WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission Network) — For the people of Thailand, the presence of a church building makes the Christian faith more visible, say Pat and Rad Houmphan, leaders of the Living Water Church in Borabu.
And that visibility gives Christianity a new significance.
As joint workers with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network , the Houmphans are engaged in long-term, holistic Christian ministry within a culture that is intricately connected to Buddhism. More than 200 villages populate the Borabu district and most of those villages have Buddhist temples which serve as central gathering places for fellowship, worship and other community functions.
“It’s a very formal culture,” said Rad Houmphan.
Before the Living Water Church was erected in 2007, the congregation met in homes or rented spaces. Without a building, Christianity was deemed unimportant by the surrounding community. “For the Thailand people, there was a lacking of something,” she noted.
Most Christian mission agencies with a physical presence are located in cities situated far from small rural communities like Borabu, thus having little influence upon them. But having a church building in Borabu has made a difference.
“From time to time, a non-believer from [a] surrounding area or town comes in to see what a Christian church looks like,” said Houmphan. That curiosity opens the door for communication and friendship.
The Houmphans said the Borabu building has even helped Christians living in distant urban areas share the importance of their faith with those living in Borabu county. They offer the story of Tonh as an example. An in-debt alcoholic, Tonh was living in Singapore and working in construction when he became a Christian. From Singapore, he shared his newfound love of Christ with his wife and children, but it was the presence of the new Living Water Church building and Rad and Pat’s encouragement that prompted their baptism in 2009.
"They say that the church building is a concrete expression of Christian faith," said Pat Houmphan. "Tonh loves to share good news of Jesus with the people he meets and invites them to see the new church buildings and attend worship."
(For more of Tonh's story, see "From selfishness to leadership.")
Although the new church building has caught the attention of the local community, many trials still exist for Christians in Borabu.
“Christianity is seen as foreign,” Houmphan said. “A Western religion.”
Thai Christians face discrimination and isolation from within their communities. Houmphan maintains that it takes about five years for a new Christian to become fully rooted in faith. The Houmphans visit and encourage believers, helping them find, in scripture, the appropriate shields to hold up against adversity.
Donations from a variety of sources, including Mission Network, JoinHands of Mennonite Men, the Schowalter Foundation, and congregations and individuals from at least three countries, helped build the church. (See "God provides for Living Water Church.") One of the next challenges, the Houmphans said, is to make Living Water sustainable.
The Houmphans know that one day they will leave their mission work in Borabu. “As a church planter, you give birth, you raise your children and they have to be independent,” says Pat Houmphan.
For the church to become independent, the Houmphans not only work on developing leaders, but on creating means for financial self-sufficiency in an economically challenged community.
A local cow-lending project loans church-owned cows to believers, who can breed the cow three times. They can keep the second and third-born calves, but the first-born calf and the cow are returned to the project to enable another family to reap the same benefits. This endeavour supports families, creating incomes that will in turn, support the church.
In addition, the Living Water Church has a 40-ton storage building for rice. They purchase rice from local farmers at harvest and then hold it to sell later on in the season when rice supplies fall and the price rises. Profits from this venture go to support the church budget.
Follow Pat and Rad Houmphan online at www.houmphans.blogspot.com.