Building up the church in Thailand
Voices from the Communion: One of the ELCT’s first women pastors shares milestones on her journey
(LWI) - It has been a long journey, physically and spiritually, for Rev. Jongkolnee Sampachanyanon Sim who became one of the first two women ordained in The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Thailand (ELCT).
Sim and her colleague, Rev Somporn Kullachote, were among three candidates ordained by Bishop Amnuay Yodwong during the General Assembly of the ELCT in Bangkok in April 2018.
Originally from the town of Mukdahan, located on the Mekong River on the far eastern border with Laos, Sim’s ordination marked a significant milestone for her church in the majority Buddhist nation. She talked to us about the challenges she faced and the support she received from other parts of the global Lutheran family.
Tell us about the early stages of your journey to ordination?
I was baptized into the church in 1987 and started to work with one of the missionaries, attending a prayer group every day. In those early days, it was known simply as the Lutheran Mission in Thailand, supported mainly by the Lutheran churches in Finland and Norway. In 1994 the ELCT was established and became a member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Meanwhile, God continued to call me and in October 1999 I decided to become a student at the Lutheran Institute in Thailand to learn more about my faith.
After your studies in Bangkok, you returned to your hometown, didn’t you?
Yes, in 2004 I returned to work with the rural, indigenous communities in Mukhadan on the banks of the Mekong River. There was no church at all at that time, but I received financial support from the Church of Norway to start building one. Most of the people living there have come across the border from Laos and have nothing, no jobs, no ID cards. Many of the women have been married to Thai men.
I started by collecting food and clothes to give to them. When their children were born but they had no documents, I took them to the government offices where they could do DNA tests to get registered. My husband is a lawyer and together we worked on supporting their human rights and their children’s rights.
You also introduced many of them to the Christian faith too?
Yes, we read the bible and prayed with them, as well as proclaiming God’s love through our actions. We taught them about our dependence on God’s love, how we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. In 2006 we started building a church which can hold up to 500 people and once a year, on Easter Day, the bishop came to baptize people.
So you were working as an evangelist and teacher, but not able to administer sacraments?
That’s right. The church had been working towards ordaining women for many years and there were many women studying in bible school. I was working with deaf children, teaching them about Jesus, but I wanted to become a pastor and I received a lot of encouragement from men and women missionaries from Norway and Finland. In 2015 the LWF invited me to a seminar in Kuala Lumpur to learn about the Gender Justice Policy and how it could be helpful to our churches.
When I returned home, I set up discussions with the groups of women that I led to try and support each other. Shortly afterwards, a new generation of leaders was elected to our Church Council and in September 2017 our church took the decision to ordain women, starting at the General Assembly in April the following year.
What difference did that make to your work and ministry?
It was very important because I work in a prison where they always ask for my ordination certificate. You cannot work with government-run institutions unless you have been ordained. That ministry is vital because people are so poor and there is so much stigma. Families don’t want to help people in prison and they have no work when they are released, so our church supports them, providing food and clothes.
I am one of seven people serving on our Church Council so I also try to support other women who are called to serve the Lord in this way. It’s a two-hour flight to Bangkok to our head office and there is always a lot of work for me to do. But in Thailand, 80 percent of our church members are women so I share with them about their rights. We have translated the Gender Justice Policy with the help of a Finnish missionary and now we have lots of ladies studying and training for ministry.
The Lutheran World Federation is a global body that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we profile church leaders and staff as they discuss topical issues and set out ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring the churches and communion grow in witness and strength.