Everywhere…


“later that night i held an atlas in my lap ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered where does it hurt? it answered: Everywhere everywhere everywhere.” Warsan Shire    globe

My wife, Patricia, and I have lived overseas for 37 of our 57 years. During those years we have seen humanity at its most loving and perhaps at its least. We have held babies decimated by AIDS. We have walked the raunchy red light districts to meet women longing to turn their lives around. We have been robbed. And we have been treated so generously by many of the locals. For 22 years our home was Thailand, a land where more people were involved in the industry of sexual exploitation than there were born-again believers.

Just nine months after our arrival  in 1991, we experienced the first of two military coups. Scenes of  angry protests, the burning of cars, and more tragically, the shooting of live ammunition against unarmed student protestors filled the nightly news. The second coup d’etat, occurred in 2006, and was more divisive. The following years were filled with accusations and violence between the red (pro-democracy) and yellow (pro monarchy) shirts.  One morning in 2008 we woke up to the news that the yellow shirts with bats and clubs had seized the International Airport in Bangkok.  It became a prison and a dump for a week as they held  control for what they believed would lead to a final showdown.  The real turning point came in 2010 when the the red shirts decided to  blockade the downtown core for several weeks. The army was called in to disperse them once and for all.  I remember too well the panic in my wife’s voice as she exclaimed over the phone, “They are sending tanks into the streets, Peter!” The red shirts fled, but not after torching dozens of important government and commercial buildings in their wake. 

We moved to France in 2014, thinking life would be calmer. But anti-semitic riots broke out less than a month after we arrived. This time we encountered riot police, smelling the tear gas and burning tires as we zigzagged our way to join our two teenage daughters in the apartment. Six months later we heard never ending sirens signaling a deadly terror attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.  A dozen were left dead and others injured. Nine months later came another well-coordinated attack, this time on the famed Bataclan theatre and a few bars. It happened just as Parisians were settling down for a calm evening with friends. The death toll was over a hundred.  And then, six months later, after a short vacation, we left Nice only to find out upon our return that a man drove a large truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day crushing to death over 80 pedestrians! Add to these horrendous events the brazen attack on an 85 year old Catholic priest who’s throat was slit while performing his duties in front of his Catholic congregation. Understandably the country of France lived in paranoia believing the enemy lurked everywhere and the easiest group to identify came from those seeking refuge from all the wars in the mideast.

The Somali poet repeated the same word thrice, “Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.” My work required me to travel from time to time. I personally became aware of a divided world, everywhere its systems broken and lacking. This reality sunk deepest when in 2017 I travelled to Iraq to be with some of my American friends who worked for Preemptive Love Coalition. They were struggling with daily death and violence they had witnessed. I went to be a friend for them, but deep down I wanted to see, smell and be moved by the brokenness. 

When Matt sent me a possible itinerary of where we would visit I was most excited and afraid of a planned trip to Mosul. He asked if I would be up for that, to take part in a food delivery? Of course, I was. However, when I got there I breathed a simultaneous sigh of disappointment and relief when the team was told by American Intelligence that it was unsafe to go in. Instead we spent hours in a large camp called Arbat where thousands of displaced people lived in non-descript cement block rooms. There workers with arbatPreemptive Love Coalition had made many friends and created opportunities for self-sustaining.  It was there I was reminded of the need to show up and do something. This group lived out generously their slogan: 

“We are the first to show up and the last to leave…”

I returned to France where I was introduced to a young Syrian named Khaled. He had been largely depressed and rarely liked to leave the tiny one room apartment he lived in. The first time I met him was over a coffee. After the formalities, he blurted something that surprised me, “I hate all religion!” That was pretty well his opening line. I think I might have said, “Ya, me too!” And then he told me his story, how he loved his country and how  he joined the peaceful student revolution with high hopes to bring about needed change and freedoms. And then the government turned on them. Soon after the country imploded into sectarian and religious violence. Now I’ve known Khaled for over a year now. We have become friends. He has helped me get insight as to why people in that part of the world and in any part of the world would hate religion, one word, hypocrisy. 

