Eyes on heaven – Isaan’s Christian converts navigate a rocky road to acceptance

Guest contribution by Holly Lakin

A curtain separates Chutima Jantarason’s pharmacy in Khon Kaen from her small living area, and in the five-foot square of open space between the curtain and a flight of stairs, a handful of people gather twice a week to discuss the Bible and sing hymns. The crew of young adults became Christians at different times, but come together to grow their faith and encourage each other in community.

One of the attendees, Puwadon Thiangthong, 27, has been a Christian for 13 years. His parents still worry about his decision.

Puwadon says his mother was very upset when he converted because “Buddhists believe the sons need to become monks, so if I didn’t become a monk, my mom won’t go to heaven.” He converted to Christianity before becoming ordained as a monk, a tradition seen as necessary for men in Isaan to produce future blessings and make merit for the man’s parents. When Puwadon refused to take part in a large Buddhist family ceremony, his family became dismayed over his “disrespect for the dead.”

To follow their new religion, Isaan Christian converts have to let go of some social norms, sometimes leading to judgement from their family and friends. They must learn how to navigate their community without participating in certain religious practices that are also social gatherings.

To be Thai is to be Buddhist

Though Christianity has been in Thailand for hundreds of years, still only about 1% of the population of Thailand is Christian. That percentage is even lower in Isaan, the Northeastern region. One local pastor estimated that out of the 22 million people in Isaan, less than 100,000 are Christian. He explained that there are so few Christians because it’s hard for people to overcome “the influence of [Buddhist] people in the community. It’s their norm. People go to temples and their activities involve religion.”

Isaan has a rich culture built off religious influences of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and animism. This combination results in unique local beliefs and traditions that incorporate worship of the Buddha, nature spirits, and ancestral spirits. But the prominence of these beliefs also presents challenges for the small minority of converts to other religions, including Christianity.

Family, and other forms of community, is seen as a fundamental institution in Thai society. Thais are taught to respect and abide by the traditions and wisdom of their elders, so it is expected and accepted in Isaan society that people abide by the local Buddhist, Brahmanist, and animist traditions.

In fact, Ubon Ratchatani pastor Dr. Chansamone Saiyasak understands such a set of beliefs and practices since it “gives the Isan people their distinctive cultural identity as the people of Northeast Thailand…it is unlikely that they will replace [their beliefs and traditions] with another religion without feeling that they have destroyed their own identity.”

When Buddhism isn’t enough

Since Christianity is so rare in the Northeast region, very few people are born into Christian families. As a result, the majority of Christians in Isaan are converts. Many of them converted because of dissatisfaction with Buddhism. They say they had questions or problems that Buddhism didn’t help solve.

Jirawat Phuetchana, 38, the newest addition to Chutima Jantarason’s Bible study, became a Christian a mere three months ago. Through a crooked smile, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, and emphatic head nods, he tells of his “miracle.” A family problem caused him to slip into depression, and his prescribed medication made him suicidal.

“At first I came here for medicine,” he says. ”But God had bigger plans than that.” One of his visits to the pharmacy coincided with a Bible study session being held there. Two days later he converted, accepting Jesus as his Savior.

Jirawat is already seeing dramatic effects in his life. His hot temper has diminished, and he now trusts God with his life. “Buddhism didn’t answer the questions I had,” he says. “In Buddhist beliefs, they teach self-reliance, but when someone’s in crisis, self-reliance isn’t possible.”

Next to where Jirawat used to get medicine for depression, he now attends Bible studies.

Jarunan Wongplernchit, 55, spends her days at her drink stall just outside of Khon Kaen University. Her cluttered stall houses, among the assortment of drink mixes and plastic cups, her reading glasses and Bible. A Christian of 10 years, she tells a similar story.

After a stroke, half her husband’s body became temporarily paralyzed. This left Jarunan the sole breadwinner for her family. The stress of having to find income for her family left her empty and depressed, but “when I heard the teachings [at church], it was more like therapy for me. I was happy.” Now recovered from depression, Jarunan still maintains that “it’s like I have a father who helps support me mentally and physically.”

Religious tolerance in Thailand

The decision to become a Christian, while solving some problems, presents new challenges. Converts must adapt to living a life according to the Bible, while the rest of society around them is used to Buddhist practices.

Isaan hasn’t always been so tolerant. Only 80 years ago, In 1940, seven Isaan Roman Catholics were martyred in Mukdahan province. During the Franco-Thai War, the seven were believed to be spies for the French. Thankfully, Christians nowadays don’t face that kind of blatant persecution. Still, they face some criticism, often from parents.

