International Bulletin

of Missionary Research

Vol. 35, No. 1
January 2011
pp. 40–44
 

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My Pilgrimage in Mission

William J. Yoder

If anyone had told me on August 1, 1963, that I was embarking on lifelong work as a missionary, I would have reacted in a very emotional denial. “I’m going to Chiang Mai as an English teacher for two years—that’s it!”

Not even a convinced believer, I was terribly shy about doing anything in the name of the church at that time in my life. I was simply taking a break from higher education, launching out on an adventure through which I did wish to do something worthwhile for someone else. I wanted to “see the world, get my bearings, and prepare for a long spate of graduate school,” which would probably be at the University of Chicago in Russian studies.

Many others, however, were not surprised in January 1969 that I was returning to Thailand as a “Career Appointee” under the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations (COEMAR) of the Presbyterian Church, USA. Something had happened!

Call to Thailand

It probably all began on a balmy fall evening in 1962 as my friends and I at the College of Wooster (Ohio) were walking our girls back to their dorm from an evening of study at the library. We had to walk across the golf course, which was strewn with bodies of friends bidding their lovers good night. I happened to glance up at the sky and noticed an incredible expanse of stars. The Milky Way that night was a brilliant drama of light compelling me to a sense of humility I rarely felt. “What are we doing?” I asked my friends. “We’re living totally selfish lives of consumption and don’t give a damn about the horror of life so many around us are experiencing. We don’t even care about the beauty and the wonder of that same world.”

My friends were shocked. I was not noted as a religious, or even, for that matter, idealistic person. “It’s all right, Bill,” my girlfriend, Millie, assured me. “Don’t get upset. It will all be fine in the morning after a good night’s sleep.” The others just gasped in horror as though I were on the brink of losing my mind.

It was not “all right” in the morning. A few days later I received a copy of the Tydings, my home church’s newsletter, which I almost never read. Bored after a long session of research in the library, I looked through the day’s mail, and there was the Tydings. The article in the center of the front page jumped out at me and struck me between the eyes: “Christ Church looking for young volunteer to teach in Thailand.”

The session of Christ Presbyterian Church in Canton, Ohio, had accepted the challenge of Konrad Kingshill, a missionary to Thailand they had long supported, to take up a “Special Mission Appointment,” as COEMAR then referred to such projects, and fund a young member of the congregation to do a special mission assignment for two years, thus intimately involving the congregation in the global mission of the church.

I was stunned. I had never wanted to do anything more in my life. Suddenly my life took on meaning. I reread the article several times, each time with greater interest and enthusiasm. “If you are interested, or know someone who might be, please contact the Minister of the church or a member of the Session.” I could not go back to my research. “Dad is on the session,” I thought. I immediately penned a letter to him, asking for further information. Returning from the mail drop in front of Andrews Library, I noticed the bank of telephones. I simply could not wait for an answer. I called Dad at his office. He confessed that when the session had passed on Konrad’s suggestion, he had had a strange feeling that he might know someone who could be interested. He was happy I had called because that evening he would have time to prepare Mother before my letter arrived. He tried to prepare her without telling her specifics. It did not work. He arrived home the next day to find her in tears in her favorite chair, clutching my letter to her breast and wailing, “Our son has lost his mind! Bill wants to go 14,000 miles away from home to some jungle somewhere, and they’ll ship him home to me in a pine box.” I was the baby of four siblings, you see.[1]

Dad was a great influence on my life. He was a dedicated Presbyterian, despite his very Mennonite surname. He was a public servant, but his whole life was a walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. I never appreciated that until much later in my life. A huge man with a gruff outer appearance, almost like that of a Mafia don, he had a heart of pure compassion.

George E. Parkinson, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, had also had an enormous influence on my life. But when I went to college, I left all that behind me. All the problems of the world would be solved by education and science. Church was fine for my parents and George Parkinson. They were good Christians, and I loved them. But they were also behind the times, living their lives somewhere this side of the Dark Ages. I did not need God in my life as a crutch to help me get through it. I could do just fine with a good education and a sharp mind.

