Somwang Kongaew stands before 150 men inside the central prison of Udon Thani, a city in northeastern Thailand. The prisoners have gathered for a course on ethics, and they sit rapt with attention as Somwang, a former resident of these walls, explores the concepts of right and wrong.
Somwang has been coming back twice a month for 18 years. “Without access to the gospel, they are without hope,” he said. “I want them to know someone cares about them.” He helps the men acknowledge their failures as he points them to Jesus, the only one who can absolve them of their guilt. As he concludes his sessions, Somwang relies on the In Touch Messenger, an audio discipleship tool, to help the men dig deeper into the themes of his lessons.
But ministry here doesn’t come easily. Despite the frequency of his visits, Somwang must formally request government permission each time. The moment one visit is concluded, he’s making arrangements for the next because the process can take up to two weeks. It’s time consuming, with stacks of never-ending paperwork, but Somwang persists.
“I feel it is such an honor to go back to the same place I once was… and teach the prisoners so they can have hope and make a change as I have.”
Quiet and peaceable in his 70s, Somwang was completely different in his earlier life. A self-professed “gangster,” he was known for his short temper which often led to violent outbursts against others. In time his actions caught up with him, and Somwang found himself sentenced to a life of confinement. There, a heavy sense of loneliness settled on Somwang. For the first time, he experienced regret. But relief from this great weight eluded him.
One day he heard a gospel presentation on a radio station. The voice spoke of the Christian God who was willing and able to forgive anyone, no matter what they had done. He learned that, “free or prisoner, rich or poor, Jesus is willing to help anyone who comes to Him.” At long last Somwang had a way to lay his burden down.
When Somwang was finally released from prison, he dedicated his life to going back into Thai prisons. Knowing what it’s like to be condemned, to feel the weight of his sins, drives him to reach inmates with the spiritual freedom he’s experienced. Teaming up with Voice of Peace, the radio station where he first heard the gospel, Somwang gained access to the Messenger and it has multiplied his ministry. It allows the men to split into smaller listening groups, explore particular books of the Bible, and gain clear explanations from Dr. Stanley.
“My hope is that everything I do is for God,” Somwang said. “I want all my works to glorify Him, and for the prisoners to glorify Him as well.” God found him alone, desperate in a prison cell, and as a result of His love, Somwang wants to ensure that no prisoner ever feels that lonely again.
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Photography by Adam Dean and Panudet Krualee