Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mission on the mat: church youth group shares food life, and hope

By Anthony Duc Le, SVD

Eating in the Thai culture

Eating together is an important social and communal activity in every culture and society, and for Thai people, it’s no exception. When there are events that involve serving food, those in charge invariably have to think about how much and what kind of food should be served. At my church, this issue often dominates the parish council meeting conversations. For example before our annual church feast, we spent a large proportion of time on this very topic. After the event had already occurred, we talked about whether the food was enough for everyone, and what we should do for the next celebration. Likewise, in our First Saturday gatherings at parishioners’ homes for prayer and scripture sharing, despite my urging that this be a simple affair because I did not want to make it a burden on the host, the parishioners themselves refuse to make it so. No one leaves the house without first being fed. Even when the host family is rather poor, they still manage to get enough food together to serve everyone.

Eating being a part of family, community, or other group gatherings is a requisite for the Thai people who have their own unique way of sharing food. When Thai people sit down for a meal, they usually share the various dishes that are placed in the middle of the table. A pot or container of rice is placed on the side. Dishes differ from region to region. However, most meals consist of a soup, a spicy dish, a vegetable dish, and some fresh vegetables. Unlike many of their Asian counterparts, Thai people nowadays use forks and spoons rather than chopsticks, which are reserved for noodle soups such as kuaytiaw. In the countryside, people often eat with their hands, which is the style of eating practiced before utensils were introduced. For example, in the Northeast region of Thailand, people often use their hand to pick up a piece of sticky rice, dip it in a spicy dish and then put it in their mouth.

Usually the dishes placed in the middle of the table come with a serving spoon. But it is not uncommon for Thai people to serve themselves with the utensils that they use to eat. In people’s homes, especially in the countryside, Thai people often eat sitting on a mat spread out on the floor inside or in front of the house where it is a bit cooler. However, eating in such an open space also requires them to invite neighbors to join everytime one passes by. It is a polite way for the people to continue their meal without feeling like they are being unhospitable. Usually, the passerby politely refuses the invitation and goes on his way leaving the family to eat in peace. Eating for Thai people is a relationship building activity in many ways, and an important part of people’s everyday life. It is no wonder that when Thai people greet each other, they often inquire whether they have eaten or not.

The Christian Agape meal

In reality, it’s not the Thai people alone who employ the occasion of sharing a meal together to enhance or solidify good relationships through the sharing of conversation, jokes, stories, and of course, food. In almost every culture, friendships and communities are often formed and strengthened through meal rituals – both formal and informal. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus was often seen eating with many people –his disciples, community leaders, and even sinners. Sharing food with these people were an important part of Jesus’ ministry and actually afforded him many unique teaching moments. Sharing in a meal with others allowed him the opportunity to convert and transform the lives of people like Levi the tax collector and his friends who were castigated by society (Mk 2:15-17). Accepting meal invitations presented him with perfect scenarios to teach those such as the Pharisee named Simon on the relationship between love and forgiveness (Luke 7:36-50). Breaking bread with his disciples on the last night before he was arrested and hung on the cross allowed Jesus the occasion to say profound and sincere parting words to them, and taught them the way to remember him in the future (John 13-16).

So it is not surprising that in the early days of the Church, Christians would gather around the table in people’s houses to share food and fellowship, sang, and prayed to remember Jesus. This meal is what came to be known as the agape meal, or the love-feast. This act of worship and fellowship would eventually evolve into the formal Eucharist that we see today. However, as the formal Eucharistic celebrations began to take shape, in the past, agape meals often were still held as an activity separate from the Eucharistic celebration. Today, at many churches, agape meals often take on the characteristic of after-mass social, Saturday night potlucks, or even full out meals in which members sit down around the table to share food and fellowship. At one of the churches of Fr. Truc Phan, SVD in Nong Khai Province, every Sunday, the villagers bring food to share with each other after Mass. All these things act as an agape and provide opportunities for building community spirit and unity.

From instant noodles to agape meal

When I first came to St. Michael Archangel Church in Nong Bua Lamphu in April 2008, I was quite disappointed by the lack of spirit in the church. I witnessed a situation in which few Catholic families came to Sunday Mass. I had no altar servers, no assigned readers, no organ player, and no organ. Music that accompanied community singing came from a recorded CD that was used every week. Needless to say, the pre-recorded music did little to enhance the dismal atmosphere in the church.

One of the few bright signs in the church that I saw was a group of 4 teenagers, 3 girls and one boy who came to church every Sunday for catechism. All four had been Buddhist since birth. The three girls had been recently baptized by the former pastor, although their catechism training had been limited. One of the girls came from the orphanage for HIV+ children located behind the church, and the others came from the community.

The catechism classes took place in the afternoon because the teacher had to travel to Nong Bua Lamphu from Udon Thani, the province next over. However, Sunday Mass was at 8:30 a.m. After Mass, the teenagers would often hang out at the church because they did not want to go home then come back for catechism. As lunch time came around, the youth would often ask for instant noodles or whatever food I had in my refrigerator to eat. I let them use the kitchen of the rectory to prepare the food because there was nowhere else to cook the food. Other than the church building itself, the only additional parochial building was the recently built rectory. Even the girl who came from the Children’s Home did not go back but chose to eat lunch with her friends at the rectory. Eating at the church while waiting for catechism class, therefore, became a regular and necessary activity.

As I invested a significant amount of time and effort into building up youth ministry at the church, their presence at the church became common. So was the sight of youth eating together at the church, usually informally. Vietnamese youth who come to find work in Nong Bua Lamphu often came to visit me at the church, to study catechism, or to help clean the rectory. Oftentimes, they end up cooking using what we could find in the refrigerator to make it into a meal. Youth who come to participate in Saturday activities such as doing volunteer work in the village or attending activities at neighboring churches also often find themselves returning to the parish afterward to hang out and eat.

