Recently Naomi Giles, a pastor of NationsHeart Christian Community in Canberra, had the opportunity to visit with the Second Chance Community in Bangkok. This social enterprise in the largest slum of this sprawling city seeded by Chris and Jodie MacCartney a decade ago, has become much more than a money-making venture. It has grown into an authentic Christian community with an influence that is widening across the neighbourhood and the world.
Drop an Australian family into the heart of Bangkok’s largest slum, what effect will there be?
How can a few people, “furung” (foreigners) at that, possibly scratch the surface of the very real financial, social and health challenges of this poor community?
But anyone that’s watched a stone hit the surface of water and send ever-widening circles out, knows that even something seemingly small can have a great effect.
Some 12 years after stepping out into the adventure of relocating their family from Melbourne to the crowded slums of Bangkok – Chris and Jodie MacCartney and their daughters Grace, Ruby and Millie, are starting to see some of the ripple effects widening across the community. And changes are not just outward from this family, but inward as they have been deeply changed by a life of letting go.
“I think when we first arrived in 2007 we were focussed on what we could bring to the local community,” says Chris with a wry smile “We were looking at what we could do for the poor and how we could bring Jesus to them.”
Jodie reflects that their approach and their heart in being in Bangkok has changed over the years, and their purpose has sharpened since their sabbatical year in 2018.
“Going on sabbatical we realised we were shifting into something different. We are more aware of our limitations and capacity to do. We are different people than we were 12 years ago – there’s a different energy,” she says.
In this season of ministry in Klong Toey, the MacCartneys are establishing a rhythm of life where the focus is less on ‘doing for’ and more about ‘being with’ those they share life with.
“It’s not to say the ‘doing for’ was wrong. Some of it was full of error and ego and cultural blunders - but a lot of it at its heart was good. Learning and growing through all that you realise there’s a different way to be in mission, you don’t want to do it like you did at first,” says Jodie.
There are two centres of ministry for the MacCartneys – their home in Rom Gow neighbourhood of the slum, where the crowded neighbourhood is always buzzing with activity and the Second Chance centre which stands on the edge of the slum community.
Second Chance Op-Shop & Upcycled Wears is a social enterprise which began in partnership with the neighbourhood. It came about when the MacCartneys were being overwhelmed with donations from the ex-pat community of clothing, furniture and other household items and needed a way to distribute them into the community.
“It started so small really – it was us living in our house and people would contact us and say ‘you live in a slum, I’m moving I have all this stuff would it be useful for people in your neighbourhood.’ It was fine when it was a few bags of clothing but when we started to get entire houses, sofas, beds, fridges, washing machines – we knew we needed to do something else to distribute it and to do that in healthy way,” says Jodie.
She reflects that they have witnessed a lot of toxic charity in the slum, where well-meaning people or groups give money and materials away. The effect is that it reinforces a deeply embedded belief among the locals that they cannot respond to life’s challenges from their own resourcefulness.
What the McCartney’s have noticed with Second Chance, is that mindset is challenged, as people are empowered by using their own resources to buy what they want or need at the op-shop.
“There are so many assets within the community. We want to come alongside and encourage people to see that and respond. Handouts reinforce a mindset of dependence and defeat,” says Jodie.
As it’s grown over the past decade Second Chance now provides direct employment for 16 people in picking up goods, sorting and selling them – and the creating upcycled giftware which is sold back into the expat community and shipped to supporters Australia and the UK.
The ripple effect is even greater with market stall holders who clamour each morning to get the best of the donations, then selling the items on in other local markets. Hundreds of people are helped every day by goods that may well have ended up in land fill.
“We work with the team Second Chance, simply drawing out the skills and capacity that’s already there. And it’s much broader than the work we do day by day to run the business. Together we find ways to respond to the needs of the neighbourhood which are genuine and real. It’s the neighbours helping neighbours – like when we were all affected by fires 5 years ago and 50 people lost their homes, our staff were quick to find ways to help,” explains Jodie.
In the Klong Toey slum the security of housing does not exist. The land is owned by the Port Authority and those who live there are effectively squatting and have very limited rights. Their small homes are patched together and cramped – with no insulation against the unrelenting heat, other than then shade provided by the highway overpass that runs overhead. The houses are owned by landlords who they need to pay rent to, but there’s no guarantee they can stay there in the longer term. When a fire rips through the community, the threat to life and property is very real – and people are often left homeless.
