It was last October that I first learned that the New Wilmington Mission Conference (www.nwmcmission.org) was interested in sending its Summer Service Team (see tab on that website) to Thailand this summer. Rev. Dr. Esther Wakeman and her husband, Rev. Rob Collins (PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers) met several times to plan the activities for their six-week visit to Thailand. With a twelve-page schedule in hand, I greeted the team at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport at midnight on the fourth of June. Since then, we have been on the go – traveling from place to place and ministry to ministry – cramming as much as we can into every day!
June 5th was a pretty quiet day, because the team slept through most of it. In the afternoon, we gathered in a meeting room at the Bangkok Christian Guest House to introduce ourselves and to go over the schedule of activities. Even as we were doing that, the schedule was changing – as schedules always do – due to changes in demands on those who were planning to assist us. One thing we did do was to hand out ‘Thailand survival packs,’ which consisted of one soft pillow (as most pillows in Thailand are not), one pillow case, one package of toilet tissues (for the many places where such is not provided), one large towel (to be use as a beach towel or blanket), one washcloth (as most hotels do not provide one), one bar of bath soap (to replace the ‘mini-soap bars’ that hotels use) and a ziplock bag to put the soap and washcloth in when traveling.
Tuesday, June 6th, the group visited the central office of the Church of Christ in Thailand, a 78-year-old ecumenical Protestant church that is a partner of the PC(USA). They were introduced to the many ministries of the CCT and attended a mini-seminar on Thai culture and customs. On June 7th, they returned to the CCT offices for a seminar on Child Protection, required of all who will be working with children through the church. In the afternoon, we traveled to Anita Thai Silk to learn about one of the famous exports of Thailand. During this visit to the store, we met Anita’s daughter, Phatra Putipanpong, who is the current owner of the store. She took us upstairs to view a showroom for wholesalers that is not open to the public. Every possible color, texture and pattern in Thai silk was there to be seen and admired. Kuhn Phatra gave members of the group a special discount on their purchases that day.
On June 8th, we took overnight bags and climbed into a 15-person van to travel to Nakhon Phathom. While I gave a half-day seminar on motivation for Thai teachers, the group saw a little of Nakhon Pathom and visited Saha Bamrung School to set things up for the first of six one-day English Camps for students in grades 4-6. The ASEAN English Camp, which was held on June 9th, introduced the students to the ten countries of ASEAN that plan to form an ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 and taught some basic English (colors, numbers, opposites, family members, etc.). During the day, the students from five different schools traveled from country to country in the gymnasium of Saha Bamrung School, getting their ASEAN passports stamped and learning games and songs to help them remember key concepts and Christian principles. The NWMC Summer Service Team helped to teach about ASEAN nations and some English, and led the singing. After the closing ceremonies, we all cleaned up the gymnasium and then headed back to Bangkok by van.
On Sunday, June 10th, we all went to Sapan Luang Church in Bangkok. Our host was Dr. Waranoot, the Director of Bangkok Christian College. Sapan Luang Church (Yellow Bridge Church) began as a ministry to the Chinese population of Bangkok and has grown into a large tri-lingual (Chinese-Thai-English) church that serves a diverse population of young and old in the center of the city. We were witness to a bilingual (Chinese-Thai) service that we listened to in English via wireless headphones. Afterwards, Dr. Waranoot took us all out for lunch at a fabulous noodle place near the church. We were planning to rest on Sunday afternoon, but Dr. Waranoot insisted on sending the BCC van to take us to Chatthuchuck Market, a world-famous Sunday market featuring every kind of Thai handicraft. Two hours wandering about that huge market left our heads spinning. We came back to the Guest House for dinner and then headed out to the movies at the Paragon cinemas at Siam Center.
Monday, June 11th, featured a visit to the most famous tourist site in Bangkok: the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. We got there by BTS Skytrain and riverboat taxi. For three hours, we wandered around the grounds of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha where new sights and historical notes amazed the members of the Summer Service Team. That afternoon, we visited Beng Hwa Jewelers, where three generations of Christian jewelers have served mission workers. We learned how to identify authentic gemstones and some members of the group made purchases. On June 12th, the Summer Service Team visited FEBC International Radio and spent time with Director Georgina Stott, learning about the ministries of the radio station and recording some short programs for future use. They each received a souvenir of their visit in the form of a tape of a program that they did for the station.
June 13th was an intense day of learning about human trafficking and those who suffer the greatest abuse: street children and prostitutes. A visit to “The Well” and “The Hub” and an evening visit to one of Bangkok famous “red light” districts, including a prayer walk through one of the busy areas off of Silom Road, wrenched the hearts of members of the Summer Service Team and left them with a lot to think about from that day. June 14th was a day to rest and get caught up on emails and blogging. Early afternoon found the group in Lumpini Park, playing frisbee. That afternoon, we had an early dinner and then caught the evening train to Nakhon Srithammarat. Traveling by Second Class Sleeper was a new experience for many on the Summer Service Team, but most found it to be a comfortable ride. The strangest experience was using the on-board toilet which dumped human waste directly onto the railbed – resulting in an air-conditioned seating experience. The porter made up the beds by 8 PM and several were tired enough to crash at that point. Others played cards (Hearts and Rummy) or listened to their iPods (or both) until bedtime.
The train arrived in Surathani barely 30 minutes late the next morning, so I was confident that I would make it to Nakhon Srithammarat in plenty of time for the seminar for English teachers at 1 PM. WRONG!! The train finally pulled into Nakhon Srithammarat station two-and-one-half hours late – at 1:25 PM – and the seminar began at 2 PM for those who had been waiting for an hour for the teacher (me) to show up! They forgave me for that – and for crashing through the material in record time to make up for the hour I missed. The big negative was not having enough time to print the handouts. So, I was forced to give the handouts to the directors of the two schools after the fact so that they could distribute them to the teachers who attended the workshop.
The next day’s ASEAN English Camp almost made up for it. It flowed much more smoothly than the first one and the NWMC Summer Service Team took on more and more responsibility for teaching English concepts, leading the songs, and coaching the young people who were elected the ambassadors from each of the ten nations. Students carried the flags of the ten nations, greeted each other in the language of the country they represented, learned to say some simple English words, and participated fully in the activities of the day. Each student received a t-shirt from the camp, as well as a bi-lingual book that told a Bible story in English and in Thai.
Sunday, June 17, was the highlight of the trip for many of us! We attended Bethlehem church in downtown Nakhon Srithammarat. This was a church that my parents had attended when they were stationed in Nakhon Srithammarat in the 1960’s. I sat in the middle of the NWMC Summer Service Team and attempted to translate what I could of the sermon, but the pastor was moving through scripture so fast that I was lucky to capture the scripture passages and pass them on to the group. After the sermon, a young woman of high school age was received into the church through baptism. The SST watched in fascination as she answered the questions posed to her about her faith and then knelt to receive baptism. It was announced that she had requested baptism on this day because it was her birthday.
After the service, the NWMC SST surrounded her and sang “Happy Birthday” to her and asked if they could have a photo taken with her. She happily complied, which is when they discovered that she could speak English. What a joyful day it was – and language was no barrier in everyone understanding the significance of the day. There is much more to tell, but it will have to wait for another day. It is time to get this show on the road again!