An Early Christmas Gift!

Sometimes, Christmas gifts arrive when you least expect them, and you can find joy in the presence of God revealed through the ministries of the Church in this world! Most of you know that I have been working in Thailand since 2011 and inviting volunteers to come to Thailand to share in the work of Christian Volunteers in Thailand (CVT) since 2012. More than 75 people have accepted my invitation and, as I write this, 25 CVT volunteers who have come to Thailand still serve in some capacity with our partner church, the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT).

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Ms. Wararat Chaisuk and Me

The gift that I want to share with you today is the story of Ms. Wararat Chaisuk, the Thai woman pictured on the left in the photo. Back in 1987, she was a young student, one of several hundred students who attended Chiangrai Vidayakhome School in Chiangrai, Thailand. Her mother was a teacher at the school, who recently retired after 40 years of service. Ms. Wararat Chaisuk was struggling to learn English, the only foreign language offered at her school. She was not having an easy time of it and did not think she would use it in the future.

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English Camp at CVK in 1987

That year, Ms. Ellen Harding, came to Chiangrai Vidayakhome School to serve as an English teacher with Christian Volunteers in Thailand. (This was decades before I went to Thailand to serve as Coordinator of Christian Volunteers in Thailand, a partnership ministry now in its 58th year.) Ms. Wararat Chaisuk was one of the students she taught during her tenure there. In addition, Ms. Ellen Harding also helped to lead an English Camp for the students while she was there. Both are pictured in this photo of an English Camp that year.

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CVT Volunteers and Alumni

Ms. Wararat Chaisuk graduated from Chiangrai Vidayakhome School and went on to study at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Ms. Ellen Harding left the school to pursue other work. Later, she met and married Mr. Andrew Collins, who also had ties to Thailand, as his parents were missionaries there. Thirty-one years passed by. On October 5, 2019, Christian Volunteers in Thailand hosted a CVT Reunion Dinner in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Lots of people attended, including both Mrs. Ellen Harding Collins and Ms. Wararat Chaisuk.

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Mrs. Ellen Harding Collins and Ms. Wararat Chaisuk

There was time set aside during the 2019 CVT Reunion Dinner for everyone to introduce themselves. Early in the process, Mrs. Ellen Harding Collins stood up and introduced herself to the group. Towards the end of the time of introductions, Ms. Wararat Chaisuk stood up and introduced herself to the group. Then, she turned to Mrs. Ellen Harding Collins and said, “You were the CVT teacher at my school when I was a student there. You gave me hope that I could do great things as a woman. You showed me the love of God every day. Still today, you remain an inspiration to me.” Mrs. Ellen Harding Collins’ mouth dropped open in amazement as the room filled with applause. It had been 31 years since they had seen each other, but the impact of one CVT volunteer on this Thai student had not been forgotten.

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Ms. Wararat Chaisuk and her staff at Union Language School

Today, Ms. Wararat Chaisuk is the Director of Union Language School (ULS), a school that has been teaching the Thai language to missionaries for 65 years. She is pictured here with her staff and me during a fire drill at the school. (What else do you do as you are waiting for the “All clear!” signal?) I have the privilege of serving as the Chair of the Board of Directors at ULS and of working with Ms. Wararat Chaisuk as she leads this organization. We may never know the impact of our work on the life of another person. I was honored to be able to witness one Thai student share the impact of this ministry on her and her life – an early Christmas gift!

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Mrs. Ellen Harding Collins, Ms. Wararat Chaisuk and Me

You, who are reading this, are a part of this story, for without you, there would be no CVT Program, no volunteers and no lives being changed by their work. It is the time that you take to pray for us. It is the effort you make to send us letters and emails. It is the commitment you make by sending your contribution to Presbyterian World Mission that makes all of this possible. Today, the lives of young Thai men and women are being changed by the CVT volunteers who serve at their schools. Thank you for all that you do to support us in this ministry! I hope that, this Christmas, you receive a Christmas gift as wonderful as the one I have shared with you here, for God is with us, Emanuel!

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A Month of Goodbyes

The good news is that the rains finally came to Thailand and, fortunately, some of the rice crop was saved.  Unfortunately, many of the same places that were struck by the drought earlier this year have been experiencing once-in-a-lifetime floods as they received more rain than normal. It is a situation that is devastating for those who are barely making ends meet and struggle to put food on the table for their families. Please keep Thailand in your prayers.

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James Riggins waving goodbye at Suvarnabhumi International Airport

August was a month of goodbyes. One of the most difficult for me was saying goodbye to Rev. James and Goodwill Riggins and little James Alex. An American Baptist who attended Pittsburgh Seminary, James was the first volunteer that I recruited back in 2012 and we have become good friends over the past eight years. During that time, the program has gone from nothing (with James often serving as my guinea pig) to a solid, well-articulated mission and ministry experience that receives strong positive reviews from volunteers and supervisors alike. It is hard to say goodbye to any and all of the volunteers, but as the first and the longest-serving, James holds a special place in my heart. James is now teaching at a university in China and completing his doctorate in intercultural studies at Biola University.

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Anna Silco with students at Bamrung Wittaya School

We also said goodbye to Aaron and Anna Silco, who came here last fall after being joined together as man and wife in a beautiful summer wedding. Both are enrolled at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in Hyde Park. They took a one-year break from their studies and came to Thailand to serve the church in a new way – teaching at Bamrung Wittaya School in Nakhon Pathom. In August, they headed back to finish their seminary education and continue on the path to becoming pastoral leaders of congregations within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They take the new skills they have in sharing God’s love with others across cultures that they have practiced with the teachers and students at the school.

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Bianka Walter climbing into a taxi with Ms. Atchima Wongkhiao to head to the airport

Then, we said goodbye to Bianka Walter, who came to us from Germany via England. A member of a nondenominational church, Bianka was completing an internship in hotel management for Sheffield Hallam University in London. Her internship placement was at a facility in South Thailand belonging to a large international hotel chain. She contacted us, frustrated by things she observed in that environment that were unchristian, and asked whether we might be able to help her find a Christian hotel management experience. We helped her to move to Bangkok Christian Guest House, a 55-room facility owned by the Church of Christ in Thailand in Bangkok. For the last six months, she has served there and completed her internship.

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Bianka Walter with the kitchen staff at the Bangkok Christian Guest House

Bangkok Christian Guest House was established after World War II when missionaries returned to work in Thailand. They had been forced out of the country by the Japanese military forces that occupied Thailand during the war. Formerly the home of a missionary, it was converted to a Guest House to serve the needs of missionaries who had to travel to Bangkok to extend their visas or work permits. Its primary purpose throughout this time was to create a “home away from home” for those coming to Bangkok. During her tenure at Bangkok Christian Guest House, Bianka not only practiced her hotel management skills, but learned how to show the love and grace of God to every guest – and every employee. Before she left, Bianka shared with all of us the significant difference she saw between her experience with the large international hotel chain – where the management staff was only concerned with profitability and efficiency – and the Bangkok Christian Guest House.

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Mesetshou Losou, second from the right, at the Bangkok Christian Guest House

Finally, it is with a great deal of joy that I report that Ms. Mesetshou Losou, a CVT from Pfutsero Town Baptist Church in Nagaland in India, has been accepted to study at Truett Seminary of Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Mesetshou taught at Khoonchae Christian School in Chonburi for one year and then at Wattana Wittaya Academy in Bangkok for another year, sharing God’s love with the students at both schools. She is currently searching for scholarship funds to be able to begin her studies in January 2020. She plans to return to India after her seminary studies to serve God in the church there.

