n a main thoroughfare in Nakhon Si Thammarat, amongst the lineup of family-owned restaurants, small businesses, and Thailand’s ubiquitous 7-11s, sits an innocuous townhouse. A banner is strung up above the front doors, the single adornment and identification for the place: “Radiant Life.”
For the average Thai passerby who happens to peer through the ground level’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows on a quiet Sunday morning though, there is an alien sight to behold. At the far end of the open room stands a man on a guitar, singing. A cluster of small Thai children sing along with a few adults, some of whom are Thai and others who are clearly foreigners. They are worshipping the Christian God.
Amongst this small group of mismatched people is a young Thai woman named Jiap, who has come for the first time to Radiant Life for the Sunday worship – and also to a Christian worship service for the first time ever in her life. If the startling foreignness of it all – watching those around her sing to a God she has never heard of before, listening to a local Thai pastor preach from a book she has never read – disturbs her at all, she does not let on.
Though Jiap is just one Thai person in a country where Buddhism represents roughly 94% of the population, the fact that she has come – for the first time ever – is simultaneously a small step and a small miracle.
“One of the things that we’ve come to understand in Thailand is that to be Thai is to be Buddhist,” says Jonathan, the man playing the guitar for the worship service. “And to change your religion would actually be to alter your identity.”
“I struggle with that in various ways. I wish it were as simple as ‘Yeah, we are trying to change your religion,’” Jonathan says. “But in more ways than one, that actually closes the door rather than keeps it open.”
In Thailand, the number of Christians hovers at about one percent of the population, despite the fact that European missionaries arrived as early as the 1500s. Sparse as Christianity already is in Thailand, most of it is clustered in the northern region. Southern Thailand remains largely aloof to Christianity and Nakhon Si Thamarat is a place of not only Buddhism, but traditional Chinese religion and Islam as well (Islam comprises just under 5 percent of the population, making it the second most practiced religion in Thailand).
Changing your identity, after all, comes with upheaval. And for a Thai person, likely raised in a Buddhist family and community, changing your religion can seem unfathomable and daunting.
“It was overwhelming. The heat, and learning a new language, adapting to a new culture,” Genine says. “It was a lot to take in. But we adapted.”
They would have to learn to adapt more than once: in January 2015, the Thomases moved to Nakhon Si Thammarat in Southern Thailand after months of language learning and training. Southern Thailand has a less-than-favorable reputation; it is considered “high-risk” because of terrorist activity in the surrounding provinces. Perhaps one of the most major adjustments of all was adapting expectations for what their ministry would look like.
“Before we can even get an opportunity to share the Gospel with someone, there’s a trust element in it. And by living amongst the people, we form a relationship – we are their neighbors, we are part of their community,” Jonathan says. “If there’s relationship, there’s opportunity to chat about stuff and talk about who they are, what’s happening in their lives, and the Gospel finds a way into everyday conversation.”
In a country so firmly rooted in Buddhism, not only as the unofficial national religion but as a cultural and familial identity, church-planting cannot be a hurried or intrusive process. Rather, it is about slowly building rapport and eventually trust – about letting people know you will respect their heritage. And so Radiant Life, a community center run by the Thomases and their OMF teammates, was born out of a desire to foster relationships and serve the people around them. They currently offer mostly English classes as one means of doing that, and the class fees maintain the building.
“We looked for a way of being here, operating fully, keeping it sustainable because there is no church here yet,” Jonathan says. “We wanted to serve the community. I think that’s the biggest thing – we wanted to be of some assistance here.”
Radiant Life opened officially in May 2015 and in addition to English classes, the Thomases and their teammates have begun hosting Sunday worship services this past spring, such as the one Jiap attended. The center will also serve as a space for a weekly time of fellowship and Bible study with three Thai Christians in the community who have expressed an interest in deepening their knowledge of God.
Pii Becky ("Pii" literally means “older sister” in Thai) is a Thai Christian who serves alongside the Thomases and their OMF teammates at Radiant Life. She has been a Christian for 17 years, and is hopeful that together they can share the Gospel with their community in Nakhon.
“I thanked God when I met them. I feel happy that God sent them to us,” she says. “I pray that there would be a church in this community."
“We’ve seen a few people – the kids – just pull away, back away from relationships that we’d built already,” he says.
It is a slow, tricky journey – giving people space and time to adjust and become used to something so seemingly foreign and removed, like Christianity. It is something the Thomases are familiar with, as foreigners who are constantly making sense of the new culture they have placed themselves in and their own identities in a new environment.
In Thailand, the color of one’s skin comes with connotations and assumptions. The Thomases, ethnically Indian but African by national and cultural association, are darker-skinned. For Thais, lighter skin – something foreigners are assumed to have – is prized. Consequently, the Thomases are not placed on a pedestal as many light-skinned foreigners sometimes are. Students have referred to Jonathan as khruu daam, “the dark teacher,” others have asked him if he sells roti, a slur against the Indians who often sell them in Thailand.
“We’re working with a Caucasian team and...when they see us, they see equals,” Jonathan says. “But they don’t realize that to people around us, we’re different. It’s definitely discouraged us to a certain extent.”
Much as the tension of being a foreigner with dark skin can rankle, it means the Thomases have a sense of relatability that comes by being Asian and looking more like the people they have come to befriend and serve, people who do not always have the best reputation in Thailand.
“I spoke to a Bangkok taxi driver who said Nakhon people have a jai daam – a black heart,” Jonathan says. “There’s definitely that stereotype within Thailand that the south is not a nice place to be...or the people aren’t the best in comparison to the rest of Thailand.”
The Thomases have not found that to be the case ("warm" and "welcoming" is how Genine describes the community); and the relatability they have from not being "typical" foreigners has been the stepping stone for friendships.
“We’re not unapproachable. Our maeban for instance, she can open up with us, we can chat about anything,” Jonathan says, referring to Prang, the Thomas’ house helper. “She feels as though we understand her better, more than other foreigners. And we can relate to her problems.”
"Jonathan and Genine are trustworthy people," Prang says. "If I have a problem, I’d want to go to them for advice. I know that they are good people to talk with and they have good advice, and they pray for me and they help me."
It is as Jonathan said earlier, that before one can share the Gospel, there needs to be a relationship. So despite the dissonance of living and being in a foreign place, at the end of the day, it is about building relationships. The fact that they experience the incongruities of fitting into a new culture is also a reminder that to the Thais they are reaching, Christianity can sometimes seem dissonant with their own traditions.
It is relationships that have made living in Thailand feel more like home for the Thomases, and relationships that will hopefully help them bring a Christianity that is at home in Nakhon Si Thammarat too.
“We’ve established a presence here, people know who we are,” Jonathan says. “I think the longer we stay here, the more trust we build. And it just adds."
She is not necessarily interested in becoming a Christian, and that is okay. But this young woman, with her polite but curious questions, is why the Thomases are willing to continue laying roots in Thailand and to continue hoping and praying their community will see Jesus, even if slowly.
“We looked around and said, ‘Lord, nobody here knows you. Nobody here sings your praises. Nobody gives you glory in this place,’” Jonathan says of their first visit to Nakhon.
The day Radiant Life opened to the public, March 6 of this year, was exactly two years to the day the Thomases first arrived in Thailand. Everything had seemed foreign and strange. But as Genine said, they adapted. They’ve gone beyond just adapting, and are simply doing life in Thailand, even giving birth to their second child, Daniella, during their time here.
“Just to have a bunch of local Thai people come in [to Radiant Life] and glorify God through worship in the center was just huge for us,” Jonathan says.
“It was really confirmation that God is doing something, maybe not according to our expectation and not as fast as we want it, or not as big or elaborate. Conversions all over the place or something like that…but God is doing something. And we just need to be patient and work with Him.”