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By Tom Holmes
Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
I’m never sure of myself in Thai culture. When I look at a menu, I’m never sure if the food listed is peht mak (very spicy hot) or mai peht (not spicy). I’m never certain when I should take my shoes off before entering a building or when it’s OK to leave them on. I still have not learned all the rules about when I should initiate a wai and when I should wait for the other person to begin the greeting. Because I always feel like a disoriented farang I covet opportunities to talk with people who know their way around better than I do to help get some sense of orientation.
That’s why I like to talk to missionaries, the ones who have been in Thailand a long time. They don’t always have the answers, but at least they say don’t in words I understand!
I’ve known Bruce and Lori Rowe since 1994 when I visited Chiang Mai for the first time. They came to Thailand as independently funded missionaries in 1992. Bruce is a computer guy who has devoted all his time to supporting churches with their communication and networking needs. Lori is a nurse who got involved with HIV/AIDS work with the tribal people living in the hills around Chiang Mai
They picked me up at the guesthouse, and we had lunch together at a noodle shop. The conversation shifted at one point to the topic of missionaries. Years ago, Bruce said, the missionary strategy was based on a model of conversion that tried to show that Buddhism is wrong and that Christianity has the truth.
They don’t do that anymore, he continued, partly because most missionaries are now in back up roles like the work he does with computers. It’s almost universally accepted among Western church workers that Thais communicate better with their neighbors than farang do. But more importantly, most missionaries accept that the rational, argumentative approach not only did not work—after over 150 years of missionary activity, Thailand is only 1% Christian—but it also is really contrary to the gospel which they are trying to preach.
Bruce said that the Thai Christians he works with don’t talk about Buddhism—negatively or positively—hardly at all. Partly it’s because Thais are becoming less and less religious, i.e. Buddhism for many is no longer the organizing force in their psyche that it used to be. But, more importantly, Thai Christians have learned that you don’t have to put down Buddha in order to share your love of Jesus. It’s about relationships more than ideas, although ideas still matter.
Bruce’s comments made me remember a conversation I had two years ago with four Thais in their twenties who had recently been baptized and were studying at a Bible school in Bangkok. When asked why they became Christian, they all said that in this religion they felt loved. They didn’t even mention doctrine or metaphysics.
When I talk about Thailand to my friends back home, some of the more liberal ones say that they are against sending missionaries anywhere, that missionaries embody that whole colonial, imperialistic, superior attitude which they disdain. They have heard stories about missionary arrogance and cultural insensitivity, some of which are true, of course. As I listened to Bruce and Lori tell stories about their work in Chiang Mai, however, I got to thinking. First, I’ve never met an arrogant, insensitive missionary in my travels to Thailand. I’m sure there are some, but I haven’t met them.
Second, I’ve met several Buddhist “missionaries” to the U.S. None of them—and they’ve all been American--have been arrogant either. In fact, most work hard at adapting their teaching to what Americans can relate to. In terms of their motivation, it’s really quite simple. They’ve encountered a belief system which they feel has changed their lives, and they can’t wait to share what they’ve experienced with others. The same is true, as far as I can tell, for the Christian missionaries I’ve met in the Land of Smiles.
The conversation then segued onto the subject of church politics. Bruce and Lorie told me that a lot of the ordinary church members they talk to were discouraged by what happened in the election that had recently taken place in the Church of Christ in Thailand, the denomination with which I’m most familiar. From the perspective of the person in the pew, the election was more about power and privilege than about servant leadership. And, these were Thai Christians talking about their own Thai leaders.
It occurred to me that Bruce and Lori were identifying more with the ordinary guy in the pew than with those who had power in the church. They had invested most of their adult lives in Thailand and had raised their three sons there. They would be the first to acknowledge that they are flawed human beings, but they had adapted themselves to Thailand rather than trying to reshape Thailand in their image. They still thought of the U.S. as home, but they had developed a very realistic and affectionate appreciation for this Asian land in which they are long term sojourners.
After lunch, the Rowes dropped me off at the McGilvery College of Divinity, a Church of Christ in Thailand seminary at Payap Universtity. There I would have a chance to gain a little more insight into Thai culture from two more people I respected.
Satanun Boonyakiat is the dean of the seminary and Karsten van Staveren is the school’s international program director. Without knowing what Bruce and Lori had talked about, they soon began telling their venting their feelings and thoughts about leadership in the Thai church.
“This expectation that you treat everyone as a threat to your power once you rise to the top,” Karsten said, “that is something that has to change.”
Satanun agreed and blamed the Western missionaries, not for the way they exercised power when they had it, but for the way they handed power over to the Thais. “I think missionaries have done wonderful ministries in Thailand in the past and have started many innovative ministries here,” he explained, “but I don’t think they did enough to help the Thai take over. Missionaries and Thai leaders didn’t really have a chance to work together, to create an atmosphere in which they can work together to help the younger Thai generation become ready for the job.”
“This sounds so familiar,” I thought as I listened. “It’s the same issued being debated back home regarding how the U.S. should leave Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Karsten added that the extreme respect for elders in Thai culture sometimes gets in the way of effective leadership. “In the Netherlands [where he earned his M.Div. degree],” he said, “when you are 35 you are over the hill. In Thailand, starting at 35 maybe you get a little responsibility; a little more when you pass 50 and you really get responsibility when you are over 60 or 65. By doing things that way you throw away a lot of potential that is there.”
Both men are in their thirties. “We are sitting here with Ajahn Satanun,” he continued. “In a sense it is a miracle [that he is dean] because according to Thai culture there should be someone much older. His appointment was born out of need. There was no one else qualified to do this job.”
He added that the younger generation in the church is getting fed up to the point where they don’t want to continue this way, but that the solution is not to copy a model from the West which doesn’t fit Thai culture. “Leading by example,” he concluded, “ is much more what changes churches, which makes people understand. You lead by the example of your life more than by writing plans.”
Again I got to thinking, “This sounds very much like the disillusionment many Americans feel about politicians. In my own state of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich would be convicted on 17 counts a few months later.
The two ajahns also mentioned the need for students to learn how to analyze their own culture, so that in their preaching they would be better able to show how the Christian faith addresses the questions people in Thai society are asking, i.e. to make religion relevant. They said that one way to do this is to enable more students to study abroad.
This puzzled me. “How can studying in the U.S., Australia or Europe help Thais better understand their own culture?” I asked.
Satanun replied that it is a matter of gaining perspective. He earned his Ph.D. at Fuller Seminary in California. It’s not about imposing models that work in the American context on the Thai church, he explained, but of attaining a place where you can observe your own culture more objectively.
Karsten was raised in Thailand by Dutch parents, studied at a university (Utrecht) in the Netherlands and is now teaching back in Thailand. “I’m a person in between cultures,” he said, “which means that I have enough distance to reflect on Thai culture, but I’m close enough to also love it. Understanding your own culture is one of the most difficult things if you have never been outside of it.”
I left McGilvery not so much with a greater understanding of Thailand but with a better handle on why I had needed to spend 40 days alone in Thailand. If you compare making sense out of life to putting together a 1000 piece puzzle, until you have been thrown into another culture deeply enough to get thoroughly disoriented, it’s like trying to put the puzzle pieces together without the benefit of the picture on the box cover. You think you know, you imagine what the pieces should look like when you’ve assembled them completely but get frustrated when they don’t fit together in a way that produces the picture you want.
When I left home at the beginning of December on United Airlines flight #881, I imagined that my time alone in Thailand would be a wilderness experience like Jesus had for forty days or Moses and the people of Israel went through for forty years. It would be full of struggles with demons which I had avoided facing until now, a test of my character.
I have to admit that I was at this point a little disappointed that there had been no epic battles like the one that the four children fought with Aslan in Narnia against the wicked witch. I had been given no chance to emerge from the forty days a spiritual hero. Instead, all that I had experienced was the feeling, like those four children, of not knowing what I was doing in a very foreign land.
I caught a tuk tuk and was home at the Riverside in ten minutes. “I need a drink,” I thought, feeling overwhelmed by all the input my brain had received that day, so I waddled down to the a coffee shop outside of the Rimping Market on and ordered a big iced coffee.
What would the Buddha say about all of this?
What would Jesus say?
I sat down on the porch outside Motto, sipped my iced coffee and started writing furiously in my journal. A few of the pieces began to fit together for the first time.