Thank you so much for the opportunity that you have given me to serve in Thailand and the support you provide through your prayers and your gifts to Presbyterian World Mission. Every day is a blessing!

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Next Generation: Church Outreach and Evangelism in Asia

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With Rev. Dr. Choen Min Heui

In 2014, when I was serving the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) as Assistant to the General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations, I met Rev. Dr. Choen Min Heui, who was Director of Ecumenical Relations for the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea (PROK). I supported her in her effort to send resources, mission support, and short-term mission workers to Thailand in partnership with the CCT. I stepped down from that position in 2015 and she stepped down from her position in 2017 and we lost touch with each other. In May 2019, I went to Seoul to witness the marriage of Kim I-Re, one of our former Christian Volunteers in Thailand whom Dr. Choen sent to Thailand to serve as an English teacher at Chiangrai Vidhayakhome School for three years. It was on this trip that Dr. Choen and I reconnected, and she asked me to consider a request from her church for help with a new vision for outreach and evangelism conceived by Rev. Kim Dae Kil. Since it involves the use of Christian English teachers and the rural churches have little money to pay full salary for foreign teachers, she asked for my assistance to help them set up a program for volunteer English teachers at the church. She invited me to come and see what they are doing and to learn more about Rev. Kim’s vision for this ministry. I urged her to send a letter to the General Secretary of the Church of Christ in Thailand, Rev. Sayam Muangsak, with her request. That letter was sent in June 2019.

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Map of South Korea

I missed several weeks of work in June 2019 – first, due to acute bronchitis and then, due to a broken bone in my foot. Around that same time, my Assistant Coordinator, Ms. Atchima Wongkhiao was on a trip to Chiang Mai on CVT business and worried about her mother who had been diagnosed with cancer. We missed submitting the request to the Officers Meeting in July. However, Dr. Choen had a personal telephone conversation with Rev. Sayam Muangsak where she came away convinced that he had authorized my travel. Based upon that, she laid her plans for my visit on July 22-30, 2019. When she sent me the finalized plan, I realized that she would face significant problems if I did not come as scheduled, so I purchase my airline ticket for those dates. I arrived in Seoul on Tuesday, July 23, and was met by a young man from the church named Mark. He and I then took a five-hour bus trip to Gwangju, the southern terminus for the bus route in South Korea.

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May 18 Democracy Monument

Dr. Choen Min Heui met us at the Bus Terminal in Gwangju and drove to the May 18 Democracy Monument and National Cemetery. Between May 18 and 27, 1980, there was a mass protest against the South Korean military government that took place in the city of Gwangju called the Gwangju Uprising. Nearly 250,000 people participated in this protest. Although it was brutally repressed and initially unsuccessful in bringing about democratic reform in South Korea, it is considered a pivotal moment in the South Korean struggle for democracy. The worst day of the protest was May 27, when military forces ordered tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters to attack the city. It took the military only two hours to crush the uprising. While official reports say that 200 people were killed in the uprising, Gwangju citizens and students claim the number was 2,000. The leaders who ordered the massacre were later successfully prosecuted for their crimes, and the May 18 Democracy Monument and National Cemetery was established to honor those who participated in the protest.

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Rev. Kim Dae Kil

Dr. Choen drove us to Yangmuri Presbyterian Church in Haenam, where she currently serves as Associate Pastor. Over the next few days, I had the opportunity to meet with Rev. Kim Dae Kil, who shared his “Next Generation” vision with me. The focus of this vision is on the next generation; it is not on those who are currently members of the church. It is for the church to recognize that, without a focus on the “Next Generation,” there will be no church for the youth when they are adults. And it is a call to every member to reach out to the youth – whether they are part of the church at the present time or not – and witness to them as the “Next Generation” of God’s Kingdom on earth. Over the past ten years, Rev. Kim has taken an Asian church – which would typically expect the young to serve the old – and convinced the old that it is their duty to serve – that is, to mentor and to guide – the young. The message from the pulpit each week focuses on a Christian’s duty to share the Gospel, and no one is either too young or too old to participate.

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Children Learning With Games

When I was not meeting with Rev. Kim, Dr. Choen introduced me to the many ways that the church is reaching out to the community around it. It seems that finding English teachers for the schools in this rural area in the far south is very difficult. So, the church is supplementing what the schools are doing by offering English instruction for all age groups at the church. There are classes beginning as early as 6 AM for those who have to go to school. In these classes, older youth help the younger ones learn. There are other classes for older youth where young adults help. The instruction combines an English curriculum with Christian songs, Bible stories, and games to make the learning fun.

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Baby Classes with Mothers

Earlier, I said that no one is either too old or too young to participate. One of the most interesting classes that I observed was for babies, aged 3 months to 3 years. These classes are held on weekdays from 10 AM to Noon. The mothers, who would normally be at home with their young children and isolated from others in the community, bring their babies to the church. Yes, the mothers are learning more than the babies. And the classes are not limited to mothers who are members of the church. Non-Christian mothers bring their babies to these classes and they learn about a God who loves them. The mothers are also building relationships and a strong support network for themselves with mothers of other young children in the church and in the community.

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Dr. Choen Teaching at Yangmuri Presbyterian Church

Who teaches all of these classes at the church? At the present time, it is Dr. Choen herself who teaches every class, every day. Yet, how can she do all of the teaching and still complete the other tasks that are expected of an associate pastor? That is the challenge and one of the key reasons why Dr. Choen asked for my help. The church cannot afford to pay full salary for foreign English teachers and there is no guarantee that English teachers hired through an agency would be Christian. The church wants teachers like those recruited by Christian Volunteers in Thailand. Having such volunteers, especially those who have completed some theological education or a seminary degree, would allow the church to offer English classes, and teach the Bible along with English. Dr. Choen could work alongside them, but complete her other pastoral duties, as well.

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Martyrdom of Mun Jun Kyung

On one of the days that I was in South Korea, Dr. Choen was leading a Youth Camp in another area. I was taken to see some places of interest in the southern tip of the peninsula. One place that stands out in my mind was the memorial to a Christian martyr, Mun Jun Kyung. She was a woman born into a wealthy family in Jeungdo. After her marriage failed due to her husband’s infidelity, she studied theology in Seoul. She returned to her hometown in the 1930’s to spread the Gospel in Shinan, the more than 1,000 islands off the coast of South Korea. Today, more than 80% of the population there is Christian because of her witness. When the Communists came into Korea after the World War II, they tortured and killed Christians. This faithful servant of God was given an opportunity to escape this persecution, but she refused to leave her congregants behind. When the Communist soldiers returned, this woman was martyred with those to whom she brought the Gospel message.

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Memorial for Kim Dae Jung

Another awe-inspiring exhibit was the Kim Dae Jung Nobel Peace Prize Memorial, constructed to commemorate the life and work of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who is the only Korean Nobel Prize winner in history. He is sometimes referred to as the “Nelson Mandela of South Korea.” He first became widely known as an opposition leader to the dictator Park Chung Hee who took power in a military coup in 1961. There were several attempts on Kim Dae Jung’s life in the 1970’s. Each time, he believed his faith in God saved him. He ran for president two other times without success, but when the Asian financial crisis caused the nation’s economic collapse in 1997, he won the presidency. President Kim Dae Jung was known for his strong commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. He invited both former presidents Park and Chun to the Blue House during his administration and forgave them for all they had done to him. He restored the nation to economic solvency. He began a détente with the communist government of North Korea, which resulted an historic summit in 2000 and the beginning of a new relationship between the two Koreas, which continues today. For this, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.