The First Two Years

My first two years in Thailand were the crucial turning point. I was assigned as an English teacher at Prince Royal’s College in Chiang Mai.[2] And amazingly enough, the headmaster of the college, Muak Chailangkarn, was a 1951 graduate of the College of Wooster. What an amazing man! He welcomed me as a younger brother and gave me such wonderful insights into life in Asia during those troubling times of Communist expansion. But even more, he gave me insight into the lives of sacrifice of so many of the people I had grown to love and appreciate in Thailand. Professor[3] Muak shared with me his life of persecution during the Second World War, when Christians were asked to renounce their faith or become outcasts in their society.

Sadly, I could not answer most of their questions about Christianity. I had never given it much thought myself.

Another Thai Christian whose life touched me was Ajahn Kua Salikupta, a woman of the Bangkok aristocracy who had converted to Christianity while a student in Wattana Academy, the first school in Thailand for women (opened in Bangkok in 1854). She was also the first Thai woman ever to do graduate study abroad. In 1942, because of her high family status, she was asked to renounce her faith in order to keep her position in the most prestigious of Thai universities. She refused. “I changed {41} my faith once. My faith is a not a piece of clothing to be put on and taken off at will.”

To me, being a Christian was a sociological phenomenon. It was a part of one’s cultural identity, but not much more. Yes, I was a Christian, but simply because I was born of Christian parents in a Christian culture. What on earth could be so strong about religion as to make these people face even death in order to believe in Jesus Christ? I had become enamored with the Buddhist culture of Thailand. It was beautiful and tantalizing. The Thai people were gentle and lovely, and obviously Buddhism had something to do with their remarkable hospitality and kindness. So what did Professors Muak and Kua see in Christianity that I did not? I was confused and perplexed.

For the past year I had been teaching English to Buddhist monks at the Pali school[4] at Wat Pra Singh, the main Buddhist monastery in Chiang Mai. I had met the head teacher of the school, the Venerable Intoom, while on a trip to McKean Leprosy Hospital the second week I was in Chiang Mai. He was a graduate of Prince Royal’s who had once been a Christian. Passed over by the missionaries for education abroad, he took revenge on them by returning to Buddhism and started a downward spiral in his life that ended in alcoholism and despair. He had found a sort of peace in the monastery. He invited me to teach the novices in his school every Saturday morning. Thailand was a Buddhist nation. I needed to know about Buddhism if I was to understand Thai society. Every Saturday I would teach the monks from 8:00 A.M. to 11:00 A.M., when they had to take their last meal of the day before twelve noon. On Saturdays they did not study in the afternoons, so I would often sit and share with them thoughts on religion. Sadly, I could not answer most of their questions about Christianity. I had never given it much thought myself, so how could I share with them? But I did begin to have an uneasy feeling that I was more of a Christian than I thought I was. I found myself questioning their theories on detachment, karma, and reality as only illusion. Wasn’t there anything in all this about loving one another? Wasn’t there anything in all of this about forgiving one another? And helping one another out when in a pinch?

One hot, humid, tiring day I stopped by the beautiful teak-vaulted chapel at Prince Royal’s. The door was unlocked, so I let myself in. In that dark and tepid air the Holy Spirit breathed upon me. I was startled and frightened. No windows and no doors were open, but a rush of cool air had brushed the back of my neck. I turned around, but no one was there—only the dark and dank silence of that empty chapel. I got goose bumps, and the hair on my arms stood up. But I was sure it was some sort of unnoticed natural phenomenon. I was not praying, at least not in the traditional Christian sense. But I was in deep thought—a sort of meditation, I suppose. And suddenly it happened again. From somewhere in the dark recesses of my Sunday school heritage, I made a response I still cannot believe, “Yes, Lord. I am here. What do you want of me?”

Preparation at Yale

I returned to the States in July 1965 and proceeded to Yale University Divinity School. My choice of Yale was not very idealistic. I had applied to about seven schools and decided that the one that offered me the most money would be the place I would go. I have to say that, of all the schools, Yale was most impressed that I had spent two years in Southeast Asia. They offered me a huge scholarship, the possibility of a high-paying field education assignment, and a loan in any amount I needed. So I was off to New Haven.

I enjoyed Yale immensely. It was the perfect place for me: it was intellectually stimulating, and although YDS did not provide for the spiritual life of students, I could find a spiritually sustaining community on my own. I actually rather much became an Anglican while at Yale, appreciating the ritual of the Episcopal prayer book and the weekly communions in the crypt under Marquand Chapel. New Haven was very close to New York. I could easily indulge my love of the theater, classical music, and the opera if opportunity and funds permitted.

