When I arrived in Chiang Mai to teach EFL in a Buddhist country back in 1999, I was surprised at the size of the expatriate Christian community here. At that time I knew very little about them and certainly hadn't chatted with any. Like many Brits who grew up during the 70s and 80s, I had a dislike for anything associated with the word ‘Christian', and the mere mention of the word ‘missionary' led me to shout " why don't they leave people alone?" to anyone within earshot. However, after living here for over 11 years and meeting many of them personally, my opinions have mellowed quite dramatically. For this blog I am going to write about, if you haven't guessed already, the Western followers in Chiang Mai of the Christian God.
I grew up in a British suburban home surrounded by skepticism and cynicism for all organized religions. My Dad is from Glasgow and experienced first-hand as a child the rabid bigotry between Catholics and Protestants. He regarded bigotry and moral corruption as intrinsic to all organized religions and told me religion was all nonsense. I believed him then, and I still believe him now. Nothing has changed my opinion regarding ‘organized' religion. However, I have come to believe it is people, and not religions, that create the good and evil in our world.
I believe we all possess a soul which balances negative and positive energy. I believe that by doing, thinking and saying good things, I can increase the positive energy in my soul and reduce the negative stuff that so often creates personal hells. Regrettably, I don't work nearly as hard at this as I should. Good people's souls, regardless of any religious affiliation, possess lots of positive energy.
I also believe the only reality is my own reality: somebody else's experiences aren't mine, so reality for me can't be found in another person's writings in a Bible or Koran, or even on another person's lips. Moral teachings can be found there, but the truth, whatever the truth is, can only be found in my soul by me.
Although most Christians I meet do not throw their religious beliefs at me, the dogma of some comes across to me as arrogance. Christians, in general, feel theirs is the only truth and you must accept it or go to hell. There is little room for other beliefs or religions. I don't buy that. I love the Buddhist approach to spiritual belief which can briefly be summarized as ‘up to you'. It has a path and moral teachings, but there is no Buddhist sales representative going to knock my door.
Anyway, let's move on to how Christians arrived in Chiang Mai. Although Thailand was first exposed to Christian teachings by Portuguese traders and mercenaries in the 17th Century, it wasn't until America Presbyterians arrived in Bangkok in 1828 that this religion established a firm foothold in a country that was almost exclusively Buddhist. There was royal support for these first missionaries. In fact, an 1878 edict from King Chulalongkorn stated: "...Every person has the right to choose his own religious belief...If anyone considers the religion of Jesus Christ to be good and true, he is free to profess it...Religion is no hindrance to a man's duty to his country.". The King was merely reflecting, I feel, the teachings of tolerance within Buddhism.
The original mission in Chiang Mai was founded by Daniel and Sophia McGilvary in April 1867. Local people benefited greatly from the medicines, including quinine, Daniel brought with him, and he was soon named ‘Pau Kru Luang' or ‘Great Father Teacher'. His wife Sophia founded Dara Academy. This first mission was called the Laos Mission and included 6 other missions across the North of Thailand plus one in Kengtung, Burma and one in Yunnan, China. It was eventually absorbed into the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) in 1934. Initially there was official local resistance to the mission, and in 1869 two of the first six converts of the Laos Mission were executed!
When the missionaries arrived, they worked on three fronts in their war to save souls: churches, schools and hospitals. The first Western building in Chiang Mai was a church which was built on the East bank of the Ping River close to Nawarat Bridge in 1868. Also on the East bank Christian schools, including Prince Royal's College and Dara Academy, and hospitals, McCormick, were founded at the end of the 19th century on land owned by the CCT. It was not until well into the 20th century that ‘farang' were allowed to reside on the old-city side of the river.
Today, it is estimated that there are over 4,000 missionaries in Chiang Mai and the surrounding provinces. Some work in the mountains with hill tribes, some work with a range of charitable foundations in the city and some work independently. Although a sizeable minority is from South Korea, Australia and the UK, many are from the USA. Many of the Presbyterian and Baptist groups fall under the protective wing of the CCT; however, evangelical groups, such Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons tend to work independently of other organizations. There are even some Amish-type ones who wear 19th century clothes. I remember I stood and stared the first time I saw Laura Ingalls walk into Dukes to order a burger and fries.
The Christians I have met who have come through SEE's TEFL training course are all honest, hard-working, moral, sincere and selfless. For example, from their own pocket Heather and her husband foster care 7 boys from Viengping Orphanage. I have met the boys and they are polite, reserved and respectful. Heather has given them hope and a future. She is a wonderful human being. However, I wanted to know more about SEE's Christians, so I sent a list of questions by email to a few Christian graduates. Gary and Gordon responded, and I have added their interviews below.
Gary Moon (GM) was a chiropractor in the States. He is a United Methodist Missionary. He is currently establishing in Chiang Mai an orphanage for Thai kids with AIDS.
Gordon O. McGinnis (GOM) is American and before coming to Thailand he was a civilian contractor in Iraq. In Thailand he teaches English and Bible.
1. What do God and Jesus mean to you?
GM: Savior and the Lord
GOM: Christianity is unique in that God came to earth and lived among men. He did this in the person of Jesus Christ. God came down to the level of His creation, humanity. He fully and completely entered into the human experience. Every negative aspect and every positive aspect of life as humans experience it He too has experienced it. He knows what you are going through.
Then there is the purity of God. Light. Dark. It has to be one or the other. It can not be both light and dark at the same time. Light and dark can not ever exist together. In the same way sin (an old fashioned word meaning to do something you know you shouldn't) and God can not ever exist together. So here I am a person who knows I have done things I should not have. I am a sinner. I want to be with God but I can't because my sin and God can not exist together. That is the Biblical definition of death - eternal separation from God.
The sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus lived a sin free life and died in my place. In your place. The sin that each of us has ever done separates us from the presence of God forever. Jesus died and took the penalty for our sins upon Himself so that those who believe upon Him can be saved and enter into God's presence for eternity. Jesus is referred to as having "defeated" death in that He came back to life and rose again to heaven. He has exercised His power over death and offers eternal life to those who believe in Him. As a Christian my body will die but my spirit will live forever with God through faith is Jesus. He is likened unto a Sheppard who knows His sheep. He knows if you are His or not.
2. How did they influence your decision to come to Thailand?
GM: Led me to Thailand through United Methodist Church.
GOM: No doubt about it God was the major motivating force which brought me to Thailand. I do believe that He called me to come here. Why move? To be a missionary. To tell people who are interested about Jesus. Why Thailand? Don't know. It could have been anywhere in the world. I do well and truly love living here. I like the people very much. I remember back in college a guest speaker on campus noting that we need to stop fearing that God will call us to live some place and to some work that will leave us miserable and unhappy. My getting to live here is proof that he was correct.
3. How do they influence your life here?
GM: Gave me joy, peace in mind, appreciate others and to love Thai people.
GOM: The same way they do no matter where in the world I go. Before I met Jesus I was a genuinely Pagan guy. Drugs. Theft. Lying. Sex. Selfish. Violent. Self Centered. Etc. Now though, the old saying, "Christians are not perfect, they are just forgiven" certainly holds true. I am not perfectly free of these sins but they are no longer a pattern of life for me. This is due to the presence of God in my life.
4. Do you actively try to convert non-Christians?
GM: No, I don't. I just want to share who Jesus is and His love with Thai people.
GOM: This response may sound nit-picky but honestly it is not. It is not because the question reflects a misunderstanding that many share. Nobody has the power or the authority to convert another. Jesus told His followers to go and tell the world about Him. He did not command them to go and convert the world. Conversion is a matter only God and the individual can be involved in. Only God can convert someone. As a follower of Christ my job is to tell people about Him and at that only if they are open to discussing the issue. Jesus is not to be force fed to people. So yes, anyone who is open to talking about Him I am open to having that conversation with them. Again, what they do with the information I share is up to them and God.
5. Can someone live a good moral life if they are not religious?
GM: Yes, they can. Living with a good morality is not only for religious people but non-religious people as well.
GOM: Sure. We all know people who are "salt of the earth;"people who everyone likes because to their very core they are just generous, loving human beings. Because the context of these questions is Christian Missions I can't just stop there with my answer though. What is not asked here is, "So what?" So you are a good person. How good is good enough? If you are interested in spending eternity with God in heaven then "living a good moral life" is not enough. You can not work nor earn your way into heaven. Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." No level of morality or goodness on your part gets you to heaven. Only through faith in Jesus are our sinful natures wiped clean. Only by asking Jesus to be Lord in our life are we purified before God and welcomed into His presence.
6. Is it possible to be spiritual without following an organized religion?
GM: I don't know exactly what you mean by "spiritual" but I think anyone can have their own "spiritual" life in their own term.
GOM: Sure, but, if the point of your spirituality is not serving God through faith in Jesus then why bother? I mean usually when people refer to themselves as being "spiritual" they refer to some mix of metaphysical thoughts, practices and traditions that they have decided is right for them. Folks who do that put themselves at the service of a small faith and a small god or gods. Again, I just find myself wondering what is the point? To sincerely live a life of faith is hard work. VERY hard work. If the god you serve is so small that you are the arbitrator of whom they are and what about them you want to honor with your belief and devotion then they are not in my opinion worth the effort. I would just chuck it all and eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.
The God of the Old and New Testaments, now there is The God to get with. The Alpha and the Omega. The Beginning and the End. The Creator of all that ever was, is now and ever shall be. Google, "the names of God." A number of web sites will list that display and explain the many ways God is referred to in scripture. Each one of these names describes an attribute of God. He is a big God. Way beyond full human conception. He is a God worth honoring with my faith.
7. What is your opinion of missionaries?
GM: Missionaries are a group of blessed people who are used as instruments for God's work in foreign countries (different culture).
GOM: I will respond in the context of Chiang Mai and wow, in Chiang Mai that is a loaded question. There are just bunches and bunches of sincere people working honestly for the Kingdom of God. There is also in CM, a lot of what goes forth in the name of missions that is not in fact missions.
I don't recall now the name of the organization but a few weeks ago I came across a pamphlet telling me that this group provided training and discipleship to the children of missionary families. This declaration brought me to full stop. They are here to be a source of discipleship to the children of missionary families? If the parents of missionary families are not prepared to disciple their own children then I must seriously question their qualifications to be on the mission field. Go home, get your house in order then come back and give it another go.
There are a few counseling services available to missionaries and their families. There is a financial services company catering specifically to missionaries. In CM there are quite a number of both non-profit and commercial activities aimed at serving the missionary community. There is a vibrant missionary support industry here. I am firmly in favor of free markets and the sprit of capitalism and good on those of you involved in this industry. You are not however, by traditional definition a missionary.
My response to this last question focuses on a negative aspect of the mission field as I observe it locally. My opinion of missionaries generally though is very favorable. I see everyday the quite real good they accomplish in people's lives. A sincere life spent in the service of God on the mission field is absolutely a life well lived.
Thank you Gary and Gordon for being so open with your responses. People such as you have turned a fairly cynical person into a far more tolerant human being. The positive energy you bring into this world is impressive and long may it continue.
John Quinn is the course trainer at SEE TEFL in Chiang Mai