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Cows help provide fertile soil for church plants


Nov 16, 2004
-by Tom Price


Mennonite workers in Thailand (from left) Pat and Rad Houmphaan share about their ministry Oct. 22 at the joint meetings of Mennonite Church Canada Witness' Christian Witness Council and the Mennonite Mission Network Board of Directors (Mennonite Church USA).

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Surrey, British Columbia – A couple with eight years of experience in Thailand told mission leaders from Canada and the United States that it takes a village to grow a church.

And also a cow or two. Some fish. Even rice.

Speaking to a gathering of Mennonite Church Canada’s Christian Witness Council and the Mennonite Mission Network board of directors, Pat and Rad Houmphan, Mennonite mission workers in Thailand outlined a long-term approach to reaching a predominantly Buddhist migrant people in Thailand.

The land in Thailand inhabited by the Isaan people, who mainly have descended from Laotian immigrants, is the poorest region of the country, because of a lack of fertile soil and insufficient rain. Yet 90 percent of the population ekes out a living through farming.

“As we reach out to the Isaan people, we are not only concerned about saving souls but are also concerned about their physical needs as well,” Pat Houmphan said. “A solution that can help with the issues of poverty and the church is to do socio-economic development projects.”

Using seed money from North America, the Houmphans have developed rice banks, fish projects and a cow-lending project. In the Living Water Church of Borabur, they lent a mother cow to a member of the congregation, who will raise the cow for three years to generate three calves, keeping two and returning one calf and the mother cow to the church. The calf and the cow are then passed onto two families and the cycle begins again.

“We hope that the project will help to generate an income to raise the standard of living. It is hoped that when the income increases, [the church member] will give back a portion to God and to support the worker and the needs of the church,” Pat said.

Nearly 22 million Isaan people live mostly in villages in 19 provinces in northeastern Thailand. Despite nearly two centuries of mission work by thousands of missionaries, only 1 percent of the population is Christian, and the region has about 1,000 churches.

Since the mid-1990s, the Houmphans have served in Thailand, where they have planted two congregations: a church of 85 people (five years ago) in Det Udom and a church of 65 people in Borabur. The village-based approach is necessary because residents are spread out and transportation between villages is difficult. While several villages may meet together every six weeks for a common worship celebration, lay people eventually would provide leadership for smaller, village-based congregations,

While the Isaan people’s physical needs are great, their spiritual needs are even greater. “The fear of demonic power has caused Isaan people to practice animism. They believe spirits exist in all places. Ancestral spirits are believed to be floating around,” said Pat. “The solution for this issue is to present to the people that Jesus has power over demons and evil spirits. … Jesus can take away fear and bring peace.

“Our mission is not finished – we would like to reach out to more Isaan people and plant more churches,” he said. “Our vision is to plant seven to 10 churches in an unreached area of Isaan land by the year 2026.”

Because Isaan families consider it devastating for a relative to convert to Christianity from even a nominal, non-practicing Buddhist tradition, the Houmphans have taken steps to help interpret Christianity to the Thai and Isaan culture. “We conduct the service in Isaan-Lao language, sing Isaan songs and do Isaan dance using traditional maw-lum music, and use sticky rice and krajep juice for communion,” Pat said. “The purpose is for the Isaan to see that Christianity is not only a western religion. This will increase the chances of people being more open-minded toward the gospel and accepting it, eventually leading them to joining a church community.”