Protecting Tribal Girls in Thailand
For Kit Ripley (MDiv '99), the idea that people can find new life in Christ is anything but an abstraction. Ripley ministers at the New Life Center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is a home for ethnic minority women and girls who are at risk for, or are victims of, labor exploitation and sexual abuse. "There are always surprises in Thailand," she says, "but I think the greatest surprises for me happen when I see residents' lives radically changed."
The girls and women who come to New Life Center have already experienced a variety of surprises. Most were born in villages in the hill country of Thailand, but were forced by deteriorating economic conditions there to come to the city to find work. In the city, however, they have encountered a language and culture quite different from their own, and found that their lack or low level of formal education renders them ill-equipped to find appropriate jobs. These women and girls are therefore quite vulnerable to even worse surprises--abusive domestic labor situations, forced begging, arranged marriages, and/or the sex trade industry.
It can come as a surprise to them, then, to learn that there is a place where they can be sheltered and helped to gain the skills they need to deal with their new surroundings. Working with the Royal Thai Government, the New Life Center has 105 girls and women currently in residence, whom are given education, specialized vocational training, life skills coaching, and citizenship advocacy, among other services. Some come because they are at risk for exploitation, and others arrive upon being rescued from exploitative situations. "A girl comes in who has experienced horrible and tremendous abuse in her life," Ripley explains. "Her face is down, her hair is in her face, and she can't look you in the eye. And then to see within six months to a year--she's gaining skills and she's started going to school--to me it is a total miracle. And then, all of a sudden, one day she can look you in the eye and she can talk about her life, and she's got dreams for the future. And to see her smiling and laughing with other kids--that's the greatest joy."
Ripley is involved at New Life Center in a variety of capacities, ranging from art therapy and program development to more traditionally pastoral forms of ministry. "An important part of leadership is being with people in their daily lives and being able to influence their development and help them work through issues as they occur," she says. "It's an opportunity to provide pastoral care in a lot of different ways, and I feel like I'm able to influence the development of residents in so many different aspects of their lives." And Ripley's work stretches more broadly yet: In addition to her work at the New Life Center, she also has opportunities to do leadership development among tribal women as well as preach and teach at local churches and conferences--and she also serves on the steering committee of the San Jai coalition, which works to address the needs of vulnerable women and children throughout the Mekong subregion.
In reflecting on her preparation for her current ministry, "I had an outstanding experience at Fuller," Ripley says. "Fuller provided me with a strong biblical foundation for how to think theologically and how to contextualize my work with tribal girls in northern Thailand." And that foundation anchors her ministry, amid all the surprises.