by Christie Nelson
On December 26, 2004 a tsunami swept through six of Thailand's provinces bordering the Andaman Sea-Phang Nga, Phuket (and Phi Phi Island), Krabi, Ranong, Trang and Satun. Ten days later I visited the first four provinces with my coworker Oratai Thaweesin (Dang), Business Manager for LCMS World Mission Thailand & Southeast Asia. We went on behalf of LCMS World Mission and a sister organization, Concordia Welfare & Education Foundation-Thailand (CWEFT) that focuses on Christian educational and social welfare aspects of ministry in Thailand.
The tsunami hit a 20-mile stretch of coastal land. Beautiful homes, thousands of shacks, fabulous hotels and resorts, local businesses, vehicles of all types as well as all natural vegetation except for deeply rooted coconut trees were ravaged and swept away. I had never experienced death and human suffering to such a great extent. I was completely overwhelmed emotionally. Bodies were still being uncovered or discovered in the wreckage along the beach areas, as well as anywhere between the ocean front and inland as far as almost 1.5 miles.
Thousands of Thai and foreigners alike flocked to "Helping Stations," looking for lost relatives. Information was systematically logged into computers for record keeping and as a means to facilitate the search. People were able to make free long-distance calls from these stations, were provided with meals and drinking water, and given informal counseling.
Some Were Spared
Seeing the tsunami coming in the distance and being close enough to high ground to beat the water saved a few people. We talked to a man who had scrambled up the hill in time to overcome being swept away. He claimed he certainly must have done something good in his past life to be spared from death.
Most of the few Thai people who were spared were uttering prayers to great Thai leaders and kings of the past (praying to their spirits), including Buddha. Two men who were saved at a naval base that was totally wiped away clung to a statue of a former great Thai general. They both went running to the statue as they saw the waters coming, managed to climb up the cement base and each clung to the statue's legs as they prayed to its spirit.
Most of the Buddhists I spoke to place no blame on God. They accept the tsunami as a natural occurrence of nature but are very sorry for the great tragedy they had to witness, live through, and for the family and friends swept away by it.
In the area of Patong Beach in Phuket, foreigners were still making merry in the hotels, resorts and bars that began just past the tsunami-destroyed beachfronts. It was as if nothing had happened. I was shocked as we drove through one area in the evening, a place where there are many prostitutes and tourists. All the red, yellow, pink, purple, green, blue flashing and twinkling lights were lit. People were out socializing and drinking at the open-air bars as usual.
I spoke with a woman from one of two Christian families in Baan Nam Khem (in Phang Nga province) whose home barely missed being bashed by a large fishing boat as the waters swept up to her simple wooden home on stilts. She lives near a canal that was ripped wide open as the banks were torn away by the tsunami. Before it hit, the banks alongside her house were a good 100-125 feet from her home. Afterward the banks were only 15 feet away and the boat that was swept in missed her home by just a few feet. This Christian woman received a warning phone call from a friend five minutes before the tsunami came. The woman and her family quickly gathered inside the house and prayed to Jesus to spare them from destruction.
Pastor Suchart, from one of the small Lutheran congregations nearby, who also tends a preaching station along the beach in one of the areas where the tsunami hit, told Dang and me that he and all of the people from that area were praising God even in light of the disaster. Why? This year Christmas had been celebrated on December 25th, a Saturday, instead of the Sunday closest to Christmas as is usually done. Christmas celebrations are always evangelistic, with many people attending. Had the Christmas celebration been held on the 26th, many more people would have been traveling along the beach roads or playing down at the beachfront near the church before worship. By the grace of God, the little preaching station was only slightly damaged on the 26th and the Gospel had gone out just the day before.
Sadness and Urgency
How my heart grieves for the thousands who died in the tsunami. I grieve because most of them were probably good decent people, yet perhaps their hearts had not yet received Jesus as their Savior, Lord and King. And to think of their family members who mourn lost ones and the children left without parents or parents left without their children-it is truly so sad.
I often think the end of the world is surely near. And the question remains, "Is the world ready? Are my friends and family ready? Am I ready?" The urgency in getting the Gospel to everyone who has not yet heard stares me in the face, and I ask God to give me the strength to carry on despite setbacks and circumstances beyond my control. May we move boldly forward to share Jesus with everyone!