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Interview: Elise Fletcher, Urban Neighbours of Hope

22 June 2018

My most reassuring sound is the squeaking of a rat caught on a ‘rat pizza’

We were feeling disillusioned with our affluent life; so we moved to a council estate in Shrewsbury. It was a real eye-opener for us. We learned to name some of the specific struggles faced by our new neighbours, and put effort into knowing people, not just statistics.

Then we experienced a very specific call to join Urban Neighbours of Hope [UNOH] in Bangkok, in Klong Toey slum. We’d never have put ourselves forward for it, which reassures us in difficult times.

God only ever required baby steps of faith. We often felt out of our depth, but also aware of ways we’d been shaped for exactly this.

Klong Toey slum is an industrious city within a city, where people work hard to survive. Some have lived here for decades in good housing, although they’re not able to own the land. Others are desperately poor, and live in makeshift dwellings prone to flooding and fire. It’s also heavily stigmatised, though it’s very near the central business district. People find it hard to be considered for jobs.

Urban Neighbours of Hope have teams in Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington, and Bangkok, living out the same values of restorative hope, covenanted community, incarnational presence, and voluntary sim­plicity. We’re seven adults here, and identify as a missional order. All workers covenant to each other: we can’t go it alone.

Here’s our mission statement in Bangkok: “We commit to joining Jesus in living and making our home amongst communities facing poverty. We depend on Christ to guide us in loving our neighbours, and seek the restoration of people to him by inviting all to encounter our transforming God and his work here.”

We meet daily for devotionals, though we live in different com­munities. Each UNOH worker or family is responsible for raising their own finances from their home country to cover living and ministry costs. We’ve been back to visit family twice, but we also visited churches to build up our support base. It’s never easy, asking for money. We rely on donations to be able to live in Thailand on volunteer visas, and to invest in our projects. We’re also advocates to the UK Church on behalf of those who have no voice, and write a monthly SlumBlog.

We’re part of a house church that meets on a Friday night to eat, pray, and worship together in Thai. Most of our older members can’t read; so we have children read from the Thai version of the Jesus Storybook Bible, and then we discuss.

Culture and religious practice are so intertwined in Thailand, and historical attempts to introduce Christianity required people to give up their cultural identity, and didn’t connect at a heart level. Faith should both transcend and embrace culture.

Of course, God is at work here and always has been. Thais often encounter God in supernatural ways — perhaps because the culture is so attuned to spirits and ghosts that they’re quick to recognise his authority over these things. We get asked to bless houses, or to pray for healing, because our neighbours see that we’re free from fear. We affirm what people have experienced of Immanuel — God with us — and draw out the image of God present in everyone. Our house church would probably identify as Buddhist followers of Jesus.

Our purpose is our presence, and everyday witness over time. It is in shared experiences, incidental chats, and reciprocal relationships that we’re most aware of the Holy Spirit at work. It’s often mundane, and sometimes difficult; so we need to be con­tem­platives, seeking to listen to God and draw deeply from him.

And yet we’re activists, responding practically to injustices faced by our neighbours. We operate as a registered charity, which enables us to help Thai people to run small employment projects like Cooking with Poo (cookingwithpoo.com). Currently, we run Second Chance Bangkok (www.scbkk.org), and RoyRak Creative (www.royrakbeadinglove.org).

RoyRak provides much-needed employment for women: a fair wage, a supportive work environment, training on issues like debt, and steady hours. Our oldest employee was trafficked, and our youngest employee dropped out of school aged 12. They take pride in their jewellery, which you can buy online.

There’s so much we could try to tackle: substance misuse, domestic violence, elderly care. . . But our neighbours deserve the best: [we don’t want to] sell them short by operating beyond our expertise. It’s tempting to fix things ourselves, but this robs our neighbours of dignity.

Our boys are ten, and nearly eight — Elliot and Sammy — and they’ve adapted remarkably well to life here. Elliot’s an excellent Thai speaker, but keeps his British accent, to the delight of our Thai friends. Sammy was only four when we moved, and fits in comfortably here.

They operate in two worlds: the slum community, and the interna­tional school. Our children have a different home-life to the other students, and arrive at school on the back of motorbikes; but there’s no concept of “normal” at school, where difference is celebrated.

There have been scary moments. Sammy was seriously bitten by a dog while playing with friends near our house. Last year saw us escaping from a fire that destroyed 40 homes in our community. We marvel at the children’s resilience, and draw strength from the way that these things have deepened relationships with our neighbours.

Although our neighbourhood is notorious for drugs and violence, our children know there are people willing to risk their lives for them, and they’re learning to look beyond a person’s circumstances. Compassion’s the quality we most encourage. And we’ve been blessed with good health during our time here.

I can scare myself with what-ifs, particularly over hostility that we sometimes experience from people with power, who find our presence unsettling. It helps us relate to some of the big fears of our neighbours. Slum dwellers fear fire and eviction most. There’s some reassurance in knowing that the worst thing’s happened, and we all supported each other.

We’ve just committed to another four years, but if circumstances changed we could leave at any time. We’re adopting a child with special needs, and we’d love her to stay as connected with her culture as possible.

I grew up in a vicarage, and felt loved and accepted by the church family. I can’t remember ever doubting God’s existence or his goodness. God was a diverse, creative, grace-filled Spirit that I couldn’t describe but was ever-present and full of possibility. As a teenager, my thinking became very rigid and dualistic and, unsurprisingly, faith became quite underwhelming. Since then it’s been a journey of recovering the mystery, and finding myself infinitely known and loved in it.

My most reassuring sound is the squeaking of a rat caught on a “rat pizza” — a circle of plastic covered in heavy-duty glue with a blob of peanut butter. Terrible, but when you’ve lost nights of sleep because of this rat running riot much too close for comfort, it’s such a relief.

Fiction is where I encounter God most profoundly. One day I’d love to write fiction.

I love travelling and exploring new places. Our favourite adventure is loading our motorbikes on to the overnight train to Northern Thailand, and driving to remote moun­tain locations. Bangkok’s an amazing place to live, but it’s good to get out of the smog. I love cool mornings and quiet spaces.

I pray for grace — towards myself and others.

Lack of integrity makes me angry.

Oppressed people who support each other give me hope, and people from different backgrounds working for each other’s best interests; and when the Church includes those that society rejects and protects the poor at the expense of its own reputation.

Can I be alone, locked in a church? I’m an introvert living in a slum of 200,000 people in two square kilometres.

Elise Fletcher was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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