Going Behind the Smiles to walk with the dying in Thailand

From Bangkok to the Gillespie Centre in Biggar...Jane Fucella with her book, Behind the Smiles.
From Bangkok to the Gillespie Centre in Biggar...Jane Fucella with her book, Behind the Smiles.

It’s a long way from Bangkok Prison, Thailand’s notorious high-security jail - nicknamed the Bangkok Hilton – to the Gillespie Centre in Biggar, but Jane Fucella is equally content to work in either.

Now settled in Biggar, where her husband Mike is minister, she has written a book looking back on the 22 years the couple spent on missionary work in Thailand.

Jane, left, signing copies of her book at a launch in Motherwell GLO centre.

Jane, left, signing copies of her book at a launch in Motherwell GLO centre.

And she opens her story by announcing that she met her husband in prison in Bangkok, before qualifying that to explain that they had encountered each other briefly before but only got to know each other while working there.

Jane, a Christian, qualified as a nurse, and, at the end of her training in 1983, went with a flatmate on holiday to Thailand. “I just felt there was where I wanted to be, where God was calling me to be,” she said.

Jane later spent time working with Cambodian refugees in the immigration detention centre in Bangkok, then went home to Bible College to train for cross-cultural mission work.

In 1990, she and Mike were sent out to work in Thailand, spending the next 22 years there, initially with the Church of Scotland and later with an international interdenominational organisation, Interserve Scotland, raising their two daughters while out there.

“We were where God called us to be, and there is a contentment in that even when things were tough,” said Jane.

They lived among the poorest of the poor, first in a rural village, then on the Burmese border and finally in busy Bangkok, where Jane worked in a prison hospital. Ironically, prisoners had easier access to HIV drugs there than when they were released, she recalls.

They were involved in every aspect of people’s lives, and over the years, Jane took services, preaching and teaching in churches, helped set up community projects, selling rice, opening a co-op store, pumping petrol, starting a credit union and village sewing schools, as well as providing medical help, for animals as well as humans, and working in HIV/AIDS projects, both in the community and in the prison.

“Often, it wasn’t nursing so much as sitting listening and holding the hands of people who were dying because no one else was allowed in to the prison,” said Jane.

“You would be pushed to call it counselling. It was just walking with people. That was my main role.”

Her book is called Behind the Smiles, Thailand being known as the Land of Smiles, and she said: “It is only when you get to know people you get to know what is going on behind the smiles.”

The book is a series of personal snapshots of their lives during those decades, with Mike’s illustrations throughout. There are moving passages on Jane’s work with Aids patients, her horror at seeing rats looking for popcorn in the aisles of a Bangkok cinema while she and Mike were dating and the fears of a family when illness strikes miles from anywhere.

Jane lived through harrowing times, not just the Aids epidemic but the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, when she was called in to help in Southern Thailand only to discover that most people she was there to assist were dead. That is not highly dramatised, and the main thread of the book, unsurprisingly, is doing God’s work in a different culture.

In 2012, the family returned to Scotland. Daughter Rachel is now a nurse, and her sister Aylie is starting university. Mike is minister at Biggar, and Jane, who has a theology degree, supports his ministry in many different ways.

She volunteers at the Gillespie Centre, but she is on the Interserve council, mentors two young couples in Thailand and returns at least once a year.

Biggar and Thailand have one thing in common – people, and Jane will work with them wherever she can.

Behind the Smiles is available at Atkinson-Pryce in Biggar, priced £9.99.