to them. What the hell did he mean? And now, Pastor Chris was disturbing the foundation of my question—it is the rich who are blessed and the poor just need to have faith and ask?
As the children napped during the afternoon, Tiffany and I went to meet Celeste, a US American woman who heads our second ministry opportunity. She works with “at-risk” young men who have already or may soon be caught up in the “ladyboy” scene. In addition to young girls and women, Thailand’s pimps, brothels, and massage parlors also offer for use young men who feel that they are actually women and thus dress and act the part. These ladyboys do not start in the red-light district, but poor, young men growing up in the slums who have been marginalized within their own communities because of their sexuality are at a tragically high risk for drug addiction and prostitution. So Celeste is trying to arrest the destructive trajectory of these young men’s lives through employment, therapy, discipleship, and friendship. They need to profoundly feel and believe that they are valuable, worthwhile creations of God and that there is thus no need to put on a mask and certainly no need to use drugs or rent out their bodies for someone else’s pleasure.
Celeste has asked Tiffany and I to support her and her staff’s work just by befriending and hanging out with two of these men, Q--- and P---. So, that afternoon, Celeste took the two of us to meet Q---, a 19 year-old high school senior, over some ice cream from a shop on the fifth floor of the Emporium mall. Once we finished, Q---, Tiffany, and I left together to catch a bus back to Klong Toei (he lives just across the street from Baan Chiwit Mai). While exiting the Emporium, we either took a different route than when we had entered, or I was just being more attentive. As Tiffany and Q--- talked, I trailed a couple paces behind. Stepping off the escalator onto the ground floor, I lifted up my eyes to see first a Rolex store, and then a string of other high-end chains. As if I had just caught a punch in my abdomen, I gasped for air and tears filled my eyes. I held them back. But I wanted—needed—to scream. I am not sure why. Perhaps it was something about the senselessness of expensive watches. Perhaps it was something about parading Q--- past these stores. These are probably true, but I think chiefly I wanted to scream in order to knock down every wall between the Rolex store and Klong Toei, so they could stand eye-to-eye, and so that everyone could witness the trash of Klong Toei’s streets glinting in the gold wristband of a Rolex. But I stayed silent, breathed deeply, and wiped away the tears.
It only took about half an hour for Q--- to loose his own word of discomfort. We got off the bus, and as Tiffany and I stepped with Q--- over the railroad tracks into Klong Toei, he turned to us and said, “Stinks.” I did not know what to say.
“What do you mean?”
“This place—it stinks.”
And then he started asking us questions. “Why are you here? Why is Celeste telling you to be with me? Why did you come to Thailand? Why did you come to Klong Toei?” Tiffany and I tried valiantly to answer, but I do not remember being able to articulate anything helpful for him. We walked to his house, and he said, “Don’t come in—too dirty.” And we left.
Then I walked Tiffany back to her house nestled in one of Klong Toei’s many narrow alleys, or soi, just wide enough for a motorcycle to drive past two people pushing themselves up against the walls. As I walked home alone, past the street vendors who worked to feed me and thousands other residents of Klong Toei, I thought about the bustling street life of this slum, how within a week I have been greeted by friends passing by, how I have met neighbors just because they are sitting there and they say, “Sawatdee.”
Unsummoned, the words of an Italian chant I had sung a couple years back flew into my mind and out my mouth: “Beati voi poveri, perche vostro e il regno di Dio” (Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God). Walking down Soi 18 to my host family’s house, I sang that song to every gate and door I passed, to my neighbors who I was trying to identify with, but who surely, like Q---, equated me quite justly more with the Emporium’s Rolex store than with Klong Toei. I am not quite sure why I was singing. I did not receive, in that moment, a coherent exegesis of those troublesome passages in Matthew and Luke. Maybe I sang not just to my neighbors, but also in reply to Pastor Chris, wherever he was. Because in that moment the flat deadness of his perfectly prosperous Gospel appeared like the smooth, colorless marble floor of the Rolex store. In his hypothetical dream world where things are fundamentally alright and God really just belongs to individuals and not also to communities, his Rolex theology might help make sense of things. But we live in a real world where an unending chain of prosperous foreigners arrives in Bangkok to pry open the legs of lonely, hungry children and teenagers and women and men. We live in a real world where every kid at Baan Chiwit Mai’s daycare has at least one tooth rotten to the gum. I had not screamed in the Emporium, but at least I was singing now.
There is no sense in romanticizing the poor. It is a mistake that I think Western do-gooders, like myself, have to be corrected of. Q--- has his host of trials, demons, and sins, like all of us. He has consciously chosen his path. But there is neither any sense in romanticizing the rich. It is through our wealth and our cultural institutions that we have nurtured into full flower the seed of shame within Q---. It is a deep, intense shame about his neighborhood and his home, a shame that has likely been transposed into shame about his own identity as a man. And it is through our wealth and cultural institutions that we have exported a pernicious Gospel of Prosperity to Klong Toei. It is for things like this, maybe, that Jesus includes a parallel list of warnings to go with his blessings in Luke. After saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” he declares, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”