Why did you leave New Zealand?

During their first year in Southeast Asia, Ben and Aislinn* have faced a range of challenges, including Covid restrictions and a total switch to online teaching, but the delightfully warm responses of local people have compensated for this.

When their neighbours ask, “Why did you leave New Zealand to work in our land?”, they reply with the truth: “Because we care about this country and love its people.” Neighbours and friends are touched and even tearful that foreigners should show such love and appreciation.

The couple arrived at the end of 2019 to teach at a school that caters for local students from villages outside the city. Student ages range from 17-22, and the curriculum emphasises English and Leadership and also includes Sport and Music. Aislinn is an English specialist, while Ben teaches sport including Volleyball and Ultimate (Frisbee).

Both find their students highly motivated and hard-working. Ben says that “Sport forms little or no part of schooling in this country. Most girls have never played any team sport, but after a short time they are enthusiastic and join in readily.” The students greatly value having personal contact with foreign teachers, as even a brief encounter with foreigners is unusual, and ongoing relationships are rare.

The tough decision whether or not to stay had to be made only three months after they arrived. “The big unknown was how Covid’s arrival would affect our teaching. Being a communal society with a rudimentary health care system there was a possibility the virus would hit hard, hospitals would not be able to cope and that infrastructure, which is tenuous at the best of times, would break down.”

They convened a team to consider options and ended up giving a recommendation for all to leave. “However because we ourselves had so recently arrived, and were starting a leadership role, we decided to stay and dig in for what may come. Looking back we are glad we did. The government did a sterling job of keeping the virus out.” But after months of successful government-led control with restricted movement and nightly curfews, numbers of infections rose again at the end of August.

Ben and Aislinn live in a large city. Their apartment is basic but more than big enough, which is fortunate because with the second Covid surge racing through the city, they are seldom able to go out. The ultra-strict lockdown means that social mixing is now impossible and even visits to local markets are restricted.

Since March 2020 all schools in the country have been closed and teaching at their school is now done online. Ben says he has “had to get very creative to teach sport online!” Students remain in their homes and all learning happens via their mobile phones. Fortunately data is cheap enough for even poorer students to afford, but wifi is rare. People are adapting but everyone grieves over the lack of social face-to-face contact. Their school hopes to restart face-to-face teaching in May 2021.

The couple’s local online church community includes members who Zoom in from around the world. Both have opportunities to preach online every month.

“We have also been helping our church support relief efforts of the church planters who are part of the congregation. This practical support is very much needed due to extreme poverty brought on by the pandemic.” Adding to the uncertainty is the problem of renewing visas, which normally requires a trip to Thailand every few months. Allowances have been made for foreigners needing to extend their visas, but the rules keep changing and it can be difficult to keep up.

In recent months both Aislinn’s mother and Ben’s stepmother passed away, but return travel for funerals was sadly not possible, losses they both feel very keenly. Aislinn reports that “our three children did a great job stepping into the responsibilities that loss brings upon families.”

They are making progress in learning the language– “The script is unique, the tones are unfamiliar, and the grammar is more complex than we expected. But at least we currently have plenty of home time to learn it!” The country is a new field with a new team being established so 2020 was a year of equipping for the future, as Ben and Aislinn interviewed other ministry leaders to get an overview of the needs of the church and to develop a strategy for future ministry. Their mission is clear: “We are both involved in our online church, preaching and supporting Covid relief efforts.” Despite the difficulties, both have deep affection for the country and its people, and are determined to continue to serve in whatever capacity they are called.

–David Blaker

*Names changed.

Pray for

• mental and spiritual stamina to thrive in lockdown and the other measures being taken to defeat this virus.

• team cohesion to continue being developed although we are spread over 3 different countries

• good news to spread and flourish here