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Message to youth: You are not alone
April 27, 2007
Borabu, Thailand — Three years after she first began listening to a Christian program on her portable radio in Wangprado, Thailand, Orathai Apong considered herself a believer. But in all that time in and around her small village, she had not met a single Christian.
Today, Apong is helping other young Christians know that they are not alone.
Now 24, and nine years removed from the day she first heard about Jesus over the airwaves, Apong is completing a 10-month internship as a church leader with Living Water Church in Borabu, Thailand, working primarily with youth like her, who find themselves struggling for direction.
“She is part of a new generation of God’s people who are being equipped to carry out his great commission to the Isaan people,” said Pat Houmphan, a leader at Living Water supported by Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Mission Network.
As a teen, Apong had many worries. Her parents had told her that they could no longer afford to send her to school. Without school, she did not know where her life in the Isaan region of northern Thailand would take her. She locked herself in a room in her home and listened to the radio. Then the words began arriving daily on her radio – words of inspiration that told her how faith in Jesus could help remove her worries.
She listened to the program – Journey into Light, from Lutheran Hour Ministries – for two years, increasingly intrigued by the messages. Finally, Apong wrote to the radio station, started Bible correspondence courses and called the broadcasters occasionally to ask for advice about her life and her faith. She prayed that God would help her with her desire to learn.
Two weeks after her prayer, a spot for her opened at a weekend school in her area – a school with a lower cost that her grandfather agreed to cover. Soon after, another prayer was answered: A group of Christians arrived on her porch.
Houmphan, with his wife, Rad, and Thongbai Sadlane, another lay leader at Living Water, first visited Apong in 2001, three years after she began listening to the Journey to Light radio program. The broadcasters had contacted the church leaders, advising them of a new believer in the area – a young woman who felt alone in her burgeoning faith. So Sadlane and the Houmphans journeyed to Wangprado and started asking for the girl. After nearly a half-dozen queries, they found her home.
The four believers sat on the porch and shared stories. Her parents watched, intrigued by the visitors as well as the new ideas which had changed their daughter’s outlook on life and brought her out of her room.
On Easter Sunday, 2002, after taking a training course at Living Water, Apong and her parents were baptized in a pond in nearby Ban Daeng village. Her sister also became a Christian.
Apong said most young Isaans are leaving rural Thailand for the bigger cities, either to work or to study. Those who stay get married, start families and work in the fields – the traditional Isaan way of life. Most of her peers avoid Apong, fearful of her beliefs.
“They think I am a follower of the Westerners, the Western religion, and they want to keep their distance from me,” Apong told the Houmphans. Pat Houmphan said the largest barrier between the Thai people and Christianity is sociological, not theological. Many people in Thailand see Christianity as a Western construct that will destroy their Eastern, Buddhist way of life – in this way, Christian faith is a threat, not a blessing.
Though the Houmphans were born among the Isaan people in Laos, both left the area as refugees and settled in Canada before returning as mission workers in 1996. Despite their places of birth, the Houmphans are considered outsiders. They need people like Apong for the next generation of ministry.
“The people would listen to us … but we cannot go by ourselves,” Rad Houmphan said. “We need the local people who know those around them.”
Pat Houmphan compared the ministry process to raising a child. “Pregnancy is difficult. It takes nine months, but to raise children up is even more challenging,” he said. “Leading them to know Christ is only the first step. To nurture believers so they become mature and strong Christians takes more time.”
Despite the challenges and isolation involved in being a Christian in northern Thailand, Apong is developing strength in her faith. She plans to continue studying at Prayao Bible College, where she has one year yet to complete. Then she hopes to return to Living Water to minister to children and youth, perhaps in an emerging partnership with Compassion Thailand, an international Christian organization, that could support as many as 100 children.
“She has turned from a girl trying to take away her worries to a girl helping others to relieve their burdens by inviting them to know and trust Jesus,” Houmphan said. “This lost sheep has been found.”