Unexpected Truth: Lessons from a Thai Refugee Camp
By Brad Friesen, Gift Planning Consultant
Back in 1988, my wife and I chaperoned 17 high school students on a trip to visit refugee camps in Thailand. We thought the students would learn about missions and life outside of Canada. We had no idea the experience would change us forever.
Our first stop in Thailand was the remote Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. At the time of our visit, 40,000 people called the camp home, mostly Hmong refugees that had escaped from Laos with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The people lived very simply; they had nothing besides four walls and a roof and just enough food to get by. Human waste ran in open ditches throughout the site and the hillside was scattered with many piles of stones marking the graves of those who had not survived. Most of the refugees held out hope they would be resettled in countries like Canada where they might start a new life, but others faced the more likely scenario of returning to their own war-ravaged country.
On our second day, we attended the camp’s Sunday morning worship service. Despite being in the Hmong language, we felt a deep connection worshipping with our brothers and sisters in Christ. However, the sermon was impossible for us to understand. Afterwards, our host explained that the preacher had been speaking against materialism using the Scripture reading from Matthew 6:19-20, where Jesus warns the people not to store up earthly treasures but look to the treasure of heaven. We were shocked. How was that possible!? These people had no material possessions to speak of, how could they be considered materialistic? As newlyweds we didn’t have much, but compared to these refugees we were rich! Suddenly, the message of the sermon came through loud and clear. Beyond language barriers, we felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit. It forever changed our perspective on the importance of material things.
I cherish the lesson I learned at that camp 30 years ago, but to say we have lived a selfless, non-materialistic life ever since would be untrue. We live in an affluent area of the world where abundance surrounds us. Marketing and media constantly implore us to acquire more. They even tell us that if we don’t have the money to pay now, we can always use credit! Amidst all these pressures, I appreciate the still, small voice that often reminds me of the Hmong-language sermon and the Biblical truth it revealed. Then, I find it much easier to forego or delay purchasing things we’d like so that we can give to those in need. This generosity is not rooted in feeling guilty for what we have, but in being good stewards with what God has provided.
I am grateful to live in Canada, but I believe that privilege imparts a responsibility to provide for those in need, both at home and throughout the world. Luke 12:48 says “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”
Throughout our lives together, my wife and I have tried to keep materialism in check and make giving a priority. A couple years ago, we established a family foundation with Abundance Canada. We explored various options that fit our finances and gave us the flexibility to choose both when and where funds would be disbursed, and how much we wanted to give. Our family donates to the fund throughout the year, and then we get together with our children and grandchildren to decide what charities we want to support. There are no start-up costs or annual legal and accounting fees. We love knowing that our family foundation will continue to bless others for generations to come. It not only helps us to prioritize giving today, but offers a tangible way to pass on the lesson we learned at Ban Vinai.
Of course, giving generously isn’t a lesson we all need to travel halfway across the world to learn. No matter where we are, we can shift our focus from what we want to what others need. If we do, I believe our generosity can change the world.
Brad Friesen is a Gift Planning Consultant at Abundance Canada. He and his wife Sandy have lived in many different cities where they were active in a variety of ministries. They now make their home in Abbotsford, British Columbia.