From a group of four teenagers, the youth group in the church has now grown to over 20. Some of them come from the community. Some of them have grown up from the children’s home. Some of them are young adults who are Vietnamese migrant workers who have made their way to Nong Bua Lamphu, and subsequently to the Catholic church. Some of them are HIV+ teenagers who have recently come to live at the Mother Mary Home.

As the number of children and teenagers who come to the church grow, so do the activities designed for them. After Sunday Mass, children learn catechism or musical instruments, or life skills classes, depending on the development of church activities. Presently, activities for the youth (age 13+) take place all morning and officially end after lunch – a meal in which they cook and share together as a group. Thus, from merely giving the youth instant noodles to hold them up until catechism, the Sunday meal at the church now is a formal youth group activity that is participated by many of the youth group members.

Youth group meal as an extension of the Eucharist

While the youth group at the church has grown much larger than the few members just two years ago, not all of them are Catholic. Some are still studying catechism awaiting to be baptized. Some youth who come to the church do not have an interest in studying catechism, and cannot be forced to follow Catholicism against their will. Still, they come to church and participate in Mass. The church youth do virtually everything in the liturgy – serving at the altar, doing the reading, playing the organ (we now have one), leading in the praying as well as the singing. They also do many things outside the liturgy as well. However, the Eucharist for the youth, has not been as much a symbol of unity as desired because not everyone is receiving Holy Communion or on the track to receive the sacrament. It is a situation that is regrettable from the perspective of a parish priest, but it is a situation that I accept with peace and trust in the mercy of God.

What is so far not possible in the Mass is made up for in the youth meal, which is something that everyone is invited to participate in without any obstacles. All are welcome to partake in the food before them and to enjoy the conversation taking place in the group. The youth group meal is the agape meal that becomes an extension of the Eucharist for the youth, and is the activitity that all who come do not have to feel that they are “left out”.

Youth group meal as an act of sharing and participation

Every Saturday morning, when it is still early, Nong Bua Lamphu’s morning market is full of activities. Thewarat Thailampoo, a former seminarian who is now a regular church staff, goes to the market to buy two things – flowers for the church and groceries for the Sunday youth meal. His budget used to be 200 baht for flowers, and 300 baht (about 9 USD) for food. Usually, he buys some meat, some eggs, and some vegetables. He buys things that he thinks the youth can easily use to make a meal.

On Sunday morning, at about 11 o’clock, about five of the youth are assigned to go into the kitchen to make lunch for the group. The rest engage in other activities. Some are cooking experts, but most are not. Yet, they make do with whatever they find in the refrigerator. Their job is to come up with about four dishes along with a big pot of rice enough for the number of people present. They don’t always estimate correctly how much rice or food is needed. Sometimes there’s way too much left over. Other times, the food is gone, but people are still not yet full.

Those who don’t have the responsibility of cooking do the setting up, cleaning, and washing. The group leader has a list of people assigned to the various tasks from week to week. Despite the attempt at a system, chaos is not unusual. Still, every week, the group manages to find enough people to cook, to clean, and to wash.

Youth group meal as an act of unity and acceptance

The taste of the food that appears on the mat spread on the ground in front of the church differs from week to week, from people to people. However, no words of complaint have ever been heard coming out of the youth who join the meal. Perhaps they themselves are too aware of their own cooking ability to dare criticize others. After all, eventually, it will also be their turn to do the cooking. But most likely the reason many stay for the meal is not for the food but rather for the friendship and the fun of cracking jokes at one another during the meal. So the taste is not so much an issue.

The group eats sitting down on the mat, and the eating takes place after the prayer of thanksgiving has been said. Saying grace is the duty of one of the youth who did the cooking that day. Around the food, the members share in the food that they themselves made. They make jokes, talk about the things that young people talk about, and generally enjoy being with one another. I also use the occasion to share with the group some news about the church or about upcoming group activities. I also use the occasion to give comments to the group—praising them for good things that they have done, or remind them to do better in other things. I try to keep negative things to a minimum in this task because it is important to not make people lose their appetite during meal. Just as we begin the meal with a prayer, we also conclude the meal with one. And nobody leaves the mat until the final prayer has been said.

Youth group meal as an act of service

Most youth don’t like to cook and few like to do dishes. But here, they are taught to do both. Serving each other is at the heart of the youth group meal together. Cooking for each other, helping each other to clean up, and washing the dishes become acts of service for one another, and teaches them to value a life of service and cooperation. They not only serve during the meal but also serve in their daily lives. We hope that they will learn to serve the people in their family, the abandoned elderly in their community, the friends at their school, and the poor in society. Oftentimes, the youth group do activities such as going to visit the elderly, or do something for the church. Thus, by creating opportunities for the youth to serve one another in the meal, we hope to also remind them to serve one another in everyday life.

Youth group meal as an act of hope

Everyday there are countless meals being eaten all over the world. But eating together does not always mean building relationships if the participants do not put their hearts and minds into the activity. However, in the youth meal, I believe many of them do. Seeing the youth making food together, sitting side by side, and sharing the food that they have made inspires a tremendous sense of hope in my heart. It is the hope that in this world, people from all sorts of cultures and life situations can come together and accept each other in a sincere way. It is the hope that others will look at this simple group and see God’s love reflected in their interactions with one another. It is the hope that in Christ, there is no Thai or Vietnamese, no HIV+ or HIV-, there is no rich or poor. For everyone, no matter who they are, are the children of God.


Ever since coming to serve at St. Michael Archangel Parish in Nong Bua Lamphu Province, I’ve tried to create many activities—both pastoral and social. It’s been thoroughly a trial and error experience. Some activities have seen great results with community support. Some barely get off the ground. Some go well for a while until something happens and puts it to a halt. The Sunday youth meal as well as all the times when the youth come together to share food is for me a particularly meaningful act. It is not easy to create an orderly system with the cooking and the cleaning, and sometimes the food takes a while to be ready. But I believe many of the youth try their best, and sharing food with the youth has always been something very foundational in my youth ministry. When I see them eating together, young people sitting down around the table, serving one another, talking to one another, and relating to another, while all around them, society is becoming ever more individualistic and inward looking, I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction and thankfulness because I believe that I am creating an opportunity for people to bridge differences and create community. And it can be done with a simple meal.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Bangkok taxi ride

I am sitting in a taxi trying to make my way down Sukhumwit Street in Bangkok. It’s raining and the traffic is jammed, not that it’s not jammed virtually all day and much of the night. I strike up a conversation with the taxi driver.

