Silinart Chumsri was a first year seminary student in the Thailand Theological Seminary (TTS), from Nakhon Pathom, when I met her in August 1965. She was a leader in her class of ten students. She was more mature and determined than most of her class mates. In fact, she was on a dual track toward a career in education as an alum of Witialai Kru (the Teachers College) as well as a theological education student leading to church work.
With her academic background Dr. E. John Hamlin, principal of the seminary, chose her as one of two students to try to get a joint degree program started with Chiang Mai University (CMU). Eventually, selected TTS students were allowed to attend classes at CMU and their teachers offered a personal evaluation of their achievement, but they were not given CMU grades or credits. Dr. Hamlin’s idea was to gain national recognition for TTS students’ accomplishments, as their degrees were already being accepted internationally through accreditation of TTS degree programs by the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology. During her fourth year at TTS Silinart was posted to Huay Kaew Church on the edge of the CMU campus to serve as student pastor; I was installed as pastor of the church in order to be her field education supervisor. It was my first official role as pastor, but Silinart did the real pastoral work.
By the time Silinart was ready to graduate there was major progress toward the establishment of Payap College, which would solve the problems of student recognition that Dr. Hamlin had been trying to work out with CMU. Ajan Silinart began her career as an educator at the Christian school in Fang and then became head of Vichianari School in Lampang. As late as 1979-80 she was still a candidate for a master’s degree at TTS (by then renamed the McGilvary Faculty of Theology of Payap College). She had written her thesis but then dropped the project when her responsibilities increased and it became apparent that a master’s degree in theology would not be applicable to her position as head of a school.
For the next decade Ajan Silinart was head of the Women’s Department of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) where she was tireless in advocating feminist points of view in opposition to the overwhelming male dominance of the church at all levels. There were a few women in church leadership, including Ajan Prakai Nontawasee who was the first woman to hold national office in the CCT. When women became eligible for ordination, Ajan Prakai and Silinart were ordained; (with Ajan Moree and Dr. Kamol Arayaprateep) they were the first, as I remember it. The transformation of church structure in the 1990s led to the Women’s Department being downgraded into a Christian Home and Family division, indicating a bias about “where women belonged” that infuriated Ajan Silinart and her colleagues, and also meaning that there was no longer a designated way for women’s particular issues to be raised and advocated.
At that point, Ajan Silinart was recruited to help with the Christian School in Udorn and with churches in the Isan area of the country. She finished her professional career doing this.
Meanwhile she was still an advocate of improved circumstances for women and for retired church workers, especially those who, like herself, were unmarried and had little or no family support. She was a fearless pioneer and prophetic voice right up to the point that declining health began to take its toll. I heard not long ago that she died and her funeral was held back home in Nakhon Pathom.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.