Throughout the transitional era of Thailand from a basic economy and subsistence lifestyle into a progressive capitalist economy and middle-class lifestyle (1940-1990) the church undertook an amazing variety of approaches to supplement its three-fold mission with a fourth. Previously, Protestant work in Siam/Lao/Thailand had been directed toward improving life religiously, educationally and medically. Institutional supports for this were churches, schools and hospitals.
As Herb Swanson documented in Khrischak Muang Nua, his historical analysis of the Protestant Church in North Thailand, when threats from the Lanna authorities suppressed church growth among the Chiang Mai upper class, missionaries used their status as patrons to provide jobs for needy new Christians. The size and spread of the Protestant Church outgrew that strategy, and the missionary exodus from the north after Pearl Harbor brought it to an abrupt end.
However, the impact of the “Social Gospel” and the scale of human needs of people after World War II in the church and within its sphere was so pressing that a new mission was undertaken: the improvement of people’s economic capacity.
This impressive effort was in full swing when I arrived in Chiang Mai in 1965. There were as many agricultural and vocational missionaries as there were medical specialists, perhaps more. [Note: in 1965 and afterward as well, missionary wives were appointed by mission boards “to assist their husbands.” In fact, many of these women undertook an unlabeled specialized mission of vocational training and product development.]
· American Baptist agricultural missionaries working with ethnic Karen Christians included Dick Mann, Rupert Nelson and Ben Dickerson. The efforts they showed me were about improved rice production and development of additional agricultural products including wool, fruit (grapefruit, passion fruit, apples) as well as coffee, tea and flowers. They also developed village water supplies, sanitary toilets, and schools.
· American Presbyterian agricultural missionaries included Travaillers and Turnbulls at the Sampantakit Farm in Chiang Rai. The Farm was a cooperative experiment to homestead previously useless land into farms growing multiple crops and benefitting from united purchasing and marketing power. The goal was to demonstrate how previously landless peasants could become land owners with expendable income through modern farming methods including mechanization. Dr. Larry Judd undertook a broad effort in North Thailand to inspire and enable rural Christians (the great majority of CCT members at that time) to band together to improve their economic power. The CCT developed a Rural Life Department to coordinate these projects on a national scale.
· Handicraft production and sales was another strategy that achieved international attention. Three enterprises were spearheaded by missionaries: Marian McAnallen’s Lao Song cloth products from Nakhon Pathom, Thai Tribal Crafts selling a wide range of hand-made items from ethnic villages in the northern hills, and handicrafts made by McKean leprosy patients and former McKean residents in satellite villages. The idea was that producers of marketable products did not need to be displaced from their homes and villages, nor taught new skills and trades, to make things that would bring in supplemental income. Marlene Mann, Dee Nelson, Idalene Conklin, Elaine Lewis, Dot Turnbull, Heather Smith, Marian McAnallen and others served as quality control coaches and “fusion” product designers. Key to the success of these ventures was finding markets for the products; Church World Service and the SERRV free-trade agency were the international outlets, expanding sales beyond shops in Thailand. In some cases handicraft production became lucrative enough that manufacturers gave up farming entirely. In 1965-70 McKean was a large, fully functioning village. Residents made furniture, did wood carving, custom printing and refined handicrafts, sewed garments, grew fruit, and raised fish and hogs.
· An Urban-Industrial mission (following the vision developed by Dr. Marshal Scott at McCormick Theological Seminary) was begun in the Samut Prakan Eastern Seaboard area south east of Bangkok. This mission attempted to help displaced industrial workers cope with the challenges of slum-living, being educationally disadvantaged, and feeling powerless. Bryce Little helped the project get started and become an official unit of the CCT. The Rev. Somrit Wongsang and his wife, Nuansri, continued the work for another four decades.
· The Marburger Mission undertook evangelism and church leadership development. An aspect of this included experiments in two fields: a diaconate program in which women committed themselves to a shared life of Christian piety and service, and a training program for “tent-making” ministry to equip men to be pastors with skills to generate a living at such things as livestock husbandry or motorcycle repair.
One thing all these efforts had in common was an attempt to be realistic and practical about improving the living conditions of people mired in economic disadvantage. The basic reason they all faded is that they failed to help people achieve their real aspiration, which was to rise above their economic level rather than to simply be more comfortable within it. Yet for a while, these programs did generate hope and bring relief. Like strategies in H.M. the King’s “Sufficiency Economy Philosophy,” the church’s social-economic initiatives were interim solutions. It is unfair and irresponsible to accuse those who supported these efforts of surreptitiously trying to keep the lower classes servile and passive. I have read presumably responsible academic papers that made that charge. The projects did not fail if they helped people live better while rising above menial subsistence lifestyles and circumstances into the middle class. But the projects faded and folded when people born in the next two generations were able to “do better than that.”
Prosperity comes in cycles, but for the present, the goal of village young people is to get salaried employment to escape the marginal jobs and unpredictable income of their agrarian parents and ancestors. These days, every family unit needs at least one person earning a salary. Income from a sideline such as handicraft production is not enough unless the manufacturing is on a full-time basis. Sidelines for farmers are in areas such as construction. For a growing number of villagers, however, it is farming that is the sideline.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.