“How long have you been driving the taxi?” I ask.

“About four years,” he answers succintly.

“What were you doing before that?”

“I was working with my brother in a family business.”

“Where’s your family?”

“In Nong Bua Lamphu.”

“Really?” I am surprised. “I’m working in Nong Bua Lamphu now.”

“Really?” It’s his turn to be surprised. You don’t bump into too many people from Nong Bua Lamphu in Bangkok. Not that there aren’t people from this province trying to make it in the big city, it’s just that NBL is a small province, and Bangkok is a big town. They get spread out and so you don’t bump into too many of them.

“What do you do in NBL?” he asks me.

“I’m a pastor at a Catholic church. We’re also trying to do some programs to help the community,” I answer.

“That’s great,” he says. “NBL needs a lot of development.”

“It’s better now than it used to be, I think,” I observe. “But there’s still a long way to go.”

The taxi driver nods his head in agreement. As he stops at the intersection of Sukhumwit and Asok, waiting an eternity for the red traffic light to turn green, he tells me about what he used to do to make a living in NBL, and since it just wasn’t enough he decided to try things out in Bangkok. It’s not easy driving the taxi, but at least he’s got more to send back to the family in NBL so that the children can go to school and have the things they need.

Back in NBL, I’m making use of my role as pastor of the province’s only Catholic church to make some contributions to the development of the town. It’s not much, but it’s something. Before I came and at present, the Mother of Perpetual Help Center run by Br. Damien Lunders, a veteran American missionary has been making an impact on the HIV/AIDS care and prevention program in the region. People in town all know about the center and its work. They know about him too, because he’s one of the few Western men in the province who don’t have a Thai girlfriend or wife. It’s still something that some local people haven’t gotten a grasp of.

The AIDS center is right next to the church. People in town know more about the center than they do about the church, partly because of the widespread work done by the center, partly because ever since the church was built, none of the priests who came to be pastor here stayed long enough to help the parish develop or to start community outreach programs.

We’re trying to make up for that now. So we got programs started. Got the youth together to have activities, get community youth and children from the AIDS orphanage to come to the church to participate in summer programs, year-long programs, and special activties. Now we’re establishing a house on a big piece of land belonging to the diocese at the foothills of NBL mountains, right behind the provincial hospital as a place for people who need temporary shelter, especially the poor village folks who come to the hospital to visit and take care of sick family members. Some stay for a few days, others for weeks. They end up sleeping on the hospital corridors, or camp outside on hospital grounds. It’s a pitiful sight to see. So we’re opening up this place to help people like this, people who are “strangers” among our midst.

The traffic light turns green. The taxi driver shifts gear and starts to cross the big intersection. Overhead, the Skytrain zooms past us, its railway supported by heavy concrete structures that consume up a big part of the space in the middle of Sukkhumwit Street. Here if you look left, you see buildings – hotels, banks, restaurants, bars. If you look right, you see more buidlings – massage parlors, departments stores, tailor shops, and so forth. If you look around, you see taxis, cars, food vendors, motorbikes. If you look up, you see concrete. No sky in sight. That’s Bangkok. That’s what people leaving NBL and the other small towns of Thailand are heading to. That’s what my taxi driver came to see when he left NBL four years ago.

But for me, NBL’s got its own subtle charms. Sometimes, it’s nice to be riding your motorbike down the road that runs around town, taking in the fragrant scent of new rice stalks after the rain, trying to dodge the cows crossing the street, and in front of you is the sky full of gray clouds trying to break apart after the rain has already stopped.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Overcoming language barriers in a new culture

When I came to Thailand, the first thing that I did was study Thai. I enrolled myself in a language school in Bangkok and spent the large part of my day pining away at the Thai language – grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and eventually , reading and writing Thai characters. Fortunately, I somewhat have a gift for language because I managed to pick it up rather fast. A few months later, I could read simple writings, order my food at the restaurant, negotiate prices at the market place, and understand the fights that occurred on Thai TV drama.

Nonetheless, people told me that the Thai that I was learning was not going to be the Thai that people in the Northeast, where I would end up working, were using. People in the Northeast didn’t speak Thai, they said. They spoke Isan. What? Isan! What’s that? It’s like Laotian, they said. I was a little bit worried. How was I going to understand them if we didn’t speak the same language?

Still, I persisted with learning Thai because it was the national dialect. After my language preparation time was over, which consisted of five months of studying at the language center and another three months of self-study, I packed up my belongings and moved up to the Northeast. I was expecting to find myself in a totally different country with a different language, but it turned out to be a lot less scary than I thought. As it turned out, people in the NE did speak Thai. And they did understand what I was saying. I also understood what they were saying, that is, unless they spoke Isan.

Isan is the local dialect of the people of the Northeast, which is the biggest region of Thailand. It’s comprised of many provinces. And the Isan spoken in Khon Kaen isn’t necessarily the same as the Isan spoken in Sakon Nakhon or in Nong Bua Lamphu. Still, it was the Isan language, and people who spoke Isan generally understood each other. People in this region converse with each other using the Isan dialect. However, in official settings, ceremonies, the classrooms, and the like, people used the “Central language,” which is the dialect used by the people in Bangkok and the central region of Thailand. I was grateful for this reality.

It’s been over two years since I’ve lived in the NE, and if I were asked whether I could speak Isan yet, I’d have to truthfully say that I still can’t. Isan dialect has its local vocabulary, and its own method of intonation, which I have not been able to catch on yet. Not that I’ve actually tried to learn. I’m just happy to be semi-fluent in the language that I started out with.

Still part of me wishes I could speak Isan. I envy my assistant who is from the Northeast and can make children laugh in the colloquial language. I get frustrated when I go visit the elderly in the village and have to pretend to understand their answers to my question, which are almost always spoken in Isan.

