Singing. Laughter. Jokes as they work. The most hilarious revelers during the Thai New Year celebration. Poverty. Constantly moving to find work. Despair. Hard, monotonous jobs.
These two extremes reflect one people: the 20 million Isaan of northeastern Thailand, a people group lost in spiritual darkness.
Monks chant repeatedly at Isaan funerals: "There is no hope, only suffering … Dead, never to arise." But four Southern Baptist missionary couples and a few nationals are working to bring the light of Jesus to the Isaan.
Buddhism teaches the Isaan that good works and countless reincarnations will release them from this world's suffering, says missionary Mark Caldwell. Animism leads them to make offerings to spirits for protection from evil or in gratitude for blessing.
The Isaan region is the poorest in Thailand. Historically, the Isaan are poor rice farmers, but in the last two decades many have migrated to Bangkok and other cities for work. The migration of Isaan youth means many are absorbed into the vices of the city. Desperate at not finding work and failing to meet their parents' expectations, they are vulnerable.
The Caldwells and their missionary colleagues attempt to help meet employment needs through a ministry known as Thai Country Trim. Local handcrafts made by village women are sold overseas. The ministry provides income and an opportunity for the women to hear the gospel from co-workers.
Mobile medical clinics provide opportunities to meet local government authorities, police, and citizens. Always the good news of Jesus is shared with patients. AIDS victims typically are cut off from family and friends, so ministry to them is especially meaningful.
"When they not only see that Christians don't fear them, but rather reach out in love and concern to them in some small, but tangible ways, many have become interested in this Jesus who makes Christians different and have asked Jesus to change their lives as well," Mark reports.
Helen Caldwell describes Phun, a typical 30-something Isaan man with a wife, children, and a decent job. Though he loved his family, he had visited prostitutes — an Isaan custom.
Then the dreaded news came — HIV positive. Phun's family, employers, and village deserted him. He moved into a Buddhist home for AIDS victims and became deeply depressed.
A believer persistently visited Phun in his tiny, stifling room, which he rarely left. As he got weaker and sicker, she offered to help, and he let her feed him a dessert.
"Aren't you afraid of getting AIDS, feeding me like this?" he asked. "Oh, Phun, I am not worried about getting AIDS," she replied, "but I am worried that you will never have a chance to know Jesus and His love for you."
Phun confessed his desire to be God's child and the believer joyfully led him to Christ. No longer alone, he was part of the family of God.
Traditionally, the Isaan response to the gospel has been very slow. Fewer than 1 percent claim to be Christian. Bible portions have been translated into Isaan, as well as a few songs and teaching materials. The Jesus film is not available in Isaan.
Pressure from family and friends is a problem for Isaan believers. Believing in Christ may be perceived as disrespectful to parents and instrumental in bringing retribution from evil spirits to the family or village. Such pressures keep in darkness those who hear the gospel.
"If you were able to know an Isaan well enough that they began to share their heart, they would also begin to share of their strong desire to be free of the power of ambiguous evil spirits and the suffering of virtually endless reincarnations in this world," Mark says.
He grieves for Isaan teens whose lives are being wasted in spiritual darkness.
"My heart aches for Bui and Deng, two bright seventeen-year-old boys who made professions of faith last year, but have since gotten addicted to amphetamines in their despair over finding meaningful work and the boredom of village life," he says. "I pray for victory over their despair and drug habit, and that God would raise up 'tent makers' who will use the gifts and abilities God has given them to provide training and work for countless other teenagers in their situation."