…as we traveled, I pondered how spiritual health impacts more than each person’s personal walk and personal witness in regard to Christ and faith. Each individual influences the will of a group, and indeed, a group’s spiritual health can, has, does, and will impact governments and social societies. Thus, the collective witness of Christ, of believers’ allegiance to God and to one another, have always tinted the pages of history; they always will.
Over the years, I have come to recognize certain moments in Come before Winter’s history as “defining.” In these times, we collide head-on with events, issues, and/or challenges that allow us an opportunity to reexamine our purpose. In short, we get to double check our clarity regarding what God might have in mind. Most often these experiences provide manna that feeds growth, allowing the skeletal phrases of our mission--“to renew, equip, honor and unite women in ministry around the world”—to build enough muscle and tendon to become practical ministry. The recent Thailand renewal, held June 14-18, in Chiang Rai presented such an opportunity. Just three weeks before departure political unrest, demonstrations, and warnings from both the United States State Department and the government in Thailand seemed to indicate that cancellation might be prudent.
By the time the travel warnings were issued, the fifteen-member team was on the “downhill slide.” Team members had already raised the funds needed to welcome and host thirty-eight women from six countries in Asia to the mountains of Northern Thailand. In fact, about 85 percent of the costs for the week had already been paid. Registered participants from Bangkok and the other Asian countries (Japan, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines) had also purchased non-refundable airline tickets. The long process of registration had ended, the tote bags had been monogrammed and delivered, the notebooks were printed with detailed information including home addresses and telephone numbers, room assignments at the host hotel, and small group divisions. Five team members had already taken possession of the “team bags,” those packed out to carry the needed supplies to our June 9 flight; another three were packed and ready to be delivered. For all practical purposes, were ready to go.
But there was this nagging question of safety. Everyone agreed that while we were not “afraid” to make the trip, wisdom had to prevail. As one advisor so aptly stated, “At times like these it is easy to discount one’s own safety, but are you willing to put the families of the participants and team members at risk of losing their wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters? How important is this?” By three weeks before departure I had begun to believe there was “no way” the trip could occur; I would later learn that many on the Board felt the same. Others on the Leadership Team had serious questions—in regard to going and not going. Thank the Lord for having built among us such a strong sense of unity in diversity! To a person, we all agreed that the decision could not be made in terms of lost funding; responsibility, safety, and mostly a keen listening ear had to prevail. Thus, the Leadership Team convened in Abilene to weigh issues and to pray. Never before had we come together to make a decision with such varying opinions. However, each of us also recognized the necessity of listening to the other and going to the Lord together—a united front of prayer. May I say that the time together that day was one of the sweetest days we have shared?
In preparation to meet, we sought the advice of two security advisors. Both Sam Jeffrey, son of Leadership Team member Suzy Jeffrey and Chris Hale, husband of Leadership Team member Kelliann, provided us with invaluable insights. Sam had spent a few years working for the U.S. State Department; even now his work includes ensuring the safe travel of others, often into areas where security is questionable. Chris, who works as a chaplain for firemen in the state of Texas and has often been present as a first-responder to tragedy, also worked with inner-city missions in St. Louis, MO. In addition to these two, we sought on-the-ground reports from Thailand missionaries David Allen and Robert Reagan; both missionaries live and work in the northern regions of Thailand where we would host our event. Finally, we polled a fourth of the participants, at least one woman from each of the six countries who had registered. How were they feeling about attending? What were their husbands saying? In all these communications, we asked for frank responses.
By the time we met in Abilene, less than two weeks before departure, the Thai government had regained control in Bangkok—albeit just two days earlier. No one knew how long the treuce would hold, so in addition to moving forward with last-minute details, we were all reading news reports and listening to television analyses, as well. Our security advisors warned us to be cautious, but well-prepared if we proceeded. The on-the-ground missionaries (apart from discussion with one another) strongly urged us to come—the renewal was needed now more than ever, they wrote. The women themselves assured us they were not afraid: one group told us that if we did not host, they were going to Thailand without us (they already had tickets, after all).
At the end of the day, we decided we would proceed—if we gained Board approval. Even so, we would give every team member and every parrticipant the opportunity to back out. As an extra precaution, we would write a detailed security plan that involved planned exit strategies and renting satellite phones—in case Thailand’s government decided to shut down all common communication, as their state of emergency warned they might. Only once before, when our African hotel cancelled on us just 10 days before departure, had we worked so busily up to the times our flights would take off.
We assured each team member and participant that we trusted them to listen to God and to act on His personal words to them alone. Going would not be considered a greater action of faith that remaining behind; remaining behind would not be considered “wiser” than going. We would recommit each woman, indeed the whole event, to God. In the end, we lost two participants, one whose supporting congregation had already pulled her from Bangkok for safety reason and another who discovered a work conflict that could not be avoided. One team member, after prayer and discussion with her family, remained behind, as well, serving us from stateside in prayer and communication.
You expect to learn from such situations; you are aware that you are setting precedence, writing policy as you go. What I didn’t expect was the way the process would sharpen our senses in regard to our mission. Two communications particularly initiated ripples of thought as we moved forward.
The first was a brief line from board member Donna Willbanks: “Could this possibly be God opening our eyes and hearts to a new way of using CbW? …we know this is no surprise nor glitch to Him.” The second was a comment made by a former missionary to Thailand, Larry Henderson, now a missions professor at Abilene Christian University. Larry commented that he was not as concerned for the future of the country of Thailand as he was for the church in Thailand. The political rifts so totally permeated the country’s social fabric and ran so deep that he feared division in the churches might follow.
As we pondered these questions in relation to our program, we were forced to examine not only how the unrest might affect the renewal, but how the renewal itself could possibly impact the situation. Our rule forbidding controversial discussions and comments had been written to dissuade anyone from focusing on our mutual differences in regard to faith. How would that rule play out during the current political situation? Likewise, every Come before Winter team covenants with the others: not only will she avoid controversial discussion, but she will surrender her personal will for the good of the women we serve. We even agree in advance to trust one another above all—to set aside hurt feelings and/or anger, determining to trust the good in the other, no matter how the incident may appear. We have learned that these commitments speak clearly without a word. Each time we receive a set of evaluations, someone (often many someones) mentions being blessed and instructed by the team’s witness of unity. Some have claimed that it was the most beneficial aspect of the renewal!
Thus, we came to understand that God had prepared us for “such a time as this.” We did not go to Thailand only to walk on the holy ground of confession and spiritual renewal with those who would come. Granted, that mission would never be minimized! However, as we traveled, I pondered how spiritual health impacts more than one person’s personal walk and personal witness in regard to Christ and faith. Each individual influences the will of a group, and indeed, a group’s spiritual health can, has, does, and will impact governments and social societies. Thus, the collective witness of Christ, of believers’ allegiance to God and to one another, have always tinted the pages of history; they always will. Salt seasons the whole.
We better understood this Truth as we greeted the hotel staff that would serve us; we were purposeful in recognizing that we had women from every piece of Thailand’s social cloth. We remembered what God had taught us in our first 19 renewals, and we accepted this new lesson with thanksgiving.
Come before Winter’s 20th renewal in Chiang Rai, Thailand, was one of our sweetest to date. Not once did we feel threatened. Though we overnighted in Bangkok both on the way in and on the way home, we saw nothing but smiling, gracious Thai faces—not a hint of unrest anywhere. We noticed this, and we thanked God for what we might never have seen had it not been for the recent turmoil. Perhaps we were even more thankful for the opportunity to be there.
We cannot thank enough those who invested in these days of peace and tranquility, of meditation and reflection. Your support of our mission, your prayers and your financial investments became the foil for understanding the tragedy of division and war. May God bless all those who serve Him in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. May His Unity, His Peace, and His Pardon be evident to all.