A Different Missionary Position in Thailand

Two evenings a week, members of Nightlight Ministries visit the seedy hostess and go-go bars of Bangkok’s infamous multi-story Nana Entertainment Plaza.

Unlike other customers, they are not there to drink beer, gaze at scantily-clad dancers writhing around chrome poles, or to take one of the women back to a hotel. Instead, their aim is to bring prostitutes “to Jesus Christ,” according to the group’s Website. “Nightlight’s vision is to share the Light of the world in both word and deed to those who live in darkness,” the group says.

Nightlight’s American founder and director Annie Dieselberg, 43, says she has never encountered more evil than in the sex industry. “It’s so dark and so destructive,” she says. But her work is also controversial. The evangelists have been ridiculed, threatened and shouted at in the street. Critics say Nightlight preys on vulnerable, poorly educated women and offers them false hope with talk of miracles and salvation.

“These girls [sex workers] are very vulnerable,” says Fannie Joanette-Samson, a Canadian volunteer worker at the Empower Foundation, a Thai NGO that supports women working in the sex industry by offering free English language classes, job training, health advice and a realistic take on the trade. Empower’s approach is non-judgmental and sometimes even humorous. A newsletter the group puts out for sex workers carries the slogan, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”

“They don’t really have self-esteem and they are really shy about what they are doing … some of them are not educated. If you don’t really have an education and you never went to school, you can believe anything,” says Joanette-Samson.

Estimates of how many prostitutes there are in Thailand range from around 150,000 to a staggering two million (out of a population of 65 million). The figures are subject to controversy and are difficult to calculate because many “freelance” prostitutes work part-time or only occasionally, and move around the country. In addition, NGOs working in the field have manipulated statistics for their own ends.

Most prostitution in Thailand caters to local men or other Asians. In Bangkok, “girlie bars” catering mostly to western men are concentrated in three areas – Patpong, Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza. The bars attract a mix of tourists and expatriates, and most of the women working there are from Thailand’s poor, rural northeast. They hope to make a living, help their families, snag a regular boyfriend and maybe, if their luck is good, marry a wealthy farang (westerner).

Nightlight Ministries, which was founded two years ago, focuses on the Nana/Sukhumvit Road area, where Dieselberg estimates there are around 20,000 working prostitutes. An eloquent and engaging mother-of-four, Dieselberg has spent 12 years in Bangkok, eight of them working with women in the sex industry.

Nightlight offers training and employment to former sex workers through its jewellery-making business, and more than 60 are currently employed full-time. Applicants must have experience in the sex industry or be at risk of involvement in prostitution or trafficking. The Web sites solicits donations that can be sent to an address in Los Angeles or the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. They also accept credit cards.

The women start off earning 6,500 baht (around $210) a month and after a three-month trial they receive a salary of 7,000 baht, which is then raised every year. They also receive social welfare insurance and a savings plan. The salary is considerably less than many could expect to earn working in the bars, where a man would likely give a woman about half that much for one night of sex, but is about average for working-class Bangkok residents.

Despite the group’s Christian orientation, Dieselberg denies that Nightlight preys on the vulnerable and pressures women to convert to Christianity, but her agenda is pretty clear.

“We are Christian but we don’t believe that you can force somebody to believe in Christianity. It’s a matter of the heart… If the women decide to become Christian, we want it to be because they want to be. Usually they become interested fairly quickly,” she said.

“They begin to ask questions and seek answers. They begin to pray and seek God out, and over time many of them do become Christian, but that’s because their hearts have been drawn to it and it’s their own desire.”

Now, she says, Nightlight has 19 or 20 Christian ex-prostitutes under its wing and “their lives have been transformed.”

The group also claims, controversially, that God performs miracles for the women under its wing. It says one woman was diagnosed with lung cancer, but after being prayed for, the diagnosis was changed to asthma.

Other women have been cured of physical problems through the power of prayer, says Dieselberg. She talks of women on their death beds with HIV who became fit enough to go out running within a couple of weeks. “We see miracles day in, day out,” she claims.

Critics like Joanette-Samson are particularly scathing about such claims, saying they mislead the people Nightlight is supposedly trying to help and give them false hope. “All religions have been created to give hope to people,” she said. “It’s good to have hope but at the same time you have to be grounded, be there in reality.”

However, the most controversial aspect of Nightlight is its outreach work. Dieselberg said members go out on the streets twice a week, from 7pm to midnight, and they also go into the bars.