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Statue of Admiral Yi Sun Sin

Another inspiring story that I first heard from Rev. Kim was the story of Admiral Yi Sun Sin and the Battle of Myeong-Nyang. In 1592, after General Toyotomi Hideyoshi united Japan, he decided to invade Korea. Initially, the Japanese army easily defeated Korean troops. However, the invading Japanese army needed supply lines on sea routes in the south. Admiral Yi Sun Sin’s Joseon Navy had defeated Japanese naval fleets in consecutive battles, but a political plot instigated by the Japanese resulted in Admiral Yi being imprisoned by the Korean government. Another admiral was assigned to lead the Korean navy. In his first and last battle, this admiral was defeated, losing more that 200 warships. Admiral Yi was released from prison and returned to command the navy with just 13 ships, even as the Japanese fleet returned with 330 ships to take command of the shipping routes.  In a spectacular story of strategy and courage, Admiral Yi and his 13 ships caught the Japanese fleet in the Strait of Meong-Nyang and, after destroying 31 Japanese warships, won the battle, forcing the Japanese fleet to retreat. His victory is memorialized in the 2014 movie “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” and in a statue and museum overlooking the Strait.

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With Mark and Kevin

There are so many other stories that I could tell from my brief visit to Haenam and Yangmuri Presbyterian Church.  I could share how two wonderful young men took care of me during my visit. Having broken a bone in my foot just four weeks before my visit, I was wearing an airboot and walking with the use of crutches.  Mark and Kevin took care of my every need while I was in South Korea – pushing me from meeting to meeting in a wheelchair (because walking on crutches takes time), introducing me to people in the congregation, replenishing supplies of towels and toilet paper in my guest room, and sharing the significance of Korean people and places (through their studies, Google, or movies they had seen). Mark is an aspiring young businessman who is traveling to the USA this fall to study at a university in Wisconsin. Kevin is in his final year at a university in Seoul, studying theology and following in his father’s footsteps. His father is the pastor, Rev. Kim Dae Kil. These young men are smart, responsible, and a blast to be with! We had a great time together, talking, laughing, sharing and, as we got to know each other better, poking fun at each other.

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With Church Leaders at Jindo

It was on one of the last days of my visit that Rev. Kim Dae Kil shared with me an even wider vision for Haenam: that of helping the smaller rural churches to survive and thrive by using English teaching as a means of outreach and evangelism. There are so many small churches that have difficulty attracting pastors to the rural areas far to the south of Seoul. Christian English teachers, particularly those trained in theology, could help to change those dynamics and strengthen the Christian witness of those rural churches. Rev. Kim believes that Yangmuri Presbyterian Church is ready to provide the leadership to do this. In the ten years that Rev. Kim has served as pastor of Yangmuri Presbyterian Church, it has doubled in size from about 300 congregants to just over 600. He does not want them to rest on their laurels. Rev. Kim has prayed and worked to prepare the congregation and the church staff for this new goal. He believes that God has sent Dr. Choen to Yangmuri Presbyterian Church in January of 2019 for this purpose and that the time has come to act.

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Pastor Kim Dae Kil

On the final evening, Rev. Kim Dae Kil took me, Dr. Choen and other church leaders out for Korean barbeque. It was the Pastor himself who cooked the meat for me to eat. We went from there to a coffee house, where we were the only customers for a time. We sang old, familiar hymns together. We shared stories. On a dare from one of the church leaders, I sang “I Love To Tell The Story,” which is a hymn they do not use in this church. Yet, I see it as a theme for this new outreach and evangelism effort. We stayed for three hours, sipping coffee, talking, sharing, and laughing together. I saw in that evening – as I had seen all week – a group of people caught up in the passion of this visionary leader and the strong team that he has built to do God’s work in this place. He did not dominate our time together and yet, his leadership was silently acknowledged by everyone who was present.

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Kevin, the Pastor’s Son

One of the exercises that Dr. Choen has the children do in their English classes is to complete the sentence, “When I grow up, I want to be the best… in the world.” Kevin, the pastor’s son, completed that sentence by saying, “When I grow up, I want to be the best pastor in the world.” He has a great example to follow living in the same house – his own father and the pastor of the church, Rev. Kim Dae Kil. It would be an honor to help Rev. Kim and Yangmuri Presbyterian Church achieve this vision for outreach and evangelism to the glory of God.

 

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Posthumous Honors

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My Favorite Photo of Nellie

There is a story to tell that I have not blogged about yet, though it happened last year.  It is the sequel to the blog I wrote in June of 2018 called “Companion on the Journey.” In the spring of 2018, my little Miniature Pinscher, Nellie, was diagnosed with a hole in her heart after an x-ray revealed that her heart was three times its normal size and was crowding her lungs. I refused open-heart surgery for my 17-year-old companion, as I thought it was too much for her tired little body to handle. The doctor then recommended that she not run or jump or even climb stairs – as if I could stop her from doing all those things without putting her into a tiny crate!  We did make some changes in that I now carried her up the stairs to my bedroom at night to sleep in her bed next to mine. I also carried her down again in the morning for breakfast.

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Nellie with Popcorn, a Favorite Treat

That was followed by the macadamia nut incident that I described in my earlier blog. Late last summer, an ultrasound scan revealed a 3-centimeter mass on her liver. Once again, I refused surgery and chemotherapy for my tiny friend, wanting her to live out her days with some quality of life, as my mother did after her cancer was discovered. We might have had a few extra servings of buttered popcorn – one of Nellie’s favorite treats – in those last weeks of her life. Finally, in October, Nellie developed an illness from which she could not recover. For weeks, she suffered with no clear diagnosis and no quality of life. She could not even get up to eat. After daily trips to the vet, daily intravenous infusions of medication, and no discernible improvement, I was faced with a difficult decision:  My work would take me out-of-town for three weeks, Nellie’s regular sitter was also out-of-town, and I had no one who could take her to the vet for more treatment. With a heavy heart, I realized that the time had come for me to let her go.  So, on November 8th, with me by her side and tears streaming down my face, the vet gave her the injections that ended her life.

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Nellie at the Vet on her Final Day

The veterinarian asked me if I would consider donating Nellie’s body to Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Veterinary Science. I agreed and signed the papers. He gave me some time alone with her – which was a miracle, considering how busy that university’s veterinary clinic is – and I sat and cried buckets of tears. Then, I got up, went home, collected all of her things, including food, pee pads, blankets (washed), beds (washed), collars, leashes, etc., and , with the help of Ms. Wararat Chaisuk, my assistant, brought them back to the school and donated them all to the school. They thanked me for my contribution and said they would share them with those who could not afford to purchase such things. They then informed me of two things: 1) As a body donated to science, my Nellie now had a new title: “Big Professor.”  I laughed for the first time in a long time, for she now had a higher rank (in a country where that is important) than I have ever had in my life: “Big Professor” at Chulalongkorn University, the top university in the nation! They also informed me that, once a year, the university arranges a cremation ceremony for those whose bodies have been donated to science. They would let me know when that ceremony would take place for Nellie.

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Benjamas, Wararat and Me at the Cremation

Yesterday was the day.  I dressed in black and headed out early to Wat That Thong in Bangkok (see thumbnail photo below) to participate in this ceremony for Nellie. I had never been there before, but the taxi driver had no problem finding it.  I was joined by two close friends of Nellie: Ms. Wararat, my assistant, and Ms. Benjamas, Nellie’s regular sitter.  When I signed in, they could not find my name or Nellie’s on the list, but had me sign below and then gave me a program of the events of the day (see thumbnail photo below). We were escorted by students of the Faculty of Veterinary Science to an air-conditioned room and given a seat. We shared our favorite stories of Nellie as others arrived and signed in. At 10 AM, we were welcomed and various faculty and students at the Faculty of Veterinary Science thanked us and told us how important it was that our pets had been donated to the school for students to study. Four Buddhist monks then chanted scripture and prayers. They took a group photograph of all the owners of the pets who had been donated to the school. Then, lunch was served to everyone.

