On a mission from God: lifelong missionaries to Chiang Mai

Missionaries have been in Chiang Mai since the mid-19th century and have deeply influenced many aspects of Thailand’s social development. Pim Kemasingki looks at the history and talks to four lifelong missionaries, all of whom arrived in Chiang Mai in the 1960s and 70s.

By | Tue 19 Nov 2019

“In few counries did the missionaries meet with so little opposition and yet achieve so little in their efforts to propagate Christianity.” This quotation is taken from The Eagle and the Elephant, a book about Thai-American relations since 1833 and published by the Royal Thai Embassy in the United States. “Their achievement rests instead on removing Thai mistrust of westerners, and convincing Thais of all social levels that the Americans came as friends.”

“Siam’s attitude to the West was one of mistrust and fear of exploitation,” the book continues. “It was the American missionaries who, both directly and indirectly, managed to change that attitude…[as] the establishment of the first American missions in Siam coincided with the times when change began to take place in this country on the question of foreign policy.”

In fact, Thailand was so welcoming to missionaries that King Chulalongkorn sent an edict to the inhabitants of Chiang Mai through the governor in 1878 stating, “religion cannot be an obstacle in secular administration. Every person has the right to choose his own religious belief, and whether or not that religion teaches the truth is a matter that concerns him alone.”

Yet despite a lack of success in proselytising, there is no mistaking that missionaries have deeply influenced many aspects of Thailand’s social development, mainly in the fields of education and health. Missionaries helped pioneer education reform and, in the process, developed girls’ education which was sorely lacking at the time. Schools and universities were founded throughout Thailand, with many of Chiang Mai’s most renowned schools and universities being missionary-founded: Montfort, Dara, Regina, Prince Royal, Payap University, to name but a few. American missionaries can also be credited with introducing the printing press to Thailand, with the first official document printed, a Royal Edict in 1839, forbidding the smoking and importing of opium. Smallpox inoculation was introduced by missionaries and many other diseases from malaria to leprosy were cured or treated, saving countless lives. McKean hospital and McCormick hospitals here in Chiang Mai were also founded by missionaries.

This month Citylife talks to four lifelong missionaries, all of whom arrived in Chiang Mai in the 1960s and 70s and have been working tirelessly in service in their own fields of expertise.

Mission statement

John and Martha Butt have been happily married since 1965, soon after they met each other teaching at Prince Royal’s College. Martha grew up in Chicago to a Jewish father and Christian mother, while John was baptised into a Presbyterian church in a small town in Kentucky at aged ten.

Both found themselves arriving in Chiang Mai within a year of one another, John appointed by the Presbyterian Church USA to serve as a teacher and chaplain for three years and Martha sponsored by her college to volunteer to teach English for one year.

“Religion was always a part of my life,” said John. “I went with my parents to church, I played minister at home, I did sermons for fun and I even had a little lectern as a boy. I knew by the age of nine that I wanted to be a minister.” To John, religion was a calling as well as an intellectual curiosity; and his life has been spent following his faith and his mind to explore not just Christianity, but many other world religions, all of which, to various degrees, have impacted his life’s work.

“I on the other hand never engaged in the academic study of religion,” said Martha as we sat in their beautiful home, rather surprisingly decorated with a few Buddha statues amongst Christian artworks, in a farm in Mae Jo dotted with houses of many other long-term missionaries. “I was raised Christian, but for me it was always about doing good things for people and sharing love. I studied sociology, anthropology and psychology and later gained a master’s degree in counselling while John got his degrees in Philosophy, Theology and Comparative Religion.”

The Butts courted Thai style, with a gaggle of chaperones surrounding them at all times and were soon married with children and grandchildren living in the US.

“Neither of us ever had the attitude that people had to change labels to accept our love and service,” explained John. “I never taught religion,” added Martha, “But I think that Christian schools in Thailand are important to the development of the nation. Many leaders, both Buddhist and Christian, are graduates of these institutions that teach their students Christian values, including love, acceptance and honesty.”