It soon became clear to me that the parish was not my goal, but a return to mission work was. Professor Muak, who was forty years my elder, often wrote letters asking me to return as a missionary. In Thai society people of his seniority and stature simply did not write to young nobodies like me. Once again the Holy Spirit seemed to be breathing on me. When I finally made up my mind to apply to the Presbyterian Church for appointment, they had fallen on hard times and were not appointing people anymore. Fortunately, while in the offices in New York, I ran into Robert Lodwig, who was head of the office of Educational Ministries. He assured me that the board had already approved the funding of a position as chaplain at Prince Royal’s College. “Are you interested?” Grace upon grace! I was willing to become a missionary anywhere. To return to Chiang Mai, Prince Royal’s College, and the people I loved was beyond my wildest dreams.[5]

I was off to Stony Point, New York, for orientation and then back in Thailand for intensive language study in January 1969. Thailand has been my home ever since.

The transition this time was not so smooth for my family. At Thanksgiving my final year at Yale, I told the family that I was returning to Thailand, probably permanently. Mother had learned her lessons. She said she had known I would return from the time I came home in 1965. My eldest sister, Jane, to whom I have always been very close, was also not surprised. But to my utter amazement, Dad was heartbroken. He called me down to his carpenter’s shop in the basement. My brother and I had always been called to the carpenter’s shop when we needed instruction on behavioral matters—it was not a good omen!

“Your mother and I can’t support you becoming a missionary. The thought of you dying in the poorhouse is unacceptable to us. Missionaries are dedicated people who have nothing in the end. You should take a parish here in America, and we can hear you preach from time to time. You’ve always been a stubborn young man. Your mother and I despair that you will ever marry. Who will look after you in your old age?” I was touched. But I was also surprised. My father was one of the most dedicated lay followers of Jesus Christ I had ever known. Had he no faith?

I am a stubborn man. I did not change my mind. My parents visited me in 1971–72 for five weeks over Christmas and New Year’s and became my most dedicated supporters. As with so many other events in my life, my favorite passage in the Scriptures was once again in play: Romans 8:28–30. {42}

Teaching at Payap College

I loved my new life at Prince Royal’s. After the opening of Payap College, Allison Osborn, the chair of the English Department at Prince Royal’s, was invited to head up the new Department of English at Payap College, the first private college approved by the Thai government. That was in 1974. I was thereupon given the extra title of chairman of the English Department at Prince Royal’s, as well as that of chaplain. It was a busy and fulfilling life.

The Presbyterian Church was indeed upset, and the Association for Theological Education in Southeast Asia was absolutely livid.

In 1979 Professor Prakai Nontawasee, the last president of Thailand Theological Seminary, invited me to preach at the weekly chapel convocation at the seminary. When I arrived, seated in the chapel were all the officers of the Church of Christ in Thailand, our united Protestant church in Thailand, and all the administrators of Payap College! What was going on? It was a rather daunting audience. The chapel service was at 11:00; we had lunch together, and I returned to Prince Royal’s at 1:00 in the afternoon. Almost immediately I got a call from the president of Payap College, Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae, inviting me to become a member of the faculty at the college.

Although Payap College was begun as a combined effort of the Thailand Theological Seminary and the McCormick School of Nursing and Midwifery, at the last minute the government felt that “religious education was not academic,” and they refused to allow the seminary to be a part of the college at its official inception in 1974. A few years later, the General Assembly of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) decided the seminary was too expensive for the church to maintain and ordered it closed down. To many in positions of responsibility it seemed an incredible error on the part of the church to close its only degree-granting seminary. Where would future leadership of the church come from? The seminary was also one of the oldest and most revered institutions of the church.

Dean of the Seminary

The president of Payap College appealed to the government once more to allow Payap to “take the seminary under its wings.” The government reversed itself in 1979, and the Thailand Theological Seminary became a part of Payap as the McGilvary Faculty of Theology. I was being asked to facilitate the joining of the two institutions and was granted the title of chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. It was a very rocky road for seven years to come. I was surprised once again in March 1986 to be called out of class to a meeting in the president’s office. By this time, Payap had been granted the status of university, being the first private university chartered by the Royal Thai government. Once again arrayed there before me were all the officers of the CCT and the administrators of the university.

