Lessons from Thailand
My lifelong dream of eating rice everyday came true in the past two years. I also enjoyed Thai delicacies as fried grasshoppers, chicken feet, pigs feet, rotten fish sauce, and raw crabs. It was quite the experience. Thailand is an amazing place that is beautiful beyond description. There are three seasons in Thailand. Hot. Hotter. And hottest. These seasons are not very conducive to long suit pants and a tie. When I came back to America and didn’t sweat ever minute of every day, I felt sure something was amiss. Also, although I spent two years in Thailand, the Thai language was still extremely difficult. Thai is a tonal language with an emphasis on vowels. If you are not careful while trying to address a young child which is said น้อง you could accidentally say หนอง which means swamp or น่อง which means drumstick. You could also accidently say that God slapped Joseph Smith rather
than answered his prayer because the difference between the two words is ตอบ and ตบ. I made many such small language errors in my time in Thailand.
To give you a bit of background on the Thailand Bangkok Mission, my mission covers all of Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos. There are no proselytizing missionaries in Burma or in Laos. There are service missionaries in both of these countries with a rather large branch in Laos. There are about 2,000 active members in five districts and one stake in Thailand. The stake is located in Bangkok with one district a short distance north of Bangkok and another in the Northwest region and three in the Northeast region. The closest temple is in Hong Kong. Most members are first generation members and the only members in their family. Recently, the Thai scriptures were revised and retranslated, with a new triple edition being published this last fall.
I remember waking up every morning for four and a half months about a year into my mission, facing another day of miles and miles of walking in the Bangkok heat and rain, wondering what we were doing here in ธนบุรี, the western side of Bangkok. I had moved there from เชียงใหม่ with my new companion who was fresh from America and could hardly speak Thai. We opened a new area, meaning that before there was only one set of Elders and we came to open it up to another set of Elders. This meant that we started out with nothing. The night we arrived in ธนบุรี, we walked up to a cramped apartment that barely had room for two people. I fell ill at one point due to the living conditions, fainting in an elevator and making a trip to the hospital to find out it was nothing very serious. As far as proselytizing, we walked down every ซอย, talking to everyone we saw. And yet we never had real investigators. One day we had several planned appointments but they all fell through. We found ourselves stuck at วงเวียนใหญ่, the largest roundabout in Thailand, extremely wet. When we realized that we needed to go to our next appointment, we tried to find a taxi. Every taxi rejected us, telling us that traffic was too bad due to the rain to go to our destination. After weeks of rejection, I was tired. I started to cry. And it wasn’t the first time I had cried since I had moved into the area. My greenie looked at me with love and concern in his eyes. I told him to forget the appointment. We would never make it on time with the weather conditions. And then we went home. At this point in my mission, I was wondering what I was doing in ธนบุรี, let alone Thailand. No investigators. Only walking, sweating, struggling. I thought back upon the words of Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail. D&C 121 1- 6. What could this possibly mean?
Fast forward three months later. I had moved to a small farming community of 32,000 in Northeastern Thailand called ร้อยเอ็ด. My companion, another greenie, and I sat in the living room of Sister เอ๋ a member of four years and a former relief society president and her husband ช้าง, who had once been a disinterested investigator of four years. The branch president, his wife and their sister-in-law were also there. Sister เอ๋’s house had two large pictures of the Salt Lake Temple, two giant hints to her husband. These represented her efforts of four years to help her husband come to Church and learn with the Elders. As we sat there, ช้าง told us of his baptismal interview and his reading of the scriptures. ช้าง wasn’t what one would call a golden investigator. From the first day I met him, I was very doubtful that this longtime investigator could actually change, let alone be converted. He didn’t pay attention in our lessons and it felt as if his wife was dragging him along to learn. On the day his young son was baptized, my companion and I found him in the hall, staring at a picture of the temple. I asked him “ช้าง, do you want to go to the temple?” And he gave us that sly smile he would give us at times and said “I want to go.” After that and some loving assistance from both his wife and my companion and I, we saw ช้าง begin to change his life. He read the scriptures for the first time in his life. He began to pray daily. They began to pray as a family. And then attended Church together, ช้าง even dressed up in a white shirt and a tie. My companion joked with me, saying that the way we knew ช้าง really changed was how he, instead of Sister เอ๋, served us the water. (explain about Thai tradition of serving water) Before we went into the lesson, the branch president’s wife, skeptical of the change in ช้าง, told us that she we have to see it to believe it. On this particular day, we wanted to ensure that ช้าง understood his testimony. We read from 3rd Nephi 11- Verse 1-7. Like the people of the ancient days that saw the signs of Christ death, ช้าง had many signs that the gospel was true. We stopped at verse seven. We told ช้าง that he is a beloved Son of our Father in Heaven. And then we asked ช้าง to kneel with us in prayer to ask God to confirm his testimony. After he said his heartfelt prayer, we all sat down again. And ช้าง had received his answer. We started to talk. I thought back of all those days where I walked down every ซอย in ธนบุรี, wondering when or if we would ever find investigators. And somehow, it all seemed to not matter at that point. As I started to talk to ช้าง, I felt such intense love for this family. And I wept. But this time, it wasn’t out of frustration; it was out of gratitude and pure joy. I told him I felt like I had finally made a difference in the life of one of my brothers.