Everywhere. War, violence, persecution, hatred and poverty continue to wreak havoc on our globe. Since World War 2  there has never been a time on our earth when so many people have been forcibly displaced.  The UNHCR reports that at present 68.5 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced. That’s an astronomical amount. Syria, now in its eighth year of a civil war, accounts for the greatest number of people fleeing. Almost 65 percent of its population is either internally displaced or have fled elsewhere in search of safety and a new future. Other countries like Afghanistan, South Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea, Venezuela, or even Colombia have broken down. The famines in the reclusive country of North Korea are starving it’s most vulnerable. While the genocide in Myanmar that dominated the headlines for weeks is sadly forgotten by most. Thank God for the many relief organisations worldwide that provide relief to the weary and broken. But the never-ending need has stretched most them to their limits.

Of course solutions never come easy. Until our politicians and leaders are stirred by the present crisis, our weary world will continue half-heartedly to use hit and miss strategies. In the meantime the need for resilience on the part of refugees has never been greater. After treacherous journeys over mountains, deserts and seas they find Families-who-have-fled-th-009themselves in strange places where language, money and boredom are their daily grind. They battle on with a lack of belonging and no neighbour to call when they need help. Their futures point to a bleak life on the streets and not much better in overcrowded refugee camps.  The demanding solution requires all of us, just like the various organisations and associations, to show up and do something.

Perhaps the most virtuous thing we all could do is to provide hospitality to those who no longer have a home, a culture or a sense of belonging. I love a new program dubbed 100 Nights of Warmth that one of the churches in Paris is creating. Nightly, twenty men, all refugees, will have a warm space to spend the cold winter’s night. They too need more volunteers to show up. And that is the lifeblood of our world, caring people who volunteer their resources, energy and time so our world will thrive into the future.

And so, here we are, now 37 years of living in countries not our own.  My wife and I are in some small way displaced people, but by choice, and with a roof over our head, a salary and comfortable with the local language. But we understand, to a degree, the culture shock, the adapting and the feelings of being lost. Perhaps this is why our hearts are being turned towards the despair of the Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, and other migrants of poverty and war. We want to show up by living out a story of generosity. If we could, and it’s in our heart to do so, we’d create a space here in Paris where those who were chased by bombs and bullets, those who don’t belong, the broken and afraid,  could sit and be safe and find ‘home.’ It will be a beautiful place where Hope is resurrected and Dignity gets restored. Travelers from a far-off country will come and be embraced with the a message of sonship and daughtership. It will be for many a happy place and maybe of new beginnings.

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A Quarter of a Century!


_MG_0413Today We Celebrate 25 Years of Global Ministry!

I still look back from time to time to that moment sitting on a picnic table in Montmagny, Quebec.  I knew well on that cold damp day that my life and my family would change forever. We had just received news of our overseas appointment. Thailand would soon be home. Though we had no idea what life in Asia was like, I was still making promises to God. My youthful fervour had me promising to God that I would give it my all and for as long as he wanted.

The day our  Old World ended was August 17th 1991 at 14:50hrs. Imagine what three tired little boys, a wife and her man might have looked like as they pushed their trolleys filled with 10 over-stuffed suitcases after over thirty hours of travel and finally entering a strange New World. Anticipation. Once we got out of the immigration lines of Bangkok’s old Don Muang Airport we were greeted by two Canadian families waiting to put fragrant Jasmin garlands around our necks and we were stuffed into two old vehicles for our first look at the snarled Bangkok traffic, eyes wide-open and sweating buckets.

That first week we all slept together at Ray and Betty’s, one room for all of us, the air-conditioning working at maximum. Nothing felt familiar, not taking a shower with lukewarm water as the ants marched one-by-one on the shower wall. Even going to Kentucky Fried Chicken witnessing Thais all dressed up and cutting their finger-licking chicken with their forks and knives! This was indeed a New World.

The next month was spent figuring out how to buy furniture, groceries, and a second-hand car. We had to adjust to torrential rains and humidity. Our laneway was continually full of swamp and rain water and we hired a man to pump out the water to prevent flooding our driveway. We had to learn how to relate to a Thai house-helper who quit after a few months, the first of many! Then there were the instant noodles my kids loved and I hated, and a son’s hatred of rice, which I loved! I remember the fear of driving manual on the wrong side of the road, but for them it was the right side. In our wooden home on stilts we learned to aim the fans for maximum human coverage. Each morning it was pitch black as we prepared to go to language school before 6am to beat the traffic jams. Honestly, we easily spent the first couple of years living in and out of culture shock.FamilyThailand earlyyears1991

Oddly enough those days don’t seem all that long ago, yet it is exactly 25 years ago to this very day. Not many people work with the same organisation for that long these days. I think many people within my organisation know a bit how we have lived in this exotic New World. Some upon meeting us ask how we decided upon Thailand, but I usually don’t get around telling the whole story, of how I became interested in cultures and languages and people groups. Or of the day I cried so hard for war-torn Cambodia that I thought my heart would burst. Maybe some day I will write about my Dutch-Reformed spiritual roots and how the Pentecostal message changed our Spiritual World. I’d love to tell how a teenaged boy was already drawn to an atypical life by reading books like ‘Peace Child’ and ‘Lords of the Earth’. Those stories of another continent (Indonesia) opened an Avatar-like world that I never knew existed. Something was kindled in me that would flame into service in cultures and contexts not my own.

