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Life from a graveyard

Truman Hertzler conveys an Isaan style “welcome into fellowship” to the man responsible for his son’s untimely death. Photo: Carol Tobin
Release date: 
Tuesday, 11 July 2017

 Intermingled Anabaptist expressions bloom in hard soil of Thailand

“Thailand: The graveyard of mission.” This descriptor has echoed in the ears of Thailand-bound missionaries for decades; thankfully, God has a different story. That different story is finally emerging – and Anabaptists have a place in it!

Seeds of the church

It was 201 years ago that Anne Judson (wife of American missionary Adoniram Judson) learned the language well enough to share the gospel with Siamese (Thai) captives in Burma. Twelve years later, in 1828, the first Protestant missionaries arrived in Thailand – 260 years after the first resident Catholic priests.

For Catholics and Protestants alike, the 1800s tell a story of incredible dedication and perseverance. The missionaries came up against factors that are still definitive today: an almost impenetrable social cohesion built upon an alloy of Buddhism and Brahminism, as well as deep roots of animism which add yet another reason to fear change. Just as Thai people have demonstrated an unsurpassed capacity to resist colonization through flawlessly smooth diplomacy, so they have proven to be staunchly committed to their de facto identity statement: “To be Thai is to be Buddhist.”

In 1880, God again used the foundation laid in Burma to bless Thailand. Three evangelists from the Karen tribe were led from Burma by a veteran missionary to a village in Thailand where they met a man who had had a dream the night before that three teachers would be bringing the Word of God. He had been waiting all day. Five hundred Karen repented and believed.

The 1900s brought new challenges of liberalism on one side and a truncated gospel on the other. Church structures emerged, most notable of which was the Church of Christ Thailand (CCT), fruit of a century of work by the Presbyterians. Missionaries established educational institutions. The prevailing social climate continued to be resistant to gospel witness. The latter half of the 1900s brought some fresh energy and holistic vision: An influx of OMF (Overseas Missionary Fellowship) workers expelled from China enabled Northern Thailand to emerge as a new centre for fruitful work among the “hill tribes.” Next, Pentecostal influences began to make their way to Thailand. The 1980s brought central Thai people their first example of a rapidly growing indigenous church movement.

Early Anabaptist witness

The first Anabaptist witness came when MCC began a modest connection with Thailand in 1960. Over the next 15 years, MCC was able to place some PAX workers (American conscientious objectors on alternative foreign service) and buy handicrafts for sale in the USA.

MCC commitments in the region grew significantly during what the Vietnamese call “The American War.” In 1975, in partnership with the Church of Christ Thailand, MCC began to provide refugee assistance, explore opportunities for placing teachers and engage in agricultural development. It was hoped that MCC might be able to help the CCT to discern the role of the church in Thai society in regard to human rights advocacy, as this had not been a strong point of the church. The MCC presence in Thailand continued sporadically over the next few years.

Though massive genocide was occurring in Cambodia, a 1977 MCC field report indicated only that “what is going on….is not always ascertainable.” By 1979, the horror was revealed, and there was a dramatic increase in the number of refugees pouring into Thailand. MCC took on a key role at the camps and in resettlement processes for Laotian, Hmong, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees.

According to one veteran worker from that era, these were years of revival. “Word and work” went hand in the hand, and God added his wonders. Many of today’s Thai leaders caught their passion for holistic witness in those camps. This refugee work, in addition to peace education and human rights advocacy related to events in Burma, continued until MCC closed its office in 1995.

By then, other Anabaptist mission entities had begun to form vision for church planting in Thailand. Brethren in Christ World Missions personnel made an exploratory trip in 1986, followed by the commissioning of a missionary couple in 1987. They were able to secure employment at a technical institute on the outskirts of Bangkok. Their mandate within this self-support model was to pursue cross-cultural relationships through which to share the gospel and encourage the development of indigenous leaders through discipleship.

In 1990, Eastern Mennonite Mission assigned a worker to begin exploratory work. A church planting team came together in 1992 as the Tobins made a 10-year commitment. By 1995, they were ready to position themselves among Lao-speaking Isaan in one of the least-reached provinces in rural Thailand. The highly contextualized Life Enrichment Church, with its small worshipping groups and fully empowered local leaders, emerged and continues to spread into new villages and districts.

Mennonite Brethren Missions/Services International (now MB Mission) similarly made an exploratory trip in 1991. The pioneer workers they sent shortly after this trip made the decision to move to Nan Province in Northern Thailand to work with the Khmu. The Schmidts and their teammates developed a ministry focussed on village evangelism, education and agricultural development. Ongoing connections have put them in a position to see a sweeping movement of people coming to Christ among the Khmu along the Thai-Lao border.

Work takes root

None of these new Anabaptist entities ended up working under the CCT, despite the good relationship that MCC had nurtured over the years. Each agency forged its own way forward with new partners and visa platforms. The Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand emerged as an ally and a voice encouraging church planting across the country. Eastern Mennonite Missions Global Ministries director David Shenk encouraged EMM workers to prioritize relationships with fellow Anabaptists as an expression of the value on “community.” Thus, the team leaders made many trips to meet together for prayer and encouragement. A pattern of getting together for retreats was established, making way for the welcome of new workers.

In 1998, the General Conference Mennonite Church (COM) sent a Canadian/Lao couple to work with the EMM team. After one term, they launched their own church planting work in another location in Isaan under MC Canada Witness.

In January 2001, Team 2000 arrived. With a commitment to work with each other for 10 years, these three Mennonite Brethren couples launched an orphanage and church plant south of

Bangkok and have since gone on to cast vision for the 28 workers who now relate with multiple local leaders and emerging church communities in several parts of the country.