Right now, I have not made it a goal yet to be able to speak Isan. Although, I do find that as the days go by, I’m beginning to understand the Isan more, sort of like the way the old folks understand my central Thai but don’t speak it. There’s less guessing or pretending going on than before.

Indeed, to be able to communicate in the same language is so important to building relationships and intimacy. It is a challenge on the part of foreign missionaries like myself to overcome barriers of language, culture, customs, and worldviews. It is a daunting task, but it can be done if we are willing to listen and be patient. Eventually, that word that the people pronounce so differently from the way you’ve learned in school will suddenly sound familiar and natural. And you don’t even realize that it’s being pronounced in a different way.

Nong Bua Lamphu, 1 June 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

Building peace amidst conflict in Thailand

The glitzy part of Bangkok where there are five star hotels, luxurious shopping centers, and even a prestigious country club, have turned into a battle field. Lumpini Park, the biggest and most beautiful park in the city is no longer safe for morning jogs. Along the fence that encloses the large park, soldiers have put up camp and are shooting at people with M16s and real bullets. And even though on the television channels broadcasting news of the months-long protest and confrontation between the “Red Shirts” and the police and military, the SMS messages rolling across the bottom of the television screen urgently call for peace and tolerance, the scene on the street betrays any such spirit.

On Thursday evening, May 13, as my taxi took me to Phetchaburi Street for dinner, we had to drive by Withayu intersection, where only minutes before, a rogue general who supported the Red Shirts had been shot in the head. I, of course, did not know what had happened, not until a friend called me later and told me to be careful since shooting had begun in the area. Leaving the buffet restaurant to return to my hotel in Bangrak district, I had to convince the taxi driver that there would be a way to get to my hotel. Still, we had to pass by the area where violence was taking place. To my surprise, people were crowding around, stopping on their motorbikes, as if to take in the scene of a festival. Weren’t they worried to get hurt, or die? I thought to myself.

The next morning, I had to go to the Vietnamese embassy at 10 a.m. to pick up my passport and my 5-year visa exemption document. The Vietnamese embassy happened to be on Withayu street, which was blocked off to traffic, and the American Embassy, which was less than a kilometer down the street, had also been closed. A friend of mine called into the embassy and was told that the Vietnamese embassy was open for business. But to get there, I had to take a taxi from my hotel, got on the expressway which seemed to go in the opposite direction from my destination, and finally got to an exit that was not too far from the embassy. Unfortunately, the exit had been blocked off. I had to get down from the taxi and hop on the motorbike to make it to the embassy. But even then, it wasn’t a ride without detours.

Friday afternoon, the violence escalated even further. More streets were blocked. Shooting spread to Praram 4 Street. Sathorn Avenue was closed as well. Vehicles from those streets started to pour into the tiny soi and alleyways inside, creating congestion that lasted for hours. At 1 p.m. I got on the taxi to go to Minburi District on the outskirts of the city, where I was scheduled to celebrate a wedding at 4. I just barely made it to the church on time.

Four days later, the tension and danger in Bangkok have not waned. Fighting are still taking place. Various sides are still standing their grounds, not the least, the government, which has decided that it has to forcefully remove the protesters. The government rescinded its peace plan offered last week after the protesters demanded even more. It has also given the protesters a deadline for dispersing.

Here in Nong Bua Lamphu, nearly 600km away from Bangkok, and the home of many “Red Shirt” supporters, the streets are peaceful. But there is a war broiling underneath, at least in words. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the other side. And the words reserved for them are usually not every pleasant. In Bangkok, getting on a taxi, one knows which side the driver is on by the radio station that he is tuning in.

At my church, we don’t take sides even though the last month, we have constantly been praying for peace in Thailand. Every Catholic church has been encouraged to pray for peace. Many Catholic lay groups are doing the same. But, as I said in church last Ascension Sunday, praying is good. But it’s not enough. We have to build peace by our own actions. Peace, and the kingdom of God are something that we don’t wait for, but actively make happen in our own lives and the lives of others.

My various projects in the Life Ruam Kan program aims to contribute to this peace building process. We want to create bridges for people to be able to come together, to get to know one another through dialoging with one another, and sharing their lives with one another. We want to build a community that accepts and celebrates diversity instead of fearing it and making it a source of conflict.

Next Sunday is Pentecost. In our church, we will have the prayer of petitions in multiple languages – Thai, Vietnamese, German, English, Tagalog, and Indian. These are some of the languages present in our community. No doubt we will be praying for peace, peace that will come about through our own efforts alongside with those of others who realize that actions need to go along with words.

Nong Bua Lamphu, 17.5.2010

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Summer camp pictures

This was the second year I organized the Summer Youth Camp. The theme of the camp was "Opportunities and Challenges for Young People in Today's Society." This year, I took the camp to Nong Khai Province, to a location close to the Mekong River. I wanted to change the atmosphere for the youth from my church, so it was good to take it to a place rather far away - about 200km. 

The camp site was actually on the grounds of Fr. Truc Phan's church, which is located in a small village surrounded by rubber tree farms. Most of the activities took place on site. However, on the second day of the three day camp, we took it to the Mekong River where we had a hike to the river, listened to a presentation about the river and the environmental issues that the people depending on the river are experiencing, and of course, playing by the river. In the evaluation forms, many indicated that the Mekong experience was their favorite activity. The aim of the second day's activities was to create social awareness, especially environmental awareness, for youth people.  

On the third day of the camp, the youth went into the village to visit the sick and abandoned elderly. This activity was meant as a lesson in having the spirit of volunteerism and taking concrete action to make society better.

The second and third day's activities were different from the first day's activities which focussed more on stirring the heart and mind of the youth through talks, discussions, and sharing.

The camp was successful and received good feedback from the participants. And the best thing about the camp was that after everything was accounted for, we remained slightly in the black. And the whole camp was paid for through individual donations.

