Editors 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
Thirty Cub Scouts—all in uniform—respectfully entered the Nong Bua Sam Church on a Tuesday afternoon. They were on their winter vacation, so their four leaders decided to take these Buddhist first and second graders on a field trip to the local Christian church to learn more about Christmas.
The church was already decorated with a life size manger scene and poinsettias. When the boys and girls were all seated on the floor, Nicky and M led half an hour of clap along songs which were blatantly Christian. The Cub Scouts got into the songs immediately, doing all the motions they were taught.
After the singing, these Buddhist youngsters watched a twenty minute animated telling of the Christmas story. Other than a few of the kids squirming, because the video got too long, they watched with interest.
Once again, I hadn’t expected what I was seeing. I had been clinging to a picture of this tiny Christian minority courageously living out their faith in an overwhelmingly Buddhist land. What I saw was thirty youngsters enjoying a couple hours in a church, and their leaders approving of the whole program. The leaders had been here several times before, so it wasn’t like they didn’t know what they were getting into.
Nicky and M ended the program by playing a couple silly games with the children and then leading them outdoors where they pigged out on ice cream.
When I talked to Sanit Katika, or Elder Sanit as the Nong Bua Sam members call him, about what had happened that evening, he told me that Buddhists and Christians get along fine in Thailand. Christians are accepted and even respected as good neighbors.
Perhaps the good feeling continues because Thai Buddhists don’t feel threatened by Christians. Catholic missionaries have been in Thailand since the 1500s and Protestants have been working there since in 1828, but the Christian population in Thailand remains at 1%.
H.R.H. Prince Damrong, in an introductory chapter he wrote in English for a volume published in 1928 celebrating 100 years of Protestant missionary work in Thailand, said, “I appreciate the request [to write a chapter] as one arising from friendship based on mutual respect and confidence.”
Damrong noted that the missionaries no longer “abuse Buddhism” as a tactic in their attempt to convert Thais to Christianity and commended the missionaries of his day for “their sterling qualities and the good work they have done in educational and medical matters. . . .” (McFarland, p. 15)
If success is determined by numbers, the Christian venture in Thailand has been a miserable failure. I began to wonder what keeps Sanit and the Nong Bua Sam Christians going when their efforts “to make disciples of all nations” achieve such minimal results. . . .until I realized that my definition of success is very Western indeed.
I haven’t kept coming back to this small church on a quiet soi in sub rural Thailand since 1994 because they are successful in terms of numbers. I have returned year after year because there, half way around the world, I’ve felt loved.
I think I began to understand why Sanit, Nicky, M and the other Nong Bua Sam members don’t lose heart. Their goal is not “to win people for Christ” as some Christians I know would articulate it, and therefore they don’t keep score.
Their goal is to introduce people they meet to someone they love and who loves them, realizing that it is not up to them to try to convert or manipulate people into loving him the same way they do.