Posted on September 15, 2022 A Life-Changing Experience

Rev. Paul Gibson is the former Executive Minister of the Great Rivers Region of the ABCUSA.  He writes about a life changing short-term mission experience he had in Thailand many years ago that has helped to influence his involvement in mission today.  

Paul Gibson, Short Term Mission Experience, Spring 1980, Thailand. 

It was the Fall of 1979 and I was in my final year of seminary at ABSW in Berkeley, CA.  Life had been good for this North Dakota boy who drove into a whole new world when he moved from North Dakota to Berkeley in 1977.  In my last year I was also serving as an Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church in Reno, NV, which meant commuting every week through some of the most beautiful country around.  Every Tuesday afternoon I would spend time in Golden Gate Park and every Thursday afternoon I would spend time hiking around Lake Tahoe.  School was going great and so was the work at the church.

Back in the Fall of 1977, John Sparrowk, the Chairman of ABSW Board made a trip to Thailand.  He and his wife were very active in ABC work and also very connected to the seminary.  The trip to Thailand had a profound effect on him.  He was there as refugees from Cambodia were pouring over the border into Thailand.  We had missionaries there who were helping as they could, but the work was overwhelming.

As soon as John returned, he met with the President of ABSW, L. Doward McBain, and told him that the seminary needed to send some students to Thailand for at least three months to help our missionaries.  They agreed to do it and to pay the way for those chosen to go.  They decided to send three students:    Cheryl Short, Paul Wood, and myself.  I thought of a number of reasons (excuses) why I couldn’t go but Dr. McBain was able to eliminate every single one.

We had a commitment service at the seminary in early January and then left for Thailand.  Our trip began in a very unusual way.  The plane we were going to fly on was a big 747 that was being used to bring refugees over to the United States.  As soon as the plane was unloaded and cleaned, it would take off and head back to Thailand.  The only people on the return trip would be the crew and any workers going to help the refugees.  Our numbers were 27 crew and 23 workers.  We had the whole plane to ourselves.  Meals were served on the upper deck, but we were allowed to sit or sleep wherever we wanted after that.  We even got to go up into the cockpit, three at a time, to see the night sky and other things while in flight.  Forty plus years later, we all know that spending time in the cockpit isn’t allowed.

We arrived and were met by some wonderful missionaries who took us right away to the Christian Guest House.  It was there that we were to stay, rest up, and learn about our work before we would be sent out.  Our host for all of this was Pat Coats.  Pat received word about a need at one of the refugee camps and that there would be a meeting for refugee workers at a restaurant about 50 miles away from the camp and I was chosen to go on this assignment.  Early the next morning Pat put me on a bus and told me and the bus driver what town I was to get off at.  I was to meet one of our missionary workers at the restaurant, and then she would drive me back to the village where we would be staying.

I got on the bus and knew that the trip would take about three hours, so I settled in and enjoyed the countryside.  As we were driving along, I noticed a sign with the name of the town on it.  I mentioned it to the driver and he stopped the bus.  He had forgotten to stop at the town and now was 2 miles on the other side of the town.  He told me I could walk there, and so I did.   I found the restaurant and joined in with the other workers there for the meeting.  After the meeting I asked around for the person that was to meet me and take me to the camp.  Unfortunately, she didn’t show up for the meeting.  I should say that I had no way to communicate with anyone about this situation.  I didn’t even know for sure where I was supposed to end up.  I waited at the restaurant until around 9 pm hoping my “guide” would show up, and was getting quite concerned, when a group of doctors and nurses from Virginia showed up to get some food.  I shared my story with them and found out they had also just arrived, but they had a house to stay in.  They invited me to spend the night with them so I spent that night on a couch that was four feet long, and had a blanket that was about the same size (by the way, I’m 6’4″).

The next morning, I rode with them as they traveled to the refugee camp they were assigned to.  I asked at the camp for any info that might help me get to where I was supposed to be, but it’s pretty difficult when you are not sure where you are going.  I was told that I could find a ride about five miles from the camp, but the only way to get there was to walk–so I started walking.  Two things to take note of:

    1. When people would stop to give me a ride, Thai soldiers along the way would tell them not to pick me up.  The only thing I had with me was a large camera case which also had a clean pair of clothes in it.  They thought I was a journalist, and they didn’t like journalists, so I kept walking.
    2. We were close enough to the border that it was considered a war zone. I was a 6’4” bleach blonde walking around with people who were not much over 5’8”.  I learned to stoop and crouch as I walked.

Finally, by the grace of God and Pat’s prayers, a Southern Baptist leader in the area picked me up and told me they had been looking for me.  He found a cab for me that would take me to the refugee camp where I would join the rest of the team.  After a two-hour ride, I finally made it to the camp.  The cab driver was going to charge me three times what it should have cost to get me there, but before I could pay, another worker spent some time with the cab driver and negotiated a better price.

The first question I asked when I arrived at the camp was why didn’t the worker who was supposed to meet me at the restaurant show up.  Apparently, she wasn’t feeling well and decided not to go to the meeting.  The second question I asked was if anyone had contacted Pat Coats and told her that I was safe.  They subsequently called her and she was very relieved.  Pat had sent out a volunteer worker (me) and that person got lost for over 36 hours.  She had no idea where I was.  So began my short-term mission experience.

The trip changed my life.  I was impressed with our missionaries–the Coats, Manns, Dickersons, Nelsons, Hudspeths, Foxes, and others.  I also met a future missionary, Steven James, who impressed me.  Bob and Pat Coats thought they had me convinced to come back as a full-time missionary.  It was difficult to tell them that I still felt called into pastoral ministry. I told them that every chance I had to send money towards IM I would do it, and they were a big part of that.  Pat thought maybe I decided not to be a missionary because of my “getting lost” experience.  I let her know that my decision had nothing to do with it.  It was just part of the adventure.  She and Bob were my heroes.  It was such a pleasure to be able to see them several times in the past few years and catch up.

One of the great honors during my six years with ABCGRR was to get to know many more of our global servants.  I want to encourage those who read this to, somewhere along the way, spend time with some of our global servants through a short-term mission trip.  It will change your life for the better.

Paul Gibson

If you are interested in Short-Term Mission with International Ministries: