Learning from the Thai Soccer Team about Caring for Sojourners

Adul Sam-on is the only known Christian on the Wild Boars soccer team that was trapped in the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand for nineteen days. He caught our attention when we heard him speak in English to his British rescuers. But the New York Times featured Sam-on’s amazing story of overcoming seemingly condemning odds before he ever walked into that cave.

Stateless, but Not Alone

Sam-on is stateless, as are two of his teammates and his coach. He is from a Wa ethnic tribal branch in Myanmar’s Wa state, a self-governing state, known for opium, guerrilla warfare, drug trafficking, and, in years past, for headhunting. The Wa state is not officially recognized by any nation. None of its residents have passports, and their opportunities for movement and advancement are limited.

Fighting among rival groups has led a number of people from the region to seek refuge in Thailand. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says there are more than four hundred thousand people in Thailand who are registered as stateless.

Sam-on, now fourteen years old, crossed the Myanmar border into Thailand with his parents at age six to pursue a better education and future. His parents brought him to a local Thai church and asked if the church could house him while he attended school. They needed to remain in the Wa state but would visit him frequently. The church, another Christian organization, and a scholarship fund supported him financially, and he continues to live at the church building.

Adul Sam-on recovering at the Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital. Photo provided by Handout/Ministry of Health/Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital/AFP

When the church learned Sam-on was among the boys trapped in the cave, they pooled their resources and abilities to support him and the rescue workers. The church assisted Thai military personnel by providing food and shelter. Members from the church gathered at the front of the cave to sing worship songs as a witness and testament to God. They united in prayer for the team and Adul’s parents, who were holding a vigil at the front of the cave.

The global church joined in with letters and prayers for rescue. Thai Christians across the nation posted updates on the situation, photos, and information about Sam-on. A Facebook post about Adul and his faith has nearly six thousand likes, no small feat in a nation that’s predominantly Buddhist. God has clearly used Sam-on for his glorious gospel.

Christians in the US and around the world responded resoundingly and voiced their prayer support for Sam-on and the team. From local to global, the church displayed tremendous love and care for Sam-on and the other young men trapped in the cave, all the while pointing to God who could, and would, save them.

Loving the Sojourner

Sam-on’s story and the Thai church’s care for him is an apt example of the opportunity we have to care for the stateless, immigrants, and refugees. The church could have balked at his family’s request—Sam-on came from a culture of violence and drug use. Yet, the church heeded the command from Leviticus 19:33–34. When strangers sojourn to us, we are to treat them as one of us, we are to love them as we love ourselves.

“Praise God for this example of what he can do when we seek out the sojourner and generously give of our time and resources.”

Because the local church took Sam-on in, he had the opportunity to excel in school and sports, as well as avoid being roped into local ethnic violence. He speaks five languages, and his English is the best on the soccer team. He was the one able to translate and communicate clearly with the British cave divers who initially found the group. Sam-on was an irreplaceable piece in the rescue puzzle, one that likely wouldn’t have fit so well without the Thai church nurturing him for the past eight years.

Ever-Present Opportunity for the Global Church

Sam-on’s story is a clear encouragement and catalyst for the global church to seize opportunities to respond in times of crisis, as well as reach out to other stateless minorities. Praise God for this example of what he can do when we seek out the sojourner and generously give of our time and resources.

Many US churches are already involved with aiding asylum seekers and refugees. One of many examples is Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, who are committed to welcoming refugees arriving at the airport and helping them as they resettle in the Dallas area.

Others volunteer with local refugee resettlement agencies. This may look like teaching English, helping children get registered in schools, or providing meals. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the New York Times also lists ideas for how to get involved.

The church has an unprecedented opportunity to be a gospel witness in the way we respond to the stateless, immigrants, and refugees. I pray stories like the Thai church’s and Sam-On’s will become increasingly more common.

Caroline Anderson is a writer and photographer with the IMB. She currently lives in Southeast Asia.