(Editor’s note: Tom Holmes is a Lutheran minister and former pastor of St. Paul’s. He was one of several ministers who took part in this service.)
When Bishop Yehiel Curry (ELCA Metro Chicago Synod) laid his hands on David Mercurio during the ordination service Sunday at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church, he was helping write the latest chapter of the congregation’s creative history.
St. Paul Thai was born over 30 years ago as a small gathering of first-generation immigrants from Thailand who met in the neighborhood around Wrigley Field to worship in their native “heart” language. Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn joined them when he and his wife Monta came to Chicago 1989, and he agreed to serve as their part-time pastor for what he thought would be just a few years during the time he would be working on his Ph.D.
Mercurio’s ordination Sunday is emblematic of how much the faith community has changed over those three decades while still holding on to its core identity as a Thai church.
Mercurio is a farang (Thai word for a white Westerner) who is replacing the Rev. Dr. Pongsak as the lead pastor in a congregation now composed of Thais, whites, Blacks, Filipinas and one Korean. He will be joined this fall by Ajahn Golf who will serve as a part-time associate pastor at St. Paul Thai during the months he is not ministering in Thailand.
The congregation has never had a full-time pastor, in large part because they could not afford one. The ELCA website states that a full compensational package for a pastor right out of seminary these days is $64,712. Mercurio like Pongsak before him will be bi-vocational, receiving most of his income from his job as a banker.
When Mercurio joined the congregation eight years ago, becoming a Lutheran pastor was not even on his radar. His motivation for joining was finding a faith community for his wife Piyamat who grew up in the Esarn region of Thailand. One thing, as they say, led to another. When Mercurio asked Pongsak about the possibility of doing some volunteer work in his wife’s home area, Pongsak countered with, “Have you thought about becoming an ordained pastor?”
Pongsak knew that he and Monta, who is also a minister in the Thai church, would be retiring in a few years and was on the lookout for someone to replace him.
That unexpected invitation led to Mercurio starting his participation in the ELCA TEEM (Theological Education for Emerging Ministries) Program in the summer of 2017. On Sunday — after 16 courses, 10 workshops, and a 6-month internship as a chaplain intern at Bethany Methodist Hospital & Nursing Home — he completed with his ordination the first leg of his pastoral journey.
Compared to traditional seminary training, TEEM is a hybrid mix of onsite classes three times a year and a lot of online learning in between. Mercurio worked with an experienced mentor during the time of his formation as a way of learning from the mentor’s his concrete experiences in the congregation.
After their retirement, Pongsak and Monta plan to spend six to nine months in Thailand where they have family and many ministries with which they have remained connected over their 33-year sojourn in Chicago.
With his retirement imminent, Pongsak has been thinking of his legacy.
Many years as the Director for Asian Ministry at ELCA headquarters.
Leaving St. Paul Thai with healthy financial reserves.
A congregation whose budget has grown from $5,000 in 1990 to between $136,000 and $156,000 nowadays.
A congregation that has never had a full-time pastor for 20 years yet is vibrant and missional.
Brought 17 interns from Thailand, each spending six-month time in Chicago. Number 18 is about to come in September.
Partially supported nine PhD students from Thailand, six of whom are still teaching in different seminaries in Thailand. Number10 is arriving in August.
A small ethnic Thai congregation that has sent over $1.2 million as mission support to many countries.