Fish factory workers find joy in church's nurture
RANONG, Thailand (BP) -- Wobbly wooden floors and plywood walls were the first backdrop for worship by migrant workers from the local fish factories.
The church, taking root in Ranong, Thailand, moved to its current cement structure through its members' sacrificial giving.
The pastor, Simon David, says moving from a house church to the narrow cement structure was important when their neighbors became increasingly hostile during worship time, often yelling at them to be quiet.
"We started by house church, and when they wanted to have a building, we rented one. Then we bought chairs one by one as we had the money," David recounts.
David began working with the church several years ago in partnership with Scott and Alyssa Branding*, IMB workers from Alaska. The Brandings have worked in southern Thailand for more than 10 years, specifically among migrant workers in fish factories and on rubber tree plantations from neighboring Burma (also known as Myanmar).
When the Brandings first arrived in Ranong, the 2.5 million Burmese workers in the region were largely unreached. After the couple partnered with David, who is Burmese, the migrant church was formed as the Gospel was shared among the factory workers.
Working with a migrant population poses unique challenges because of their transience. This impacts the manner in which David teaches the Scriptures and builds community among believers.
"I have two purposes -- one is to build all believers firm in Christ and the second is, wherever they go, they will connect with a church [or], if there is no church, then ensuring they can stand on their own and remain firm in Him," the pastor says.
As he talks, the plastic chairs fill with fish factory workers who have just finished a 10- to 12-hour workday. At 6 p.m., it is time for church to start.
A man, who works as a fish broker during the day, strums a guitar as strains of "Amazing Grace" float on the air. Hands rise in worship as voices proclaim the lyrics.
For WinWin Ma, a young woman who works in a squid processing plant, times of worship allow her to claim joy in life through Christ.
"I work 10 hours a day, and sometimes face problems at work," she says, "but when I worship, the worry and stress fall away. I feel joy."
When the worship music concludes, David relays the lesson for the week, centering on financial integrity among believers.
Following the service, bursts of lively chatter bounce off the lime green walls. Tight embraces and shining faces speak to an undercurrent of joy running through this community. Two fishermen laugh and toss jokes back and forth as their kids run through the rows of chairs. Their mothers watch, talking and patting each other's hands.
Looking out over the congregation, David offers insight into the daily lives of migrant workers in Ranong.
"At times they cannot attend church as some factories have no time off, while others have one day off," he says.
As he turns back to the gathering, several workers stop and give him a hearty handshake.
Ma takes a moment to step in and tell why this sense of community is vital to her and her family.
"In the workroom, there are about 30 laborers and I am the only Christian," she says. "My supervisor is unkind and often abuses authority. As we gather at church, people pray [for me] and offer encouragement."
Church members not only minister to each other, but David challenges the migrant workers to embrace their community at large, to demonstrate that helping other people is central to their identity in Christ.
"For the last two years at Christmas, we host a program for AIDS patients in our community," David says. "We go and distribute everything from food, medicine and clothes. We also pray and have fellowship with them."
Their generosity reaches beyond once-a-year campaigns into everyday life, as exemplified by Ma.
"In my workplace, some have financial problems [and] sometimes I will give them money. I tell them Jesus is good, God is good. Some receive [the Gospel message] and some reject it," she says.
David, speaking louder to be heard amid the conversations, adds, "I love that whenever there is someone in need of counseling or money, they want to give. They don't have much, but they love to give."
The visiting fades toward a low rumble as families say goodbyes to get home before the 8 p.m. curfew when government authorities begin asking for official documents.
David hugs several young men and stops to chat with an older businessman before he continues talking about the congregation.
"One goal I have is that, wherever they go, they can live like Christians," he says.
"To work with migrant peoples is very different. If I can advise, start by meeting somewhere they are comfortable. Understand they have a different culture and discover what core values are at the heart of their culture."
Migrant families often relocate in search of better employment opportunities, and David calls ahead and helps them find a new church. If there is no church, he emphasizes the importance of staying in God's Word and sharing with others.
"When they move away, I stay in contact with them by phone and encourage them often, 'Do not be afraid. Trust God all the time,'" David says.
*Names changed. Evelyn Adamson is a writer working in Southeast Asia. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).