Easter in Thailand
The Scene: We are outside the town of Maha Sarakam on a farm in northeastern Thailand, about 40 minutes west of Roi Et. It is Saturday, Easter Eve, and by 6 PM, the large Easter Vigil Fire is lit outside surrounded by chairs. People are beginning to gather. They have placed their blankets in the church where many will sleep overnight. These Thai Christians are probably not aware of the historical background of the Easter Vigil, but they sure have the spirit. Earlier in the afternoon, we arrived in time to go to one of the stocked fishponds on the farm where the pastors live and the church is located. One of the members wades into the pond with a net and, over the next 45 minutes, fills a bag with tilapia. Following the opening service, we will feast on fresh fish grilled outside over a fire.
Our hosts, Pastors Inchai and Ruth Srisuwan, leave their son, Khaen (pronounced “can”), the name of a traditional Thai bamboo wind instrument used by the Isan people, in charge of the service at the church. We and the Srisuwan’s attend another joint two-hour service a few minutes away with about fifty members from various Thai Covenant Churches in the area. We sit on woven mats, sing Christian songs in Thai Isan pentatonic style, many composed by Ruth and Inchai, and, following the sermon, celebrate communion with Thai sticky rice and a local beverage as our communion elements. Our friend Inchai presides. [See video at the end of this blog featuring Inchai playinga traditional Thai Isan melody on the Khaen.]
Following the two-hour service, we return to the farm and join the other worshipers with delicious grilled tilapia outside on the warm, but comfortable evening. Somehow, I had felt a connection with the story of Jesus fishing with the Disciples in John 21:1-14.
Where are we?
Most of us do not have a firm sense of the geography of southeastern Asia including myself. As the adjacent map indicates Thailand is ringed by Cambodia (just west of Viet Nam) on the southeast, Laos on the northeast, Myanmar (Burma) on the west, and Malaysia on the south. The country is divided into five regions: south, central, (south)east, north, and northeast. Our story takes place in the center of the northeastern region with twenty provinces and 22,000,000 people. The provinces of Roi Et (city on the map) and Maha Sarakam (city too small for the map), a province just to the west of Roi Et, were the focus our activities.
The northeast is the Isan region named for the tribal people that are the dominant group who live here. Ethnic Isan are formerly Laotians before the separation of Laos from Thailand. They are usually considered to be an ethnic minority and speak one of several Isan dialects. Most also speak Thai, the dominant language of the central region, but this is not usually their first language.
The Thai Connection on the Pilgrimage
Among the goals for this pilgrimage was reconnecting with Inchai and Ruth Srisuwan, friends that I had met nearly twenty years ago during my first trip to Asia in 1996. They were his former students of Dr. I-to Loh at the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music in Manila during the late 1980s. Collyn and I had a great time in 1996, spending two weeks in Bangkok where they had established a house church and a ministry to slums through the Thai Faith and Music Foundation, in cooperation with the Thai Covenant Church.
Ruth and Inchai are consummate musicians and devoted church leaders. Through the Thai Faith and Music Foundation they have promoted traditional Thai music making and dance within the context of Christian worship. They work in the broader religious context of a country where 95% of the people self-identify as Buddhists. Indeed, much of the tourism of Thailand includes seeing historic Buddhist Temples. For example, on a single tuk-tuk ride in Chiang Mai, a favorite tourist destination in the northern region, one may see more Buddhist Temples in 20 minutes that than Baptist and Methodist Churches in Dallas in the same tie period.
Buddhism has a profound effect on the daily life of the Thai people. One of our tour guides proudly displayed photographs of his adolescent rite-of-passage where he spent several months at a Buddhist Temple. Thai boys live as Buddhist novices (buaht) for at least a full rainy season before they are considered to have reached adulthood. Practices such as meditation, alms collection, and helping out in the temple area are intended to gradually induce self-constraint and humbleness in the boys.
Our tour guide returned to the Temple again in his early forties for an additional retreat. Buddhism is ubiquitous in Thai life. Billboards display signs upon arrival in Bangkok to show respect to Buddhism. For example, it is forbidden to have an image of Buddha tattooed on your body. Images of Buddha are everywhere.The standing Buddha in Roi Et was the tallest structure in town by far (see adjacent photo). Buddhist monks are everywhere, easily identified by their orange robes. They are privileged members of Thai society. Monks have special waiting areas and boarding privileges in airports and generally are afforded deep respect. Numerous Temples of various sizes seem to be everywhere with images of the Buddha in various postures, easily available for followers to reverence. To put it another way, Buddhist monks are shown more deference than a Baptist preacher in Alabama.
One of the ways the Srisuwan’s conduct an effective Christian ministry in this context is their support and teaching of Thai traditional dance and music. Ruth is a superbly trained singer (western and Thai) and dancer. Inchai plays any Thai instrument you can name, as well as the guitar. They are a great ministry team. During our 1996 visit, I followed them throughout the various ministry locations in Bangkok, took crash courses on traditional Thai music and instruments including the winds – khaen, khlui (flute) with its classical Thai diatonic scale including a slightly raised 4th and slightly lowered 7th – and key Thai percussion – chap and ching-chap. Through worship, music making, and following them everywhere, we learned some of their story. Worship in the small house church was extremely participatory including an array of Thai percussion, string, and wind instruments. My favorite memory was their ability to chant the psalms antiphonally (men/boys vs. women/girls) directly from the Bible by enhancing the natural tones of the Thai language.
A Children’s Music Camp
Upon learning of our plans to come to Thailand again in March 2016, Ruth and Inchai informed me that they had moved to the northeastern part of Thailand. For Ruth, this was coming home as she had been raised in Roi Et. Inchai was born in Chiang Mai, so the slower life pace of the northeast suited both of them. They left a metropolitan area of 22 million for a Thai province of Roi Et, about 1.3 million. In addition, Ruth was now Dr. Ruth Srisuwan, having earned a doctorate in educational administration.
Working with the Thai Covenant Church and missionaries from the United States, they took the bold move to establish a ministry presence in the city of Roi Et, leasing a six-story building that will in the near future house a coffee shop, Isan craft store, offices for the Thai Covenant Church, an ESL center, as well as Thai dance and music education studios. In addition, there is space to start a small urban congregation to complement the largely rural congregations in the area.
My coming coincided with the opening of the new building. Last minute painting and repairs were happening as we arrived. They decided to hold a music camp as the first activity in the new building, inviting children (roughly ages 6-16) to participate for three days. I was privileged to have about 30 children in an opening session each morning for worship, singing, and music literacy skills. In the afternoons, I assisted in various elective classes, especially guitar instruction. The children were exposed to both western and Thai traditional music, the latter with an Isan focus.
In spite of translation issues, the relationship with the children was very warm and rewarding, and I enjoyed returning to my first love – children’s music education, something I don’t get to do often these days. The normal time for the Holy Week Triduum was used for a Thursday-Saturday music and worship camp. We used it to prepare for the upcoming Easter celebration.
I was left with an appreciation for the power of the universality of music making (Note: I didn’t say that music was a universal language) and the importance of the role of music in shaping both personal relationships and community in the gathered church. Exploring the various musics of the world is a gift and being in Thailand was a part of the pilgrimage that offered fresh insight to the journey.
NOTE: Yes, we did take a few days off for a relaxing return visit to Chiang Mai after twenty years. This included great Thai food, a riverboat ride, elephant and oxcart rides, Buddhist Temple visits, the orchid farm, and Palm Sunday worship at the First Church of Chiang Mai. Those pics are on my FB page.