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 one thousand 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 ten buildings, recovery proceeds more 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 forty-foot fishing boat perches inside the ruins of one house — two hundred yards from shore.

"They're going to be finding body parts around here for a long time," says a relief worker.

Rooting for the Underdog

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, Mark and his wife, Helen, had just returned from United States 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," Mark 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 five thousand 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," Mark 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.

Finding 'Sea Gypsies'

To that end, Mark 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 Mark'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.

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

Many have decided to follow Him; others will soon.

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.

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

Not anymore.

"They want hope!" Mark says. "Who's going to share it with them?"

Hundreds of thousands of lives were swept into eternity without Christ when the tsunami hit. Will you recognize the urgency and give generously to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering so workers such as the Caldwells can share Christ?



Pray for the Caldwells

Mark Caldwell suggests four ways you can pray for his ministry.

1 Pray for wisdom as he seeks out those in need and develops networks to meet their needs — both physical and spiritual.

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

3 Pray God will lead the Caldwells to "persons of peace" — community leaders whose hearts have been softened by the tsunami tragedy. Pray the missionaries will show them they cannot only know Jesus, but also share Him with friends and neighbors in ways that start reproducible house churches.

4 Pray for their primary work among the Isaan people of northeastern Thailand. They need Christ, too!

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges