Pongsak

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

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 went to the Lutheran Mission to Thailand archives four days in a row.  Part of my motivation was that the room was air conditioned and the fixings for coffee were right down the hall. 

But a bigger part was that it felt good to be working again. 

My five weeks of wandering around Thailand had certainly not been a vacation.  My spirit had been willing but my disabled, 63 year old flesh coupled with my significantly flawed psyche and my inability to speak Thai well often made me feel weak as I tested myself by being alone in Thailand.  It was tiring work.  I never had trouble falling asleep at the end of each day. 

The work I had done during my first 35 days alone had been a different kind of work than the writing I do to supplement my income from disability.  Writing is hard work, and it makes me feel tired at the end of the day but also blessed.  The blessing is that, as a writer, I get to use my God given abilities to make my little contribution to the common good.  It also makes me feel grown, like I know what I’m doing in at least one part of my life.

Writing mainly human interest stories for two local newspapers back in the Chicago area, I interview teachers and clergy and politicians and merchants—people enjoying success and people grieving the loss of a loved one, a business or an election--and simply tell their stories in a one or two thousand words. 

Nothing I wrote ever changed the world.  What mattered was that I was not only earning money to pay my bills, but I was part of that huge, amorphous team which is trying to change the world.  It’s like the disciples when Jesus fed the 5000.  It was Jesus who did the miracle, but those twelve guys got to hand out the bread and fish.  They got to be part of the miracle, not because of any virtuous talent on their part, but because they had chosen to follow the right master.

It was good to get back to work again. 

My research involved scanning hundreds of pages of Mission to Thailand Executive Committee meeting minutes looking for references to Pongsak Limthongviratn, whose biography I’m writing.  One reason I want to write his life story is because he is a living metaphor for how to respond to a shrinking world and an increasingly multicultural society.

Pongsak has been a minority within a minority his whole life.  When he was living in Thailand he was part of the ethnic Chinese minority there (10-15% of the population) and a Christian (>1%).  When he and his wife Monta arrived in the U.S. in 1989, he became part of the Asian minority in both the nation and his church, the Evangelical Church in America (ELCA).

On the one hand, he has responded to his minority status by building bridges to the dominant society.  He speaks English very well in addition to being fluent in Mandarin and of course Thai.  In order to get his Th.D. in systematic theology, he had to pass language tests in Greek, Hebrew and German.  In his job in the Commission for Multicultural Ministry in the ELCA, he has learned to interact effectively with blacks, whites, Hispanics, Native Americans and all kinds of Asians.  He owns a home in a suburb of Chicago, raised his two sons there and has learned to eat pizza. 

On the other hand, part of his mission in life is to be an advocate and at times a fierce defender of the well being of his tiny minority group, the Thai Christians.  Sadly, it hasn’t been Buddhists in Thailand or Americans in general with whom he has had the most conflict.  The tension has been mostly within the Lutheran church—with Norwegian and Finnish missionaries in the Lutheran Mission to Thailand and with the bureaucratic power structure in the ELCA.

The conflicts have usually been about money which means the issue has really been about power.  When he would argue for Thai Christians making the decisions about the form and future of the church in Thailand, the missionaries would get their way and impose their ideas, because they had the money.  Likewise, when he would advocate for Asians in America having control over how they do church in this country, he would be opposed by American bureaucrats who said they knew how to do things the right way and would threaten to withhold funding if they didn’t get their way.

In a very real sense, Pongsak has been a foreigner wherever he has lived.  He has tried to adapt respectfully to the dominant culture as long as doing so did not undermine his core identity or the identity and integrity of his small minority group.  But whenever he sensed that his vulnerable constituency was being threatened by power elites, he would transform from an adapter to a fighter.  He would fight fairly according to the rules, but he wouldn’t hesitate to speak what he considered to be the truth to power.

I admire Pongsak very much, so much in fact that I look to him as a role model on how to lean into this increasingly diverse society in which we live.  First, Pongsak knows who he is.  He has clearly defined what he believes in and how those beliefs direct the way he lives.  Second, because his core beliefs include love—not just of the neighbor but of the enemy as well—he bends over backwards to try to adapt to cultural and personality differences. 

But third, bending over backwards to get along with people does not, for him, include letting people push him or his vulnerable group around.  Fourth, when he fights, it’s always in a defensive mode and according to the principles he believes in.

That’s how all of my heroes—Dr. King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu—lived.  All four of these saints could be accurately labeled as conservatives in some ways and as liberals in others.  All four transcended the kind of polarized partisan bickering so prevalent today.  They were radicals in the sense that they went to the root of what a meaningful, purpose filled life is all about.

It’s interesting.  Pongsak and I have worked closely together since 1992 and confer with each other several times a week.  A few people in the ELCA admire our relationship and hold it up as a model of how people from a dominant culture can work respectfully with minorities.  Yet, Pongsak and I are certainly not buddies.  I’m not even sure the word friends describes our relationship.  What we are, I have decided, is brothers in Christ.

That was a significant epiphany for me as I worked away in the air conditioned archives at a Lutheran seminary in the middle of a mainly Buddhist metropolis.  Whereas the Sangha (the community of 200,000 Buddhist monks) is united by a common paradoxical goal, i.e. each individual monk pursuing his own attempt to detach from everything and everyone, Pongsak and I are united by our common attachment to One we both believe will save us. . .even if we must suffer at times on our path to freedom.

And that got me to thinking again about how the kingdom of God which Jesus talked about so much is like a foreign country, a “place” to which people from “this world” will feel strangely attracted to and at the same time will feel uncomfortable and insecure in. 

I wondered where my allegiance really lay.  Do I feel more comfortable in “this world” or when I am on the road walking with Jesus’ disciples?  Was my ability to adapt to different cultures more like that of a chameleon, going along to get along without knowing whom I was following? 

I have no doubt that Pongsak—like Bonhoeffer, King and Romero—would be willing to die for the One to whom he had surrendered his life.  Would I or was I trying to hedge my spiritual bets by trying to keep one foot in the boat of this world and the other on the dock of the kingdom of God?

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