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The Bodies of Pets Ready for Cremation

It was during lunch that the most unusual thing happened. Since I was still wearing my airboot and the Thai people are so worried about the elderly (yes, I am one of those) and those with infirmities (yes, that, too), it was impossible for me to move around without several total strangers offering to help me or holding my arms as I walked. To create less of a disturbance, I asked Ms. Benjamas if she would take photographs of the banner announcing the event and the hall next to us where the bodies of the pets were (see thumbnail photos below). She did more than that. She found the bodies and looked for Nellie’s and could not find it.  She asked those standing by if they knew where Nellie’s body might be. That initiated a search. After Ms. Benjamas returned to sit with me, the Associate Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Science came to see me. (Not difficult, as I was the only foreigner present.) He reported that, after a review of the documents and checking with others on staff, Nellie’s body was NOT among those to be cremated that day. Apparently, she still has valuable information to impart to students at the school, so they extended her teaching contract for one more year. She will be cremated next year. So sorry for the inconvenience. Could I return next year for her ceremony?

fullsizeoutput_7387OK, this whole process took several hours out of a Saturday, but this is one proud mama!  My baby gets to teach for another year at the most prestigious university in Thailand!  How could I be disappointed in that? We left cremation ceremony at that point (three hours into it) and went to a Starbucks close-by where we sat and shared more stories of Nellie and her life in Thailand. All in all, it was a great day.

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A Legacy of Special Relationships

One of the least anticipated legacies that volunteer programs produce is the legacy of relationships that extend beyond the program itself.  Having served as Coordinator of Christian Volunteers in Thailand for eight years now, I have been able to catch a glimpse of some of these unanticipated relationships and how they are changing lives beyond the parameters of the CVT Program itself. What I want to share with you in this letter is three special relationships that began when three individuals dared to come to Thailand to serve with the CVT Program.

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James and Goodwill Riggins

Rev. James Riggins was the first volunteer I recruited during my tenure here. James was in his mid-30’s and at a point in his life when the way ahead was not clear to him. When he consulted with Don Dawson at Pittsburgh Seminary, Don connected him to me. James was not sure that he wanted to teach English, but he believed that God called him through the CVT Program to come to Thailand. He arrived in the fall of 2012. After three years of service in Padoongrasdra School, while ministering to a small group of English-speaking ex-pat worshipers every Sunday afternoon, the Thai church chartered a new international church in Phitsanulok and called James as its first pastor. It was while James was serving as pastor, he met a vibrant young Filipina Christian who was teaching at a government school in that town. Long story short, they fell in love and James and Goodwill Riggins were married in October of 2016.

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James and James Alex

But the story did not end there. James continued to serve as pastor of Great Commission International Church for another four years, building up the congregation while starting a doctoral program in intercultural studies through Biola University in Southern California. As his coursework in that program draws to a close, God has reached out again to call James to teach at an international university. He and Goodwill will leave Thailand in August to head to this new assignment. However, they will not be alone in this endeavor, for in April 2019, God gave them a son, James Alex, who will travel with them to establish a new home in another Asian country. In the meantime, I have gained a daughter-in-law and a grandchild through this program who are sharing God’s love with more people and touching lives I will never be able to touch. What a blessing!

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Lindsey and Pong Wara

James may have been the first, but he was not the only one. Lindsey Monroe was connected to Christian Volunteers in Thailand through Ms. Kathryn McDaniel, a missionary from New Zealand who met Lindsey at the Bangkok Christian Guest House. Lindsey was serving with the US Peace Corps and frustrated that she could not share her faith with the children she was teaching in a temple school in Thailand. When her term of service with the Peace Corps ended, she asked if she could serve with Christian Volunteers in Thailand. Since she already spoke some Thai, I placed her at a very remote school in the small town of Huay Malai near the border with Myanmar. Fast forward a few years and we learn that, while serving as a teacher in Saha Christian Suksa School, she met a wonderful Karen Christian man and fell in love. In April 2017, Lindsey and Pong Wara were married.

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Lindsey, Benjamin and Goodwill

As with James, the story did not end there. Lindsey and Pong have bought some land near Huay Malai and have settled into life in a rural Thai setting, planting rice and raising goats. Lindsey continues to teach at Saha Christian School and her home is filled with the laughter of children and the smell of great food. Within a year of their marriage, God blessed them with the birth of a little boy, Benjamin, who delights his parents, school children and a whole village of “aunts and uncles.” Last October, Lindsey and her family joined us at the CVT Reunion Dinner and Celebration in Bangkok. Here she is pictured at that celebration (on the left) with her son, Benjamin, and James’ wife, Goodwill, already pregnant with their first child.

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Esther and Sangkyu Choi

And the beat goes on… In May, 2019, I was invited to South Korea to share in the joy of the wedding of yet another former Christian Volunteer in Thailand. Esther I-Re Kim arrived in Thailand in 2015, having completed her seminary education in South Korea and needing to complete an internship before being ordained in the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea (PROK). She was interested in mission service, in music, and in teaching children and adults, so she came to Thailand and spent three years teaching at Chiangrai Vidhayakhome School. On one of her many trips back to Korea, she met a wonderful young Korean Christian man who was living in Australia. It was love at first sight. Esther and Sangkyu Choi were married in May and, after a honeymoon here in Thailand, they have moved to Australia to live, sharing the love of God with their community there. But this story also does not end there: Esther and Sangkyu are expecting a baby in the spring of 2020.

James, Lindsey and Esther all trusted that God was calling them to ministry in Thailand for a purpose. Trusting in God’s call, they came – not knowing what to expect, but willing to take that first step into the unknown.  For each of them, God has more than answered their prayers: prayers for guidance in life, prayers for a partner to serve with them, and prayers that their ministry might have fruit. The CVT Program is not just about the lives of Thai children being changed by volunteers, it is also about the lives of volunteers being changed by God.

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Help With Telling Our Stories

When they say that time passes swiftly, they don’t mention that sometimes it escapes you completely and you are left wondering where it went. This is a story that should have been posted in February or March, but time got away from me. A wonderful young man came to Thailand in January to help us tell the story of our work here. In this retrospective look at his visit, I will share with you our goals for his assignment here and links to the wonderful videos that he compiled from the hours of video footage he shot in many locations here in Thailand.