“As you know, Bill,” Dr. Amnuay began, “the seminary has fallen on very dark times. In the past seven years we have had eight deans. The students and faculty are totally demoralized. We are asking you to take the position of dean and get the seminary back on its feet.”

Never had I dreamed that such an offer would come. Under Presbyterian policy no missionary was permitted to take an administrative position in a properly constituted sister church. In addition, I held only a master of divinity as my highest degree in theology. Above all else, how could I presume to a position that had been held by titans of theological learning in the past: E. John Hamlin and Kosuke Koyama, to name only two? “I’m sorry, sir; but I don’t believe I’m qualified for this position. And I’m equally certain that the PCUSA will not permit me to accept it. At least I need some prayerful thought and consultation before I answer.”

Dr. Amnuay looked at his watch. “Bill, it’s 11:40, and this meeting will conclude by noon. You have little time to pray, so you had better pray fast. As for the PCUSA, it’s none of their business. I have a job I need you to do, and at this point, all of us see no one else to do it but you. So neither the CCT nor Payap University cares whether you’re blue, green, purple, or polka-dot. We need you to help us.” With such encouragement and support, there was little to do but say that I would try, with God’s help.

The Presbyterian Church was indeed upset. And the Association for Theological Education in Southeast Asia (ATESEA) was absolutely livid that the CCT had appointed a missionary as head of its seminary. The Presbyterian Church came around, but ATESEA never did really accept my presence as a “Caucasian” in such a responsible position among them. It was a step backward in ATESEA’s way of thinking, a return to colonialism and Western domination in one of their primary institutions. Dealing with ATESEA over the years was a very humbling experience, for I too felt that I really should not be in the position I was. In Thailand, however, I seemed to be the only person who thought that way.

That was in March 1986. By June 1986 I was on the verge of having no school to lead. That month the government hit us with a double whammy. We were told that we could have no more than twenty people on the second floor of the seminary building at any one time. The building was too fragile, and a tragedy was in the making. Since our library and chapel were on the second floor, we had a problem! Two weeks later the government informed us they were expropriating a huge swath of our land to build a new four-lane divided highway to downtown Chiang Mai. The road would come literally within a foot or so of the seminary building, but they would not take the building and so would not reimburse us for it.

Eventually we could do nothing but build a whole new seminary complex. By 1987, plans were in place for the construction of a beautiful new seminary. The bill? Over 36 million Thai baht, or US$1.5 million at 1987 exchange rates. We had in hand only the 5 million baht the government had given to CCT for the land it had taken for the road.

From beginning to end, however, the building of the new seminary was a miracle of God’s grace. In my Christmas letter of 1986 I had written of our predicament. Almost by return mail I received a letter from Dr. and Mrs. Donald W. Dewald of Mansfield, Ohio, offering $300,000 (Baht 6.9 million) to get the project underway. The Dewald family had been great supporters of my work ever since Mrs. Dewald heard me speak at a Presbyterian women’s meeting before going to Thailand in 1963.

In 1989 we celebrated the centennial of the founding of the seminary. I had worked on the plans for the celebration for three years. We were to lay the cornerstone and have a wonderful week {44} of celebrations with all the missionaries and faculty members of the seminary still alive returning, and as many of the alumni as we could contact. The celebrations were to be the first week of November 1989. However, my father passed away October 30, and since my mother was still alive, I simply had to return to Ohio for the funeral. I missed the celebration! I was heartbroken. But I trusted that all would go well, and it did.

Eventually the Dewald family offered to cover one-third of the cost of building the complex if we could raise one-third of the cost from Thai Christians and the final third from wherever we could. We dedicated the new seminary buildings on February 1, 1992, debt free: an incredible miracle indeed!

In 1986 we had fewer than forty students in the seminary, and only three Thai out of twenty instructors. By 2006 we had over four hundred students, a strong faculty of both Thai and missionary teachers, and four junior faculty members studying abroad for their doctorates. In 2006 we opened the International Master of Divinity Program to help our neighboring churches in Southeast Asia prepare well-trained leadership in countries where theological education was difficult or forbidden. It was the last program instituted under my tenure as dean before my retirement in June 2006. Thanks be to God for over twenty years of his gracious presence with me!

