Stepping onto the practice field, Justin Allison couldn't help but feel out of place.
This was still rugby, with all its familiar elements: same ball, same athletic demand, same near-brawls during the matches. Yet there was one distinct difference this time: Justin was almost a head taller than most of the players, and no one was speaking English.
Justin liked to stretch limits in his life, but this was further than anyone thought things would go. He was supposed to come and make friends with other college students, but this 20-year-old American had somehow managed to join a university rugby team in Thailand.
Thailand an Unlikely Place for Summer Break
As a junior at the University of Arkansas, Justin loved to play rugby, a new sport for him after playing football in high school. Yet he couldn't be stereotyped as a typical roughhousing rugby player.
Sure, on his Facebook page he shows off pictures of a purple and black bruise around his eye, yet he also posts quotes from Erasmus of Rotterdam and a 14th-century poet. He enjoys discussions about the latest technology trends as much as reading ancient Greek.
"I'm kind of a diverse person," admits the philosophy and classical studies major, "always stretching definitions."
He likes music from hip-hop to the blues, and in high school he had just as much in common with nerds as he did with jocks. But as diverse as Justin's world was, there was at least one thing that he never imagined would have fit.
"It seemed like a random place to go," Justin remembers.
He didn't know much about the country formerly known as Siam, and other countries made more sense for him to visit, like Scotland, where he'll be spending a semester abroad studying philosophy.
Thailand, on the other hand, a land of elephants and Buddhas, had almost nothing in common with the razorbacks and country music of Arkansas.
Summer Mission Trip Strengthens Existing Ministry
But through his involvement with Cru, Justin heard about international summer mission trips, and learned that several other students from his school were going to Thailand.
He knew a mission trip would be a productive and challenging way to spend his summer, and before long, he was on board with 8 other students and 1 Cru staff member.
They spent 5 weeks in Thailand, the majority of it in Chiang Mai, Thailand's "Rose of the North," meeting students at 2 universities and teaming up with Thai Cru staff members like Wanchai "Pai" Kakho.
For the last 4 years, Pai has helped build ministries on the college campuses, connecting Christian students and explaining the gospel to others. The Americans helped to jump-start the school year for the Thailand ministry by meeting hundreds of students throughout the summer and helping them get connected with the ministry.
"Thai students like to be friends with Americans," says 26-year-old Pai, "and they create an exciting atmosphere for the Thai students to follow and serve Christ."
Building Relationships Challenging, Rewarding
Early on, Justin learned that there were several rugby teams on campus. As he talked with students, he secretly hoped he would be able to meet a rugby player, a link to make friends on the team and open more doors for Pai and the Thai staff members.
With only a short amount of time in Thailand, building relationships quickly was key, but not always easy. Sometimes finding English speakers was difficult, sometimes the Thai students simply wanted to claim an American friend, and sometimes after what appeared to be a good conversation, the student would be too busy to meet again.
The first week on campus, Justin had met a 21-year-old named Arm. His full name is Yuttapong Kherakamkow, but like most Thais, he goes by a nickname for all occasions except the most formal.
Although not fluent, Arm spoke enough English to have a conversation with Justin, and introduced him to his friend Tony. They talked about spiritual things briefly that day: Arm said he was a Christian, but admitted he wasn't very serious about his faith. Tony was not a Christian.
Justin wanted to talk again, but he didn't get their phone numbers, and then didn't see them on campus for the next few weeks.
But Justin continued to introduce himself to new students. He was usually able to have conversations about anything from international soccer competitions to the latest movies.
"It's good because I'm developing relationships," says Justin. "But sometimes I get frustrated because I don't know if I'm doing enough."
Own Spiritual Questions Lead to Deeper Understanding
Doing enough. It's something Justin has wondered many times before. At 9 years old, he was diagnosed with bone cancer, and he had to endure surgery and months of chemotherapy and radiation. The same year, his parents divorced.
"I began to internalize a lot of things," he says, "I felt that it was my job to be strong, my job to be reliable."
Although he had a relatively normal adolescence, playing lots of sports and having many friends, the effects from his parents' divorce still lingered, and especially affected how he saw God.
"I was trying to serve God, to love God," he remembers, "but the whole time I thought God was Someone who had to be pleased by my ability to be strong and to serve Him. I had this conception of God, but that conception was wrong."
Then, through his youth-group ministry and other friends, Justin began to learn about a God who loved him for who he was, not because he was doing enough: "I finally understood that the reason God loved me was because He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for me, and by believing in Him, I could experience freedom from my failure -- freedom from my inability to be strong and my inability to be enough."
Justin's growth continued in Thailand, where he and the other Americans studied about the Holy Spirit each week. In learning more about the power God has given him, Justin revisited this old question of doing enough with some new understanding.
He began to rely on the strength of the Holy Spirit to get him through each new situation and give him energy to keep meeting new students.
Reconnecting with Students Brings Unforgettable Moment
And a few days later, Justin met a new student named Rut (pronounced "root"). Rut was a rugby player, and one of the team captains.
They met at a cafeteria, and when Rut found out Justin also played rugby, he quickly invited Justin to practice with his team, a kind of intramural club. So Justin began attending 6 a.m. practices -- running drills, playing scrimmages, even talking about playing in a game.
After practice, he and Rut would often go to the school cafeteria for a typical Thai breakfast -- steamed rice and vegetables -- that often looked exactly like Thai dinner. Even at the end of the trip, Justin was still getting used to the adventure associated with each meal.
"I'll bite into something and it's crunchy, and I'll think, What did I just eat?" he says.
For lunch one muggy Tuesday, Justin chooses the soup, and, proving once again that he stretches even his own definitions, he adds pork rinds, a snack he didn't even like in Arkansas.
"I tried them with the soup, and now I love them," he says with a shrug.
That day he's reconnecting with Rut, the rugby captain, and surprisingly, Arm and Tony, the students he had met the first week. A few days earlier, he had finally met them again and they bonded over a game of basketball.
While the cafeteria buzzes with students in uniforms, Arm, Tony, and Rut begin conversations with Justin and Pai; the topic often turning spiritual. For the next 2 hours, they talk about everything from professional wrestling to Buddhism, students sometimes stopping to greet Pai with the traditional wai -- hands together with a slight bow.
Rut and Pai talk about Christianity until Rut leaves for class, and Justin also gets into a conversation about Christianity with Arm and Tony, and Pai soon joins them to help bridge the language gap. The staff member uses an evangelistic booklet called the Four Spiritual Laws to explain the biblical concepts more clearly, and challenges both students -- Arm to get serious about his faith and Tony to make a decision about Christ.
At the end of the conversation, all 4 men bow their heads to pray; Arm rededicates his life to Christ and Tony invites Christ into his life for the first time.
It's an event Justin will never forget.
Foreign Land Becomes Important Part
As much as he likes to stretch the definitions of his own life, Justin found his own view stretched after that day. He saw that God could use him in Thailand, a place he never even imagined he would go.
"I needed to go to Thailand," Justin says in hindsight. "It was about relinquishing control of who I am and understanding how much God loves me."
Now Thailand is no longer a random place to Justin. It's a part of him.