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Daniel Pappas arrives in Bangkok

I met Daniel Pappas in November of 2018 when he came to Thailand with a visiting team from Grace Presbytery in North Texas. At the time, he was working at Grace Presbytery as a videographer and he came on the trip to make a living record of all the people and church ministries that the team visited. I was so impressed by this young man and his work that I tried to figure out a way that we might have him come and help us tell our stories more effectively. In January 2019, using funds from a generous bequest left by a member of Red Bluff Presbyterian Church in Red Bluff, California, Daniel arrived in Bangkok to help us out. Over the next five weeks, Daniel met all of our active Christian Volunteers in Thailand and several of our alumni who are still working here. He interviewed each person about their experience in the CVT Program. He shot footage of cultural sites, tourist meccas, beautiful beaches, and children in the classroom and on the playground. Several weeks after his travels ended, Daniel sent us this very short but comprehensive introductory video: https://vimeo.com/320997466

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Daniel interviews Chulei Phom

Not satisfied with a video of me with me doing most of the talking, I asked Daniel to produce more videos where others were sharing their experiences in this program. One of our goals was to use these videos to recruit new volunteers and we know that prospective volunteers want to know what other volunteers have seen, learned, attempted and achieved during their tenure in the program. Blending together footage from the interviews of several different volunteers, Daniel sent a second, longer introductory video that is a more comprehensive look at the work of Christian Volunteers in Thailand, a ministry that many of you support. That video arrived a few weeks later: https://vimeo.com/318321674

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Daniel shoots a Thai landmark Ta Sadet

While most “gap year” programs or programs that attempt to attract volunteers to serve overseas are directed at a younger audience, many of the volunteers who are currently active in the Christian Volunteers in Thailand program are retirees. Unlike programs such at the YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) Program of the Presbyterian Church (USA) or the YAGM (Young Adults in Global Mission) Program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Christian Volunteers in Thailand does not have an upper age limit. We have found that many “Baby Boomers” missed out on the chance to explore the world and/or engage in church mission overseas when they were younger and are now eager to dip their toes in the water in their active retirement years. With that in mind, Daniel produced a video specifically directed to this audience. Daniel was particularly skilled in drawing on the experience of those volunteers to speak of the work they are doing and their experiences in Thailand: https://vimeo.com/335432064/5c4e2888e3

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Daniel and the Xiong family

Not to be outdone, the younger crowd wanted something for their audience as well. This was a slightly different story – a story of “getting lost along the way” that has been shared by some of our volunteers. Sometimes, in life, the way ahead is not clear. Some of the CVTs have taken a year or two and come to Thailand to serve in order to have the opportunity to envision a whole new life and ministry through service, through the four retreats that are offered annually, through new friends and relationships, through trying something new. In this video, Daniel tapped the stories of some volunteers trying new things and seeing life from another perspective. He also introduces the Xiong family, a family of five, who were active in the CVT Program for two year and still serve in Thailand today. While many programs are restricted to individuals, the CVT Program recognizes that couples and families want to serve together. The Xiong children played among all their “aunts and uncles” during the retreats they attended in the CVT Program. Part of their story is in this video: https://vimeo.com/340262161/c9f25aaac2

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Daniel and Ms. Wararat

Finally, I cannot close without mentioning the work of our volunteers from the state of Nagaland in India. More than a dozen young men and women have come to the CVT Program through the work of the Nagaland Mission Movement. They have served with distinction at Christian schools throughout Thailand and several have stayed beyond their term of service in the CVT Program to continue working as teachers in the schools here.  Because there is such a close tie between the Nagaland Baptist Church Council and the Church of Christ in Thailand, more Naga mission workers are planning to come. They deserve their own video, telling their stories of life in the CVT Program. Daniel took the time to put together a special video for them. It was hard to say “Goodbye” to Daniel when he left, but he has left us a legacy of videos that tell the story better than I have been able to do through my letters: https://vimeo.com/327611505/858f4903a6

I hope you have enjoyed these videos and the stories they tell from the perspective of the volunteers themselves. We are still looking for those who would give a year or two of their lives to these children to help them learn to speak English and use it every day in conversation. We need you. Will you come? Our next Orientation for New CVT Volunteers begins on Saturday, September 28, 2019.  You can find the application on our website at www.teachingenglishinthailand.org. 

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A Wealth of Opportunity for Service

Map of Nagaland - Encyclopedia Britannica

Map of India showing Nagaland in the Northeast

It has been four years since the last time I visited India and the state of Nagaland. I have longed to go, for so many of the CVT Mission Workers who work with me, or have worked with me, come from that state and have set the bar high for the rest of us with regard to their knowledge of the Bible, their ability to articulate their faith, and their strong commitment to their work and their ministry here in Thailand. American Baptist missionaries went to Nagaland in the 1800’s to share the gospel with the sixteen headhunting tribes living in that region. Today, Nagaland is 95% Christian with a strong commitment to mission service. So, it was with great joy that I received an invitation from Rev. Dr. Kowepe Kanuo to travel to Pfutsero to speak to several different groups. Using his letter, I asked for and received permission to travel to Nagaland from the officers of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT). At 2:05 AM on April 25, 2019, my Indigo flight departed from Bangkok and barely 2.5 hours later, landed in Kolkata, India.

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The hills of Nagaland at sunset

Having acquired an Indian Tourist visa online, it should have been easy to breeze through Immigration, but I had forgotten to request the name and address of the place where I would be staying while I was in India. It was impossible to connect to WiFi in the airport in Kolkata at 3 AM, so I eventually settled with using my host’s name and the name of the church in Pfutsero as my response and was allowed to enter the country. I had a seven-hour layover in Kolkata – time enough to wander the entire airport and browse the many shops there. My flight to Dimapur took off on time and I was surprised to find one of the Mission Workers from Christian Volunteers in Thailand (CVT) on board that flight. Ms. Rebecca Phom and I arrived in Dimapur at midday to be greeted by my host, Rev. Dr. Kowepe Kanuo. I have been to India several times in my life, but never to the town of Pfutsero, high up in the steep hills that make up the state of Nagaland. It was seven hours of navigating dusty, winding roads through the majestic mountains of Nagaland before we arrived at our destination. The twinkling lights of the town of Pfutsero, clinging to the side of a mountain, welcomed us in the dusk just after sunset.

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The Chakhesang Baptist Church Council Guest House where I stayed

While I was not able to see much of it that night, my host took me to the Guest House of the Chakhesang Baptist Church Council (CBCC). The room I was given was spacious and comfortable. I had a few minutes to unpack before we met for dinner. Exhausted after almost 40 hours of work and travel with no rest, I headed off to bed right afterward. The next morning, I was able to see all of the beautiful flowers that were blooming around the facility. Dawn came early and, with it, hot milk tea, maize and fruit for a delicious breakfast. Over breakfast, I met my host’s wife, Mrs. Vechüloü Kanuo, who was leading a two-day conference for about 300 women representing the Chakhesang Women’s Welfare Society.  The primary purpose of the organization is to encourage and support women, particularly in entrepreneurial ventures that would improve the economic stability of women and families of the Chakhesang tribe. Several of the women who were planting crops or raising livestock independently for the first time in their lives gave testimony to the work of the Society.

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The Women of the Chakhesang Women’s Welfare Society at their meeting in April 2019

Later that same day, I took the podium and spoke to the women about exiles, using a passage from Jeremiah 29. I wanted to encourage the women to think about those who live among them who might feel isolated and far from home and to begin to formulate a way that the organization might respond to such a need. I gave each woman a piece of a jigsaw puzzle and asked how they might feel if their puzzle piece ended up in the wrong box, among pieces that did not look like their piece and did not fit together well. As I shared brochures about the CVT Program, I also talked about mission workers existing in exile – even if it is a state they have chosen – in order to do God’s work. For many at the conference, it was the first time they considered the state of exile or the plight of exiles apart from that of the children of Israel in scripture. Before the conference ended for the day, we all went outside to have a group photo taken. Most of the women were dressed in the beautiful textiles and handwoven shawls characteristic of their local tribal groups. They gifted me with a beautiful shawl as a memento of my visit.

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Community leaders in Pfutsero

The next morning, after breakfast, I met with eleven community leaders, including principals of church-run schools, members of the Chakhesang Mission Society, and pastors of local churches. Church-run schools in Nagaland exist alongside government schools and private schools and often struggle to find their unique niche. The group was curious about the schools of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) and whether they faced similar problems and, yes, I shared that there are similar challenges. Education through the 9th grade is compulsory in Thailand. Government schools are free. Private schools and church-run schools charge tuition. There is a curriculum authorized by the Thai Ministry of Education that all schools use.  The CCT also has an Office of Education Ministry that serves to coordinate activities between and among the church-run schools, as well as to source and share professional development opportunities for administrators and teachers. The group discussed the possibility of learning more about the CCT schools, their organizational structure, and perhaps, introducing some ideas into the church-run schools in Nagaland. It was a great learning opportunity for all of us.

