September 22, 2009
Along Bangkok, Thailand's red light districts, bright signs promote the various clubs and bars such as Soi Cowboy, Nana and Patpong.
The first time Celeste McGee walked along one of the busy streets in 2007, she grew overwhelmed by the large number of prostitutes working in the bars there.
Most of them were known only by a number - remaining nameless to their customers and the world outside the seamy underworld in which they were immersed. The Midwest City missionary had been preparing for the time when she could help rescue people ensnared in the sex trade in Bangkok, yet the reality was daunting.
"I'd done all this research, but when you're standing on this street with 1,500 prostitutes, it crushed me. I just wanted to go home and bawl for hours," she said. "You look at these women, and their eyes are sad, empty, fearful or angry."
To see a video interview with Celeste about her mission in Thailand, click here.
McGee, 33, said she initially wondered if the problem was too big for her. She decided that it was too big for her - but not too big for the Lord.
She has started a Christian ministry in Thailand called DtonNaam, which aims to free people trapped in the world of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. DtonNaam, she said, is a word in the Thai language that describes the source of a stream or the beginning of water that provides nourishment.
McGee said it's a fitting analogy for her efforts to help sexually exploited people find their way to new lives and new spiritual direction.
She hopes to offers them a way of escape.
"It's heartwrenching," she said.
"They are desperate to get out and have no idea that there are other options out there."
From Oklahoma to Thailand
McGee said her eventual journey to Thailand was sparked when she learned about Buddhism, which is the prevailing religion in the Asian country.
She said she grew up attending Meadowood Baptist Church in Midwest City and graduated high school at Christian Heritage Academy. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in family psychology from Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, McGee spent two years teaching college students in South Korea.
When she came back to America in 2001, she contacted the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board asking to become a missionary to Thailand.
McGee said mission board officials suggested that she obtain more counseling education and then submit an application. The determined young woman obtained her master's degree in marriage and family counseling from Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. In February 2007, she traveled to Thailand as an International Mission Board missionary.
She said she quickly learned that Thailand is a beautiful land filled with friendly people.
McGee said she became the main counselor for a ministry called The Well, which focused on aiding female prostitutes in Bangkok.
They befriended prostitutes working in some of the Bangkok bars and McGee said she had no problems talking to the women.
"It's an easy conversation. They ask me ‘what's a white girl doing in here?!'" she said, smiling.
McGee said after forming friendships and gaining the women's trust, she and other missionaries took the women on fun outings like bowling or out to eat, away from the seedy environment created by greedy pimps and bar owners. She said a couple of times, the ministry purchased the women for an evening to spend some time with them. Most, she said, have only two nights off a month and work 10-hour shifts.
She said some of the girls are forced to wear school uniforms so they will appear younger, while others are made to wear immodest clothing.
"That's their life. They live in darkness," McGee said.
"To take them somewhere fun is unusual and unexpected."
McGee said she had to remember the women by their numbers as she asked around for them on any given night. Some were known by nicknames given to them by others, but most were known only by number, she said.
She said the women's customers, many of them from other countries, "are desensitized, too. They hear all these stories that the girls want this and that they like it. The girls are trained to tell them what they want to hear."
Some of the women were forced into the lifestyle when their impoverished families sold them into prostitution, some for about $12.
"Women are trafficked in from the villages. A lot of times their families need money because crops have failed, a flood destroyed their home or a loan shark is pressuring them," McGee said.
The Well had rescued 65 women at the end of the program this year, she said.
McGee said in January she learned that the International Mission Board was cutting some missionary positions due to budget constraints and her position would no longer be funded. She said she thought the timing was right to start her own ministry offering the same kind of help, but with a broader vision.