By Paige Turner and Leah Zamora
Supply bags in hand, the ministry team walked down the dirt path leading to the tin shacks set off from the main road. They spread two tarps across the ground like they do every week. The air offered its usual mixture of smoke and scents from nearby makeshift bathrooms.
A number of shacks were empty, and fewer children came to the tarp than weeks before to play games, listen to a Bible story and make crafts. During their last visit to this small village in Thailand, the International Mission Board missionaries found out many workers were moving.
But this night was still special. Believers from another migrant worker camp just down the road came to share their testimonies. That camp is where IMB missionary Pamela O’Dell* serves. She came to encourage her friends as they shared with the neighboring village — a huge answer to prayer.
“We’ve prayed a long time for believers in our camp to be bold,” said the faithful prayer intercessor. “They haven’t really shared their faith outside of their relatives.”
A young couple invited the missionaries and migrant believers into their home. Stepping gingerly inside the shack, the wooden floors sank under the extra weight of the visitors’ every move. Than* and his wife were the first believers here and they were excited to see other migrant workers choosing to follow Jesus, just like them.
The visitors invited the couple out to the tarp to hear a Bible story. The wife stayed home with their newborn but Than* came out, as did several other adults, including a few who hadn’t before shown much interest.
The sweet-spirited migrant families are special to O’Dell, a 40-something mother of two from Mississippi. It’s in their camps throughout northern Thailand where she sees the gospel change lives. It’s where disciples are trained to share God’s love in their home country, a place where foreigners cannot go.
The journey to reach this unreached people group began five years ago with a simple prayer — two mothers asking God where He wanted to use their families.
The shacks next door
Until O’Dell and her friend committed to prayer walking every day, the duo hadn’t noticed the migrant workers’ hidden shacks near their homes. The entire community works long, hard hours on construction sites, yet still lives in poverty.
Sometimes they aren’t paid for their work. That’s why many in Than’s camp moved. Their boss hadn’t paid them in three months. With only a day’s notice they packed their belongings — nothing more than a few dishes, blankets and handful of clothes — and moved to the next site.
O’Dell knew nothing about their transient lifestyle of moving from one job to the next when she began praying. She learned their life of oppression began in a country filled with civil war and unrest. They fled here only to find a life as social outcasts.
Still, this spunky redhead knew God wanted her among these people desperate for love.
“God said clearly, ‘You pass these people every day. What are you doing to share my love?’”
So O’Dell and her family, and another IMB family, prayed about how to build relationships with these migrant workers. Both families worked in the IMB’s support office, meaning they had professional jobs and worked a “normal” business day just like other accountants, programmers and business managers. So, the only time to interact was at night, after work — which happened to be the best time for the migrant workers, too.
With Christmas quickly approaching, they decided to ask about hosting a party in the village. To their surprise the workers not only agreed, but also invited them back to teach the Bible.
“In sharing that Christmas party that one time, doors were opened,” O’Dell remembered. “It’s all through the power of prayer that happened.”
Week after week this natural nurturer shared plenty of smiles and hugs, played games and taught the Bible.
“We want them to know the hope of Jesus. We want to just love on these people,” O’Dell said.
Eventually most people in that village moved to other job sites and villages. But having come to love the people, O’Dell prayed for continued ministry.
“Although it was a little sad for us to lose the groups we had in the early days,” she said, “it was God multiplying the work.”
Because when workers moved to different camps throughout the city they invited O’Dell and other IMB missionaries to continue teaching the Bible in their new villages. Prayers were answered as seven migrant camps now have weekly studies.
A church in every village
Migrant families aren’t really accepted in the countries where they flee. They are still isolated from society and treated unfairly. Their pain sometimes leads to a search for hope, which brings openness to something different than Buddhism.
O’Dell saw it happen for Aom,* an older woman who trusted in Jesus a few years ago. Aom, one of few migrant workers who can read, likes to read the Bible out loud so that her voice echoes among the tin shacks and others can hear.
“We began immediately discipling her and challenging her to share her faith,” O’Dell said. “She shares Christ with everyone who moves in her village.”
As a result of her faithfulness, several people in her village became believers and a church started.
“The vision God gave us in the beginning was to see a church planted in every camp or village,” O’Dell said. “Then, for the migrant workers to be trained to start their own groups and eventually take it back to their home country.”
One local believer from the same people group as the migrant workers took this vision to heart. She’s worked side-by-side with the missionaries for years, trying to set an example for sharing one’s faith. Nu* became a Christian despite opposition from her Buddhist family. Her people see trusting in Jesus as betraying culture and country. For many migrant workers, culture is so strongly linked with Buddhism they can’t imagine turning from tradition.
That’s why O’Dell asked churches to pray for local believers and migrant workers who have trusted in Jesus to stand firm in their faith. She knows how important it is for this migrant church to reach out to another village. She knows that ongoing prayer is needed for this people group to truly release Buddhist strongholds.
A church in North Carolina has already stepped up to partner. Salem Baptist Church in Apex spent 30-days in concerted prayer before sending a mission team. Kim Powell said she prayed for God to “push back the darkness” during the month of prayer leading up to her trip.
“I set aside ‘Tuesday for Thailand,’” the church member added. “I committed to pray as I went about my day and had a concentrated prayer time for the people group.”
Powell saw first-hand how God answered their requests. After showing the Jesus film, a group of women crowded around as she answered questions about the movie vs. “real life.” Several of the women in a village, including Thu’s wife, prayed to receive Jesus as their Savior.
It’s a night she’ll never forget.
“One of those ladies was crying and wanted the interpreter to tell me she wasn’t crying because she was sad,” Powell said. “She was crying because she had so much joy.”
Nights like these — tears for Jesus and a new church start sharing with their neighbors — were five years in the making. Years of praying. Years of laying the foundation. Yet, O’Dell admitted spiritual warfare and darkness still thrive in the villages and among the people.
“We beg the American church to just intercede for these people and others like them,” O’Dell said. “Only God can take the Gospel back to their country. We need intercession.”
ARE YOU UP FOR A CHALLENGE? IMB challenges YOU to lay the foundations for reaching the lost by praying for a spiritual awakening and revival. Be a part of the School of Prayer for All Nations and learn to encourage more intentional prayer for yourself, small group and church. Pray for a multitude from every language, people, tribe and nation to know and worship our Lord Jesus Christ.
Get to Praying!
It all begins with prayer. Join O’Dell* and others in praying for migrant workers in Thailand.
Here’s how to get involved:
° This 5 Finger Prayer guide offers easy, practical steps to pray.
° See how God answered (and continues answering) prayers for this ministry on the Prayer Timeline.
° The Buddhist Prayer Guide walks you through praying for Buddhists around the world.
° Check out The Caravan for a kids version of this story and prayer activities.
Paige Turner is a writer living in Southeast Asia. After writing stories about these migrant workers, she began working among them.
Leah Zamora is a videographer who loves to tell stories.She is grateful to serve in Asia and tell the stories of how God is working throughout this part of the world.