The Refugee Pastor That Could
As a Pastor in the rice fields of rural Thailand, Chansamone Saiyasak assumes many roles.
He's a cultural anthropologist, studying the Buddhist and animistic beliefs that dominate the northeast part of the country, known as the Isan region. Practices like consulting witch doctors are common.
He's a human rights activist. After more than 170 years of Protestant missionary efforts in Thailand, only about 1 percent of the country's 65 million people are Christians. When believers face opposition—many Thai derisively call Christianity sasana farang, the "religion of the foreigner"—Saiyasak publicly defends them.
He's also a provider. When local children need food or education—continual necessities in Thailand—Saiyasak and members of his ministry, Mekong Evangelical Mission (MEM), step up.
And when Sunday morning rolls around, he's a pastor-evangelist, sharing the Good News with those who attend his church.
Saiyasak, 44, was born across the Mekong River that runs along the eastern border of Thailand, in war-torn Laos. His journey took him halfway around the world to a church in Antioch, Tennessee, and a Ph.D. program in Brussels, Belgium. He now runs an organization in Thailand that oversees nine churches, multiple businesses, a seminary, a radio ministry, an orphanage, and a school.
When Eternity Touched Reality
In the 1970s, Saiyasak's family fled Laos in the wake of the Vietnam War. They lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for two years until being accepted into the United States and plopped by the government into a Nashville ghetto. Saiyasak was about 11 at the time, the oldest of seven children. His family spoke no English and were some of the few Laotians in the predominantly African American housing project.
Meanwhile, Pastor Al Henson and Lighthouse Christian Fellowship, in the Nashville suburb of Antioch, believed that "God's intention was to bring the nations to us." Lighthouse members began a burgeoning outreach to Laotian refugees, including shuttling vanloads of Laotian children four times a week to the church for English classes and worship services. About 60 Laotian teens met weekly in a home Bible study, where Saiyasak interpreted.
Saiyasak was struck by how Lighthouse members demonstrated love to the Laotians, how they seemed to experience grace and a personal relationship with God—unfamiliar territory for the nominal Buddhist.
Saiyasak still recalls how a Scripture passage broke through to him one Sunday. "God touched my heart [in my] reading about the love of Christ. He was just all over me," he says, his voice breaking, his eyes welling. "I opened up my heart to God. That was the transformation—it was like eternity had touched reality."
Henson took Saiyasak under his wing and raised funds for Saiyasak and other Laotians to attend Lighthouse Christian School. Even as an adolescent, Saiyasak spoke of returning to Thailand to share Christ with his relatives.
Saiyasak graduated as valedictorian of his high school class and earned a degree from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1990; he went on to earn three postgraduate seminary degrees—a master of divinity, a doctor of ministry, and a Ph.D. in theology and religious studies. But rather than put those degrees toward an academic career in the U.S., he returned to Thailand in 1992 to realize his dream.
It's a sunny Sunday morning in November, and worship at Mekong Posai Church, which opened in 2006, is about to begin. Breeze rustles the mango trees; jasmine is in the air. Sandals and flip-flops are nestled in pairs on the porch beneath the church's arched entryway and its scalloped red clay tile roof. Women wash and sort rice, green beans, and basil leaves on the back porch in preparation for an after-service meal.