Living in Southeast Asia as a Global Mission Intern has greatly challenged and strengthened my faith and relationship with God, other people, as well as a how I see myself. While I would never deny my faith was developing for many years before I began working internationally, serving in Thailand and Laos has tested and increased my faith in more powerful ways then I ever thought possible. I strongly believe that it is in those moments of most discomfort, questioning, and unfamiliarity where God and my understanding of church is most visible, and many of those moments have taken place in the last couple of years. While I have served in both Thailand and Laos, I have a unique perspective of the church in SE Asia. Nevertheless, supporting Christians has been difficult at times. Working to sustain the church in Laos and Thailand comes with many joys as well as challenges. To me, sustaining “the church” is not about having a beautiful building or any building for that matter, or memorizing and reciting scripture or fundraising, because the church is very alive without any of these elements. Church is found in the relationships we build with others (no matter how similar or different they may be from us), uplifting people, about places we can feel safe to be our true selves, about unconditional love, and about forgiveness.
What does the church look like in Laos and Thailand? The church is found in among the Karen people who gather at their homes every Saturday and Sunday to worship and share fellowship with each other. The church exists in the refugee camps, safe houses, and children's homes that care for Karen children and adults who have faced many struggles and need a place of love and refuge. The church exists on the faces and in the hearts of Lao, Karen, and Thai teachers who dedicate many hours of their lives to providing a school home for children to learn. The church is found in simple meals shared together with others. The church exists in the moments where we are not afraid to make mistakes, because it is in those instances we learn and grow the most.
Christianity in Laos and Thailand are in different stages of development and so supporting and being a witness looks a bit different in each place. For me, the most important aspects in sustaining the church are understanding where people are on their faith journeys, the history of Christianity in a certain place, as well as understanding a person for who they are (what are their likes, dislikes, dreams, etc.) and their families and communities. Reasons always exist for why people act the way they do or why something is the way it is. The truth is that the more one understands someone or something, the more appreciation and love he or she has for that person or thing. The same applies for the church in SE Asia.
Christianity in Lao is new and since few from outside Laos visit or learn about the church, Christianity exists in many of the same ways as when Christ was first introduced to Lao people. Christianity in Laos is growing and evolving, especially with the youth who have shown me more Christian faith than I have seen anywhere. Sustaining church in Laos involves recognizing and honoring where people are spiritually, but also gently sharing with them what Christianity is like in other places and imagining what could be in the future.
Thailand is more diverse and westernized in Christian practices than Laos. With more people visiting and working in Thailand, Thai and Karen people are faced with more perspectives on how people live out their faith. The situation can also be hard for internationals who struggle to hold on to their own beliefs and traditions in a place that is much different than their home country. It is not the outsider's job to change what exists in a different place, but instead to honor, love, and learn from how it is. Thai and Karen Christians, especially children and youth, still struggle with the question of what they believe and whether their friends and family will accept their faith. In both Thailand and Laos, Christian people are confronted with a pull between the beauty and importance of Buddhism (the dominant religion) in their culture and the hope and joy found in a life with Christ. Many Christians have converted from Buddhism, and in some places Christian people are told to leave behind the ways of Buddhism. For many individuals, the division between Buddhism and Christianity creates conflicts, often strongly separating beliefs and values of family members, as well as lots of confusion. For many Thai and Karen students that attend a Christian school, such as the one where I volunteer, Saha Christian Suksa School, they are faced with many questions. For many Karen students, when asked if they are Christian or want to be Christian, they will tell another person that they cannot be until they are older, as they must continue to honor their families and the Buddhist tradition.
Sustaining the church is important, but brings with it difficulties for people in SE Asia. With love, understanding, and respecting others' beliefs, as well as learning and growing in mutual relationships with others, the church in SE Asia has a bright future.
Nicole Betteridge serves as a Global Mission Intern with the Church of Christ in Thailand. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Week of Compassion, Disciples' Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission and your special gifts.