By Tom Holmes
How immigrants have blessed me
The Thai Community Church of Chicago (TCCC), as it was called in 1992, told St. Paul's that they would use the building for about six years, and during that time, they would save enough money to purchase their own building. They built a model/prototype of what their new church building might look like and set it on the piano in the social hall as a reminder/motivator in their fundraising efforts.
The two congregations therefore pictured their time together as kind of an extended vacation trip to a foreign country. In one sense, St. Paul's was the host congregation for the Thais who were very much on a journey in a foreign land called the United States. In another sense, it was the Thai congregation which was giving St. Paul's members a taste of being in another culture.
The relationship between the two congregations got off to a positive start when TCCC members treated the entire St. Paul's council to a Sunday buffet at a restaurant called P.S. Bangkok in Chicago. They followed that up with a series of "gifts" to St. Paul's like the contribution of Thai food and imports to St. Paul's holiday bazaar, which motivated the host congregation to rename the event the International Holiday Bazaar within a few years.
TCCC hosted the Bangkok Hosanna Children's Choir in 1996 as well as Anchalee, a famous singer in the land of smiles who had won the Thai equivalent of a Grammy in her home country. Anchalee, who had become a Christian a couple years before, attracted a full house in the church whose cornerstone read Deutsche Evangelishe Lutheranshe Kirche.
"Our Christmas celebration," declared the December, 1997 issue of St. Paul's newsletter a year later, "will include classical Thai dance, a magic show with a Christian message by Peter Tessalee and a sermon by Rev. Fred Rajan, the Executive Director of the Commission for Multicultural Ministries.
A memorable experience for St. Paul's members was the chance to see themselves on national TV. The following article from St. Paul's newsletter explains.
Remember when Thirty Thais joined us for our 120th Anniversary
celebration? Remember when the Thai congregation gaveus an extra gift
of $4000 to help us meet expenses? Remember when consistently
more Thais showed up for Clean Up/Fix Up Days than members of
St. Paul's? We have been blessed by the presence of the Thai congregation
in so many ways. One big way is that they join us for special occasions,
doubling the number of people at worship and helping us to celebrate.
We have the chance to do the same for them. Sunday afternoon,
December 19, beginning at 4:30 pm, is their Christmas service which
will be taped for national broadcast on ABC later on. Your presence
for the service at 4:30 and the dinner at 6:15 would be a source of
encouragement and support for them. It's one more way we can
acknowledge that it's not just about us but also about the building up
During those first years of the Thai/St. Paul's partnership, St. Paul's members became motivated to give gifts to the Thai "foreigners" sharing their space. When TCCC gave me a 17 day mission encounter trip to Thailand and Japan in 1994, St. Paul's responded by purchasing over 100 Thai Bibles and hymnbooks for me to distribute to congregations during my trip.
Fifteen groups of Christians in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Udon-Thani and Tokyo received plaques on which were inscribed the words of St. Paul's mission statement, Reaching Out Our Hands in Christ. After I got back, I wrote in the St. Paul's newsletter,
They seemed pleased that a group of Christians in Chicago cared
about them. They also seemed moved by my statement that we
would be praying for them. What I learned is that mission is now
a wonderful two way street. It used to be that we would send
missionaries to Thailand. Now Thai Christians are realizing that
we in the United States need their witness as much as they need ours.
Because of declining membership and worship attendance, St. Paul's gifts to the Thais were not large. Nevertheless, they were good faith attempts to acknowledge the relationship between the two congregations as a gift and to contribute as we were able. For example, the March, 2003 issue of the St. Paul's newsletter stated,
At our annual meeting we voted to send $400 to the Bangkok
Institute of Theology as part of our benevolence giving. $400
is enough to pay the tuition, room and board for one student for
a whole year. Pastor Pongsak teaches at BIT one month every
By 2000 St. Paul's members noticed that they no longer heard our Thai partners talking about buying their own building. The model of their imagined new building had disappeared from the social hall. The joint purchase of a $7000 outdoor church sign on which TCCC and St. Paul's were given equal billing and for which each congregation paid half replaced the prototype on the piano as a symbol of where both congregations envisioned the relationship was heading.
Passages from St. Paul's newsletter, the Messenger, document the experience from St. Paul's point of view:
By giving both congregations equal billing, the sign proclaims that St. Paul's and the Thai Community Church are partners in the mission to spread the love of Christ to a broken world. People who have been around St. Paul's for awhile know that the partnership is not an accomplishment on our part but a gift from God.
As the new millennium began, members of both congregations began noticing something of a role reversal taking place. What began in 1992 as a relationship in which TCCC was the needy and vulnerable partner and St. Paul's was the party who had the stability and power to give or with aid, now began to turn upside down. As the St. Paul's ship continued to leak members, TCCC continued to thrive in energy and giving if not in numbers.
The following letter from Pongsak appeared in the February, 2005 St. Paul's newsletter:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
It is my pleasure to inform you that the Thai Community Church has decided to commit ourselves to further our partnership with St. Paul's by providing annual support in the amount of $12,000. We have been blessed by the people at St. Paul's for your love and care. To follow your good example, we are now extending the same love and care to you.
Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn
As the relationship approached its fifteenth anniversary, both congregations continued giving gifts to and keeping commitments with each other. While TCCC's gifts to St. Paul's increasingly dwarfed the American congregation's gifts to them, at least in financial terms, the partnership thrived. An article in the June 2006 issue of St. Paul's newsletter stated,
Maybe we have grown so accustomed to their faces that we no
longer are aware that a significant group of immigrants is meeting in the church building ever Sunday afternoon. While Congress is debating the immigration issue and you and I are trying to figure the whole thing out, we have been blessed with an experience of "welcoming the stranger" that has exceeded anything we could have dreamed of thirteen years ago. We started out as strangers and have become "sisters, brothers, friends." The specifics of our relationship don't, of course, apply to many of the points being debated, but we do have something to contribute about the value of building bridges between two cultures.