My Family

In 1969, after a failed romance, I embarked on a private mission that has meant so much to me personally. I was living in a huge old mission house on the Prince Royal’s campus built in 1898. My dearest friend, Ajahn Chuwit Wootikarn, headmaster of our school in Nan near the Laotian border, was courting his future wife, who was a nurse at McCormick Hospital. While in Chiang Mai, he would stay with me at my home. One morning he came down to breakfast very pale and looking very tired. “How can you live in this house alone?” he asked. My acculturation had lapsed. I had put Ajahn Chuwit into a bedroom all by himself in that old, obviously haunted house. Even Thai Christians are frightened of the possibility of spirits lurking here and there, particularly in old mission houses! But I had not slept with anyone in my room since I was a sophomore at the College of Wooster, and it did not seem at all strange to me.

When you have a house full of teenagers, you had better be home most evenings, or they will not be home either!

The upshot was that Ajahn Chuwit had a young man about to graduate from junior high in his school who was a very intelligent person and who should have the opportunity for further studies. His mother, however, could never afford to send him to Chiang Mai or elsewhere where there would be a high school for him to attend. “Take him in. He can help with the housework and the gardening, and you provide him with an education,” Ajahn Chuwit suggested. It sounded like a wonderful way to “cast my bread upon the waters.” The following morning, however, I suggested to Ajahn Chuwit that he really was not my friend at all. “Can you imagine the gossip if I took a teenage boy in to live with me?” I asked him. “Ah! Indeed,” he replied. “However, if you took in more than one, there would be no gossip—and I have two more who need help.”

That conversation occurred in March. By the time school opened on May 17, I had six! And the saga of “Bill’s family” had begun. Since that beginning, I have raised twenty-four young men and three women, the latter whom I had to put in the women’s dormitory of Prince Royal’s or Dara Academy to abide by Thai social custom. Nearly all have become believers, and all have become productive people in their society. I am very proud of all of them, and we have truly become a family through God’s grace.

All of these young people came to the family with severe financial or emotional problems of one sort or another. Although all became well educated and ended up with excellent positions, not all were able to overcome the scars of their pasts. Two have died—both of them from motor accidents due to alcohol abuse, a most shattering experience for all of us.

In 1995 I stopped taking new people into the family. I had too little time at home. And when you have a house full of teenagers, you had better be home most evenings, or they will not be home either! Raising those twenty-seven people has been the most personally rewarding experience of my life. Now I have their children around me all the time, particularly on the weekends. I have been so very blessed personally by them.

At retirement I was given the title of dean emeritus by the board of trustees of Payap University. I continue to teach in the seminary and have been asked by the current dean, Satanan Boonyakiert, to be his adviser. I serve on the boards of McCormick Hospital and the E. C. Court Foundation, and I am chairman of the Board of Directors of Chiang Mai International School.

In 2006 I built Paradeisos, a retirement house north of Chiang Mai in a fruit orchard on land owned by one of my sons. Through the legacy left me by my parents and the loving goodness of my family, I have a lovely place to retire. I doubt I will die in the poorhouse. Here I can entertain my friends, read, listen to music, host Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, do my gardening, tend my beloved golden retrievers and Thai ridgebacks, and write, when I have time. The Lord has blessed me beyond my wildest dreams. Life has, indeed, been a wonderful pilgrimage in mission.

What is the chief end of man?
The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever!

 

 

 

Notes


[1]. I was born in Canton, Ohio, on May 2, 1941; my parents were Loy Joseph and Mary Zipporah Griffeth Yoder.

[2]. “College” is used in two senses in this article. The Prince Royal’s College is a K–12 primary and secondary school. The word “college” was adopted from the British system in India and indicated that the institution was a boarding school. Payap College, however, uses the word as we would in the West to signify a tertiary level school that grants undergraduate degrees.

[3]. The Thai word is ajahn (from Sanskrit acharaya, “wise one”), which is used for all teachers and professors who have academic degrees.

[4]. In Thailand a “Pali” school is a school for the teaching of Buddhist monks. Pali was the ancient language spoken by the Buddha.

[5]. On July 6, 1968, I was ordained into the Christian ministry by the Presbytery of Wooster.

 

 

William J. Yoder

William J. Yoder is Dean Emeritus, McGilvary College of Divinity, Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Now retired and living in Thailand, he was a Global Mission Worker of the Presbyterian Church (USA) from 1963 to 2007.—wjyoder@loxinfo.co

 

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