The Thailand Overseas Missionary Society (TOMS) was a vision of the Rev. Pisanu Arkkapin and members of the Student Christian Movement at the Thailand Theological Seminary (TTS) in the 1960s. Methodist missionaries and church leaders in Malaysia encouraged the Thai young people to develop a program to provide Christian leadership for a larger parish of 5 Iban Christian longhouses in Sarawak (North Borneo), Malaysia. TOMS work was officially commissioned in a worship service presided over by Ajan Muak Chailangkarn, Moderator of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT). The first missionary was TTS student Boonrat Boayen. He arrived in Rumah Mabau in mid-1964 for a 3-year term.
Next to the rumah (longhouse) was a school, church and a one-room parsonage the TOMS missionaries called “The Palace”. The mission center was on the Majao River upstream from Sibu, upriver from Kapit. In those days the area was still jungle and the longhouse villages depended on a mix of agriculture as well as hunting and foraging.
After being in the Majao larger parish for 2 years, Boonrat was joined by TOMS missionary #2, Prayong Muangta. The idea was that the incumbent missionary would teach the successor for a year, the new missionary would work alone for a year, and a third missionary would arrive. As it happens, TOMS sent only 3 missionaries. The last was Somporn Pongudom, May 1968-May 1971.
Dr. Boonratna (the current preferred spelling of his name) visited the Majao mission area a few years ago and reports that today Iban culture has been vastly changed by the loss of the jungle, heavy mining, and commercialization brought about by the intrusion of dominant Malay culture and Malaysian government exploitation. The longhouses are gone as well as the wildlife. A new economic base sustains those who remain in villages along the Majao, but many have migrated to big cities where there is work. Christian leadership is now provided by graduates of Methodist seminaries in Sibu, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
TOMS was one of several CCT mission endeavors that were founded, flourished and faded. But it would be wrong to say TOMS failed. It was designed to fill a gap before Iban graduates were ready to assume pastoral leadership. The churches of the Majao parish are grateful for the Thai boys who lived among them 50 years ago. The 3 missionaries thrived and matured on this mission. Each of the missionaries helped and benefitted from the experience as student pastor among the Iban. Boonrat went on to a long career as dean of the seminary (TTS) from which he had graduated and as a Vice President of Payap University; he was then Moderator and General Secretary of the CCT for more terms than any other CCT leader. Prayong became a director of World Vision in Thailand, and other similar Christian philanthropies. Somporn taught in Kuala Lumpur and at Payap University before succumbing to cancer in mid-career.
The photo accompanying this article was taken when I visited TOMS missionaries Boonrat Boayen (left) and Prayong Muangta (right) in April 1967. In the background is the parish church on the grounds of Mabau longhouse. We had communion with rice wine at a delayed Easter service that morning. Other sketches were made on that visit.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.