Photography by: Kurt Heck
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Kieow couldn’t pass English class.
A political science student in Bangkok, Thailand, Kieow Thongluan needed a passing grade in English to graduate, but she just couldn’t master the class she was taking at Ramkhamhaeng University. Then a friend told her about a class run by MTW missionaries who taught English using the Bible.
“Because of growing up in a Buddhist family, we believed in angels, but we never talked about God,” Thongluan, 36, recalls.
She had learned a little about Jesus in religion classes, but it wasn’t until she started reading the Bible with the MTW missionaries that Thongluan began to realize who He really was.
“Jesus isn’t just the father of a religion; He is God. If He is God, I want to know. That day I went home, I prayed to Jesus that if He was God, I wanted to know Him. That night, I had a dream. Someone was knocking on the door. The person said, ‘I’m standing here and knocking.’ I said, ‘Yes, I want to open the door.’”
That was 12 years ago. Today, Thongluan encourages a handful of women she meets daily at the sewing machine to open that same door.
Into the Slums
Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles,” a country of laid-back folks who exude hospitality. It is also a place of spiritual syncretism and darkness, with 95 percent of the population adhering to a mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism, animism, and ancestor worship.
“The [ultimate] purpose of [Napada] isn’t to make bags. The purpose of this is to share the Gospel with each of our ladies and our customers.”
The women who come to work for Napada Thailand — a company started by Thongluan and her friend Pawn that exports artisan handbags to America — have been enmeshed in a culture of idol worship and false religion.
“Spiritual warfare is very real here,” Thongluan explains. “Every corner you see an idol. Each of [these ladies] has an idol that they have to worship at their own home.”
Thongluan met these ladies when she took a job as a staff member for the MTW Thailand church plant — New City Fellowship Church — a few years after graduating from college. Together with fellow MTW staffer Pawn, Thongluan would travel to the Mahatthai slums, a government-run community on Bangkok’s outskirts, to build relationships with the women there and to share the Gospel with them. Many women they met were single mothers whose husbands had abandoned them for other women. Most lived in lean-tos with dirt floors and tin roofs, and were struggling to make ends meet for their families.
Thongluan and Pawn started crocheting circles for the ladies to come together around a common activity and learn about each other on a personal level. After doing that for a while, Thongluan, who had worked for an export company, decided to help the women support themselves by exporting the crocheted items to America.
But then Mary Randolph showed up.
It wasn’t until Mary Randolph went on a short-term missions trip to Romania when she was 60 that she realized God was calling her to the mission field. A career accountant, Randolph joined the team in Thailand as the treasurer in 2008.
Dave Veldhorst, MTW Thailand team leader at the time, recognized Randolph’s business background and immediately set her to work helping Thongluan and Pawn with their fledging company.
At first, things were a bit awkward.
“I couldn’t understand Thai, couldn’t speak Thai,” Randolph says. “I was twice their age.”
Still, she realized the crocheting business wasn’t going anywhere. Americans could buy local crocheted items much cheaper.
“Couldn’t they find something more unique to export?” she probed. “How about handbags?”
Randolph helped the two fix a broken sewing machine, earning their trust and respect, and together the three launched Napada Thailand, a Business as Mission extension of MTW Thailand.
“Jesus isn’t just the father of a religion; He is God. If He is God, I want to know.”
Some of the women already knew how to sew, but some had to be taught. Randolph remembers one woman who had recently become a Christian through relationship with Thongluan and Pawn. She was selling fruit out of a pushcart to support her family when they invited her to join the company. She initially resisted but eventually agreed to try.
“Now she can make any bag we give her, even some of the most difficult bags,” Randolph says.
Today, Napada (a brand derived from the blending of Thongluan’s and Pawn’s full Thai names) employs nine women and is able to fully replace both of Thongluan’s and Pawn’s salaries from MTW. The company makes colorful artisan handbags ranging in price from $4 to $60 USD. Some of the women work full time in the shop; others work part time from their homes. Each receives fair wages with Social Security benefits, as well as free English classes.
Every year for the past six years, sales to the U.S. have been climbing. So much so, that the team decided Randolph should return to the States to help market the business at churches, conferences, and wherever else people would buy handbags.
Thus far, she’s sold the handbags at two global missions conferences, last year’s General Assembly, and a variety of church retreats and conferences.
“I’m not a salesman. I’d rather sit behind a desk,” Randolph admits, “but the Lord opens doors.”
In 2013, Napada exported more than 7,000 bags, grossing around $50,000 Thai bahts. Ten percent goes to support a new church plant in Bangkok.
The Real Product
On any given morning, you’ll see a group of women huddling around a Bible in a small room on a Bangkok back street. Daily devotions are part of the routine at Napada before the women take to their sewing machines.
“The [ultimate] purpose of [Napada] isn’t to make bags,” Randolph explains. “The purpose of this is to share the Gospel with each of our ladies and our customers.”
Because most of the employees come from Buddhist backgrounds, Thongluan says she tries to introduce the Gospel gently.
“ Spiritual warfare is very real here,” Thongluan explains. “Every corner you see an idol. Each of [these ladies] has an idol that they have to worship at their own home.”
“If someone is very staunch [about their Buddhist practices], I try not to push them. Sometimes they don’t ask questions. Sometimes they do have good questions.”
Spiritual growth tends to be slow. So far, two women have made open professions of faith in Christ. Others are on the verge but might be keeping their faith quiet because of negative pressure from family members.
“Many of the women are showing signs of following Christ, even if they’re not very outspoken about it,” Randolph says.
Not long ago, Randolph walked alongside one of the women whose son was dying. She went frequently to the hospital to be with the woman as she was caring for her son, all the while not knowing whether the woman or her son were believers. Not long before the son died, he told Randolph and his mother that he knew God. As the woman was grieving, Randolph prayed over her.
“We’re walking with these ladies day by day,” Randolph says. “We’re just being the hands and feet of Jesus.”
Similarly, Thongluan believes that the best way she can share the Good News is by simply being present and allowing the ladies to see how her life looks.
“I love to sit down with the ladies at their houses and listen to their problems. I tell them, ‘I can’t help you, but I can pray to my God. He will help you with your problems. What makes me respond to problems differently is I know Jesus will be with me.’”c
Zoe S. Erler is a freelance writer and editor based in Indianapolis. She has written for Prison Fellowship Ministries, BreakPoint Radio, The Indianapolis Star, The Washington Times, and World magazine.