Nong Bua Lamphu, 29.4.2010 

HIV/AIDS Center Needs Support

Nong Bua Lamphu: A place appreciated by few

When I first came to Thailand and spent about half a year studying Thai in Bangkok, people often asked me about where I would work after I finished my language studies, I told them Nong Bua Lamphu. Oftentimes, the question I received immediately after that was, “Where’s that?” And it’s not necessarily the foreigners who asked me this question. Thai people asked as well.

Eventually, I found out the reason why so many people asked me this question was because Nong Bua Lamphu was a rather unknown province, even for Thai people. And amongst the ones who knew, many asked me why I would want to go there since for them, NBL had few things that would attract them. I had to explain to them that there were work already in place in NBL that I wanted to collaborate.

You can’t blame the people for not knowing about NBL or thinking highly of it. NBL is one of the youngest, smallest, and poorest provinces in Thailand, nestled in the middle of Udon Thani, Leuy, and Khon Kaen provinces in the northeast region of the country. NBL means “Lamphu Lotus Pond”, which is a rather attractive name.  It has a half a million population, the majority of whom live in rural villages that make up the 6 districts. The central district has parts that are more developed, but it’s not yet ready to be a city.

Nong Bua Lamphu is not a tourist spot, even if there are a few tourist destinations. The activity that attracts the most people is the weekly Tuesday afternoon market where all sorts of goods are sold cheaply.  In the center of town is a lake where both swimming and fishing are prohibited. Next to the lake are sports grounds where people come to play football, basketball, and do outdoor aerobics in the afternoon. These grounds also serve as the place for festival events that take place in town.

Many people from NBL make it a point to leave it when they have a chance. Young people leave to find education or work opportunities. Adults also leave to find jobs. In the villages, many old people are left living alone or to raise grandchildren whose parents have already left to find jobs in Bangkok or other big cities.  Usually, they work in factories, restaurants, or construction work. Many end up working in bars and even the sex industry, which makes them susceptible to getting infected with HIV among other problems.

Even though NBL is not a highly developed province, but the youth of this province also have access to the internet to know what’s going on in the outside world. Even though they benefit from the new technology, the good comes with the bad. Many youth are addicted to computer games and internet. Because they don’t live in an environment where there are many social and cultural programs are afforded to them, they end up spending more time chatting on the internet than they do reading books or engaging in other beneficial activities. Even if they are ambitious and work hard in their studies, it would be difficult for them to obtain quality education in Nong Bua Lamphu since the local government is limited in its means.

The Life Ruamkan Program aims to contribute to the governmental and private efforts being made to address some of the issues prevalent in this province. We hope our model of coming together as a community of people from diverse backgrounds and social status to study, work, and play together and to support each other, it will inspire each of us and others in the community to continue to expand this model further in other life situations that they are in, contributing to a more peaceful and compassionate society.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Is it called superstition?

A while back a confrere of mine came to Thailand for a visit. This was his first trip to the country. I took him around Bangkok and other places to visit. I tried to inform him about the Thai people and culture as best as I could, and to the best of my understanding after having lived and worked in the country for over two years. Of course, I took him to the temples and the shrines where many Thai people, both Thai and tourists, came to visit or to pray. Later on, I was told that my confrere went back, and in an official meeting of the congregation, made an observation that he felt ashamed when he heard me making the observation that Thai people were superstitious. I of course was not present in this province wide chapter, so I never had the chance to respond to his comment nor could I make any defense as to why I believe my observation was justified.

I am not exactly sure why the term "superstition" has turn into a sort of non-politically correct word in the world of missiology or inter-religious dialogue. I am not a linguist, nor am I a missiologist, even if I am a missionary. For me, certain behaviors are best described as superstition, even if it makes the politically correct people grimace at such a description.

I myself grimaced yesterday when I found out that behind my rectory, there is a banana tree with supernatural powers. A few days ago, two of the AIDS patients in the hospice went around looking for numbers to buy the lottery. They came upon this otherwise ordinary looking banana tree behind my rectory and saw that somehow, someway, the sap from inside the tree had oozed out to form certain numbers on the surface (or what they thought to be shapes of numbers).

The patients decided to select these numbers to buy 200 baht worth of lottery tickets, and lo and behold, they won. The numbers appeared on the outside of the banana tree were apparently correct. As a result, the two men decided to give offerings to this banana tree by tying a ribbon around it. In addition, they brought a chicken and some energy drinks, as well as candles and incense to make offerings to the tree.

I never actually saw the act taking place. Only the following morning, I was informed by one of the youth that this had taken place. I went out to look and of course, I found what was left of the incense and candles left amidst the pile of dry leaves at the bottom of the banana bush.

I was imagining that with this banana tree having special powers to help people win the lottery, the word would go far and wide, and soon people will be coming in droves to look for numbers that the tree has to offer. But so far, no such phenomenon has taken place.

The only thing that has taken place so far is that I have gone to the staff of the AIDS hospice and asked her to tell the patients that I do not approve of this type of offering taking place on the grounds of my church. And after I told Brother Damien, the director of the MPH Center about what happened, he asked me to add the Mother of Perpetual Help Center grounds to the prohibition as well.

So far, the ribbon around the banana tree remains tightly wrapped. I've been looking at the tree occasionally from inside the rectory to see if there's anything unusual about it. But so far, nothing much has happened. The only unusual thing that has occurred is that another tree in the same bush has somehow fallen down behind it. Unfortunately, there are young bananas growing on the fallen tree. I wonder if a blast of wind has caused the fall, or the gardener has decided to cut it down, or this was the result of the overwhelming power coming from the tree that oozed correct lottery numbers.

Nong Bua Lamphu, 7 April 2010

Friday, April 2, 2010

Youth Stations of the Cross

This afternoon, the youth in the church led the Stations of the Cross outside the church. It was a rather grand event with the youth taking turns to carry the cross and lead in the prayers. Even though the number of parishioners in attendance were not as many as wished, but the event was nevertheless deeply moving and crystalized well the spirit of Good Friday. I was very proud of the youth today because they were very willing to take part in this deeply important activity.

