the sound of praise

This is Miu. She’s seven years old, has a killer smile and loves to play the violin. She has private lessons with a Norwegian teacher three times a week after school. She is learning English and, like many children her age, she enjoys playing on computers. Miu lives in the Klong Toey district of bustling Bangkok, close to sparkling new shopping centres and palatial apartment blocks.

Klong Toey is Bangkok’s largest slum. Nobody can say for sure how many people live there, but it’s somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000. If you saw ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, you’ll have a good idea of what Miu’s world looks like. Entire families live in boxes made of rotting boards, broken fibro and rusty iron. One room mostly, two if you’re lucky. If you have two rooms, you spend the day in one room and sleep in the other. All of you together. You cook outside on a concrete slab, where you build a fire. You hang your laundry over the fire to dry. You store your clothes and other possessions in plastic bags strung on ropes from wall to wall inside your house.

The slum is overcrowded, depressing and breathtakingly hot. Oh yes, there’s a railway line running right through the middle of it. Homes and clotheslines are less than a metre from the tracks, and children play on them. Klong Toey is not the first place you’d expect to see a Luther rose. But there it is, just above the Thai letters that translate into English, ‘Home of Praise, Immanuel Lutheran Church’. I get out of Arne’s 4WD and navigate around the snoozing pigs. A brindle dog, bony and bored, emerges from beneath a car wreck and wanders aimlessly across my path. Then I hear the violins.

I follow the sound into Home of Praise, down the short hallway and into a small room through a doorway built for Thais – short. Tall Norwegian missionary Arne says he learnt many years ago to duck.
There is Miu.

Can a seven-year-old play violin in a way that doesn’t offend the ear? I don’t know. But she sure sounds better than okay to me. At the very least she is making music. And laughing.

It’s school holidays now, so the usual Home of Praise programs have been suspended for a few weeks. But Miu, her big sister Ning (13) and their friend Nun (12) are keen to continue their violin lessons. Norwegian missionary and violinist Solveig Johannessen is happy to teach them. She has been working here at Home of Praise almost from the day that the Immanuel Lutheran church opened it in 2001 as a kindergarten and activity centre for slum children.

Fellow Norwegian Anne Haug shows me around. She came to Thailand as a missionary 20 years ago and to Home of Praise about six months after it opened. There’s nothing flash about the home; it’s basic in every aspect. And it’s hot in here! But it’s a home. The missionaries who work here with the Diakonia Department of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Thailand make this house not merely a clean, safe and functional child-care and learning centre but also a home. Especially a home.

‘We focus on giving the children a lot of love’, says Anne. ‘That is our primary aim. Our teachers must have time to give to the children and they must have a lot of love.

‘For many of the children who come here, the only love they will ever experience is the love we give them here.’

The staff at Home of Praise give the children the best start in life that they can. At school the slum children compete with children who have advantages, such as a year or more of pre-school education and after-school activities like music and computers.

‘At home of Praise we help the children to keep up with the others, so that they do not become discouraged and give up’, Anne says. ‘We want to give them a chance to break the cycle of poverty, violence and depression, which is how it is here in the slum.’

On our way out, I pop back into the music room to say goodbye to the violinists. Miu ducks her head, pretending to be shy, and then flashes me one of her killer smiles. She’ll be a hard one to forget.

As I walk with Anne through the slums of Klong Toey, we hear the violins making music again.

The sound of praise.

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