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A man with a vision


July 2, 2003
-Dan Dyck

Mission workers Pat (far left) and Rad (far right) Houmphan participate with residents in learning to play indigenous musical instruments. Music classes provide opportunities to talk about Jesus with people whose religion is a mixture of Buddhism and animism. –Houmphan photo files

Mission worker Pat Houmphan prays with some Isaan people in the Houmphan home in Thailand. The box on the right contains a collection of non-prescription medications which he distributes to local residents with basic ailments. –photo by Rad Houmphan

Mission worker Pat Houmphan (center) installs Jadet as an assistant pastor for the two congregations of the Living Water Church of Borabur. The installation was held Easter Sunday in the village of Ban Daeng. Jadet, (standing by the keyboard) completed a bachelor’s degree from an Alliance Bible College. The 26 adult members, plus 20 children, of the two congregations meet jointly every six weeks. –photo by Rad Houmphan

Winnipeg, Man.—Pat Houmphan is a committed man.

His commitment to Christ, to sharing the gospel, and to church planting in Thailand leaves this energetic and passionate man with no shortage of work.

Pat, together with his wife Rad and children Rachel (18) and Philip (17), have been ministering to the Issan people of Northeast Thailand since 1996, first with Commission on Overseas Mission (COM) and Eastern Mennonite Mission (EMM), and now with Mennonite Church Canada Witness. His goal is to plant seven churches by the time he retires.

The Houmphans began their faith journeys as refugees from Laos in 1979. They became engaged to be married in a refugee camp in Thailand, fleeing from a freedom-limiting communist political system. With help from Mennonite Central Committee Canada and sponsorship from Grace Mennonite Church (Regina, Sask.), the Houmphans found a new geographic and spiritual home in Canada – Pat calls it the “land of honey and milk.”

“I told myself that if I came to this land of opportunity, I would do everything to study hard, so I can get a skill, get a good job, get money… I didn’t want to suffer again.”

He contemplated training in engineering or medicine, wanting to serve humanity in some way. “However, God changed the whole thing,” he said, noting that a speaker at a mission festival early in his Canadian experience seemed to be calling him into the ministry, specifically in Buddhist dominated Thailand.

After some struggle with the calling, (Pat says “I wanted to first make some money and settle down, but God didn’t agree with me.”), he finally gave in. “Okay God, you want to lead, you want me to serve as a missionary, I will obey.”

His studies have taken him to Swift Current Bible Institute, Mennonite Brethren Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University), the University of Winnipeg, and graduate studies in BC.

After some church planting experience in North America, (they planted Grace Laotian Mennonite Fellowship in Regina) Pat was ready. But he also knew that God had to call Rad as well. “My life was just starting to get better here,” said Rad, when Pat wanted to leave Canada to serve in Asia. At this time living in Vancouver, Pat encouraged Rad to help him with the assignment of translating the Mennonite Confession of Faith into Laotian. (The Bible has yet to be fully translated into the language of the Isaan in Thailand).

Through this experience and “the love of God” shown through the people at Bethel Mennonite Church in Langley, Rad says “I told Pat, ‘I am ready to go to Thailand. I want to be a blessing channel for the people (that have) gone through the same thing I (went) through.’”

Church Planting in Thailand

Northeast Thailand, where the Houmphans focus their ministry, comprises 19 provinces populated by 21 million Issan people. The language is a variant of Laotion, though Pat says it is similar enough that the Lao and the Issan can understand each other.

Although the Alliance church has worked in Thailand, Pat reports that there are still hundreds, even millions of villages that have never heard the gospel. Their vision is to go to unreached areas and spread the gospel.

Pat describes outreach as “very slow work” in a land that has been dominated by Buddhism for thousands of years. Their ministry focuses on relationship building through activities such as teaching English (the Thai people ”love to learn English”, says Pat), mercy ministries (Pat always carries with him a collection of basic non-prescription medicines), vacation Bible school for children, hospitality ministry in the community, seeking out services such as tailoring and connecting with people in that way. By establishing a single relationship, they gain access to a new circle of families, friends, and broader networks.

By teaching English, Pat is also allowed to talk about Christianity for one hour every other week. Belief is explicitly not a condition, but a choice for participants engaged in English training. And believers are encouraged to become disciples, inviting their family and friends to hear the gospel.

Contextual ministry is very important in emerging Thai churches, says Pat. People are accustomed to sitting on the floor, so their worship areas do not have benches or chairs. The posture for prayer (kneeling and hands neatly placed palm-to-palm below the chin) has a long history, and is also used in worship. Western hymnody does not translate well into the national Thai language, which is a tonal language and the ‘official’ language of Christian churches in Thailand, even though the mother tongue of the Isaan people is Lao. Pat insists on worshiping in the Lao language. Communion is another opportunity to contextualize ministry; bread and grape juice is not commonly available in villages, so he uses sticky rice and local (red) fruit juice. They also try to sing the local music accompanied by culturally appropriate instruments. Thai Christian churches don’t emphasize ceremony; but Buddhism is full of ceremony, so Pat uses candles and ritual as a means of contextualizing the gospel.

Contextualized ministry is a radical move among Christian churches in Thailand, says, Pat. “We are one of the few radical groups. But Mennonites are always radical, right? The Anabaptists were radical too, right?” he says with a smile.

New believers face psychological persecution from friends, family and neighbours; they are frequently mocked and intimidated. Statistics, says Pat, suggest it takes 5 years for new believers to become rooted in their faith.

Buddhism has a lot of “good teaching”, but it is missing two main precepts: “In Buddhism there is no talk about creation. It’s very important that we address the creation story. Secondly, I tell them about Jesus Christ. In Buddhism there is no Saviour. Their theology tells them to help themselves – when you have difficulty, you have a problem, you just need to help yourself.”

The four spiritual rules associated with EE (Evangelism Explosion) are not helpful at all in Thailand. “The Jesus movie is helpful. It’s visual. Thai people love to see, they don’t like to read. We need to make things visual.: A dream for Pat is to find money to buy an LCD projector so he can go from village to village and show the Jesus movie.

Working at a holistic gospel and socio-economic development for the Isaan people is another item on Pat’s list. “In the villages there are a lot of people that are still very, very poor. The average family income is about $800 - $1200 CDN per year for those that are able to find work. “We want to address the social concerns.”

More recently Houmphans have begun working at leadership development and training. After six months of training, participants are encouraged to lead a worship service, and after one year to preach a sermon.

“In the very beginning the ladies and children tend to respond first (to the gospel). The men take time to come into the kingdom.” They are currently leading 26 believers and 20 children.

The couple's ministry is supported by Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network. Their two school-age children have attended boarding school in Malaysia. The older daughter, Rachel, has completed her high school education and will begin studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Mennonite Church Canada Witness has over 100 ministry workers in 40 countries.