By Tom Holmes
Worship at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church in Forest Park begins every Sunday at 3 p.m. and is followed by a buffet dinner of homemade Thai food. About three hours later, the dinner tables are stacked along the wall, a net goes up and the games begin.
Matha Janthapaiboon organizes the badminton games, and said there are six core players who play almost every week, but that the number of occasional players can swell to as many as 20. She said that twice a year she organizes a tournament in which the beginners group has seven doubles teams and the advanced group has five, with the winners in each group even receiving prizes.
The large participation in the semiannual tournaments, explained the Thai church's pastor Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn, is due in part to badminton being one of the three most popular sports in Thailand, along with soccer and Thai boxing.
Thai people living in the Chicago area might not know the names of players on the Cubs, Sox, Bears or Blackhawks but they will know that Ratchanok Intanon is the No. 4 ranked women's badminton player in the world, Nitchao Jindapol is No. 11 and the doubles team of Jongkolphan Kittiharakul and Rawinda Projongiai is ranked No. 8.
What happens after dinner every Saturday night is not your friendly softball game at the annual family reunion in the park. Many of the Thais have been playing since they were little kids and are quite good. Pastor Pongsak, for example, is 62 years old and is the fourth best player in the church, even though he sometimes competes against 19-year-olds.
Pastor Pongsak said that shortly after the Thai's moved into 7416 Dixon St. in 1992, a small group of them would play at a club in Lombard. When that became too expensive they marked out a court in the church's social hall with masking tape, and later actually used cut tiles to lay out the court, which now is a permanent fixture in the church social hall.
Pastor Pongsak said that what started out as just some Thai people have fun evolved into a church ministry. Matha explained that like most congregations, one goal of the Thai church members is to help nonbelieving friends and family members become Christian.
She said that several of the occasional badminton players are Thais who grew up Buddhist but are attracted by the opportunity to play a sport they enjoy. Especially when a large group of people come to play, a lot of time is spent talking to each other as they wait their turn. When asked if it is during those conversations that the Thai church members talk about religion, Matha said "No, it could make them uncomfortable."
He said the Thai congregation's approach is more relational. Often it is university students who come to play badminton, and the Thai members simply welcome them into their "family" without condition. If they respond to this welcome by taking the next steps of coming to worship and eventually being baptized, fine, but, said Rev. Pongsak, they are included in the family no matter what they decide.
Several young people have entered into church membership through the door of playing badminton. One young woman, for example, came to play and eventually got married in the church. She now plays drums in the church band.
"We don't push them," Rev. Pongsak said, adding: "The more you push people with an aggressive type of evangelism the more you repel them." Instead, they invite them to pick up a racket.