Shane asked, this week, for people who were missionaries in Thailand during the Vietnam War to tell how our work was affected by the war.
I was a United Presbyterian Church (USA) fraternal worker in Chiang Mai, Thailand from August 1965 to June 1969. My duties included teaching “theological English” at the Thailand Theological Seminary [which is now the College of Divinity of Payap University] and at other nearby schools of the Church of Christ in Thailand.
Superficially, the escalating war in Vietnam did not affect our work as missionaries or the mission of the CCT. But the war was a pervasive issue in the background, a background which also included profound changes in Indonesia, Communist infiltration into Thailand, and the Maoist Cultural Revolution in China. World War II was a personal memory of several of our missionary colleagues including Ken and Margarita Wells who were just retiring from long-term service in Chiang Mai. A number of other missionaries in Chiang Mai were transferred here when the Communist Revolution fully took over mainland China. These missionaries and those who came after the war to rebuild the church infrastructure of schools, hospitals and churches were heavily influenced by the specter of yet another anti-Christian military-political apocalypse. The longer the Vietnam War lasted and the more it expanded into the rest of former French Indochina the darker grew the shadow over Thailand.
By the middle of my 4 years in Thailand other areas of the country were being heavily impacted by the construction of air bases and naval facilities and especially by the influx of large numbers of US military personnel in and around Bangkok on short leaves for R&R. Even in Chiang Mai, military developments were coming into view. Air America planes were parked at the airport and we knew they were not for commercial use. On the lower slopes of Doi Suthep a seismic and meteorological monitoring station was built and staffed by the US Air Force working alongside Thai Air Force personnel. Those US personnel lived in town, and although few in number, were our age, so we got to know some of them. Also, higher ranking USAF officers occasionally moved their families to Chiang Mai to be nearer, but not too near.
Up to this time there had been an English language worshipping community composed mostly of missionaries who attended Thai churches on Sunday mornings but gathered for worship and fellowship in the evening, and for Bible study once a week. The addition of new US military families was one factor that prompted the community to consider forming a full-fledged church congregation as was already the case with International Church of Bangkok. The Rev. John Butt and I were designated co-pastors of this new Chiang Mai Community Church while a committee looked for a full-time pastor. The Rev. Douglas Vernon was recruited in 1968 and he and his lovely, vivacious wife Dot moved into a rented house on the Ping River right across from the US Consulate.
One of the activities of the Chiang Mai Community Church was to host Religious Retreats for US military personnel, which were alternatives to free-for-all R&Rs the military provided. Bob Bradburn (Presbyterian) and Jim Conklin (American Baptist) coordinated these retreats with chaplains who wanted to have them. Bradburn and Conklin worked out the program with the chaplains and then recruited us to help provide what was needed, including Bible studies, worship services, tours of mission work, Buddhist temple tours, talks by Buddhist monks, visits with Thai church leaders, pot luck suppers or overnight home stays. One of the goals was to give these military service personnel insight into ordinary Thai life to counter the jingoistic opinions that tended to develop among them. One of the themes that Bradburn and Conklin tried to convey is, “This sort of freedom and culture is what is natural here and worth defending.” We got high praise from the chaplains and anecdotal accounts of changed attitudes from some who had attended the retreats. Overall, these were addenda to the mission work each of us was doing.
What we were doing, we believed, was supportive of the mission and ministries of the Protestant Church in Thailand. We were involved in building peace, a more important and full-fledged peace than others were building, and without strategies that annihilated people in order to save them.
At the same time, due to new American children of USAF families in Chiang Mai, the Chiangmai Coeducational Center expanded from a small school for missionary children with a dormitory facility, into a larger “American School” that became Chiang Mai International School. In lieu of direct tuition to offset the increased class sizes and need for staff, the CCC board negotiated with the US Consulate to provide a teacher starting in 1966. We can say that the impetus for expansion of the little mission school into an international school was a result of the US military presence in town. CCC became the first of several international schools in Chiang Mai. In my opinion, it is the most lasting physical change to missionary objectives.
Of course, it too would have faded with the end of the Vietnam War and the relocation of military personnel except for tourism and the nation’s new willingness to have the economic advantages of expatriate long and short term residents. The increase of expats living in Chiang Mai has been exponential and that has included what amounts to an open door for missionaries of a bewildering variety. That, too, I believe is the direct result of what was going on beginning in the 1960s.
[Thanks to Gerry Dyck for this picture of 3 seminary teachers who helped with Religious Retreats for US military personnel. L-R Ken Mochizuki, Ken Dobson, Gerry Dyck. The picture appears in Gerry’s memoirs: Musical Journeys in Northern Thailand, p.37]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.