Nong Bua Lamphu, 2 April 2010

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Summer children's program at church

For the second year, the church organizes a summer children's program in which children come to the church to study, to engage in art and reading activities, as well as other fun games and activities. The children all manage to have a good time, in addition to getting some learning in. Our "team" consists of nearly ten people. Ms May is the regular teacher for the student. Ms. Mem takes care of the morning spiritual activity before any learning takes place. Thon and Thang is in charge of the fun songs and games. I am in charge of teaching English. And there are three other volunteers to help the children along.

These children find that by coming to the church everyday, they are learning new things as well as having. They also find out that it's not important to be playing computer games all day in the summer.

I've decided to continue with this summer program after the success of last year. This year, more students enrolled in this program. And we had to reject a number of others because the large number of children would be too difficult for us to handle with our limited space and manpower. However, we are getting more interest by the day. Parents who have their children in the program are already asking about next year.

This summer program has potential to expand into a very interesting and fruitful project in the future if more thought and planning goes into making this program something creative and attractive to the community.

So far, we have a good start and solid directions.

Nong Bua Lamphu, 1 April 2010

Holy Thursday youth group eucharistic adoration

Nong Bua Lamphu, 1 April 2010

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Video: Love letter from God

This is another video clip from St. Michael Archangel Church. We are attempting to make various videos for the use of youth ministry.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Preaching at the Diocesan Retreat

Last night, I had the opportunity to preach at the diocesan retreat in which two bishops and all the priests in the diocese were present. I was only one of two religious priests present in the retreat. The other was a Vincentian, who is the secretary of the new bishop.

I was a bit surprised as to why I was invited to preach at the diocesan retreat since usually this retreat was attended only by diocesan priests, and the preacher is one of the diocesan priests as well. However, I was assigned by Father John to be the preacher so I couldn't refused. After all, I am one of the youngest priests in the diocese and it's better for me to obey than to resist.

After I accepted the assignment, I had to spend quite a bit of time to prepare my homily because Thai is my third language. Although I am getting to be semi-fluent in the language, being able to understand virtually everything I hear, and able to say almost everything I want to express, speaking Thai is not always as smooth as I want. So in order for me to meet the standards of a retreat homily, I must be well-prepared.

I was happy in some ways to accept this task because it would be an opportunity for me to see how well I can speak in Thai to an audience that is composed of only bishops and priests. It's certainly a daunting task for any young priest, not to mention speaking in a language that's not his own.

The theme of my homily had to do with the priest's attitude towards the Good News of God. How he lives out his priestly calling, how he carries out his pastoral work, and how he perceives his life all depends on his attitude towards to the Good News. I called for priests to maintain an attitude of surprise and wonder towards the Good News and not let it become something ordinary and boring in his life. In Good News becomes a simply something that is all too familiar, then the ability of the priest to make the people to appreciate the greatness of the love of God through the Pachal Mystery would be much less effective. The priest must first have a positive attitude towards the Good News through his own meditations and reflections on the Word of God in order to help the people see the value of the Word.

The homily in Thai

กราบเรียนพระคุณเจ้า บรรดาพี่น้องสงฆ์
ผมรู้สึกกังวลใจอยู่ไม่น้อย เพราะไม่รู้ว่าจะเทศน์ถึงเรื่องอะไรดี

ผมได้หยิบประวัติของนักบุญยอห์น เวียนเน มาอ่าน
จากแบบอย่างความเชื่อและความไว้วางใจของท่านนักบุญยอห์น เวียนเน
ที่มีต่อองค์พระผู้เป็นเจ้า ซึ่งเรื่องมีอยู่ว่า
เมื่อสมัยท่านยอห์นยังเป็นผู้ฝึกหัด และกำลังรับการอบรมที่จะบวชเป็นพระสงฆ์
ยอห์น เวียนเน เป็นคนที่เรียนอ่อนมาก
พ่ออธิการจึงเป็นห่วงว่าเวียนเน จะสอบไม่ผ่าน
ท่านจึงเชิญคุณพ่อที่เป็นอาจารย์ท่านหนึ่งมาทำการทดสอบ เวียนเน
แต่เมื่อถึงเวลาแล้ว ท่านไม่สามารถตอบคำถามที่คุณพ่อถามได้เลย
คุณพ่อรู้สึกโมโหมาก และต่อว่าเวียนเนอย่างรุนแรง ว่า
เธอโง่เหมือนลาแบบนี้ เธอคิดว่าจะทำอะไรให้พระศาสนาจักรได้
เมื่อได้ยินเช่นนั้นเวียนเน ก็พูดกับคุณพ่ออย่างช้าๆ และนบนอบว่า
แซมซั่นได้ฆ่าชาวฟิลิปเตีย 1,000 คนโดยใช้ขาตะไกรลาเพียงชิ้นเดียว
ที่สุดแล้วลาที่ชื่อ เวียนเน ไม่ใช่เพียงแค่บวชเป็นพระสงฆ์เท่านั้น
ก็สามารถรับความบรรเทาใจจากแบบอย่างของท่านนักบุญ ยอห์น มารีย์ เวียนเนได้น่ะครับ

และเมื่อผมคิดถึง 2 เรื่องนี้ น่าแปลกใจนิดหนึ่งน่ะครับ
สิ่งที่ปรากฏมาในสมองผมคือ เรื่องความรัก
อาจจะเป็นเรื่องความรักของผม หรือ
เมื่ออาทิตย์ที่แล้ว ผมได้คุยกับเขาซึ่ง เขาได้เล่าเรื่องความรักของเขา ตอนเขาอายุ 16 ปี
เธอนิสัยดี และน่ารัก เขาตกหลุมรักอย่างแรง
บางครั้งก็เขียนจดหมายรักที่จะส่งให้เธอ แต่ที่สุดแล้วก็ไม่ได้ส่งอีกเช่นเคย
หลังจากนั้น ตลอดทั้งอาทิตย์ก่อนที่จะไปเที่ยว
เวลาดูเหมือนว่าจะผ่านไปอย่างช้าๆ และนานแสนนาน
แต่สุดท้ายแล้ววันเสาร์ ก็มาถึงจนได้
“เราจะได้ไปเที่ยวกับเธอจริงๆหรือ ไม่น่าเชื่อเลยที่เขายอมคบเรา”