Jodie explains the key challenges in the slum, “The gap between rich and poor in Thailand is extreme. Land in the slum can be taken back at any time, the cost of living has gone up wages haven’t increased, there’s just no room for extra expenses above day-to-day general living costs. There’s no real welfare system here – while older people receive a pension of 600 baht a month ($28.66 AUD) that wouldn’t even pay rent, or be enough to pay for your food from the market.”
The health care system is also very limited for people without money. If you are sick and can’t work you won’t be paid, and seeking treatment means heading to a hospital at 5am in the morning to queue with no guarantee you will see a doctor that day or that they will be qualified to assess or treat you.
Second Chance provides a shelter from some of these harsh realities and the opportunity for people to explore how their ‘lot in life’ can change; that from their own resourcefulness new pathways can emerge.
As you sit within the Second Chance community and observe, you see much more than a money-making enterprise. There’s laughter, tears, stories, celebrations, sharing meals together, people of all ages included and valued – even Archie the dog who can be found most days contentedly snoozing on one of the couches.
There’s the echo of the intimacy of the early church in this crumbling building – life and faith are intertwined in a way that is so compelling, and new life continues to bubble up.
In this season of ministry as he leads the staff gathering on Wednesdays, Chris finds he is drawing from a deeper place. Rather than telling – he’s simply trying to illuminate the Word among the team. At times he even uses Thai parables to connect God’s truths in a way that the team immediately relate to.
Sitting in a circle, the staff are encouraged to share anything on their hearts with the group for encouragement and prayer. Many of them say it’s their favourite time of the week, all activity ceases and the value of being present to each other and to God is given space.
“There is a recognition of how we are all the same – we’re all broken, we don’t have the answers we can just hand over. We are equally on that journey of reconciliation and restoration,” says Chris.
Recently, in one of these gatherings one of the younger staff expressed her passion to give back to the kids of the slum. Earn was part of the original kids club overseen by Chris and Jodie in their early days in the neighbourhood, and she’s now restarted the club so that kids of this generation can be given exposure to a different choices in life.
Several of the younger staff are now coordinating this new ministry, taking kids on excursions, bike rides, to parks and pools – giving them the chance to see what life outside the slum is like. Earn is hopeful that like her the kids will see they don’t have to get involved in the drug and gang culture of the slum, that there are other pathways they can choose.
For Chris and Jodie this is another sign of the ripple of life that is coming as they continue to let go. The seed that was planted in Earn has grown up and is now producing new life for others.
Jodie explains the focus is now on mentoring rather than leading and finding ways for Second Chance to become increasingly sustainable for the future.
“There’s a deep sense within us that the work we started with Second Chance is still in a formation phase where it still needs some direction. We want to empower local leadership so that’s our focus in this time,” she says.
In returning to Thailand after their sabbatical, they reflect it feels way more faith-filled than the first time around.
“The first time there were a lot of unknowns, the sense of adventure was pretty huge, there was a lot of adrenaline from being among chaos. Coming back you have your eyes wide open. We know the cost that it’s going to be on our lives - emotionally, on our marriage, on our family, physically – all the novelty of the first time had gone,” says Jodie.
An ever-deepening dependence on God is fuelling them in this season, and an awareness that the work of transformation is slow.
“We need to be authentic to who we are and live out our faith day-to-day in our neighbourhood, and through that there have been key moments where people have asked us about our faith. But we are aware that God is at work before and despite of us – but he invites us in to join in. We’ve seen physical healings through prayer and that has shown them that this God is real. And we’ve had people have encountering God in visions and dreams and coming to ask us about it to share and interpret what they’ve experienced,” says Jodie.
Increasingly the MacCartneys feel the call is simply to illuminate faith, to shine a light on who God is and what his character is like. As you talk to the staff of Second Chance, you can hear clearly that they are engaging with the life that is offered. The words they use to describe this place and its effect on their lives, line up directly with the fruit of the Spirit;
Galatians 5:22-23 (MSG) But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
“Our starting point is always connection. When we connect with each other and grow community together we can bear witness together to who God is and what he does,” says Chris.
Although they still play a role in overseeing the business side of Second Chance, increasingly the MacCartneys resonate with their deeper purpose to pastor this community of people. While it might not be shaped like our expressions of church in Australia - Second Chance is an authentic Christian community where life is offered and faith is found.