Por Dechsri’s father is the centre of attention on a breezy day outside of his home in the northern Thai village of Puikham. Hosting his daughter and a few of her friends, he dominates the conversation and stirs laughter with his stories.
“I worked so hard to send her to university and then she went off and became a Christian,” he tells the group as he smiles mischievously.
Por is tentative and quiet as her father shares his family’s redemption story.
The 30-year-old project co-ordinator of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE)—a partner program of Wycliffe Thai Foundation—knows the tortured story intimately. Listening to her father, the pain of the past still lingers. She remembers the shame, anger and embarrassment she felt toward him—and the banishment and rejection they faced from their own tight-knit Bisu people.
On An Island
“To tell you the truth, my dad made my friend pregnant and this was only when she was 14 years old,” Por explains. As punishment, police ordered Por’s dad to give away his family’s land and house to the teenager and her family.
Hated and stripped of their home, Por’s family moved from their ethnic Bisu village to an isolated rice field outside of the community. For the remaining years of Por’s adolescence, the family was in a sort of exile. Needing to attend school in a neighbouring town, Por had to walk the long distance through rice fields and then take a bus from there.
“Especially in the rainy season it was very hard because I wore my student uniform,” she explains. “Because it was very slippery, I [once] fell in the mud . . . but I went to school anyway.”
With her family life in disarray, Por left for university, still broken by what her father had done, and in need of hope and a future.
At Chiang Mai University, Por enjoyed her studies in political science, but felt an emptiness and meaninglessness that she couldn’t shake. In her confusion, she began fervently reciting mantras from the Buddhist prayer book.
One day in Por’s senior year, a few ladies approached her and some friends, telling them about Jesus and inviting them to attend an event at their church.
“In the past I heard Jesus’ name, but I didn’t really know who He was,” explains Por. Like the rest of her minority Bisu people, she had a religious upbringing of both Buddhism and animistic spirit worship. “I thought Jesus was just like Buddha.”
Wanting to Know God
That evening, Por and her friends rode their bicycles by the church. Oh, I would like to know what they are doing at church, she thought to herself. After her friends left, Por let her curiosity get the best of her. She walked into the church and sat down.
After a few people shared their testimonies, the pastor asked the crowd, “Who would like to know God tonight?”
Without hesitation, Por lifted up her hand to accept Christ. She was alone; the only one in the crowd that night to raise their hand. Yet, she says it was an easy decision.
Though the decision came easy, explaining to her family that she’d become a Christian—one of the first from her village—would be far from easy.
Seated for dinner with her mom and dad after becoming a Christian, Por bowed her head to pray, but the heat of her dad’s glare interrupted her devotion.
“God didn’t give you this food,” he shouted. “I gave you this food.”
More disappointed than angry, Por’s mom urged her to reconsider her conversion, saying that she was betraying her ancestors.
“People already hate us. Don’t let people hate us more. Please come back to Buddhism,” her mom pleaded unsuccessfully.
Once Por finished her education, she had the normal concern many graduates have: she wondered what was next. Searching for direction from God for her first job, she asked Him for what she wanted.
“If you are God, show me that you can do everything,” she pleaded, asking God for an entry-level salary and an employer that would provide her a new laptop. Waiting for God to provide a job that fit her criteria, she was offered a position by Wycliffe Thai Foundation doing literacy work. However, it was well below the starting salary.
I graduated from university so I should get more than this, she thought. This is not God answering me. I don’t want it.
After declining the position, she was offered a job working for a fuel conversion company in Bangkok. It was exactly what she asked God for: the position offered her the desired salary, a new laptop and even a beautiful home.
This is for sure God answering me, she thought.
But it didn’t go as planned. Por didn’t pass the three-month probation period because her English wasn’t strong enough to communicate with her Singaporean boss. So, they moved her to a different position in a department that soon evaporated—leaving her out of work.
“During that time I felt that my spirit was very weak,” she explains. “I had no friends. I had a beautiful house, but I felt so lonely.”
