By Ash Barker
Suffering and despair can easily overwhelm us, strangling any last tinges of hope we have for something better. This is often the case in our neighborhood, the Klong Toey slum in Bangkok, Thailand.
Here we are confronted with HIV-AIDS, child malnutrition, and premature death as daily realities. The fragility of life and lack of control often cause us to cry out to God, who promises that a better world is possible. However, sometimes we can only pray, “How long do we have to sing this song? When will things get better?”
Biblical hope is more than just wishing things would get better; it can be a transformative power in the present. God has not taken away creation’s original purposes, promise, and possibility of love in creation, nor humanity’s cultural mandate to be responsible for creation. On the contrary, God’s hope is like a cord that pulls creation and humanity’s good future forward, where this can all be fulfilled without the parasitic powers of evil that lead ultimately to decay and death.
One of 15 Hebrew words for hope, hwqt tiqvah, can also be literally translated “cord” or “rope.” Thus, biblical hope can have the metaphoric sense of a cord that can connect, pull, and bring forward the good future God intends. This metaphor of hope as a cord is taken up in the New Testament, too, when the writer of Hebrews encourages readers to “take hold of the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18). This hope is in the risen Christ as the firstfruits of those who will be resurrected with him when all of creation is redeemed (1 Corinthians 15). Surely we need to see this hope in our lives, the lives of those we love, and the whole world.
Hope Seen and Suggested
Some signs of hope, however, are more easily seen than others. Take Saiyuud “Poo” Diwong, for example, as she and her husband, Pi Kair, lead excited tourists down narrow lanes to their traditional Thai cooking school in Klong Toey slum. Kair and Poo’s gifts and passions are now being celebrated worldwide.
TripAdvisor.com listed the cooking school as the No. 1 attraction in Bangkok for a number of months. (Number 2 was the Grand Palace!) In March, Cooking with Poo cookbook won the Frankfurt Book Fair award for “Oddest Title of the Year,” and the worldwide media, especially comedians like Jonathan Ross, Stephen Fry, and Andrew Denton, couldn’t resist offering up gags and puns. When BBC did a recent radio interview about the cookbook, the reporter asked, “Did you know Cooking with Poo was googled over 25 million times?”
Yet, something deeper stirs. These outward signs of success are not the most important signs of hope visible here. It was only five years ago that Poo and Kair, our neighbors at the time, were in survival mode as rising rice prices, stress, and debt threatened to slowly rip their family life apart. Exhausted and drained of confidence, the couple couldn’t imagine starting a cooking school when my wife, Anji, suggested it. Anji kept on, however, and eventually the couple saw the new possibilities and stepped out in faith together.
Reporter Aela Callen and a host of volunteers came together to help launch the school and cookbook, in addition to Helping Hands, an Urban Neighbors of Hope project that helps other neighbors start businesses. The family flourished.
It is inspiring to see Poo’s Christian faith and leadership develop in Namusgan worship each Friday night, at leadership seminars, and in helping her staff and others start new businesses. Poo was recently on a panel at my Slum Life Rising book launch at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, when a reporter asked why she still lives in Klong Toey if she could now afford to move out.
“My husband and two boys can afford days off and holidays together now,” she said. “We’ve never had them before. I want to see others get the opportunities I have had.” Poo dreams of starting a retreat center by a river where people can go to enjoy days away from the chaos of the slums. Newfound well-being is not hoarded, but shared imaginatively. This movement is where hope really lives.
Hope Amid Disaster
I also detected this hope during the recent floods in Thailand. In November 2011 these floods left more than 800 people dead, and millions affected.
A man I will call “S” is originally from Klong Toey slum, where we live, and is part of the Ta Rua church, but now lives in northern Bangkok where the floods hit hardest. His motorbike, car, tools for work, and all he owned were under water in his home. With some of our neighbors from Klong Toey, we went with “S” to his neighborhood to help distribute medicine, food, and water; we used small boats to reach certain places.
It was a special time, in part because the men in our neighborhood, who often are looked down upon, were the ones extending help this time. We got them special blue T-shirts so flood victims didn’t think they were a gang of looters!
“Hey thanks! Where are you guys from?” came a shout from a second-story home where much-needed food was delivered.
“Klong Toey? Really?”
“Sure. Keep fighting on! Don’t give up!”
Very few of these men could swim. Crocodiles that had escaped from a local farm were roaming in the putrid, brown, often neck-deep water. The volunteers showed remarkable courage.
Poverty, it is said, is not just a lack of cash, but a lack of hope to see the life God intends. If true, then many of our men began to break that cycle of despair and poverty by stepping up to help others during those floods. Many of us became seriously ill because of the floodwater, but we discovered a crisis can present an opportunity to find hope, love, and confidence as we respond as Christ would in the power of the Spirit. It is the Spirit who gives us hope that a different outcome is possible.
Seeing, Hearing, Touching
Christians are not the final solution for urban poverty and suffering, but we can be a sign of hope for people to grab hold of. We know joy, beauty, and justice will finally and fully come, because in places like Klong Toey, we’ve been close enough to see, hear, and touch the signs.
While creation was “good” in the beginning, it will be completed only when evil is defeated and creation is fully alive with the glory and knowledge of God “as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Hope for the renewal of creation is fundamental to Christian ideas of love and hope. According to N. T. Wright,
One day, when all the forces of rebellion have been defeated and the creation responds freely and gladly to the love of its creator, God will fill it with himself so that it will both remain an independent being, other than God, and also be flooded with God’s own life. This is part of the paradox of love, in which love freely given creates a context for love to be freely returned, and so on in a cycle where complete freedom and complete union do not cancel each other out but rather celebrate each other and make one another whole.1
God infused creation with his presence, but then there was rebellion. Some day, however, the glory and full knowledge of God on earth will be restored. We must share God’s goodness with others, even in slums like Klong Toey, as we work toward that day.
Perhaps we need to pray more often: “Lord, let your kingdom come, your will done, on earth as in Heaven. May this hope become reality . . . and start with us now!”
1N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 102.
Ash Barker serves is international director and founder of Urban Neighbors of Hope (www.unoh.org). He and his family have been living and serving in Klong Toey, Bangkok, Thailand’s largest slum, for the past 10 years.