At the Edge of Civil War, An Outpouring of Love
Reformer Profile: Ray and Candace Ward
On the eastern side of Myanmar, nestled against the border of Thailand, lies the Karen State of Myanmar. It is home to the Karen tribe and multiple other ethnic groups, which comprise somewhere between 5 and 7 million people. It is here that a war of ongoing ethnic conflict silently rages. The jungle hides most of it, the news not often reaching Western media headlines. But for the Karen people, this ongoing war is a part of daily life.
Myanmar’s violence has been described as one of the world’s longest running civil wars, now lasting over 70 years. Those who stay in the region risk genocide, torture, and rape. Those who flee to neighboring Thailand are often detained in refugee camps, where they face undignified living conditions. Even beyond Thailand’s camps, Myanmar’s refugees encounter the pernicious dangers of racism, limited job opportunities, scarce healthcare options, and the risk of being trafficked for slave labor or sex.
Those escaping violence frequently cross through the border district of Mae Sot, Thailand. This area has become home to what is believed to be over 200,000 men, women, and children fleeing the rampant brutality in Myanmar. It’s also where Ray and Candace Ward have chosen to settle, raise their family, and base their ministry, Outpour Movement.
God’s best trick
Nineteen years ago, newlyweds Ray and Candace Ward traveled to Thailand on a short-term missions trip. Four and a half years later, the Wards felt a pull to return. “We were doing the normal stuff of buying a house, having a daughter, and ‘climbing the ladder,’” says Candace. “Then after a number of visits to the country we thought, ‘Why not sell our house, move to Thailand, and live off the equity we earned for six months?’ That was God’s best trick yet.”
Those six months turned into 14 years. “We were probably here for a little less than 30 days when Candace and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is going to be awhile,’” says Ray.
The Wards now run a ministry called Outpour Movement in Mae Sot. The name comes from their belief in ministering through the “overflow” of their relationship with God and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Outpour Movement includes wide-ranging programs such as a safe house for at-risk youth, a sewing training center and café, a coworking space, a recording studio, an English language school, and a bi-annual church planter’s conference, to name a few.
The Wards haven’t always lived in this border zone at the edge of civil war. When they first moved to Thailand 14 years ago, they settled in Chiang Rai, a thriving city in northern Thailand near the Myanmar border, and began ministering to kids living on the streets. “We soon learned about this gang that was running these street kids on a bridge between Thailand and Myanmar, forcing them to pickpocket, beg, and panhandle to bring in money for the syndicate,” Ray says. “God broke our hearts for what was going on on this bridge going into Myanmar. That’s where our Myanmar efforts got started.”
The Wards lived in Chiang Rai for 4 years before moving to Chiang Mai, a city more central to their work at the time. While there they often traveled to Mae Sot, continually drawn to the crisis along the border of Thailand and Myanmar.
Candace and Ray with their daughters Teanna (L) and Maile (R)
In 2007, a short-term missions team came to stay with the Wards. “I took a group of them across the border with me in Mae Sot for the first time,” Ray says. “We wanted to establish some kind of contact with a church and find people we could pray with.”
But the border in Mae Sot was completely different than in Chiang Rai. At that time, the town was planted squarely in the war zone, an epicenter of the genocide and civil war raging in Myanmar. “When we crossed over, there wasn’t gunfire, but we were immediately met by government intelligence,” Ray says. “They started asking us questions about who we were, what we were doing, and why we were there.”
Although the confrontation was unnerving, Ray and the group continued into Myanmar to pray and seek connections. But on their return back into Thailand, they were again detained, this time by a Buddhist monk. The monk stopped the group and asked Ray if he knew about Myanmar’s crisis. Ray said yes, he’d been following what was happening. The monk interrupted him and said, “You have to go back and tell everyone what’s going on here, because we need help; the people need help. I shouldn’t be talking about this right now.” Then he looked over his shoulder and said, “I have to go.”
Ray followed the monk’s gaze to find members of the secret police taking pictures of Ray and his group. He hurried the visiting team across the bridge and back into Thailand.
The Wards continued to live in Chiang Mai while pursuing ministry opportunities along the border in Mae Sot. Then in 2013, The Journey, an organization formed to create business solutions for missionaries, approached the Wards about a partnership. Both Candace and Ray come from business backgrounds and were excited by the prospect of growing businesses to care for refugees and provide job training and opportunities to locals.
When asked where they should base the businesses, Ray immediately suggested Mae Sot. “I went ahead and rented houses for The Journey team members to come stay so they could dream and build,” he says—even though the Wards weren’t living there yet. And that’s how Famous Ray’s got started.
“The monk interrupted him and said, ‘You have to go back and tell everyone what’s going on here, because we need help; the people need help.'”
Famous Ray’s was a burger and fries joint that ran successfully in Mae Sot for six years. Alongside of the restaurant, Ray and Candace also opened a bike shop where locals could purchase bikes or have their own repaired. Eventually a coffee shop was added. These businesses employed and trained locals and refugees, providing wages, valuable trade skills, and work experience. With so many programs up and running, Ray and Candace decided it was finally time to make the move to Mae Sot.
A word in a dream
One night, a girl who was working with the Wards had a dream. In the dream she heard God say, “I want you to use the word Braverly.” She woke up in disbelief, thinking to herself that “Braverly” didn’t even sound like a word. But with the Wards’ support, she pressed into the dream to see what God was doing.
Soon after, Famous Ray’s morphed into what is now Braverly, a women’s empowerment center. It doubles as a sewing center and café that serves coffee, pastries, and small breakfast items. More recently, Braverly has developed its own bag line that includes purses, clutches, bags, and accessories. The products are currently sold in Thailand and select shops in America. Recently, Braverly received a 10,000-item order through a partnership with a U.S.-based startup.
Braverly is a women’s empowerment center that doubles as a café and sewing center.
Although the Wards have seen Braverly and their entire ministry grow, loving their neighbors in Mae Sot hasn’t come without its challenges. “The immigration laws and requirements can change on a monthly, even weekly basis here,” Candace says. “This makes it hard for us, our staff, and especially the refugee community we’re ministering to; they never know if they can stay or will have to run.”
Candace also laments working within an unpredictable system. “I feel that integrity and honesty are not built into the establishment here. It’s exhausting when you see that there are ulterior motives so often.”
The frustration of changing immigration requirements, coupled with the challenges inherent to working within another culture, have brought both Ray and Candace to the point of wanting to quit. “We fight so hard to love these people, bring help to their situations, and point them to opportunities, but it doesn’t always happen,” says Ray. “That’s when I get to a place of not knowing if I can do this anymore. But God says, ‘Yes, you can,’ and he always gives me a glimpse of hope. Even if it’s only a pinhole amount of light on the other side, he always gives us a little bit of hope to continue on.”
When Candace is at the end of herself, she finds joy in resting with the people in their community. “Every time, the love and joy God gives me is increased and I feel refreshed. There are a lot of things that are really challenging and discouraging, but I truly love this country,” she says.
“They never know if they can stay or will have to run.”
Ray adds, “We have to love the people and have that connection to fight through the battles with them.”
The Wards long-term commitment to Thailand and its people has allowed them to develop extremely intimate relationships with local families. “We’ve become family with many families,” Ray says. “Now those families are having children, and those children are playing with our children. They’re all being raised together. That’s the outpour; that’s a sliver of the light.”
More love and more love
The Wards recognize that through their labor to love others, God is revealing how he loves more clearly. “I thought I knew what it was to love people before I came here and I thought I loved well. But when you dedicate yourself to a problem or a people group or a nation or nations, God really shows you his heart for things,” Ray says.
Candace adds, “I’ve learned to recognize and respect how God is already in the culture. God created these people in his image, so his image is already here. I’m consistently blown away by that.”
Ray recalls meeting one of Outpour’s current leaders, Hebrew, when he was 17 and “kind of a punk kid.” He and Candace continued to pursue Hebrew and over time grew a deep friendship. Soon Hebrew was working alongside them, building and planting churches.
“He eventually felt God calling him into the refugee ministry to open up a home for children at risk, so we poured into his vision,” Ray says. Hebrew later moved into a Myanmar refugee camp to start safe homes where he shares Jesus’ love and healing with kids who come out of the jungle. Hebrew is now in his mid-thirties, married, and has three daughters of his own. “When you’re walking in relationship for that long, you get to see another generation grow up in loving Christian homes with Jesus all around them. That’s when we feel God saying, ‘That’s why.’”
Outpour continues to transform Mae Sot as Ray and Candace empower their friends to reach further and love deeper. Four years ago, the Wards brought an abandoned baby named Joy into the Outpour Movement family. Amy, Outpour’s director of operations, now dreams of opening a home for abandoned babies. Ray and Candace plan to support her vision and make Mercy House a reality.
“God continually brings us into a place of understanding his heart for us individually and for the ones he’s calling us to,” Ray says. “He challenges us all the time with, ‘There’s more. I can give you more love and more love and more love.’”
Header photo of Mae Sot by Aleksandar Popovski.
Ward family photo by Jessica Tuttle Photography.
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Jenny Telfer is a photographer and freelance writer based in Southern California. She graduated from Vanguard University with a BA in film and has traveled to over 32 countries. She loves Jesus, her family, traveling, strong coffee, good wine, and true crime podcasts.