Beginnings are usually the hardest anytime, they demand the most of us. Though Patricia and I looked forward to the challenge of proficiency in the Thai language it took hours, days, and months, and yes, even years learning to speak Thailand’s tonal language. Not easy, especially with a family. In my first Christmas message I spoke a tone wrong and inadvertently changed the angel’s message to the shepherds to, “Behold we bring you Good Rice.” That was indeed good news that day in our context! Though I loved how Thais would always encourage us and say, ‘Wow, your Thai pronunciation is so good!’ I knew better! It took courage every time to teach and preach in this strange-sounding language and I begged God to helped me more times than I can count.

Being a white family in the early nineties in Thailand also carried a novelty factor with the Thais, especially in villages outside of Bangkok. One time I was in a far flung village and a little boy saw me as he was riding his bike. He lost his balance and fell off. As I walked toward him, he got back on and sped away, fast! Another time in Nong Khai, where we planted our first Thai church, I borrowed a rickshaw. I put my three boys in the back and drove them through town. If only I had a camera to film the faces of those who caught this rare sight of a slender white man and his boys. They gave thumbs up as they called out to their friends to see this strange westerner pretending to do the most humble job on the social ladder.

Maybe it was this curiosity and willingness to try new things, go to new places that helped me to not return to ‘normal’ Canadian life. If you saw some of what I have eaten or where I have slept at times you might think us strange. We did it for the gospel. All of it. We have sweat enough water over the years to fill a pool and can tell you of the long weeks suffering from what the Thais called running stomach! After our first four years in Thailand we were skinnier than when we were married and that was already skinny! But I was happy, I was fulfilling the promise I made on that picnic bench, to give it our all even when it was extremely uncomfortable or embarrassing or lacking the immediate results that we felt God deserved.

About halfway through our 25 years I experienced a desire for God to do something new in me, to open new doors of influence. As I began to study the life of Joshua I took note of the correlation between ‘the courage of one’ and ‘the benefit of many’. If Joshua could not find the courage to act, to overcome his self-doubt and Moses’ long leadership shadow, the result would be many people losing out on opportunities to see or feel God in new ways. Stepping into the swirling waters of the Jordan without Moses’ miracle stick would be his biggest step of faith. Without Joshua’s courage many would lose out on a preferred destiny!

Thaiyouth prayHow impacting Joshua’s life would be on my own. Twenty-five years ago we took the  risk of working with Thai Youth,  a role I was uncomfortable with, yet it resulted in hundreds maybe thousands of youth encouraged to give their all to God’s way. We never thought we would host teams, develop a child sponsorship program, chair a board for a ministry among children born with HIV or bring leadership training to other countries. Yet we stepped out of our comfort zone and gave of ourselves. None of this would be part of our story without the courage to step out into the unknown. Even today I’ll meet someone who will say, “I was at that camp you spoke at and I gave my life to Christ!”

If it is true, and I think it is, that life shrinks or expands according to the measure of courage, then each courageous step into the unknown carries great promise. Today we find ourselves again needing courage to minister in a new way and in a new culture and context; Europe! We came to Paris knowing no one, just the two of us with a dream and no team. We did a lot of walking asking God thaPetersharest each step would be guided to bring His love wherever we found ourselves. We knew that this step of obedience risked much, that we could be misunderstood by many, and we were. It resulted in the stretching of our faith and finances. And yet we heard an inner voice saying, “Have courage, don’t be afraid… as I was with you in Thailand I am with you in Paris!”

When I look back, I see so much of God in my steps, 25 years of ordered steps, I cannot doubt that He has us here and now for such a time as this. I cannot say how long we’ll be in this Once Again New World. My promise to God, however,is the same I made on that cold and damp day in Quebec, I will give it my all as long as you provide the strength and the resources. And we are seeing lives, French lives, drawn closer to their creator, and we believe there is much more to come.