"Give us cyanide," the woman at the refugee camp cried. "We don't want your medical supplies; just give us cyanide."
Twelve days after a tsunami wiped out Thailand's western beaches, Tom Roxas and Yuttasak "Nok" Sirikul listened to the woman's story of loss. They promised to bring tents and sleeping bags for her family, and Tom, who directs Campus Crusade for Christ in Southeast Asia, tried to offer some encouragement. "God has preserved your life for a purpose," he said.
In one horrible instant, the lives of these Thai people had changed forever. For them, nothing would ever be the same. They had lost too much. Life, even when homes and roads were repaired, would always be different.
Thai Campus Crusade students and staff members came to help these refugees with physical and spiritual needs. Their own country had been devastated, their fellow citizens left homeless.
On December 26, 2004, Nok, director of Campus Crusade's ministry in Thailand, was too far away to feel the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that sent a tsunami (a giant tidal wave) rippling across the Indian Ocean, killing nearly a quarter of a million people in 11 countries. Nok heard about the tsunami on the news that evening, but he, like many others, had no idea that one of the deadliest disasters in recorded history had just occurred.
"At first we heard that only 100 people had been killed," Nok remembers, "but then the numbers kept rising."
The death toll had risen to 4,351 by December 31 in his country alone, when Thailand's Campus Crusade ministry began its annual student conference.
Nearly 900 Christian students gathered near Bangkok for a time of training and encouragement in the Christian faith. Everyone discussed the tsunami, wondering how to help.
Then a plan began to form. The international Campus Crusade movement provided funding for aid to be distributed at the beaches. By the end of the conference, students were challenged to go and meet the needs of tsunami victims. This was a chance for the students to put their faith immediately into action.
The following night, nearly 250 students, staff members and local church members met at a Bangkok gas station to begin the bus trip. They traveled for 14 hours, past the southern leg of Myanmar, to the former paradise of Thailand's western beaches. There, the television images and statistics became real.
Once resort areas, the beaches were now wrecked. Signs for five-star hotels pointed to cement posts and broken roofs. Mud and sand covered everything.
"In between the roots and dead foliage," says American staff member Judy Christian, "there were the signs of civilization. A refrigerator door, a half-buried car, a red slipper in a tree."
Crude wooden caskets were stacked in rows, and refrigerated units were set up for the unidentified bodies. Many people were still looking for lost relatives.
Nok had arrived the day before to see where the group could most effectively help.
"I didn't know anyone there," he says, "I just went to the government relief agency and said, 'Where can we help?'"
On January 5, the group found a half-destroyed hotel to stay in, and they began working with the military relief efforts, building wooden housing and bathroom areas. They cooked, played with children, organized donations, and even worked in the government office registering displaced families.
They took 500 tents and 1,500 sleeping bags to pass out to refugees, as the stories of loss became real. "How is your family?" they would often ask, and the survivors would pour out their heartbreak.
"Half of my relatives have died," one man said. "My wife, my mother, my father, my three children-they're all gone," said another.
"I'm four months pregnant and I've lost my husband," a young woman cried.
Fishermen who survived the wave at sea had returned to find their families swept away. Mothers had children ripped from their arms.
As people sobbed out their stories, the students listened and tried to comfort.
Nok told the student group not to use gospel tracts, because this trip was about service, not about conversion. But they told the refugees they were Christians, and conversations often turned to spiritual matters.
"In a country that embraces Buddhism and believes 'to be Thai is to be Buddhist,'" says Judy, "we wanted them to see Jesus in us. After a few days of building relationships, they were asking us about our God."
Buddhists believe escape from suffering and attaining peace come through self-knowledge and self-disipline. Reincarnation will occur until desire is gone. At that point they will cease to exist. This state they call nirvana.
"I was afraid to come," says 21-year-old student Usa Kaewchabub. "I was afraid I wouldn't know what to say to people, that I wouldn't be able to help." But Usa talked with many people while she served, and she was able to pray with several.
"There were tons of people there who were just taking pictures," says staff member Mike Christian, Judy's husband, "and a lot of other people who passed out food, but our team came to serve and also took time to sit with them and listen to their stories."
Many people had lost all hope, like the woman who asked Nok and Tom for cyanide. When they returned a few hours later with the sleeping bags, Tom and Nok prayed for the woman and her family. As tears filled her eyes, they asked if they could tell her about the hope they had in Christ. They began to explain the gospel, and the woman and three of her family members prayed and asked Christ into their hearts.
The next day the woman had a smile on her face. "She began calling us 'brothers,'" says Tom.
But the pain in her life was still raw. She told them the body of her 4-year-old nephew had not been found, and she desperately wanted closure. "To find the body is very important for the Thai people," Nok explains. They prayed for comfort and for the nephew's body to be found, which had been missing for 12 days.
That afternoon, his body was found.
The woman sought out Tom to tell them the news. "Our God is so mighty to answer our prayers," she sobbed. "He is real and true!"
The Sunday after the tsunami hit, Nathan Nettleton, a pastor in Australia, struggled with the same thoughts the Thai students faced in the refugee camps: What place does the gospel have in light of horrendous tragedy?
"If the Christmas gospel has nothing meaningful to say in Tamil Nadu or the Maldives or Meulaboh," he told his congregation, "then it doesn't really have anything meaningful to say at all. Someone once said that any theology that can't be preached in the presence of parents grieving over their slaughtered children isn't worth preaching anywhere else."
So in the refugee camps, while giving physical aid and a listening ear, students were kneeling down throughout the rows of tents to pray with survivors.
Mike and Judy met a man named ChatChai from a people group called the Morgan Sea Gypsies. He had been the park ranger on an island where 35 villagers were killed, and he was highly respected by the community. The 85 remaining families had been displaced into a relief camp on the mainland, sleeping under plastic covers. ChatChai guided the student group to the people most in need.
Mike and another staff member talked with ChatChai about Jesus, and while they explained the gospel, he prayed and asked Christ into his life. Then he said he knew supplies would come for his people, but what they really needed was Jesus. He asked them to pray that he would be able to talk about Christ with the rest of the islanders.
"I've never seen a person turn so quickly from accepting Christ to wanting the people he cared for to hear," says Mike. "He was an instant evangelist."
In a country where it is unusual to show emotion, ChatChai cried and hugged Mike as he said goodbye.
As the group prepared to leave, another staff member, Tip-arpha Mingkhwan, was already planning to return two days later.
She brought eight students along for the gruesome task of working in a morgue, each of them experiencing death as they had never seen it before. Tip's job was to photograph the dead bodies for identification, and some of the students helped carry bodies to the morgue, 16 days after the disaster.
"We're compelled by the burden of wanting to help the Thai people," says Tip, "because we are Thai. We want to love our neighbor as we love ourselves."
Nok also returned quickly to the area, and the group is making preparations for long-term relief efforts.
"We want to mobilize 1,000 students," says Nok, "possibly sending them to Indonesia to help, where Thai students have more access than other foreigners."
Thailand lost over 5,300 people, ranking fourth in deaths among countries (behind Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India) affected by the tsunami.
Amidst the horrible surroundings of pain and loss, Nok is still able to see God's guidance. "It's a privilege for us to be here in this time," he says.