Around the same time, the Myers, new leaders for the BIC work, arrived. At EMM’s invitation and encouragement, they launched a work in Ubon Ratchathani’s provincial capital city, only 50 kilometers from the EMM team. In addition to developing highly compatible visions for ministry, the proximity proved providential, enabling the teams to support one another through times of tragic loss.

Meanwhile, Mennonite Mission Network sent workers to another location in Isaan and Rosedale Mennonite Mission is strengthening their presence in Bangkok with second-generation leaders from Central America who are emerging from RMM’s long-time commitments there. Virginia Mennonite Missions has also recently engaged as partners with the Life Enrichment Church to see a missional outpost formed among the Isaan in Bangkok. A group of conservative Anabaptists has built up an Anabaptist mission training school – the Institute of Global Opportunities (IGo) – in Chiang Mai. Thus, at least in Chiang Mai, Anabaptists are known for their head coverings and large families, not to mention zeal for the gospel.

All of these groups have a strong focus on discipleship; all are gaining a wealth of experience in what it is to see the Holy Spirit’s presence and power demonstrated in healing and deliverance from demonic oppression.

Relational connection

Though discussions about a joint Anabaptist registry periodically arise, the decision was made to not be bound to a structure that might feel bulky or artificial. Instead, there has been a commitment shared by most of the groups to simply connect relationally.

Besides an endeavour among team leaders to meet twice a year as an Anabaptist Reference Council, there have been three vibrant gatherings bringing together Thai and Lao Anabaptist believers. It has been exciting to see an eager rapport being built across both long-standing cultural and socio-economic divides as well as differences in Mennonite/Anabaptist “church culture” across generations. These gatherings have sparked the translation of Anabaptist resources into Thai: the Mennonite Confession of Faith, Palmer Becker’s “What is an Anabaptist Christian?” The International Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB) Confession of Faith has also been translated into Thai. Most recently, a book by Richard Showalter with stories of early mission initiatives into Asia as well as stories of the early Anabaptist martyrs has been made available in Thai.

In a context where a consumerist prosperity gospel is gaining appeal, this understanding of Anabaptist faith is of high value.

Anabaptist identity

Healthy long-term relationships and resources are important in nurturing Anabaptist identity; however, there is a stamp of identity that simply comes through experience.

When the Life Enrichment Church in southern Ubon Ratchathani province was reeling from the accident that took the life of EMM team leader John Hertzler, the church was led to walk out a significant story of forgiveness. They spent months sharing the gospel and discipling the driver whose recklessness had caused the accident. The climax came when John’s parents were present

on the day of this man’s baptism. The church watched as these stalwart believers graciously welcomed this man into the family of faith.

Later, the church gathered to hear Truman Hertzler teach about Anabaptist history. He told stories of failure in which his forefathers had lost missional opportunities due to legalism and lethargy. Yet, he emphasized, perseverance through hardship and commitment to the one foundation Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11) is always the path to renewed vision and obedience to God’s call. One by one, the believers in the room stood up: “This is who we are too! No matter how much we have to suffer or how often we falter and fail, if this is what it is to be Anabaptist, then we are Anabaptists.” From this grave came life!

Besides the communities that are emerging through onsite mission workers, another stream informing the emergence of indigenous Anabaptist witness in Thailand is that of former Hmong refugees who settled in the USA. Many became affiliated with MC USA. They formed their own Hmong Mennonite Churches Mission and have eagerly envisioned the day when the Hmong whose villages dot the mountainous landscape of Northwest Thailand might claim Anabaptist identity.

Beginning in 2005, this impulse was undergirded by a number of teaching visits from North American pastors and Mennonite Mission Network workers and construction projects. Thus, these Hmong Christians, who have long been a part of the CCT, have begun to sense that their own theology has strong affinities to Anabaptism. 2016 proved to be a significant year as a newly consolidated “Hmong District 20” as a CCT district has now joined MWC. They have sought this affiliation because, in Nelson Kraybill’s words, “They want to explicitly claim and promote Anabaptist understandings of the church, including nonviolence.”

Those who have observed these churches note the variety of practices that make their presence within MWC a gift: peacemaking as part of evangelism, hospitality, financial stewardship, generosity, passionate Bible teaching and the development of leaders. Both MWC and MMN representatives will be present in Thailand when the welcome is made official in April 2017.

Though Christians still comprise a slim 1.2 percent of the population in Thailand, we anticipate blessing as these various streams of Anabaptist witness intermingle and nourish each other in the years to come and God continues to allow his beauty and resurrection life to emerge from this “graveyard!”

—Carol Tobin and her husband Skip served in Thailand from 1989–2009 in both church planting and regional administration under EMM. Now based in Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA, Carol continues to carry a close connection with Thailand as Asia regional director with Virginia Mennonite Missions. 

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2017

Name: Hmong 7th District of the Church of Christ in Thailand*
Members: 1,733
Congregations: 23
Presiding officer: Pornchai Banchasawan
Name: Khmu Mission
Members: 39,250
Congregations: 430
Presiding officer: Phone Keo Keovilay
Name: Life Enrichment Church
Members: 199
Congregations: 16
Presiding officer: Pastor Somchai Phanta
Name: Thailand Mennonite Brethren Foundation
Members: 1,600
Congregations: 20
Presiding officer: Ricky Sanchez
*The Executive Committee voted to accept into membership at the February 2017 meetings. Figures from MWC director map, 6 February 2017.
Source: MWC directory 2015