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The Youth Director

On the evening of that second day, I spoke to the youth from eight different Baptist churches in Pfutsero at Pfutsero Town Baptist Church. About 400 youth between the ages of 15 and 25 gathered to hear me speak. I focused on the passage from Jeremiah 18 that spoke of the prophet’s visit to the potter’s house. I shared pieces of PlayDoh with them and encouraged them to shape and re-shape the PlayDoh as I spoke to fully understand how God can reshape us into vessels that are suitable for ministry. I shared some stories of how I had been reshaped by God for my ministry in Thailand and I shared the stories of Rev. James Riggins and Ms. Daisy Yeptho and how they have been molded into people suitable for their ministries in Thailand, as well. I encouraged the youth to think about their own future and to consider whether working in the ministry of the church in Thailand might be part of that future. My host was the Youth Director of Pfutsero Town Baptist Church, pictured here with me.

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The Pastor and his Wife

The next morning, after breakfast, the pastor of Pfutsero Town Baptist Church and his wife welcomed me with open arms to share from my heart with the congregation. When it was my time to speak, I shared another jigsaw puzzle – this one with 1,000 pieces, one for each member of the congregation – and asked my listeners questions about where their pieces of the puzzle fit in God’s larger picture of God’s Kingdom on Earth. I used Isaiah 43 as my source text and shared with them my confidence that God loved each one of them and has called them each by name, that God has reserved a special place in God’s Kingdom for each of them in the same way that each piece of the jigsaw puzzle is unique and has its own place. I also asked them to consider what would happen to the completed picture if they chose not to participate in God’s plan – how the empty space in the picture serves to destroy both the completeness and beauty of the entire picture – and invited all of them to join me in being a part of God’s vision for this world. After I spoke, I presented the pastor with the gift of a carved wooden cross from McKean Rehabilitation Center and the congregation, in turn, presented me with a beautiful necklace. After worship, I shared a meal with the leaders of the congregation before leaving Pfutsero to head back down to Dimapur with Rev. Dr. Kowepe Kanuo.

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In Kohima on my way to Dimapur

It was another long journey down winding mountain roads, but this time, we broke the journey in Kohima to rest and to share a meal at the home of a private home. Our host had invited several people to meet with us, including the youth leaders of his congregation in Kohima. Our conversation revealed that there are many who are interested in serving as mission workers, but there seem to be three major obstacles for those who wish to come to Thailand. The first obstacle is the regulation of visas by Thai Immigration authorities. Individuals wanting to work in Thailand need a degree (in any subject) from a university that is recognized by the Thai government. There is only one such university in Nagaland and that is Nagaland University. The second obstacle is the requirement by Nagaland church leaders that mission workers must complete coursework at a Bible college or seminary before mission service. However, through the centuries, many missionaries have come from the ranks of teachers, administrators, managers, health care workers and other fields of service. The third obstacle seems to be the length of the process for vetting mission workers. There seemed to be a sense that some work on these three obstacles would provide avenues for many more mission workers to come to Thailand. During my visit, my host’s wife gave me a beautiful shawl from her tribe as a gift.

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Staff of Nagaland Mission Movement

We arrived in Dimapur late on Sunday night and, as I was not feeling well, I bid my host farewell so I could crawl into bed. Before he left, Rev. Dr. Kowepe Kanuo gave me a small package for coming to Nagaland. (I later learned it was a gift of cash which we will use in our ministry in Thailand.) The next day, I was picked up at the Guest House by my host for the day, Rev. Andrew Semp, Director of the Nagaland Mission Movement. After a time of scripture and prayer, I met with Rev. Andrew Semp and his staff to discuss our partnership and, fortunately, the concerns we voiced independently seemed to have easy solutions.

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New CVT Program Brochure

Rev. Andrew Semp voiced two concerns. The first concern was that all mission workers from Nagaland seemed to be channeled into the CCT schools. I explained that this was because the Naga mission workers did not have command of the Thai language. The lack of knowledge of the Thai language places a burden on the Thai church ministry to provide someone to translate for the mission worker, which takes Thai staff away from their own work. Placing Naga mission worker in the schools to teach English does not require knowledge of the Thai language, provides a critical service to CCT schools, and provides time for the mission worker to learn the language in order to transition to another ministry. For those who do not wish to teach, I suggested that a six-month program through Union Language School would give every Naga mission worker the language skills they would need to be productive in other church ministries. The CVT Program would be able to place them in other ministries, provided that ministry had the budget to support them. Rev. Andrew Semp assured me that future Naga mission workers would be supported by their own churches, reducing the need for CCT ministries to provide financial support. Rev. Andrew Semp’s second concern dealt with visas for future Naga mission workers. I told him that I shared his concern that there were no longer any open slots in the CCT quota for Naga mission workers to receive a Religious Affairs (Non-RA) visa.  However, any prospective mission worker who had a university degree from a university recognized by the Thai government could receive a regular work visa (Non-B), for which there is no quota. This opened up two opportunities for Naga mission workers: 1) sending more mission workers with secular degrees and 2) guiding Naga youth into university studies before seminary to ensure that future mission workers could meet that requirement.

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New CVT Volunteer

Towards the end of my visit with NMM, I met Ms. Vepfutalü Tunyi, who is in the final stages of preparation to come to Thailand to teach at Khoonchae Christian School in Chonburi. We had a brief visit before she left and Rev. Andrew Semp took me to lunch and then back to the Guest House to rest. During my visit with the staff of NMM, I was given another handwoven shawl – this time, one that Rev. Andrew Semp said was representative of all of the tribes of Nagaland – and another necklace and matching pair of earrings.

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My Host on my Final Night

I spent my final evening in Nagaland with Rev. Khevihe Yeptho and his family. Rev. Khevihe Yeptho was the first Naga missionary to the Karen Baptists in Thailand. His daughter, Daisy Yeptho, is one of the many teachers in the CVT Program. She teaches at Suriyawongse School in Ratchaburi. It was fun to meet her parents and her siblings and to have time to relax and talk to them. Daisy will be heading back to Thailand for the beginning of the school year and will complete two years of service at the school. Daisy is only one of a long list of Naga mission workers who have come to Thailand during my tenure. That list also includes Vinokali Chophi, Piketoli Kinimi, Kahoni Sohe, Susanna Sheim, Otoli Tuccu, Avinoli Chishi, Chulei Phom, Onentiba Jamir, Sentienla Longchar, Christy Yinglong, Mesetshou Losou, Lochumi Ezung, Rebecca Phom, and, most recently, Motan Konyak and Hangeang Konyak. Of this list of sixteen, twelve are still serving in Thailand.

Conclusion

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My Host in Nagaland

I was deeply encouraged by my visit to Nagaland. Rev. Dr. Kowepe Kanuo shared with me his concern that the church in Nagaland is facing the same challenge as the church everywhere when the “newness” of conversion fades into the “routine” of life: People are not actively involved in worship and ministry. The young people are not attending church and/or participating in church ministries. One avenue of revitalizing church members is to increase involvement in mission activities. I saw that with the work of the Chakhesang Women’s Welfare Society. Several times during my visit, church leaders spoke of the commitment made in 1977 to send 10,000 missionaries out from the Naga churches to other nations. Thailand is an obvious destination, since the need to share the gospel in Thailand is still critical, given the small percentage of the population that professes Christianity. Finding ways to open avenues of service in Thailand would be an answer to prayer and possible renewed commitment of Christians in Nagaland.