After John’s three year contract ended at PRC the couple returned to the US where John joined Harvard Divinity School. “I was always interested in other religions and how they connected with Christianity,” said John. “So when I had the chance to spend seven years in Harvard alongside representatives from multiple world religions, my respect for other religious faiths greatly increased. I became very liberal in my outlook.”

“It was really exciting,” added Martha of their time at Harvard. “There were so many conversations and great ideas being shared. We all had something we could teach one another and something to learn from each other.”

The pair revisited Thailand for one year in 1971 for John’s doctoral research, focusing on the teachings of the contemporary monk Buddhadhassa Bhikkhu, having the opportunity to study with a monk who later became the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand. In 1984, following many years in the US, the Butts returned to Chiang Mai, acting as a church district worker, helping ministers and preaching at rural churches across the north, all under the aegis of the Church of Christ Thailand.

“All Presbyterian institutions and properties were turned over to the Thai church in the 1930s and we were working under their organisation on Christian visas, while being paid by our churches back home,” explained Martha who spent many years working at Payap University, eventually as Vice President. “Back then there were around 60 Presbyterian missionaries in Chiang Mai, today there are two.”

“We weren’t always popular with many members of the church in Thailand and the US,” John said with a grin. “I think our time living in Harvard alongside people of all faiths who were there to ask, ‘What is religion?’ and ‘How does it work?’ really impacted us. We learned not to be afraid of The Other. We realised that we needed to have more dialogue and better understanding with people who think differently from us.’”

In spite of some pushback, John’s proudest life achievement was in creating the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University, an institution inspired by his time at Harvard. “The aim was to have place where people can come for religious dialogue,” he explained. “We had classrooms where there were Buddhist monks, Muslim imams and Christian priests sitting and learning side by side. Sure, there were some eyebrows raised, some even said I was inviting evil. But the truth is there are some things in all religions, including our own, which are very evil and very good.”

“You have got to say to each other, ‘Hey, I have this great thing to share with you, but you also have this other thing to share with me. I remember when I was younger and hearing that the whole world would go to hell if missionaries didn’t work hard enough. We need to change that mind-set. God should be beyond understanding; we project too much. Religiousness is the way you understand what you are and what it means to be human. Yes, there is a revelation, but what does it mean? It means what we stand for, how we interact, how we improve. This is what we should be thinking about.”

Mission Impossible

“’You are going to die in a poor house all alone,’ my mother cried when I told her I was going to become a missionary in Thailand,” laughed Bill Yoder, or Ajarn Bill, as he is fondly known by thousands of graduates of The Prince Royal’s College. He taught there for over half a century.

Born in Ohio in 1941, Ajarn Bill, who is an active member of the Presbyterian church, saw a flier advertising a teaching job at PRC while he was at college in 1963. “My goodness, I thought, that does sound extremely interesting,” and he soon arrived in Chiang Mai, where he would stay for the rest of his life.

“It turns out that the headmaster at PRC had also attended my college, and we got on very well. It was the time of the Peace Corps, and I wasn’t here for any religious reason, just to teach and have an adventure. But one day I found myself walking past the school’s chapel and the door was open, so I simply went in and sat down. It was completely dark and I felt this cold breeze on the back of my neck. I thought it was something metaphysical and somewhere from the dark recesses of my Sunday school upbringing, I said out loud, ‘Yes lord, what do you want of me?’ I didn’t get an answer of course, but it changed everything. That was my calling. I had the offer of a scholarship to study Russian at Chicago University and I turned that down. I returned to the States and studied in a seminary at Yale and that was when I told my parents that I wanted to become a missionary.”

Amazingly, upon graduation Ajarn Bill heard from a colleague in New York of a chaplaincy opening at PRC and leapt at the chance to return, ending up as head of the English department at the school.

“I wasn’t doing much in terms of mission stuff,” said Ajarn Bill of those early years. “I was trying to educate rather than convert. I had the idea that the best way of proselytising was by living my faith. Early on in my time here I met a monk, Phra Intoom, who invited me to teach English to monks at a Pali school under royal patronage. He wanted me to teach on Sundays, which upset some people at the church, but I found myself teaching there for decades. My fellow missionaries viewed it as very strange.”

