Of the more than 30 adults at the Thai Community Church’s annual retreat held in July, just three spoke English as their first language. Kittima “Kitty” Wongthipkongkha, who has raised her two daughters and worked as a nurse in Chicago for more than 20 years, said she still feels like something of a foreigner in America. To be able to sing, pray and converse in Thai for 72 hours, she said, is part of what makes this trip so spiritually refreshing.
“Sometimes when you speak the language you grew up with, you understand better,” Kitty said. “You feel more comfortable the way you were when you grew up.”
At the Pine Ridge Christian Center near Starved Rock State Park in Utica, it is the Americans in the congregation who are apt to feel like foreigners during this three-day retreat. Meanwhile, immigrants from Southeast Asia who worship at the Forest Park church have the chance to use their “heart language” and express their most intimate thoughts and feelings.
Within the Thai culture is a playfulness the Thais refer to as sanuk. Sanuk is the attitude that nothing is worth doing if you can’t somehow make it fun. Almost every Thai gathering that lasts more than a couple hours will include games and songs, which outsiders may think of as silly, but throw the Thais into spasms of laughter.
In a sense, the Thai retreat is an expansion of what the congregation does every Sunday. The service, delivered in Thai and translated into English, along with the Thai food served after worship at a fellowship meal, form a cultural and spiritual oasis for these sojourners.
Being a minority is part of the experience of all Thai Christians, whether they emigrate to the U.S. or not. Christians comprise only about 1 percent of the population of Thailand, which is 95 percent Buddhist. Pastor Pongsak Limthongviratn, who grew up in a small town an hour southeast of Bangkok, remembers the ritual in which all Thai children participate at the beginning of each school day. The Thai flag is raised as students stand at attention, the national anthem sung, and a passage from Buddhist scriptures read. Pongsak and his younger brother were the only two students in the school who would not bow while the Buddhist scripture was being read, he said.
In Thailand, practicing Christians are at home culturally while participating in a minority religion. In the U.S. they are part of the religious majority but wrestle with the language and American culture.
What makes planning for the retreat complicated for Pongsak and his ministry team, is that the children of these immigrants, whose primary language is Thai, speak English better than their parents. Most of the children in the congregation were born here, studied in American schools and have friends on Face Book. The heart language for these second generation Thais is English, and their music is rock and roll.
Very aware of the generational differences, the retreat planning team often creates parallel activities for the congregation’s youth, resulting in some interesting combinations. For example, a graduate student at Trinity Seminary in Deerfield found herself leading the youth sessions, which included Pongsak’s two sons. The children spoke English better than their teacher, who is working on her doctorate.
Pongsak said that because his children – and their children – will increasingly adopt American cultures, the Thai congregation must become multi-cultural.
“The only way for an ethnic congregation like Thai Community Church to have a longer life is, on the one hand to cling to our Thai culture, and on the other hand, welcome people from other generations and from other cultures and work as a team,” Pongsak said.
The Thai congregation is making strides in that direction. Their president, Fred Martin, is an African-American who is married to a Thai. A council member, Douglas Van Tress, is a business partner of Martin’s, Chauwarin Tuntisak. And John Barger, who has a degree in religion from Wheaton College, is on the church’s leadership team.
The youth are on the same page as their parents when it comes to religion but are reading a different translation when it comes to culture. The opposite is true for many of the Thai college students studying in the U.S. on student visas who attend the retreat. They’re drawn by the opportunity to revel in their cultural, and out of curiosity about Christianity. Many of these students identify themselves as Buddhist.
Athasit “Ohm” Chamnanua, who helped lead the retreat in 2007, said the Thai congregation creates yet a third track for retreat participants who are not Christians.
“We will not try to force them to accept Christ, but will show them how much God loves them,” Ohm said. “We don’t discuss Christianity vs. Buddhism, but let them know that our God is still alive and let them see that this is different than the Buddhist temple.”