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A Hilltop Church in Nagaland 

My time in Nagaland was also a time of renewal for me. Each evening, as I returned to my sleeping quarters, I could see the lights burning in the churches I passed and hear the sound of people singing hymns in the distance. It was a blessing to be surrounded by those whose commitment to serve was greater than their desire for personal gain – but I have always seen that in the mission workers that the Nagaland Mission Movement has sent to the CVT Program. In each meeting that was held during my time in Nagaland, we renewed our commitment to the MOU that was signed between the Nagaland Baptist Church Council and the Church of Christ in Thailand, vowing to work together to be more effective partners in ministry. I cannot wait to see what unfolds in the weeks and months to come!

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It Left Me Wanting More…

City of Wollongong from Inspiration Point near Burri Pass in New South Wales

How do you begin to describe a place that leaves you filled with wonder and wanting more? On my first work day in Australia, I drove south from Sydney to Wollongong early on Monday morning to meet with educational leaders at the University of Wollongong. Nervous about my meeting, I did not stop on my way there to do any “sightseeing,” but, on my way back, I had time to do so and was glad that I did. When I looked back at the way I had come, I saw the city of Wollongong, stretching out along the southwest coast as far as the eye could see. Wollongong is trapped between some high steep hills and the ocean and, with a sky that was filled with clouds, it was unbelievably lush and beautiful that day. I had noticed that lushness when I was driving through the streets of the city earlier. There are big trees and parks everywhere. The campus of Wollongong University itself has a duck pond in the center by the library and the student center and it was fun to take time to watch the ducks. It was a good reminder that there is more to life than hard work, classrooms and study. Yet, Wollongong University ranks No. 3 in Australia for its Teacher Preparation programs. More than 1/3 of its students are international students, drawn from all over Asia, Europe and, surprisingly, the United States.

Rev. Margaret Mayman (left in photo)

One of the first friends that I made on my Australian adventure was Rev. Margaret Mayman, pastor of Pitt Street Uniting Church. The Uniting Church of Australia is one of the many international church partners of the Church of Christ in Thailand, so it was natural for me to seek her out. I participated in Sunday morning worship and then in their monthly adult education class following the fellowship hour. After that, Margaret and I went to lunch in the Queen Victoria Building about two blocks from the church. Over lunch, we had a lively conversation about the church and the purpose of my visit to Australia. She helped me to understand the relative size of the Uniting Church and its origins. The Uniting Church has about 200,000 members from congregations that had been Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist who came together in an ecumenical body in 1977. That makes it about the same size as the Church of Christ in Thailand that was formed from Disciple, Presbyterian, and Baptist roots in 1934. She also helped me to understand that the Uniting Church is the only religious body in Australia that is fully inclusive. The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church in Australia are far more conservative. We talked about the challenge of being a downtown church in an aging building with an aging congregation. Margaret talked about her hopes of sharing the building with the community for downtown events and her hope of drawing more Millennials in through their social justice ministries. (See below for more photos of the church and its windows.)

Town Hall in Sydney

During the week, I visited downtown Sydney several times, on my way to other meetings at the Uniting World office, the University of Technology in Sydney and the University of Sydney. I was always passing Town Hall, which is a beautiful colonial structure in the center of the Central Business District (CBD). Sydney is in the process of adding streetcars to certain areas, so construction barriers were evident everywhere. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy public transportation was in the CBD. Town Hall itself has a train station underground. My Opal card allowed me to travel by train, bus, and ferry, topping up at any station along the way with my credit card. The weather was ideal all week! (See below for more of the CBD of Sydney.)

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One of the most lushly beautiful campuses I visited was the campus of Australian Catholic University in Strathfield. Of course, I love old buildings and lots of green space and ACU had all of that in spades. It just made everything better to meet Professor Shakri Sanber and to begin to imagine a partnership between ACU and the Church of Christ in Thailand. (More images of ACU and Strathfield below.)

IMG_5790I was close to Sydney Harbour Bridge with a view of the Opera House twice during my trip.  I posted two different photographs in my last blog post: One of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney and one from under the Harbour Bridge in North Sydney.  I would like to close this post with a another view of the Sydney Opera House – this time from Bradfield Park in North Sydney.

 

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Opportunity Awaits!

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Sydney Opera House and Habour Bridge taken from the Royal Botanic Gardens

After many years of wondering about this large continent that lies so far to the south, I finally had the opportunity to travel to Australia. It was a business trip on behalf of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT).  The CCT desperately needs teachers for the 27 private K-12 Christian schools that operate throughout Thailand. Most of the schools were established by Protestant missionaries many decades ago and some are over 100 years old.  Those Protestant missionaries are credited with bringing Western education to Thailand and for educating women, as well as men. Back in the day, these schools were known throughout Thailand for teaching the English language, as well as math, science and the fundamentals of Christian character.

Today, the schools of the CCT are being hit with a loss of enrollment due to two major factors: a declining birthrate in Thailand, as educated Thai women enter the workforce and delay starting families, and intense competition from both government schools and private, for-profit international schools. At the same time, young university graduates are coming into the workforce with a higher debt load than ever before in history. This is making it difficult for Christian Volunteers in Thailand to recruit the teachers that are needed in these Christian schools. In fact, more than half of the volunteers now serving are retirees who believe they still have something to contribute.

So, I traveled to Australia to see whether there might be university graduates closer at hand and to explore the best methods for spreading the word that teachers are needed here in Thailand.  I also wanted to discover what Australia had to offer to Thai teachers and administrators who wished to further their education. What I learned over the course of six days and many meetings with various individuals and groups was both sobering and hopeful.

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 Dr. Sureka Goringe (left) and Ms. Jane Kennedy

The meetings that were the most hopeful were those at the Uniting World office on Pitt Street in Sydney on Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon. The first time, I met with Dr. Sureka Goringe (left in the photo), the National Director of Uniting World and responsible for international partnerships. And I also met with Dr. Sureka Goringe and Ms. Jane Kennedy (right in the photo), the Associate Director for International Programs of Uniting World. Both were delighted that I had come and that they could renew their ties with the Church of Christ in Thailand as both recognized that it had been many years since the two church organizations had been in contact with one another. While the conversations wandered through many different dimensions of international church ministries and partnerships, I was able to share the critical need for teachers in the Christian schools of the CCT and to obtain a commitment from them to share that information with Uniting Church congregations throughout Australia. I promised to send them the link to a new video recruitment ad that Daniel Pappas made for the CVT Program (https://vimeo.com/320997466/7c262aff56) and to send the new brochures when they have been printed. The two ladies shared with me that they have an annual gathering of Uniting Church international partners that is usually held in Bali or in Fiji every year. They promised to send an invitation to Rev. Sayam Muangsak for the Church of Christ in Thailand to send someone from the CCT to this gathering in July of 2019 in Fiji. This conference is called the Uniting Church President’s Conference and, this year, the focus is on climate change. While other subjects were broached during the meeting, everyone agreed that we need to begin by re-establishing relationships and including the missing partners in our dialog and discussion of regional issues.