Wanna Thongnai, a Buddhist farmer in Yasothon province, sends his grandson to a Christian primary school because he believes it can provide better quality. Like most Thais, Wanna expresses his respect and tolerance for all religions, and says very seriously that he wouldn’t be upset if his grandson converted to Christianity. “I would never block him from other religions. Every religion teaches people how to be a good man.”

No longer “making merit”

The most common conflict for Isaan Christians arises during their conversion to Christianity. These converts say that it is not really the conversion itself that’s at question, but the rejection of existing practices. One way Christianity is different from Buddhism is in its exclusivity: the belief that a person cannot be a true Christian if they also believe in other ideologies.

According to researcher Charles Keyes, Buddhism originally became popular in the Isaan region because it did not require people to abandon their local beliefs. Modern conflicts occur because in Buddhism, merit-making is imperative to show respect for self and others–and parents in particular. These merit-related practices include participating in rituals, men ordaining as monks, and giving offerings of food at monuments.

Jaruwan Saeton, 24, nods her head in understanding when Puwadon recounts his family’s disappointment after he refused to participate in the family ceremony. After Jaruwan told her family that she would no longer be offering gifts to the dead, her parents expressed concern for what their spirits would eat after they died.

This obstacle in particular has been noticed by foreign missionaries. Adventist Frontier Missions’ “Facilitator’s Guide to Introducing Christianity to Thai Buddhists” notes that “the fear of needing to forsake one’s ancestors is often described as a significant cause for the lack of success of Christianity in Thailand.” Yet their willingness to be perceived as betraying their ancestors by those around them is proof of their commitment to their faith.

It isn’t for lack of caring for their families, though. At a Friday night prayer meeting at Khon Kaen Baptist Church, attendees mostly requested prayers for family members. Together, they prayed for parents, children, husbands, siblings, friends, and coworkers to know their God and experience His love.

A handful of Khon Kaen Baptist Church attendees at a Friday night prayer meeting.

In daily life

Refraining from participating in traditional customs is not the only thing challenging Christian converts, however.

For Chidchaya Nammuang, a smiling twenty-two year old Khon Kaen University student, the hardest thing about being a Christian is not much different from any other college student: time management. Over the past two years, she has been learning to juggle school projects, tutoring, and church activities, in addition to regular school work and social activities. She says she now manages her time so that she can read the Bible at least a little bit every day and go to Bible study once a week.

Engaging with her church community helps keep her grounded, too. When she hangs out with her Buddhist friends, she says, “I feel very far from God because there’s no pressure from my friends” to practice her faith. It is her church community that encourages her to attend church and Bible study, providing accountability.

When Chutima, the young pharmacist, became a Christian seven years ago, her mother was at first accepting. Soon, though, she began to feel left out because Chutima spent more time with her Christian community, leaving less time for family.

Like Chidchaya, Chutima became so intentional about spending time in her Christian community that she was in danger of damaging the relationship with her mother.

Fortunately, they’ve maintained a good relationship, and her mother, after seeing the changes in Chutima’s life, became a Christian two years after her daughter.

Living with God

But all these struggles, no matter how large or how trivial, pale in comparison to the benefits converts say they receive.

Anisa Inart, a 21-year-old hairstylist, is one of those few Christians who grew up in a Christian household. Even more, her father is a pastor. Still, Anisa says her faith didn’t become personal until she was 17.

The year before, she had stopped going to church or engaging with her religious family. She had a new group of Buddhist friends, and participated in Buddhist practices so she could spend more time with them.

“When I went out [with them], I was happy,” she says. “But every time I came back to my room, I cried for two hours. It wasn’t real happiness.”

After a year of watching her dad pray over her daily with his own tears, Anisa finally confronted her father. She was struck by how much she loved him and how much he set an example showing how much God loves her.

Anisa decided to rededicate her life to God. Now, she says, “I could not live without God.”

Jarunan Wongplernchit keeps her Bible with her in her stall to read when she has no customers.

For Jarunan, Christianity isn’t even about therapy anymore. Her faith gives her purpose and meaning. She believes that human responsibility–why she and every person is created–is to “respect and pray for God.” Not only that, she takes security in her religion, confidently saying, “everyone will go back to the Father, to Jehovah. It’s the one religion.”

While facing difficulties before and after conversions, Christian converts in Isaan remain hopeful for their futures. They take no offense when people express doubts or outright distrust of their faith.

“It’s not a problem because I truly know my God,” says Puwadon with resolve. “I used to believe what they believe, so I see both religions, and I choose to believe what is right. I don’t need to care what other people think.”

Holly Lakin studies Biochemistry and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tulsa. She has been studying development and globalization this semester in Khon Kaen.