Out of work, the door was still open for Por to join Wycliffe. Despite the lower salary, she believed that working for Wycliffe might be the path God had for her. She began in a volunteer position in literacy for the first year. This soon evolved into her leading Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE)—a teacher training program that has seen 350 students from minority language groups attending mother-tongue kindergarten in their home villages.
Por loves the task God has given her to do.
“I have a heart for every people group. I want the people groups that I teach to be a good example for my people—to encourage them to love their language and their culture.”
Since beginning ECCE in 2010, the program has touched 10 villages in northern Thailand. Seeing the impact of mother-tongue education, the local government has caught the vision, taking ownership of the work in some of these communities during the past few years.
A modest, thin-walled schoolhouse with dirt floors houses the kindergarten class in Mae Tien, a tiny northern Thai village southwest of Chiang Mai that is home to the Pwo-Karen people. Here, the benefit of education in the Pwo-Karen mother tongue is obvious and somewhat surprising. For this small class of six students, learning is like a game. They practise writing their vowels as if the first person to finish will win a treat.
It was much different for Por when she was growing up. She struggled to learn during elementary school because she was taught in the national Thai language rather than her mother tongue of Bisu. These students, on the other hand, are thriving and are not only on-par with other students in the region, they’re ahead.
In a neighbouring village, Paruedee, an ECCE-trained kindergarten teacher, has seen her students thrive.
“They’re eager to get the answer, they’re eager to answer the questions,” she explains. “When the school sent them to a competition they got the high score; they won the prize.”
While Por’s work in minority language groups across Thailand has changed the lives of many young children, her home village has still been a hostile environment to navigate as a Christian. However, with great courage she has confidently stood for Christ and seen walls crumble.
Years ago, Por boldy posed a challenging question to her father (who still likely felt shame at getting a 14-year-old pregnant): “Do you know you’re a sinner?”
He’d been reading his Thai Bible, but he still didn’t know what his daughter meant.
What is this “sin?” he wondered.
Both Por’s mother and her brother had already turned to Christ, but her dad was still holding on tightly to his vices. Liquor was his main companion as he and Por’s mother teetered on the verge of divorce.
“Well, if you want to believe go ahead,” he told his wife, “but believe on your own. I’m not going to.”
Inside, though, Por’s father longed for the relationship with God enjoyed by the rest of his family. Soon after he started praying to God about his problems, the Lord answered him.
“We’d be out of money or really needing money for something and then I’d pray about it and God provided,” he explains. Seeing God’s provision, he started studying Scripture to learn what sin was. Soon he realized that he was a sinner in need of a Saviour.
Forgiveness and Hope
Por has carried the difficult memories of her father’s sins with her throughout her life. Prior to becoming a Christian, she admits that she was afraid of men because of his adultery.
“Please help me not to fall in love with any man in this city,” she prayed early on at university. After she became a Christian, however, the true desires of her heart came to the surface.
“I totally changed my prayer,” she admits. “And finally God gave me my husband.”
Seeing her father today following Christ brings with it tension. It pushes Por again to look to Christ to help her forgive her father, whose actions caused hurt.
“It was very difficult in the beginning to forgive my father,” Por admits, of the complicated feelings she still feels. “I think I’ve forgiven him [now], but not completely.”
She sees that he isn’t the same man he once was, and that he and her mother now share the same heavy burden of being a Bisu Christian that she feels. Once hated in the village for his sins, he is now also hated by many in the village for the God he serves; a God who forgives sin and eases shame.
“Every day we get chewed out,” he explains, saying the villagers are jealous and angry that, since turning to Christ, his family has been blessed with a successful rubber tree plantation.
“I tell them God gave me everything I have and everything belongs to God. That usually ends the discussion.”
Por’s father now has the same trust in God that Por had when she made her “easy” decision to live for Christ. Although today there are only a handful of Christians in the community, Por’s father sees hope on the horizon.
“I envision the day when they’ll accept us as part of the village and no longer cut us off,” he says.
“We still have trust in God.” ***