Many of you who have been praying for us know the beginnings of this story: Back in 2014, we were invited to submit a grant proposal to address slavery in the Gulf of Thailand.
We put together a small team that went in to get a closer look at the issue. Our teams met with government officials, the vulnerable community, and potential partners.
We got to see up close that the problem was indeed as bad as people were saying. Men trafficked from Myanmar and Cambodia were trapped on fishing vessels off the coast of Thailand, subject to horrific abuse, unpaid, overworked and afraid.
Trafficking networks across the region were profiting from the exploitation of others with zero fear of consequences. Power was on the side of the oppressor.
We brought our initial report back, and in early 2015, our team obtained a grant to complete the work of data collection and analysis so that the world could get a clear picture of just how vast and violent the problem was. The studies showed in statistical clarity the depth of the problem that we were facing. 37.9% of fishermen interviewed were clearly trafficked, while an additional 49.2% were possibly trafficked. Fishermen reported physical abuse, debt bondage and even witnessing the murder of their crewmates at sea. If fishermen spoke out to authorities or escaped, they were more likely to be treated as illegal migrants and placed in detention centers than for their case to be taken seriously.
After our report, we received a second grant to launch and fund actual operations in 2017. I joined the team as Regional Program Manager for Labor Trafficking in the Asia-Pacific region, and we began the long hard slog of setting things up.
We started hiring a team, built out an office, and got things off the ground. By the beginning of 2018, we finally had a skeleton crew to embark on the work needed to build cases.
But we were halfway through our grants, and we still did not have our first rescue. We had trouble securing a Director of Investigations and Law Enforcement Development, so we had to rely heavily on the investigative capacity of our IJM Cambodia team. We came close to rescues a few times, but it seemed like at every turn we were being frustrated.
So, on April 18, 2018—more than a year into the life of the office and after one of our regular check-in calls with the Bangkok team—we sat together to talk again about whether there was anything more we could or should be doing.
We were at the end of our rope.
There is a parable that Jesus tells in Luke that I had read in my devotions that morning. In Luke 18, Jesus tells his disciples:
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’”
And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
You can almost imagine the widow, knocking over and over on the door of the judge’s house, every day, never going away.
I felt like that parable was speaking directly to us—to me. So, we decided to pray. Every day. Until we got our first rescue. We would just keep knocking. No matter what.
One of the spiritual disciplines we follow at IJM is daily prayer as an office. In the midst of work that can be so heavy, prayer allows us to shine light on even the darkest of challenges. So, every day in prayer I would raise my hand, ask for prayer and sit back down. At the beginning, I tried to come up with something encouraging or exciting to tee up the prayer. But I quickly realized that was mostly for me. And most days I did not have anything exciting to report. I just had the commitment to pray. So, many days all I said was “Please keep praying for breakthrough in Bangkok.”
To be honest, there were a lot of days where I did not want to pray. When I thought about everyone looking at me expectantly as I stood up during prayer—all of the people who worked so hard on the relationship with the grant foundation and the government, all of the people who sacrificed long hours helping us get set up, and all of the people trusting us with each decision to achieve this mission—and all I had to say was “please keep praying for Bangkok,” I did not want to pray. I felt like we were failing. I felt like I was annoying. But we had to keep knocking. God told us to keep knocking.
We did have some victories, including our first two arrests and convictions and a third grant to keep operations going. But we still did not have a rescue. So we kept praying. Every day.
Finally, on Wednesday, July 17, 2019 at approximately 9 p.m. Bangkok time, after four long years trapped and abused, the police and our team rescued a young man from the ship he was trapped on. The first rescue on a ship for our Bangkok team.
We had prayed for 15 months. And God had answered.
Not only that, but a second rescue came a week later. Again, God answered our prayers.
Yes, there is much work left to do. But let’s lean closer into the miracle: That young man’s parents thought he was dead, and he is now back with them. He was abused, and now he is free.
Think of all the work that it took to get us to that moment. All that, and God still wanted us to persist in prayer every day. God was teaching us something. Teaching me something. After having left everything out on the field, given our best effort, God was reminding me—for 15 months—that the results depend on him. That this is his weight to bear.
This is also why I am so excited to now be stepping into the work of engaging the Church in this fight. Because I believe the Church should absolutely stand alongside those who suffer and raise their fist to knock on the doors that are closed and persevere in asking for justice. And it is our privilege to rejoice with them when our good God answers and delivers.
I will admit that it was fun (and a relief to me) that we began to joke a bit about the fact that people could count on me to stand up in prayer each day, and that they always knew what I would ask for. It made it easier towards the end. But what I will remember—and what will continue to impact me for years to come—are the days when I did not want to stand up but had to anyway.
You may find yourself in the same place. Maybe you don’t know what to pray about for a particular person, or program, or initiative. Maybe you don’t have anything amazing or impactful to share. Maybe you don’t know how to pray for yourself, or your family, or your community.
Then let the persistent widow be an encouragement to you. Just knock. Over and over and over and over again. Knock until you get an answer. Knock until you get justice.
This, my friends, is the fight we are all a part of.
This is not just my story, or the story of our first rescues.
This is not just IJM Bangkok’s story, or our Asia-Pacific team’s story.
This is the story of how justice is won. One persistent knock at a time.
And you are part of that story.
About the Author
Miguel Lau serves as Senior Officer, Church Partnerships for International Justice Mission. He leads IJM’s engagement with the Church globally, and guides IJM’s offices around the world as they seek to develop creative partnerships with churches and Christian organizations. Miguel has served in various roles with IJM, including supporting IJM’s counter-labor trafficking initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region where he helped launch IJM’s Bangkok office.