อยากจะกล่าวได้ว่า ภารกิจ นี้อยากเป็นกางเขนอันใหญ่
โดยที่ภายในจิตใจเต็มไปด้วยความแห้งแล้ง ขาดพลังใจพลังกาย

เราก็หวังได้อย่างมั่นใจว่า ไม่ว่าอะไรจะเกิดขึ้นในชีวิตเรา

จะเป็นการดีมากๆ ถ้าทุกเช้าที่ตื่นขึ้นมา
สิ่งแรกที่ผมคิดถึงคือ ความรักที่พระเยซูเจ้ามีต่อเรา
เราเป็นคนที่พระองค์ได้เลือกสรรเอง ที่จะให้เป็นพยานยืนยันถึงพระองค์
จะทำให้เรามองเด็กๆ ที่มาหาเราด้วยความเอ็นดู

เพราะเราสาระวลกับปัญหาต่างๆ ที่เราจะต้องจัดการทุกๆวัน


หรือฟังคนอื่นเล่าเรื่อง แล้วความตลกของเรื่องที่เล่านั้น
ซึ่งในภาษาอังกฤษเราเรียกว่า Punchline
Punchline คือ สิ่งที่จะทำให้ทุกคนต้องหัวเราะเพราะว่า เขาไม่ได้คิดถึงสิ่งนั้น
เมื่ออยู่ในสถานการณ์เช่นนี้เราสามารถทำตัวได้ 2 แบบ
1.) เราอาจทำตัวไม่สนใจ เพราะเรารู้เนื้อหาเรื่องนี้แล้ว
บางทีเราก็จะประกาศว่าเรารู้เรื่องนี่แล้ว ซึ่งก็ทำให้ผู้เล่าเสียความรู้สึกนิดหนึ่ง
2.) เราทำตัวเหมือนว่าเราไม่เคยได้ยินเรื่องนี้มาก่อนเลย
เพื่อเราจะได้หัวเราะกับคนอื่นเมื่อผู้เล่า เฉลย the punchline
ภาษาเวียดนามมีถ้อยคำว่า หัวเราะหนึ่งที เท่ากับกินยาบำรุงสุขภาพ 10 ครั้ง

สำหรับข่าวดีที่เราอ่านและประกาศทุกๆ วันนั้น
บางทีเราคิดว่าเราเข้าใจเนื้อหาของบทอ่านต่างๆ ดีแล้ว
เพราะเราอ่านบทนั้นๆ มาไม่ทราบกี่ครั้งแล้ว
แต่ไม่อยากใช้เวลาในการอ่านพระวรสารและ บทที่ 1 ที่ 2 และเพลงสดุดี ทั้งหมด
ที่เป็นเช่นนั้นอาจเพราะ เราคิดว่าเรารู้และเข้าใจเรื่องนั้นแล้ว

ที่สามารถเกิดขึ้น เพราะ เราลืมว่า ข่าวดีมีความเป็นปัจจุบันเสมอ
สิ่งแปลกใหม่จะเกิดได้ทุกๆ ครั้งที่เราเปิดพระคัมภีร์และอ่านอย่างตั้งใจและจริงใจ
ถ้าเรามองเรื่องต่างๆในพระวรสารเป็นแค่เรื่องคุ้นหูที่เคยอ่าน เคยฟังแล้วหลายๆ รอบ
และไม่รู้สึก surprise ต่อความคืบหน้าในแต่ละเรื่องนั้นแล้ว
ที่จะเข้าใจและซาบซึ้งในสิ่งที่ดีๆ ที่พระวรสารสามารถนำมาให้แก่เรา

และแนะนำสัตบุรุษให้เข้าใจถึง คุณค่าของพระวาจานั้น

ผมก็เปิดอ่านหลายรอบ อ่านแล้วอ่านอีก
ในพิธีมิสซาบูชาขอบพระคุณ ในศีลศักดิ์สิทธิ์ต่างๆ และในงานอภิบาล

และที่รักของเขาไม่ใช่ใครอื่นนอกจาก องค์พระคริสตเจ้า
คือ ความรักระหว่างองค์พระผู้เป็นเจ้าและเราแต่ละคนนั่นเอง

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Challenge for Christian missionary in the Thai spiritual milieu

There are three anecdotes that reveal quite a bit about religious beliefs and habits held by Thai people. The first anecdote was told to me by a priest in Bangkok. In front of a church located in a busy district of Bangkok, there is a motorbike taxi “station”. Here men, clad in orange jackets wait for passengers needing to go to the Sky Train station or other places in the city. Just inside the gate is a small shrine to Our Lady where there are always flowers which have been offered by the people. According to parish priest at the church, that shrine was not always there. Before it was built, when walking by that corner of the church ground, one was often attacked by a foul odor that one was quite certain caused by men working all day on the side of the street without a public restroom nearby. However, ever since the shrine was placed there, the foul odor has disappeared, and one often saw these same men “wai”(1) in front of the statue of Our Lady as they begin their day of work, praying for a good earning. For these Buddhist men, the fact that they wai to Our Lady wasn’t because they knew who she was or what she stood for; they only hoped that whoever she was, she would help them.

The second anecdote also relates to the act of praying in front of statues. In Thailand, all businesses big and small, have shrines to either the Buddha or various gods. Central World, one of Bangkok’s upscale shopping centers, have ornate shrines placed side by side on the wide plaza in the front dedicated to both the Buddha and a Hindu god. From morning to late night, the shrines are encapped in smoke as people of all ages come to make offerings and earnestly pray for the things that they need in life. It would not be odd to see the same person praying before the Buddha one day, then before the Hindu god the next. By the Erawan hotel not far away, one such shrine is a tourist destination where people make offering requests at a business table. When it is their turn, they kneel below a tent, pressing their palms together in deep prayer, while behind them, a troup of traditional Thai dancers perform and chant.