Buddhism fascinated Ajarn Bill, who saw both positives and negatives in the religion. “I was asked once by a monk if I saw a man being attacked by a dog, would I help him, as the dog could turn on me and bring suffering to myself. This became a very important question to me and reaffirmed my faith. I didn’t agree with the monk to leave the dog and man to their karma. I find Buddhism to be a very beautiful faith, and I see why people are so attracted to it, but it doesn’t go far enough for me. Even practically, compassion is very austere. I need to be involved. I have always seen the need to be involved in a person’s life completely, totally, and I spent my career being involved in many students’ lives in a Christian way.”

In fact, Ajarn Bill has informally adopted 28 children over his time at PRC, all from underprivileged backgrounds, and each year nearly all of them come from wherever they are in the word, to spend Thanksgiving and Loy Krathong with him. “They ate at my table, they became part of my life. Most of them have done well…though few have become Christians.”

Over the years Ajarn Bill was involved in setting up Thailand’s YMCA as well as founding the Muang Boran magazine, established in 1965. He went on to say that his raison d’être, however, was to try to get Christian institutions, hospitals and schools, to open up and welcome Buddhist ideas and be more welcoming to non-Christians. He is also the beloved teacher and priest of thousands of PRC students, three of whom work at Citylife and reminisce fondly of their interactions with him. Most of all he spent three decades working at McGillivray College of Divinity at Payap University.

“I never wanted to be a country club missionary,” he said gruffly, from his lovely living room in a house next to Martha and John Butt’s. “But one day one of my adopted sons, Spain, told me that he had bought this plot of land for me and asked how I would like to be a retired country club missionary. It was 2007, and time to retire, so I reluctantly agreed. On the day of the housewarming, I stood here in front of 800 people, mostly ex-students and extended family of the children I adopted and I said, “Dad, mum, here in Sansai Orchard, I am not dying in the poor house and I am not dying alone.”

Mission Accomplished

New Zealander Kathryn McDaniel first visited Chiang Mai’s foreign prisoners 35, or was it 40 years ago? It has been so long, and so many prisoners, she can’t quite recall. But it has been decades of dedication to weekly visits and daily assistance, to men mostly, who have in some way broken the law.

Growing up in rural New Zealand, Kathryn knew from an early age that she wished to live life in service to God. Even though she is vivacious and confident, with a radiant smile, she has always seen herself as shy, and when she decided to become a librarian at a young age, she felt an immediate sense of relief that her service to God would surely not take her overseas. After all, most female missionaries are nurses and teachers, she reassured herself.

But fate, or God, as she says, had other ideas and one day she was questioned by a pastor who asked whether she would be willing to go to Indonesia for six months to classify a theological library.

“I had made this agreement with God that I would serve in New Zealand,” she said, still sounding a bit shocked at life’s turn of events. “But I realised that if that was what God wanted, it was only six months and I could do it.”

It was 1973 and Kathryn knew no world outside her small tightly knit rural Christian community. “It shakes your faith, when you are uprooted from your community,” said Katherine. “You quickly find out what are the cultural trappings of the church and what is the real faith. It turned out to have been an incredible experience, learning of our commonalities through religion.”

One day a parish magazine from the Thailand Theological Seminary in Chiang Mai arrived by mail with a flyer saying that they needed a librarian and Katherine thought, why not?

And so it was that in 1974 she arrived in Chiang Mai for another short-term contract to take on the newly-minted Payap College’s haphazard library system and standardise it. She was also tasked with training locals, so was assured that she would soon work herself out of a job.

“It wasn’t long before it became obvious that there was much more work to be done for the entire library system, so I settled in, got myself contracted under the Church of Christ Thailand, salaried by the New Zealand Presbyterian church, and set to work.”

