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Behind the Smiles

What a refreshing book! I don’t know what I was expecting. I suppose it was some improbable tales of missionaries bringing light to the benighted pagans, a string of evangelistic triumphs against all the odds. But not at all. This is an entirely believable down-to-earth account of one family serving the local Thai church, well written and easy to read.

Jane is the daughter of Ann and the late John Barlow, of Grove House and great friends of Cornerstone. She met and fell in love with her American husband, Mike, in Bangkok just after finishing her nursing training in London. His drawings illustrate the book. They spent 22 years in rural and urban Thailand, before returning to Scotland. She helpfully provides a timeline at the beginning of the book, but the chapters deal with themes, such as communication in a new culture, celebrating, getting around, medical emergencies, prisoners, deaths and funerals, mission partnership and children. The book is full of incident and stories, humour and seriousness. I found it very thought-provoking, causing me to re-evaluate my ideas of missionary life and mission itself.

I also found it intensely moving, not least when Jane writes about caring for prisoners with HIV/AIDS. In men’s prison hospital, she spent most of her time “doing basic nursing care, sitting, talking softly or listening to their regrets; and holding the hands of the dying. Dying because of AIDS is bad enough, but dying in a prison cell away from family and friends is very hard... I believe the role of Christians in circumstances like this is to be present: present expressing love, present in practical care, present in a willingness to listen and talk, if that is what the dying person wants. When we are present, there is opportunity for Christ to transform lives.”

There were lots of places where I found myself saying, “Yes, that is surely right!” One of the most striking instances for me came when she was writing about children. “When Rachel (their daughter) was eight years old I found her crying one day in our home in Sangklaburi. When I asked her what was wrong, she just kept saying, ‘It’s not fair.’” Jane assumed she’d fallen out with her sister or a friend. When she’d calmed down, “she went on to tell me how she knew that not many miles away over the border, in Burma, there were children just like her who were hiding in the jungle without proper shelter from the rain, or food, or even the chance to go to school. She was distraught at the injustice and shouted at me, ‘It’s not fair and we aren’t doing anything about it. They’re just like me.’

“At only eight years of age Rachel had hit the nail on the head.…”

Behind the Smiles is full of insight about living and fitting into a different culture and about integral mission, that is both motivated by love and expressing God’s love. Above all it is inspiring. It’s full of faith and full of honesty. It’s the sort of book that doesn’t leave you feeling that you’re a miserable failure, but makes you see a vision for the way God’s kingdom can come through ordinary people who try following God’s call, how He can make the ordinary extraordinary. Do read it.

Jane Fucella, Behind the Smiles – Tales from life in Thailand (Onwards and Upwards Publishers) is available at Cornerstone £9.99

Review by Michael Wenham

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Sep 14, 2023

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