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After tsunami came ashore, Mark Caldwell answered the call

EDITORS’ NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Dec. 4-11, focuses on eight strategy coordinator missionaries and a church serving as a strategy coordinator, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. The second of the stories features Mark Caldwell in Thailand. Strategy-coordinator missionaries play a key role in reaching the whole world with the Gospel, focusing on people groups and cities by studying cultures, learning languages and developing master plans for reaching every individual with the Gospel.

KHAO LAK, Thailand (BP)–Sunset paints a glorious reddish glow across the placid water lapping the beach at Khao Lak, Thailand.

The view calms the mind, quiets the heart — and packs in the tourists at posh resorts.

Used to pack them in, that is, before the tsunami roared ashore last December.

“It’s hard to believe an ocean that beautiful could cause so much destruction,” says missionary Mark Caldwell, gazing wistfully toward the horizon.

But destroy it did. Caldwell turns around and looks inland. He stands within walking distance of the places where at least 1,000 bodies were recovered after the Indian Ocean tsunami thundered north into the Andaman Sea -— and laid waste to this stretch of Thailand’s southern coastline.

Rebuilding continues to move ahead in the beach resort areas. But in the coastal town of Khao Lak, where the torrent destroyed eight of every 10 buildings, recovery proceeds slowly. Half-buried in the mud surrounding buildings in various stages of collapse or reconstruction, a child’s flip-flop pokes out here, a dress there, a lonely mattress lies just beyond. A 40-foot fishing boat perches inside the ruins of one house — 200 yards from shore.

“They’re going to be finding body parts around here for a long time,” a relief worker says.

Mark Caldwell, however, came to help the living — not just to rebuild their houses and fishing boats, but to find new hope for the future. He’s a Southern Baptist missionary strategy coordinator “on loan” from his work among the 18 million Isaan people of northeastern Thailand. Earlier this year, Caldwell and his wife Helen had just returned from a stateside assignment when the urgent call came: Would they coordinate tsunami relief ministry in Thailand’s southern region for up to six months?

They hadn’t even unpacked. The Isaan work demanded attention. The Caldwells hesitated briefly, then accepted the temporary job. Why?

“I’ve always rooted for the underdog,” Caldwell says. “I’ve always been interested in helping folks who are down and out, and I like to bring people together.”

“Underdog” applies to the Isaan, a historically oppressed people the Caldwells first encountered in their previous assignment planting churches in Bangkok. It definitely applies to many of southern Thailand’s tsunami survivors.

In the Khao Lak area, some 5,000 people still live in temporary camps. Most lost their homes — and their livelihoods — to the tsunami. Mark and several missionary colleagues have coordinated Southern Baptist volunteer groups delivering food to camp residents. They’ve provided aid for Thais to rebuild homes and build new fishing boats so they can get back to work. They’ve committed to rebuild two schools in the region.

But Mark brings his strategy coordinator mindset to bear on a greater challenge: What will it take to see church-planting movements, led by Thai believers, spread across southern Thailand?

When the tsunami hit, one Southern Baptist missionary couple was living in the region -— home to 5 million people. Only one Baptist church exists in the six coastal provinces most affected by the tsunami. As in the rest of Thailand, less than 1 percent of the population is Christian. The vast majority of the people see Christianity as a Western, white man’s religion.

American volunteers have put a compassionate Christian face on relief efforts.

“But the real goal is to get Thai Christians involved and out front,” Caldwell says. “That breaks down the barrier that to be a Thai, you are a Buddhist.” Or a Muslim, or an animist, like many of the fishermen who live along the Thai coast.


To that end, Caldwell looks for Thai believers to aid and encourage — such as Sian Buaket, a pastor in the coastal city of Ranong. Pastor Sian had longed for years to reach out to the Mogen people — commonly known as “Sea Gypsies” — living on nearby islands dotting the coastline. But he lacked the opportunity and the resources.

The tsunami provided both.

Some of Sian’s church youth went out fishing not long after the tsunami. They came upon a Mogen fishing village on an island not far from Ranong and learned of the villagers’ plight. Talk about underdogs: Citizens of neither Thailand nor neighboring Myanmar (Burma), the Mogen are accustomed to poverty, discrimination and exploitation by criminal “godfathers” in the fishing industry.

When the tsunami came, the Mogen villagers ran to higher ground. They returned to find their long fishing boats on the shore -— battered to kindling wood. Local authorities provided a few bags of rice. When villagers appealed for more aid, they were denied. “You’re not Thai citizens,” they were told. Without fishing boats or the money to buy new ones, they faced starvation. Some of the villagers went to coastal cities to look for work, or beg.

Pastor Sian and his people began taking food to the village. Young people began visiting to tell the Mogen children about Jesus. Church members started an open-air school to teach Mogen adults to read. With Caldwell’s help — and tsunami aid funds from Southern Baptists — Sian has helped the villagers buy boats.

“We’re better fishermen than the Thai,” a village leader proudly claims. “We’ll survive. We just needed our boats back.”

But they needed something more: Jesus Christ.

The Mogen villagers had long lived with no faith besides animism and a fear of evil spirits. When family members died, they were taken to another island for burial. Loved ones grieved without hope.

That’s all changing.

On a recent visit, a team of missionaries and Thais from the Bangkla Baptist Clinic — joined by Tennessee Baptist volunteers — arrived in boats packed with medical supplies. It was the first time a doctor had ever entered the village. The team treated the sick, vaccinated children against diseases, installed a pump to give the village running water — and helped Sian’s church members share the Gospel. Twenty-eight villagers trusted Christ.

“They want hope!” Caldwell says. “Who’s going to share it with them?”

As the team left, tin roofs of village huts glinted like trash can lids in the sun. Sadly, the Mogen people had been cast aside like human refuse for so long.

Not anymore.

“We were like an empty glass; now it is full,” the village leader says. “The tsunami was a tragedy, but for us it brought new hope. If it had never come, we wouldn’t know about Jesus.”

— Pray for wisdom as the Caldwells seek out those in need and develop networks to meet their needs — both physical and spiritual.

— Pray that they will find avenues to channel Southern Baptist volunteers that support the spread of Thai churches.

— Pray God will lead the Caldwells to “persons of peace” -— community leaders whose hearts have been softened by the tsunami tragedy. Pray for the missionaries’ witness in showing Thais that they can know Jesus -– and also share Him with friends and neighbors in ways that start reproducible house churches.

— Pray for the Caldwells’ primary work among the Isaan people of northeastern Thailand, who likewise need Christ.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges