Tuesday, October 13, 2009

First thoughts

I have completed my first term as a missionary in Thailand and now I am back to Chicago for a short visit before I return to the mission field of Nong Bua Lamphu, Thailand, with my small church, my small congregation, and the looming question of how to turn this huge missionary field into a bountiful harvest.

Nong Bua Lamphu is one of Thailand's newest and smallest provinces. It's also one of the least developed provinces in the country. It is nestled in the northeast region of the country, surrounded by the larger provinces of Udon Thani, Khon Kaen and Leuy. Here, I am the proud pastor of the province's only Catholic Church, built 7 years ago by Br. Damien Lunders, SVD. Br. Damien is a Divine Word missionary, same as myself. In the province, there are only about 150 people who have been baptized as Catholics. Notice that I said baptized, not necessarily church-going.

The church is called St. Michael Archangel Church. It was built with the financial assistance of benefactors inside and outside of Thailand. It's a small church. If 60 people show up for mass, all the pews are filled. When I first came to the church in 2008, only about half of the church was filled. The church had no organ, no altar servers, no regular catechist, and no parish council.

But it's a nice looking church - simple, clean, well-kept and the grounds around it well-groomed. The person in charge of keeping the church in this admirable shape is Br. Damien himself. He's the "patriarch" of the church, so to speak. Ten years ago, Br. Damien came to Nong Bua Lamphu after many years serving in Papua New Guinea to expand the HIV-AIDS ministry that some Thai Catholics have begun. Br. Damien fund raised to build an orphanage for children with HIV, the Villa Marie Hospice for adults suffering from AIDS, and the Mother of Perpetual Help Center which provide AIDS education for the community and support for families with HIV.

The orphanage is located behind the church, just past a bridge that connects the two grounds together. There is a small stream that separates the two areas. On the banks of the stream there are many eucalyptus trees, banana groves and other plants which Br. Damien had planted. It's a lush environment and beautiful to look at when one wants to enjoy a bit of nature. In the orphanage, there are 23 children ages 6 to 15. The children are looked after by 5 sisters of the Mother Teresa congregation. The sisters come from India and the Philippines.

The Mother of Perpetual Help Center and the Hospice lies to the right of the church. A drive way separates the church from the center, which means that the two buildings are quite close together. Adjacent to the orphange is a "sala" an open hall used for activities and gatherings. It is called the St. Arnold and Joseph Sala.

Being surrounded by the orphanage and the MPHC, it is not surprising that our place is more well known in the overwhelmingly Buddhist community as the AIDS center rather than a Catholic church. It's also not surprising that our place has stirred up a lot of sympathy as well as apprehension from people in the community. Many people come to the orphanage to "tham bun" (make merit) on occasions such as birthday or death anniversaries of loved ones. But some avoid the church, even though they are Catholic, because they are afraid of getting infected with HIV from being in the same vicinity as people with AIDS.

So this is my mission field. I am the only priest serving in this province. I am busy in my mission work. Some people ask how could you be busy with such a small church and a small congregation? I am busy not from the amount of work available for me to do, but busy due to the amount of work that I have to create. Some priests are busy to fulfill obligations set out for them when they come into a new assignment. My business comes from the fact that I have to make things happen.

After several years in the mission field, I have finally decided to create this blog to share my experiences. I cannot write about everything in one sitting. There is too much to share because there are many thoughts on my mind. There are also many feelings in my heart. I create this blog to share these things - the pains, the joys, the struggles, the rewards, the blessings, and the challenges - everything that I encounter in my missionary life.

For those who wonder what it means to be a missionary and what is the life of a missionary like, I hope this blog gives you some ideas of what you're curious about.
(Photo: Stations of the Cross on the bridge conneting the church to the orphanage)
Chicago, 13 October 2009

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