As if joy itself made them speak….
As if joy itself made them speak.
I felt a bit out of place walking into the Women’s Correctional facility in Bangkok. Beyond dealing with the typical third culture adjustments, it was further overwhelming to pass by hundreds of women dressed in the light blue and pink as they assembled Adidas shoeboxes and Banana Republic shopping bags. Ever wonder where you shoebox came from? I now know. When the first group of women yelled a greeting in unison, “Saw wat dee kha,” I’ll admit I jumped a little. And I thought, “What am I doing here? What do I possibly have to share with these women?” Laurie Dawson had casually mentioned the night before that we’d all have an opportunity to share our testimony in the prison. Sharing the story of what the Lord has done in my life is one of my favorite things to do, but in front of a group of women who don’t speak English, who are currently incarcerated for a drug related charge; it felt like there was a lot that could get lost in translation.
After meandering through the open-air box and bag assembly, we were escorted to a window-lined room right in the center of the fray. The church in the Women’s Correctional facility meets in a fishbowl with hundreds of inmate onlookers. We were greeted again by a group of 150 prisoners, about 50-60 know Jesus. The rest of the women in the room are curiously seeking. Talk about disciple making within the prison! These women are a church unto itself with a leadership structure, frequent changes in membership through release and new incarcerations, tape enforced Thai Bibles, and a whole lot of “Come along with me as I follow Jesus.”
To start the service, our Chapel Hill group sang three verses of Amazing Grace. By now, we were skilled at this. We sang those three verses of Amazing Grace before two different Buddhist High Priests in the jungle, at a clinic dedication in Laytongku, and pretty much anywhere else we found ourselves gathered with any number of audiences. The key to successful singing in Thailand is not being in key but singing loudly with sincerity and a big smile on your face. And when we finished in the prison, it was their turn. While they sang, a curious thing happened. Many of the women outside of the fishbowl service stopped what they were doing, sat on the edge of the courtyard, and watched. There was a sense that something special was happening in this room, something real enough to make you stop and pay attention.
John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, speaks about his conversion in the book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. He tells the story of overhearing a group of women talking about Jesus in a village in 17th century England. He had to stop and hear what they were saying, “For I thought they spoke as if joy itself made them speak.” There is something about pure joy that makes us stop dead in our tracks (or dead in ourselves), and have life breathed into our souls. I couldn’t help but wonder how long before these onlookers on the outside became seekers on the inside, and how long before the seekers on the inside became the leaders of the church.
What I shared with the women that morning was a small part of my story and small part of the service, just another storyline in the narrative of Christ in each of our lives. But I realized that joy does not get lost in translation. Whether a person is living in Gig Harbor, or living in a prison in Bangkok, we are commanded by Paul in Philippians 4:4 to, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” It’s worth noting that Paul wrote those words from prison. Consider that the overheard conversation of what Jesus has done in your life or the manner in which we worship may have eternal significance.