Classical Thai dancers. | Courtesy St. Paul Thai Church

St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church (SPTLC) is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Thirty years may not seem like a big deal, especially compared to St. John Lutheran Church on Circle Avenue, which was organized as a congregation in 1867.

On the other hand, compared to other Asian immigrant churches in the U.S. whose average life span is 20-30 years — or when the founding leader leaves — simply staying open for three decades is an achievement. And out of the 30 Thai Christian churches in this country, SPTLC is one of only three congregations to own its building.

But they aren’t just resting on the laurel of survival. This Thai congregation is thriving and contributing to the worldwide church and to society. For example:

SPTLC has given away $924,000 during its three decades of ministry. According to the 30th anniversary celebration book published by SPTLC, “Since 1992 our church has been sending money to support mission works in Thailand, Sudan, Philippines, Myanmar and Nepal. We sent money to support seminarians, seminaries, Christian organizations, churches, missionaries, and organizations helping people suffering from natural disasters.”

Two students from the Bangkok Institute of Theology and one from McGilvary College of Divinity in Chiang Mai will be arriving this summer for what is called the Thai Seminarian Visit Program, a kind of internship that lasts for several months and has included 16 other Thai seminarians over the last 23 years. The purpose of the program, according to the anniversary book, is to foster a relationship between St. Paul Thai Church and seminaries in Thailand; provide opportunities for students to learn about life and ministry in the U.S.; and receive gifts that students bring through their involvement in various activities of the congregation.

SPTLC has served meals to 40 homeless people on the second Friday of the month at the PADS emergency shelter since 2010; has hosted the PADS summer program for the last three years; and has served as a rest stop for the CROP Hunger Walk, in addition to having members walking.

Part of the cultural glue that holds the church together is serving as a home away from home. 

“My family and came to study in Chicago from 2007-2013, recalled Wiriya Tipvarakankoon. “As a Thai student, this community was helpful and supportive while we were like sojourners.”

“St. Paul Thai Church proved to be a wonderful experience for Bee and I during our five-year stay in Chicago, wrote Natee Tanchanpongs. “The community helped us feel at home away from home. We were blessed by the generosity, hospitality and fellowship of the brothers and sisters.”

The church, located at the corner of Brown and Dixon just north of Grant White School, is a cultural as well as spiritual home. Although eight Americans whose primary language is English belong to the congregation, St. Paul Thai believes its mission is primarily to Thai people. Members drive from as far north as Zion, as far south as Palos and as far west as Schaumburg.

The members are willing to make up to an hour’s drive because at SPTLC, they are able to pray in their “heart language,” eat home-cooked Thai food every Sunday after worship, watch classical Thai dance, celebrate the birthday of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej (69 years on the throne), and, after dinner, play badminton which is very popular in Thailand.

The congregation also is a refuge for the seven mixed-race Thai-American families who are members. David Mercurio testified, “My wife Piyamat and I were truly blessed when God led us to St. Paul Thai Church. I was looking for a community of true believers who could not only help my wife bridge the gap between Buddhism and Christianity, but also maintain a bridge between Thai and American culture where both of us could feel loved and ‘at home.’ Our prayers have been answered.”

The Thai Community Church of Chicago — the congregation’s name prior to 2010 — was organized in 1985 and met for worship in a Japanese church near Wrigley Field. In 1990, Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn, the congregation’s present pastor, began ministering in the Thai Church while doing graduate studies at the Lutheran School of Theology Chicago (LSTC) in Hyde Park. Two years later, they began renting space from what was then St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Forest Park, worshiping in the afternoon. In 1996, the congregation was officially organized as a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

In 1997 Rev. Pongsak, now with Ph.D. after his name, took the post of program director for Asian and Pacific Islander Ministries of the ELCA. He has served since then as interim pastor — a part-time position on paper — heading up a team approach to leadership.

In 2010, the Thai Community Church of Chicago became owners of the building when St. Paul’s closed, and the Thai Community Church changed its name to St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church to preserve the legacy of its predecessor congregation, which began as an immigrant faith community of Germans in 1879.

This ongoing immigrant legacy can be seen in the juxtaposition of two pieces of art in the back of the church. A large stained-glass window over the choir loft pictures a Bible with the words “Heilige Bibel.” Below the window on the choir loft railing hangs a 30-foot-long mural of the life of Jesus painted by Sawai Chinawong from McGilvary College of Divinity, according to classic Thai artistic conventions.

Perhaps the most telling testimony comes from Cheryl James, a St. Paul’s council member during the 18 years in which her English speaking congregation and the Thais worshiped in the same building and were partners in ministry. 

“The Thai congregation coming to St. Paul’s was a very humbling experience,” she recalled. “I had become smug in my Christianity. I knew it all, the creeds, hymns, prayers, when to stand and when to kneel … but the Thais were the real deal. They taught me that faith in Christ was personal. I will forever be changed because of the Thai congregation and their faith.”

Rev. Tom Holmes is the retired pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church and has continued as a member of St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church.