In 1976, Charlotte, the wife of a well-known Chiang Mai physician, Dr. Ed McDaniel, passed away. Dr. Ed had arrived in Chiang Mai post war and become widely known for his obstetrics skills, and importantly, his modern attitude to family planning. He introduced safe methods of contraception so that women could choose how and when they had children, helping untold numbers of women and families across northern Thailand. Though Dr. Ed was some 35 years her senior, and while Kathryn had also been close to his wife Charlotte, some years after her death, the two started courting, “We would go to the Rincome Hotel in the evenings for a walk and a milkshake,” she recalls fondly. The pair married in 1978 and Kathryn began to assist Dr. Ed on family planning programmes across many Asian countries.

Dr. Ed passed away in 1999, leaving Kathryn unsure of what her purpose was here in Chiang Mai. She had intermittently been called upon to visit prisoners at both the men’s and women’s jails, but being shy she always felt rather awkward and felt that it wasn’t really her cup of tea.

But when she was asked by the Chiang Mai Community Church to visit a young Spanish man in jail one day, she stepped up.

“I have developed some wonderful friendships with these prisoners over the years, often visiting them around the world,” smiled a radiant Kathryn. “They are often suspicious of me at first, which is normal. But they have all heard of my arrival each Friday and can choose to come and see me or not. My role is to offer practical help and spiritual hope. The practical help comes first,” she said, as the phone rings, and she goes off to talk to a father of a man currently in prison, updating him on his son’s needs.

“I am not there to push religion down their throats, I care about them as people. When you commit a crime, you may initially have the world’s spotlight on you and you are kept busy and occupied. But there comes a day when it is all gone. They have taken your phone, all the attention has disappeared, the regular people you deal with — lawyers, consuls and such — have moved on. This is the time when you look inside yourself. You can get angry and aggressive, or depressed. What is it that might keep you sustained through this hard time? Because it is very hard. Often it is to share your thoughts with someone; it can be dialogue or sometimes just sitting there, being there. They know that I care and that in itself perks up their curiosity and conversation. There have been times when I have even had to go and do some research on their religion, if I don’t know much about it, so that we can talk. Obviously, if I can help guide them to Christ that is great, but that is God’s business. I am called to encourage and love. I am constantly amazed at their stamina and resilience and the power of human nature to cope.”

Kathryn recalls with a giggle one time a newly jailed man met her and within ten minutes of meeting asked her for a Bible. “I told him no, he didn’t need to ask me for a Bible. I told him that I was there for him regardless, but he kept insisting. Finally, I reached into my bag and found a Bible, which was odd in itself as I never carry one around, but I did that day. We went back and forth another fifteen minutes before he insisted I gave him the Bible. He told me that his family was Christian but that he had rejected it and had now finally hit rock bottom. Years later I went to stay with his family in the US and met his pastor. When we were in church, he introduced me to the congregation as the missionary who refused to give out a Bible!”

There are currently around 35 foreign prisoners in Chiang Mai, says Kathryn, and she leads a team of volunteers, not all missionaries, who visit them all should they wish. Her study at home is lined with pictures of men and women who have been jailed, some smiling post prison in their new lives, others still incarcerated. Letters and postcards also adorn her walls, written from cells or after release.

“It’s like diving for pearls,” said Kathryn of the sometimes-violent men and women she spends time with each week, talking specifically about some paedophiles. “I don’t think any of them are so bad as to be beyond redemption, if they desire to change. But I do understand that some people need to be away from society. Many of them have been building up barriers all their lives and they find themselves in a dark place. My life has always been about service and I feel that I can help. It is fascinating sometimes seeing people with addiction who have done terrible things. When they come to prison their mind clears, you can see them getting better week by week and it is such a joy getting to know the real person.”

Kathryn spends most evenings supporting families overseas, sending emails on the prisoners’ behalf, scanning their letters, helping to get them what is needed. She herself goes to church every Sunday where she finds her own supportive community.

“It’s incredible that God could use this shy little girl from a farm to be able to give love, hope and practical support to those who really need it most,” she smiled. “It has been a blessed life.”