By Doug in Thailand — What does it look like for a teen-age girl to identify with Christ in a Shan Buddhist village?
Our team’s goal had been to first reach the adults of the village with the Good News. But this is not so easily accomplished. The men are rarely at home. During the day, they work hard; in the evenings, they drink hard. The women keep busy at home with whatever they can to help earn a living. Though polite and cordial, they find their collective identity in a folk Buddhism that has proudly been their heritage for generations.
It was the children who responded to the gospel.
Thailand represented a brand new life for them. Their families had escaped the hardships and racial tensions of life in Myanmar. Crossing the border opened up doors of opportunities that their parents had never imagined.
One of those open doors was the chance to attend school. These immigrant children learned to read and write in Thai, while their parents remained illiterate rice farmers. The kids also found out there was a center in the village where they could get help with their homework. It was there that they first heard the stories of a Creator God. With their newly acquired ability to read, they began to devour the stories from Scripture themselves.
Fast-forward several years, and today there are over a dozen teen girls in the village who identify as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. But what does that look like?
Hard choices, at school and at home
Buddhism is a way of life in the village, and permeates every aspect of community life, even at the elementary school. A Buddhist shrine sits prominently on the school playground, and every Monday begins with the students led in meditations as they sit in nice neat rows facing the image.
One of our girls had just heard the Bible story of how Daniel’s three friends refused to bow down to the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar. So when the moment came for her to bow low to the image of Buddha, she realized she must also quietly resist. Her allegiance was to King Jesus.
Her actions did not go unnoticed. Her teacher immediately questioned her incredulous refusal to bow. Even more shocking for the teacher to find out that this young lady’s parents were Buddhists, and her decision to identify with Christ was hers alone.
Making such a stand has brought about not only isolation from fellow students, but disdain from the teaching staff. Despite the fact that this teen is a brilliant student, she is given little opportunity for advancement.
Life in the village revolves around the temple. On many occasions throughout the year, every family in the village is expected to gain merit before the monks at the temple with their offerings of incense, flowers and lit candles. To refuse to make merit is a bad omen for the family. The spirits of the land and the house spirits of the village will be angered. There is no telling what they might do. These teen girls who follow Christ face a constant tension. Do they accompany their parents on the temple pilgrimages? And when forced to go, can they somehow honor their parents while avoiding the merit-making rituals?
Then there are the ever-present dangers of what the village expects of girls becoming pretty young women.
Traditionally, girls 13 to 15 years old will begin to service older men whose first wife is no longer desirable. Arranged marriages are hard to refuse. Besides this, many teens in the village are now sexually active with their own classmates. A new pair of designer jeans in exchange for sexual favors is a strong temptation.
More sinister yet is the big money available for girls willing to work in the sex trade in the big cities. Lately there have been recruiters in the village, offering parents large sums of money in exchange for their daughters. It is like winning the lottery. So the push toward prostitution usually comes not from the outside world, but from these girls’ own parents or older siblings. In a culture where honoring your parents is of highest honor and shaming them is unthinkable, how do teen girls who love Jesus protect their own sexual purity? How do they wait for a Shan Christian their own age to court them, in a culture where so few boys ever come to faith?
You can help
What does it look like to be a Christ-follower, without abandoning your own culture, your own village, and your own family? How does one follow Christ without escaping to a western version of Christianity? How will these girls remain faithful to Christ, incarnate in the village where they live? No one has walked this road before, but our team strives to come alongside these young ladies and to help them navigate these very difficult questions.
We are so proud of the young ladies who are standing up for Jesus in their village! Some have been kicked out of their homes for their faith. You can help run the dorm that allows these girls and others to get an education, avoid the sex trade and grow in their faith in Jesus. All of the girls’ essential needs are provided in the dorm, and a Thai dorm mother cares for them and disciples them as followers of Jesus Christ. Click here to give them a safe place to live and learn during these very vulnerable years of their lives.
- An enlightening chat between a Christian and two Buddhist monks: Our worker visits a famous Thai temple to have a wide-ranging discussion with two novice monks. Find out how they got there and what they think will happen when they die.
- Intro to Buddhism: A three-part series covering basic Buddhist beliefs, symbols and traditions, and how to engage Buddhists in meaningful spiritual conversations.
- We’ve gathered resources about interacting with Buddhists and engaging them in spiritual conversation on our Path to Peace page.
- Don’t miss a story in the Path to Peace series! Sign up to be notified each time we post on this blog. (Just enter your email at the bottom of the page on mobile or in the upper right corner on your computer).