“We order a drink for a woman. We watch their body language,” she said. “You can tell from the body language if they are depressed. If we can read the signs we pray before we go out. We invite them for a drink, then we get to know them … We just build relationships.”

The missionaries have attracted plenty of derision for their activities. They were ridiculed as “a bunch of donation-seeking religious wackos” by Mango Sauce, a popular expatriate blogger who chronicles the seamier side of Bangkok life. Some of his readers went even further, posting contributions labelling them “hypocrites” and “nut jobs”.

One reader wrote: “These people are just idiots. They thrive on public humiliation because they see it [as] proof of their suffering before God. Of course the reality is that it serves only to isolate them more from the rest of humanity”.

Dieselberg says Nightlight missionaries have been shouted at in the street, threatened and nearly physically attacked. For safety reasons, they never do their outreach work alone.

“We have problems with foreign men. We interrupt their fantasies,” she said. “We talk to the men, too. We are not hateful and try not to be judgemental towards the men either, but the men have their assumptions and false beliefs about what we are doing and who we are.”

She says men who pay for sex are exploited too, in a sense, because afterwards they are even more lonely than they were before. “I feel sorry for the men sometimes. It [prostitution] is destructive to the men as well.”

The story of Lek, 30, a former sex worker who is now employed by Nightlight and has converted to Christianity, is the kind of tale Nightlight likes to emphasize. A mother of two, from the northeastern province of Kalasin, Lek, whose parents are dead, came to Bangkok after she separated from a boyfriend who took all her money. She worked as a prostitute and go-go dancer for about five years, from the age of 23. Working in the bars was fun on the outside, she said, but inside there was sorrow.

“I don’t know how to explain it. I never thought that I would come to the point where I would do this. One part was fun but the other part felt horrible and guilty and self-condemning,” she said. “If you think you are going to find a relationship with a man who comes for fun, it’s not going to be a real relationship.”

Most of the customers she went with were fairly nice, she says, but a few were verbally abusive.

Lek has spent about nine months with Nightlight and says her life is now totally different. “I have time with my children now, to go home and rest. When I was working at night, I didn’t have time to see my children. I had to leave my two kids alone in the apartment,” she says.

“At Nightlight I feel a lot more secure. I have a lot more friends. I’ve got help and I’ve changed from being one kind of person to another kind of person. I’ve learned how to make jewellery and I’m learning English. I also get to study the Bible, and there are different activities we get to do. I’m happy with my work and what I’m doing now.”

Lek talks vaguely about her health problems but doesn’t elaborate. “What I’m still really, really sad about is my health. I’m worried about my children,” she said. Dieselberg, who has been translating – accurately, as far as this writer could tell – comforts Lek and holds her hand. There seems to be mutual respect and affection between the two women.

“I still have some anxiety from time to time about not having enough money, but deep inside I’m happy because I’m not alone,” said Lek. “I have some good friends. I think I will be here working at Nightlight until I can’t do it anymore.”

Dieselberg is determined to continue her battle against the sex trade, and argues that groups like the Empower Foundation add to the problem by “normalising” prostitution.

“Why is it that the women who are choosing prostitution are the ones who don’t have other choices?” she asks. “This work is hard. It’s destructive, it destroys the spirit … I don’t want to empower women to stay in prostitution when it will kill them. I want to empower them to have a choice.”

Addressing the moral issues of trying to convert people to Christianity in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, Dieselberg says: “People who are not Christian get upset about that, but they are not giving the Thais the respect to be able to make their choice… We don’t go out there and evangelise. We’re just there making friends and loving them, and they see something in us that they’ve not seen somewhere else.”

The group’s website, however, says something else. Nightlight’s aim is to achieve its goals through “Relational Evangelism” – a way to “introduce women and children to the love and mercy of Jesus Christ, to disciple them into a strong faith as people who will then impact their communities.”

Joanette-Samson rejects Dieselberg’s arguments and says Nightlight’s actions can be harmful. Sex workers don’t need a new religion, she says – they need information and help.

“Empower is not trying to say that prostitution is something normal,” she says. “They are trying to get the girls to talk about it and have information. They are not saying that prostitution is such a good thing. They are just trying to remove the taboo so the girls can get more protection, more information.

“It’s good that they [Nightlight] want to help but you can do better things than what they are doing now… They want you to be in their religion. There’s something wrong with that.”