The third anecdote takes us from Thailand’s bustling capital to one of the villages in Nong Khai province in the northeast region, where recently, villagers discovered a strange plant growing up from the soil. They haven’t seen this plant before, but its peculiar features led them to believe that the plant may have special power. Villagers thus began bringing incense and flowers to place around the plant, praying for various needs. Some prayed for luck in winning the lottery.

According to a count in 2004, in Thailand, there are 40,717 Buddhist temples. The country population is almost 65 million. Most Thai identify themselves as Buddhists, including the villagers who bring incense and candles to offer to the strange flower and the motorbike taxi men who prostrate before the statue of Our Lady.

What one observes in Thai people’s spirituality is the eclectic nature in their beliefs that incorporate elements of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and animism into a complex system that is nearly impossible to say it is either this or that. While Western mentality and religions tend to make clear distinctions as to what one must renounce when one chooses to believe in certain things, Thai people seem to think that they can believe in anything as long as whatever it is that they believe in suits their needs and they have true faith to that thing. Recently, I met a woman who was well educated in the Buddhist religion and rituals, but she has also chosen to follow and learn from a Catholic priest because she is impressed with what Catholicism teaches her. She describes her religion as “Buddolic,” so to speak. My barber told me the Buddha would never forbid you from prostrating before a plant if you believed it was holy.

This fluidity in Thai people’s spirituality has made them welcoming of Christian missionaries in their midst, but presents extreme challenges to the missionaries who find themselves unable to grasp the seemingly arbitrary and noncommittal attitudes of the Thai people to specific tenets of the particular religion in which they profess to follow. Despite the huge numbers of temples built, many on vast grounds, the temples stand mostly quiet throughout the year. Thai people seldom go to temple except on some special occasions. Temples seem to be most crowded when there are annual feasts organized with food and free music concerts.

As a result, many Thai Catholics who live among the mostly Buddhist population, influenced by their outlook, also adopt an attitude in which they see going to church as not an essential part of their spiritual life. This problem is further exasperated in a place such as Nong Bua Lamphu province, where the only Catholic church in the entire region has been open a mere 6 years, whereas Catholics have been present in the area for decades.

Thai Buddhists, while not placing heavy value on going to temples, do place a lot of value on the act of merit making (tham bun). Thai people are often seen lining up the streets in the morning to provide food to monks passing by. Others go to the temple to offer food and other material things to the monks, especially on their birthdays or death anniversaries of loved ones. The support for construction and maintenance of temples is one of the primary methods of gaining merit for Thai people. It may be said that merit making is the pillar of Thai people’s practical religious observance and the act that they are most strongly committed to. The act of giving alms to the monk to make merit for oneself or for loved ones, especially the deceased, has become so ingrained in the Thai spiritual observance that it often becomes the thing that prevents them from following other religions that forbid such an act.

In many ways the Buddhist practice of merit making has influenced the thinking of Catholics and have shaped their spiritual outlook, both negatively and positively. Like Thai Buddhists, many Catholics place the act of merit making above regular church attendance. At my church, some families are never seen at the church except on tham bun occasions, particularly death anniversaries. Well-off families may present all sorts of goods on that day and help fill up the church from wall to wall. But the following week, none of them are seen in church again until the following death anniversary occasion. Many non-church going Catholics are also very willing to donate to the church when asked, such as donating flowers or contribute to church programs and feasts. This reality makes one wonder whether Catholics, like Buddhists, also depend primarily on their good works to get to heaven. Nonetheless, it can also be very heart warming to see Thai villagers in the offertory procession, lining up to present father with small fruits of their labor – a basket of bananas, a bag of rice, or other things that they have bought.

Thai Buddhism is unlike Buddhism anywhere else in the world. The Thai worldview is rather fluid and some might even say, arbitrary. In this milieu, it is hardly surprising to see that although welcomed, Christian missionaries find it difficult to attract Thai people to follow a religion that can be very strict and uncompromising in certain beliefs and practices, and does not accept one believing in multiple traditions simultaneously. This dilemma is illustrated rather well by small but telling problem for some Catholics who are taught that they cannot give alms to Buddhist monks. This has led some good-hearted Thai Christians to ask the parish priest, “Father, is it a sin to do merit?”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Church Newsletter March 2010

Children Ministry Video

St. Michael Archangel Church Radio Second Week Lent

Word of God

Gospel Music Progam

Talk Program

Monday, March 1, 2010

One of my favorite Thai church songs

The title of this song is พักพิงในพระเจ้า (Resting in God). It expresses the feeling of comfort and peace when we place our trust in God. We are able to face all the difficulties of life knowing that God is always by our side.

พักพิงในพระเจ้า/Rest in the Lord

As when the sea encounter storm tempest
Moments in lives could just be so
Great tidal wave beat pain right to the core
No refuge no rest evermore

Let's not forget the Lord is watching you
Ready to heal your broken heart
Do not waver from His loving presence
Surrender your life to Him

พักพิงในพระเจ้า พักพิงในพระองค์
Rest in the Lord, Rest your soul in Him
Strong refuge and fortress is He
พระองค์เป็นพระเจ้า พลังความรอดบาป
He is our Lord, salvation and power
He's a shield, a stronghold so true

ต่อไปนี้ฉันจะไม่ ต่อสู้เพียงลำพัง
From now on, I will not face my foes all alone
เพราะพระองค์ผู้ทรงมีชัย เหนือความตายความบาป
'Cos the Lord who hold victory o'er death and sin
Has now journeyed with me

Sunday, February 21, 2010

St. Michael Archangel Church Radio First Week Lent

Word of God

Sunday, February 14, 2010

St. Michael Archangel Church Radio

Word of God

Talk Show

Sunday, February 7, 2010

St. Michael Archangel Church Radio

Word of God

Talk Show (7th Commandment)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Church Newsletter February 2010