A group of school-aged girls sit cross-legged on the cold tile floor of the Mae Tien Church (pictured above) in northern Thailand, three hours drive southwest of the city of Chiang Mai. Giddy and laughing, the girls hold hands while facing each other, sharing secrets during a break in the Saturday night worship service. They appear to be in their own world, despite being surrounded by most of the 100 residents of their tiny mountain village.
If the girls are following the instructions of the evening’s speaker, Tharawat Suebthayat (Wat), who is the director of Wycliffe Thai Foundation, they are discussing the analogy he told the congregation: that a rich man entering the kingdom of God is as difficult as a camel going through the eye of a needle.
“But all things are possible with God,” Wat emphasized to the ethnic congregation of Pwo Karen people.
With sensitivity in Wat’s demeanor and a gentle wisdom, the 42-year-old father of three sons scans the crowd, looking into the eyes of an eager people hoping to learn more about Jesus. These aren’t a select few villagers—this is virtually everyone in the town. They have left their traditional religious ways behind entirely. Today, everything socially in the community revolves around church. Most of the congregation will be back for activities three more times this week.
As Wat brings a message of hope to the church, he sees the power the gospel has had in this community and he’s hopeful that Wycliffe Thai Foundation’s mission can help change lives elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
In the Dirt
When Wat explains his role as the director of Wycliffe Thai Foundation, it sounds like a pretty cushy job.
“Meeting, eating and driving,” he says, to summarize the position that he’s held since 2011. “I meet people, eat with the people and I drive to take them [to minority language groups] to see language communities.”
Don’t be fooled, however, by Wat’s simple, understated explanation of his role. Instead, look behind his tinted glasses, into his deep-set eyes. You will see a responsibility that encompasses his life and his role. As he explains it, the work that he and Wycliffe Thai Foundation staff do is basically spiritual planting, fertilizing and harvesting. They are tending to the Thai Church, so it will play its part in the task of Bible translation not only in Thailand, but also in bordering Southeast Asian nations, a region with 300 minority language groups.
“Think about how you grow something,” explains the gentle-spirited director. “Step one: you have to plow the land. Step two: you sow the seed. Step three: you have to nourish the rice, and step four is the harvest.”
Wat says that today, Wycliffe Thai Foundation (which, like Wycliffe Canada, is a member of the Wycliffe Global Alliance) is still young, so it is just taking the first step: plowing the land. This is done by assisting the Church in Thailand to understand the importance of Bible translation.
“We help the Church, we educate the Church and we hope that in the future the Church will say, ‘OK, this is our task. We will complete it.’”
A group of Chinese tourists release a lantern during the Yi Peng Festival of Lights in Chiang Mai. The November Buddhist festival, where thousands of lanterns are released into the night sky, marks the end of the rainy season. It's also a way to pay respect to Buddha, release bad memories and make a wish for the future.
One Thai church that has committed to supporting Bible translation is Zion Church in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital. The small congregation saw that one of their own congregants, Kanya Johnson* and her American husband Aaron*, were wanting to begin translation work for the Tang* people in a neighbouring Southeast Asian country. Zion got on board to support the couple.
“Her home church of a hundred people covers our entire need,” explains Aaron, who thought because he is from America (which he calls “the land of money”), that financial needs would be met through friends in his home country.
“When God did the exact opposite and had Thai people supporting us to go do this Bible translation process in Mukdahan, we were so inspired; so amazed.”
Beyond financially supporting Kanya and Aaron, the church also promised to send someone to visit them twice every year and committed to pray for them regularly. This small church is taking ownership of Bible translation because they had a relationship with one of their own. This is an example of what Wycliffe Thai Foundation aims to help replicate around the country.
* pseudonym used due to sensitivity.
The Time Is Now
Wat believes that the Thai Church, situated in the heart of Southeast Asia, is in the perfect position to bring the Word of God to the surrounding nations. Although Thai Christians are a very small minority, making up less than one per cent of the population in Thailand, they have a freedom to worship Jesus. Many Christians in surrounding countries do not have this privilege because of the persecution they face from rival ethnic groups and governments that are opposed to gospel. With great blessings, Wat believes there comes a great responsibility for the Thai Church for the surrounding region.
“If you think that we [should] wait until everyone in Thailand become believers, when [will it happen]?” asks Wat. “The people who are waiting for the Word of God for 2,000 years, do we want them to wait until we finish the task in Thailand? I don’t think so.”
To advance Bible translation-related work across Southeast Asia, Wycliffe Thai Foundation needs personnel to lead Bible translation teams. For this reason, a huge part of what the organization focuses on is recruiting new staff. But this doesn’t happen overnight.
“We cannot just say, ‘Today we want to have Bible translators and tomorrow we will have them.’ It will take time,” explains Wat.
Knowing that recruitment starts with building relationships, Wycliffe Thai Foundation runs a number of programs to connect with the next generation of Thai Christians. One of them is Café Wycliffe (which was inspired by something similar started in Wycliffe Canada by Derryl and Karen Friesen). Held twice each year at universities in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Café Wycliffe’s goal is to encourage students that after they finish their education they can do more good in the world than they think; they can become a part of eliminating Bible poverty in Southeast Asia.
“Think about God, think about His work,” Wat reminds students.
Other important recruitment programs are Camp Wycliffe and Discover. Camp Wycliffe is a five-day camp where participants learn about language, culture shock, and literacy by visiting local minority language groups. Discover is similar, but it's for pastors and leaders who are interested in seeing Bible translation and literacy in local language groups (especially in hard-to-access groups in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries) and potentially being involved in the work.
In recent years, these programs have resulted in recruitment of 10 staff who are now working in Bible translation and other language-related ministries. One of these staff members is Malai*, the literacy manager for the Tang language.
Malai is a spunky 27-year-old with loads of enthusiasm. She first got connected with Wycliffe Thai Foundation through Camp Wycliffe. After her heart was touched by hearing about the many Bibleless people groups in Southeast Asia, she applied for an internship offered by Wycliffe Thai Foundation to work in multilingual education with the government. Following an 18-month internship, Wycliffe paid for four years of her education at Ratchapat University in Chiang Mai where she studied international communications.
Within Wycliffe Thai Foundation’s annual budget, finances are set aside to invest in young people, like Malai, who are interested in committing their lives to Bible translation work and related ministries but need an opportunity.
Breaking Through Barriers
Although Wycliffe Thai Foundation members are active in Bible translation in surrounding, difficult-to-access nations, there is a large mission field within their own borders as well. The challenge to reach a modern culture steeped in Buddhism and animism is immense.
“Your goal is to become nothing,” explains Wat, of Buddhism’s 31 planes of enlightenment. In simple terms, these are 31 stages of reincarnation. The peak lifecycle is called the immaterial world, where the inhabitants have no physical body but possess just the mind. In the Buddhist philosophy, there is no concept of an all-powerful “God,” and in many minority languages there is no word for God either.
It comes as no surprise, then, that those hearing about Christianity for the first time find it difficult to understand. They see a radical religion far different than their own worldview.
“Why do you have to go to church every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday?” people often say to Wat. “You are very strict.”
Unlike Buddhism, which teaches its adherents to follow a middle path (the easy path), Christianity is about following a narrow path. Wat acknowledges that Christianity seems extreme and foreign to many Southeast Asians. Because of the steep learning curve for many Buddhists, Wycliffe Thai Foundation believes strongly in a strategy of evangelism called oral Bible storying.
It’s a style of storytelling where participants are trained to tell short, two-minute chronological Bible stories ranging from creation to Revelation, giving the listener the context they need to understand the gospel and their need for Christ. Through regular Wycliffe Thai Foundation-hosted meetings and longer workshops, storytellers practise their craft and are critiqued by the other participants. As the storytellers refine and memorize their stories, they are encouraged to share them with unreached people. The hope is that the storytellers will share Bible stories over several visits with the listener and build a relationship as they share Christ.
“I want to see that in the future [that Bible] storytelling will spread like gossip or a rumour,” explains Wat.
Today Wycliffe Thai Foundation is only in the early stages of championing Bible translation in Southeast Asia. But Wat trusts that, just like rumours, involvement in Bible translation will spread in the Thai Church, so that the people of Southeast Asia will find a relationship with Christ that brings them joy and life. ***