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Dr. Christine Johnston (center), Dr. Kumara Ward

The conversations that were the most sobering were those I had with educational leaders at Wollongong University and Western Sydney University. Both of these fine institutions are known for the quality of teachers that they produce. I met with Robyn Lumby, Senior Business Manager of the School of Education and Joanna Hoetzer, Careers Consultant for the Faculty of Social Sciences, at Wollongong University on Monday morning and, later, with Dr. Christine Johnston, Director of Engagement and International, School of Education (center in photo) and Dr. Kumara Ward, Director of Academic Programs, Early Childhood (right in photo) at Western Sydney University, on Monday afternoon. While everyone was sincere in their offer to assist me in my quest for teachers, they were frank in pointing out that their graduates 1) could command much higher salaries in Australia (more than double what the CCT schools could pay foreign teachers), 2) would not gain any advantage in the job market by teaching in Thailand and, when they returned to Australia, would have to begin at the bottom of the employment ladder, even with several years of experience teaching in Thailand, and 3) due to the recent changes in teacher requirements in Australia, would be more highly educated and skilled than teachers from most other nations. While these things allow Australia to produce highly skilled instructors, it may also cause those instructors to be less patient with organizations that do not measure up to their high standards. At the same time, everyone was willing to help me understand ways in which I could post available openings in CCT schools and help to spread the word among their own students. They were also eager to share ways in which they might collaborate with the administrators of the CCT schools to bring state-of-the-art teaching techniques and educational trends to Thailand through seminars or conferences where their educators might travel to Bangkok to present or to teach. While the CCT might send administrators or talented faculty to Australia to study, recent changes in Australian law require the universities to screen carefully for English language proficiency. Most graduate programs require an IELTS score of 8, which is very high proficiency in English.

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Ms. Diana Stevens (left) and Dr. Shakri Sanber

There was one last visit and series of meetings that was both hopeful and sobering. Those were the meetings that I had at Australian Catholic University on Thursday morning. Here I met with Dr. Shakri Sanber, Head of the School of Education (right in the photo), and Ms. Diana Stevens, Associate Director for International Marketing and Recruitment (left in the photo).  Both of them were very warm and welcoming. It became very clear during the time we spent together that Australian Catholic University is very familiar with the world of private schools affiliated with the church. Australian Catholic University is ranked No. 1 for Teacher Education in Australia and it produces many of the teachers that teach in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran schools that are scattered throughout Australia. One of things that impressed me the most about their graduate programs for educational leadership is how they require graduate students to reflect upon the role of faith and of religion in education – something that CCT educational administrators would not have been exposed to in a Thai university graduate studies program. While all of them acknowledge the difficulties that graduate students coming from Thailand would have with the English language proficiency requirement, they also shared their willingness to work with cohorts of students. Having a cohort of 15-18 students would allow the university to adapt the language requirement, as it would benefit all students in the class – not just one individual. They were also eager to talk about the possibility of having a cohort in Thailand and sending a member of the faculty to meet with that cohort from time to time as they progressed through the curriculum, studying some things online and some face-to-face.  All-in-all, there were many opportunities for partnership and collaboration, for they also shared that Australian Catholic University had much to learn from Thailand as well.

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Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge

While I met with many other educational administrators at other universities in and near Sydney, most of the other meetings did not result in anything new or open the door to possibilities that were not evident from their information online. However, the meetings I attended (above) encouraged me that there were ways to partner both with the church and with educational institutions to bring teachers and leadership practices to the schools of the CCT in Thailand.  I look forward to sharing this information with them and formulating a plan for future partnerships with our colleagues in Australia.

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A Companion on the Journey

Nellie Close-Up - Blog

Nellie when I adopted her in 2011

When I arrived in Thailand back in 2011, my mother and I lived in Chiang Mai, a beautiful city in the north. Since I was working many hours and traveling often, I searched for a small dog to be a companion for her. Nellie came to live with us later that year. Nellie was a beautiful Miniature Pinscher with the typical cropped tail, but her ears were untouched and huge – “bat ears” that could hear everything. Here is the little I know of Nellie’s past: Nellie was born in India and came to Thailand with a missionary family. When they returned to their home country, she came to live with an American missionary family. That family was now making preparations to return to the USA and needed to find a home for Nellie and two of her grown children. I adopted Nellie. At that time, she was already 10 years old.

Nellie at the Gate - Blog

Nellie guarding the gate 2012

Nellie is an alpha dog. She quickly takes charge and everything within eyesight belongs to her and she protects her territory, including whatever humans she decides also belong to her. She would sit, like a queen, on my mother’s lap, silently demanding to be stroked. Nellie does not allow anything to get between her and what she wants. In 2013, when I took her back to the USA, she stayed with my sister and quickly took over her Labradoodle’s bed, despite the fact that he was four times her size. Beau had to sleep under their bed until I returned to take Nellie back to Thailand. On the other hand, she’s not a “yappy” dog and does not bark at all except when she perceives a true threat. A “true threat” is usually identified by someone ringing the doorbell. Whenever the doorbell rings, she barks.  For some reason, the sound of a spoon falling onto tile or granite creates a noise that she interprets as threatening – which makes it challenging for me to return my spoon to my empty cup, for it makes that same noise and elicits barking.

Nellie - the Flip Side 2013 - Blog

Nellie at home two weeks after the attack in 2013

Nellie is a tough old bird. At 17 in human years or 119 in dog years, she still acts very young for her age. She has no problem running up and down the stairs from the living room and kitchen on the first floor to my bedroom on the second floor. She has survived “hand-to-hand” combat with chinchoks, leaving their dead bodies in her wake. She survived a tick infestation in 2016 that resulted in a decision to not allow her outside the house in Bangkok, for she would crawl under the house and re-infest her and the house when she came inside. Both she and the house have been tick-free since I made that decision. The one encounter that she almost did not survive was an encounter with two larger dogs in 2013. While she was staying at the home of a friend in Chiang Mai while I was traveling, two large dogs came into his yard and attacked her. By the time he got to her, she was critically injured. He drove her to the Animal Hospital at Suandok and the wonderful surgeon there stitched her back together again. After a few weeks, she was her normal self again, but she has not been quite as cocky when she encounters larger dogs. She also lost some teeth in that encounter and I have given her soft food ever since.

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Nellie with her “staircase” 2018

I have noticed some differences in her in the past two years as she ages. She no longer jumps as high as she did before. She used to easily jump three times her height, which always amazed me. In 2012, she would jump from the floor onto my mother’s hospital bed during my mother’s final illness. My mother was not always thrilled with this, as she was in some pain from her cancer. But once on the bed, Nellie would lie quietly by her side and Mom would rest with her hand on Nellie’s back. Now, Nellie cannot even jump up into my chair, so we have taken my mother’s step-stool and created a graduated “staircase” for Nellie to get up into the chair where she likes to sleep when I am away at work. Because of these things, I let down my guard a bit and left a package of macadamia nuts sitting on the side table in the living room this week. When I returned from work on Thursday, Nellie was lying on the floor beside the half-empty package. She could not get up to eat her evening meal. It has taken three days of constant care, spoon-feeding her and restoring fluids and electrolytes with a syringe, to get her almost back to normal again.

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Nellie in 2018

If you compare this photo to the one at the beginning of the blog, you will notice that Nellie looks much older. Her muzzle and eyebrows are almost completely white and her chest hair is not far behind. She is still cute as the dickens and very well behaved. She sleeps more during the day, thinks twice before following me upstairs on my many trips up and down during the day, and often does not hear me when I return from work and open the front door. Now, it takes banging around in the kitchen and calling her name to get her to come for dinner. However, if I am gone for more than eight hours, she will greet me at the door and proceed to tell me exactly what she thinks about my absence. Dinner is obviously too late for her liking! Now, as I watch her walking around the living room and sniffing under the door, I am glad that she survived this latest threat to her existence. She has been a wonderful companion on the journey!

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