So, why do I tell these two contrasting stories? To say that missionary work is the best two years of your life is an accurate statement, but the best two years doesn’t mean the easiest two years. As I served my mission in Thailand, I learned the true meaning of the word love. Today is Pioneer Day, a day where we remember the love of all those pioneers who crossed the plains, despite persecution, heartache, sorrow, trials, tribulation. Love is pressing forward. 2nd Nephi 31:20 “Wherefore ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” As I served my mission in Thailand, I learned of the love of God for us, the love we must have for others, the power of love in conversion, and the importance of loving ourselves.
One day, after a long period of proselytizing in ธนบุรี with my second companion in that area. We came home exhausted, as usual. My body had never been quite as tired as it was in ธนบุรี. We walked everywhere in the grimy Bangkok heat, looking for people to teach. We went out everyday, inviting people to learn about Christ, and always faced the typical responses “Every religion teaches us to be good.” “Oh you came with Jesus?” “I am Buddhist”. Or the responses of those even less interested - a hand wave that meant please go away, telling us thank you and goodbye in English, etc. I love Thai people. I love their culture, their food, their country. I love everything Thai. To face this kind of rejection day in and day out became exhausting. Sitting in our barebones apartment, I looked at the map of Bangkok. There are over nine million people in Bangkok, covering a large area. And I realized something. As we invited all these people to come unto Christ, we became acquainted with the feelings of our Father in Heaven. Our Father in Heaven loves us no matter what, but faces constant rejection. All those people that we talked to were children of God. As the Nephites realized the destruction that had taken place around them, God spoke to them in the darkness, teaching them of this love. 3rd Nephi 10:5. Our Father in Heaven faces rejection everyday from his own children. Despite my frustration and discouragement, I knew that these children of God needed my efforts. If they accept the message is not for me to determine. As much as God loves His children, even He cannot force them to accept His Gospel or to love Him. Love is a conscious choice. From the time I arrived in Thailand, I felt a special connection to Thai people. And as I came to feel of that love our Father in Heaven has for the Thai people, I witnessed many miracles. That doesn’t mean that ธนบุรี got easier. In fact, we never had any investigators in that area my entire 4 ½ months there, despite doing the best we could. This love, however, was not in vain. Recently, I returned to ธนบุรี my last Sunday in Thailand with my parents. A man walked into sacrament meeting that I had met while teaching weekly English classes as our community service in ธนบุรี. When he saw me, he was shocked and very excited. He came in holding a well-read copy of the Book of Mormon. เป้, a thirty year old man, had attended English classes while I was in ธนบุรี but we had never taught him the Gospel. I loved teaching English classes. Teaching English became my passion on my mission and so I tried to make English as fun as I could. And I loved all of my English students. When เป้ met my parents, he called me his first Elder. I had simply taught English to him every week with a short spiritual thought at the end of the class. After I had left the area, the Elders eventually invited him to learn more, which he willing accepted. This last week, เป้ was baptized and today he was confirmed. We never know the difference that simply loving someone can make.
To tell Thais that they are children of God is a foreign concept for them. Thais have no conception of God. Buddhism does not mention a Supreme Being or creator. In fact, the word for God in Thai is a word invented by Christians from vocabulary used to speak about royalty. Once they did understand their relationship to God, they desired to know Him. เอก was a young college student in my first area who joined the Church shortly after I arrived in Thailand. He was from a small town in Northeastern Thailand but had come to study economics in Bangkok. He later told his story of meeting the Elders. One day, while enjoying a day at the local mall in บางกะปิ, a suburban area on the east side of Bangkok he came across the Elders. One of the Elders reached out to shake the hand of a beggar, smiling at him and chatting with him. เอก saw a tall ฝรั่ง who could speak clear Thai talking to a beggar. In Thai society, beggars are mostly ignored. But that day, in that Elder, เอก saw the love of God manifest. When the Elders gave him a small flier for English class, he later attended and because of the example of this Elder who knew that this beggar was a child of God, he learned with the missionaries and is now preparing to serve a mission. If people understand that they are children of God, their outlook changes. “I am a child of God and He has sent me here. I am a child of God and so my needs are great. I am a child of God. Rich blessings are in store. I am a child of God. His promises are sure.” It has been said “If you could catch the vision of the person God intends you to be, you would rise up and never be the same again.” As I saw in the lives of Thai people, this knowledge of their worth as a child of God, led them to give up addictive substances, forgive others, totally change their relationships with family members, and become more like our Savior, Jesus Christ. I think of Sister นาง and her husband Brother อ๋า who were reluctant investigators but were referrals from the branch president. นาง began to pray and she told us at one point that she loved to pray because as she prayed, she felt that her Father in Heaven came and sat beside her to listen to her prayer. They both changed their lives as I saw the light of Christ entered their lives. Later, I met Brother สัญญา and Sister บุญมี whose family had been plagued by Brother สัญญา’s alcoholism. But as their dear family friend introduced them to the Gospel, he gave up his alcohol within a matter of days. Their family became more loving and they were simply so happy. Or I think of another family I taught, Brother เจริญ and Sister พงษ์พักตร์, who saw how their family grew closer together as they read the scriptures, prayed and attended Church as a family. Sister พงษ์พักตร์ once said to me “We have received so many blessings from God. Our family has changed so much.”
