Guest contribution by Holly Lakin
Every day, a bright blue umbrella sits at the front of an alley in Khon Kaen, covering a modest drink stall with faded red paint. Jarunan Wongplernchit is there bright and early, offering small banh-mi, or Vietnamese sandwiches, and friendly conversation. She continues selling iced drinks until the afternoon, when the umbrella is stashed away and the stall’s awning folds down. Nothing about the scene or her appearance would tip one off that Jarunan is much different from any other 55-year-old shopkeeper in the country, until she starts speaking about her God, Jehovah.
The Northeast has about 40,500 Protestant Christians, about 0.18% of the region’s total population.
Jarunan is one of a tiny fraction in this region who identifies as Christian and is a member of the even smaller “society,” as they call themselves, of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Thailand, there are less than 5,000 baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses, only 110 of which live in Khon Kaen. In their small society, “everyone is like brothers and sister,” but of non-members, Jarunan presses forward, “I would like them to learn about Jehovah, to understand and pay respect to the Creator.”
Jarunan’s deepest desire is for all people to believe in the God she knows. As a Jehovah’s Witness, she considers it her duty to proactively spread the message of God. She travels door to door with a partner on Sundays, speaking to people throughout Khon Kaen City and spends her Tuesday and Saturday evenings placing informational flyers in front of local businesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are known around the world for their relentless and often confrontational evangelizing techniques, and their weekly society meetings encourage members to act out role-play scenarios.
Jarunan feels strongly about spreading the Witnesses’ beliefs. But it isn’t about racking up conversions like points; she wants people to know about God because she’s experienced Him firsthand.
“It made me know about the Creator, which I never knew before. It helped me understand why I was born, where I am from, what the purpose of life is, and gave meaning to my life,” she explains. “I was depressed, but after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, I recovered. It’s like I have a father who helps support me mentally and emotionally.”
[for a Thai version of an ISAAN LIVES piece on Jarunan, see HERE]
People’s reactions range from curious interest to rude remarks, which she shrugs off with compassionate patience. “I don’t take it personally. They don’t know any better.” Her society warned her to take the good with the bad, but Jarunan’s childhood experiences had already prepared her to calmly deal with rejection of her identity.
During World War II, Jarunan’s parents fled from Vietnam to Udon Thani. Her parents never learned Thai, so Jarunan grew up speaking Vietnamese. During her childhood years, there was widespread discrimination against Vietnamese refugees in Thai society, fueled by the fear that they were Communist spies and traitors.
Vietnamese migrants were barred from formal employment even if they were legally documented, and it was illegal to learn or teach Vietnamese. Jarunan even remembers a time when, aged eleven, a group of Thai teenagers came into her neighborhood, banging on the doors of Vietnamese homes and yelling at the families inside.
Jarunan’s parents held out hope of moving back to Vietnam. When still a child, she and a handful of other children gathered together to study Vietnamese at home. Public Thai school was viewed as next to useless since the discrimination that they faced precluded them from jobs that required education anyway. In the same way that Jarunan coped with discrimination and an abbreviated education to find work and income, she doggedly persists through unpleasant interactions to continue spreading her faith.
Besides door-to-door outreach, Jarunan also engages in what she calls her “unofficial” ministry at her tea and sandwich stall. She’s never pushy or aggressive about her religion; a clutch of loyal customers appear every morning, and they talk about life together. When they bring up problems in their workplace or families, Jarunan offers wisdom from the Bible. She says it’s important for her to study and know her Bible and its stories in order to be prepared to counsel and console her customers. They haven’t converted yet, Jarunan concedes, but “they really like to listen because I help calm them down.”
“The world is in frustration and difficulty,” she says, but it doesn’t have to be a trap. “If they become a Witness, they can spend their life differently from others. They will have a spotlight to show them the way.”
Jarunan knows firsthand the impact that faith can have on emotional wellbeing. Around ten years ago, her husband was going through some health problems, including a stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed on his left side. Under great financial duress and stressed from family tensions, Jarunan became depressed. But when she attended church and listened to the sermons, “it was more like therapy for me. I was happy.”
Since then, faith for Jarunan is no longer therapy. Jarunan compares going to the Kingdom Hall, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ church, to charging an internal battery to continue to fight the world’s problems.
Becoming a Witness has also given Jarunan a new purpose. She declares confidently that her purpose is to pay respect to God. Despite still being the primary breadwinner in her family, Jarunan says she feels at peace. “I’m full in my heart and I don’t want anything more.”
And knowing those benefits, Jarunan doesn’t plan to stop spreading that word. She doesn’t find it hard to approach strangers because she loves her God and loves people.
“I would like them to know the truth. I believe what I read so I go out and talk to people.”
Holly Lakin studies Biochemistry and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tulsa. She has been studying development and globalization this semester in Khon Kaen.