Daeng and Ann Dechaboon are such a good fit as leaders of Radical Grace in Thailand because of their own broken backgrounds.
Picture a solitary boy sitting at home making little clay figures – his only playmates. Fractured family dynamics meant he was cut off from his half-siblings and starved of a father’s care. His mother, having lost one child to drowning, was afraid to let him have normal kids’ play outside; the village thought he was a crazy kid. Today Daeng remembers the drunken landlord who stole the clay figures and took away his “family”. At an early age he felt life was stacked against him. His mother’s family went to church, but seldom did Daeng feel it a welcoming environment; his childhood was often shaped by poverty, broken promises and lack of opportunity, despite him showing early signs of academic and leadership ability.
Ann’s parents were Buddhist. She was an only child but compared herself poorly to cousins who were the favourites in the extended family. As she grew up believing that she had no value, that nobody loved her, she went looking for love with boys, but they never met her need for love and broke her trust. Ann decided then that she could trust no one, and angrily determined to look after herself and never think of the needs of others. When at age 30 Ann started to learn about Jesus she was still suspicious of other people’s motives. Instead of following what they said, she began exploring the Christian life by herself through prayer and the Bible, and trusted God. After two years she was baptised. Ann and Daeng met around this time.
Daeng’s life of mixed influences up to this point had included early secondary education at a good school paid for by his step father, his mother’s third husband. He was the poor boy in the rich school who often came without lunch. His teachers saw he had natural ability and said he should become a teacher or university lecturer, but family issues got in the way. The support of his step father faded away when Daeng’s birth father, a gambler and womaniser, stepped in and insisted Daeng take his surname. The step father removing support led to fighting between him and Daeng. As a teenager Daeng often asked himself why some people get advantages in life, but not him. He grew up with a strong sense of the injustice of poverty – often in Thai society there seems no way out, you are locked into your circumstances. Then he came to the notice of a church elder, who helped him attend a small Bible college in Bangkok, where he chose to dedicate his life to God. But Daeng still struggled – thinking the family’s church was too exclusive, too heavy on religion and too light on actually changing lives. So many churches in Thailand are religious/ceremonial/traditional places that mirror Buddhism but with Christ in place of Buddha. So instead of going on to be a preacher, he left his family’s church and joined the army.
He had entered a lifestyle full of risk, in more ways than one. At this time in Chiang Mai the rate of HIV infection in soldier recruits was around 15%. That’s high prevalence. Bar life, drinking too much and going with sex workers who were careless about condoms was common. One day Daeng got into an argument with an older soldier who pulled out a knife and stabbed him in the stomach. He needed 6 pints of blood – often sourced from people who sold blood for money. That was the end of his army career.
Daeng prayed, “If God is real, I want to do the work that God created me to do.” He met two Thai leaders, Ajan Sanan Wutti, director of Thailand Church of Christ’s AIDS ministry, and his mentor, Ajan Prasit Saetang. Where Bible College had taught Daeng religion, these two taught him how to connect people to God, and theology to life. With their backing he started creating the network of those living with HIV in the Chiang Mai area, and started campaigning for antiretroviral drugs to come into Thailand. Before drugs became available, Daeng and Ann fostered holistic health, caring for all the needs of those living with HIV.
In those days, the global community didn’t fully understand HIV, medication was still being developed and people were dying daily. Daeng was compelled by the injustice of the unfolding situation and started to care for people, little by little turning his life around so that today he and Ann lead SIM’s Hope for AIDS ministry in Thailand through the Radical Grace Project.
Kenneth Fleck met the Dechaboons in 2010 – the SIM NZ missionary with dreadlocks meeting the couple with big hearts for the HIV community. For a year, they got together all day every Friday, simply talking about their vision for what became Radical Grace. Daeng and Ann already worked freelance with sex workers, drug users, migrants and refugees. They worked hard to access treatment and to understand how to fight the stigma and discrimination. Daeng was putting programmes together and writing manuals; Ann was translating for Joyce Meyers broadcasts in Thailand, from which they had learned a passion for global mission. All the time they were building their faith in God, as the elders and spiritual leaders of a church. Living by faith. Every day somebody would turn up and share food.
Daeng says, “In the past I wasn’t sure of God’s plan for my life – why have I had these struggles? Why didn’t I get to go to a high theological university, just a small Bible college? Looking back it was the plan of God.” Now he knows he has forged his theology alongside real people at the grassroots, and both Daeng and Ann are at peace with the knowledge that God is using their pasts to create better futures for others. They have opportunities now: Daeng is doing a Master of Divinity; Ann a degree in Theology. And leading Project Radical Grace they are impacting the lives of many with a wholistic gospel. God’s deep grace means they are born again to love and understand the people they minister to.
— Zoe Cromwell