Thais have a complex pronoun system that involves using family pronouns. For example, whenever we would meet someone on the street for the first time we would use the appropriate pronoun for their age. If they were the age of our older siblings, we would use the word for older sibling. If they were the age of our grandmother, we would use the word for grandmother. There was no distinction in the word used for an actual family member and someone you had just met. I loved this. Everyday we would go out and talk to Thais. But it wasn’t like we were just talking to people from a place 8,000 miles away with different culture, customs and food. We were talking to our brothers, our sisters. Moroni 7:48. As we prepare for that day when we shall see Christ as he really is, we must come to see our brothers and sisters as they really are, children of the highest God. Jesus once taught a parable about sheep and the goats - Matthew 25:31- 46. We have a decision before us. We can decide to be a goat, seeing those around us as simply co-inhabitants, each left to struggle for his own life or we can decide to be a sheep, seeing our brothers and sisters as we would see Christ and treating them as we would treat Him. In order to prepare for that day, we have to love those around us as we would love our brothers and sisters.
Love is the greatest power in the universe. Love has the power to change people’s hearts. When Brother สมลัค was first baptized, เจี๊ยบ, his wife, did not like the Elders. She was suspicious of foreigners who taught Christianity. The Elders worked to gain เจี๊ยบ’s trust by dusting the shelves in their small convenience store. After a period of time, she saw the Elder’s intention and started to open her heart. She saw that her husband, an alcoholic most of his adult life had left behind all of his vices. He loved Christ and loved the Gospel. This love touched เจี๊ยบ and while still reluctant, agreed to learn with the Elders. เจี๊ยบ seemed very wary of our efforts to help her read the Book of Mormon and pray daily. But, as time passed, เจี๊ยบ saw the power of the Gospel as she read the Book of Mormon and prayed with her family. Her husband’s love influenced her to learn more. She was baptized and helped her son from a previous marriage to also come into the Church.
In the case of เอ๋ the former relief society president and her husband ช้าง, investigator of four years, the family that I mentioned earlier, her love for him opened his heart. And then as my companion and I began to see ช้าง as more than just a stubborn investigator who refused to keep commitments and started to love ช้าง more and more, that power of love allowed him to be receptive to the Spirit and change. The power of love brought about the atonement of Christ. Alma 7:10-12. Christ loved us and because He loved us, he suffered all things for us. When we believe in the ability of others to change, we believe Christ and His promises. When we do not believe that others can change, however, we deny the atonement and its promised blessings. In the case of ช้าง, he needed someone to believe in him. And at first, I did not believe that he could change. God, however, taught me that the power of love can change people. We must make the decision to love. During ช้าง baptisimal interview his wife, Sister เอ๋, told me of her dream to go to the temple. She considered going by herself, almost giving up on her husband and her dream of attending the temple. But after praying, she felt impressed that she should wait for a little while longer, having a bit more patience. After ช้าง was interviewed for baptism, he surprised me by asking me to be the one to baptize him. The day of his baptism, I felt a love that is indescribable for him and his family. 1st John 4:7. I came to know God more that day. After his baptism, ช้าง, a changed man who loved his family even more and wanted the best for them, stood to share his testimony. During his time as an investigator, ช้าง expressed that he did not have faith in Christ. Faith in Christ must stem from a love of Him. As ช้าง felt loved, he opened his heart to feel the love that the Savior has for each and every one of us. His testimony was simple, he said “I believe in Christ. I will be spiritually strong and I will lead my family to be an eternal family.”
God loves us. On my mission, I learned that I must come to love myself. There were times of discouragment and times of trial. That is a guarntee of life. The Gospel is not an insurance against pain or suffering but rather the source of hope when we enconter such problems in our lives. At one particularly stressful time of my mission, I thought of the answer of God to Joseph Smith in D&C 121:7-8. As we rely on our Father in Heaven, everything will turn out. Choosing to rely on our Father in Heaven and keeping his commandments aren’t always the most convienant choices but they are the right choices. As I often said to myself in my mission, doing the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing but it’s always the right thing to do. When we know who others are, we cannot forget who we are ourselves. As children of God, we must come to forgive ourselves and love ourselves despite past mistakes. That’s what repentance is all about. Repentance is about change. The Gospel is about change. And change, as I have said, is all about love.
I know that my time in Thailand taught me many things. Love is simply one of the many lessons that I learned. This powerful force in the universe changed the lives of Thai people and it can and will change the lives of all those who seek it. One of my favorite scriptures from my mission summarizes what we must do to gain access to this love. Moroni 10:32. So may we come unto Christ and be perfected in Him. I will now bear my testimony in Thai.