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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!