Global friendship inspires faith, forges new meetinghouse in Thailand

By Laurie Oswald Robinson

Jeff Wintermote, pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church in Hillsboro, Kan., has learned that sacrificial faith is just as important as secure finances when it comes to laying the foundation of a church.

What’s even more powerful is when these elements are forged in the kind of global friendship experienced by Asian Christians and North American Anabaptists. It’s a friendship that Wintermote has been part of since 2005 when he took his first trip to Thailand and Laos.

Wintermote has been deeply inspired by a congregation of Thai believers who make up part of the less than 1 percent of Christians in the largely-Buddhist land. His inspiration reached a new peak when he traveled with a North American delegation to the small village of Nahongtai, Thailand, in November 2012 to participate in the dedication service of the group’s new $18,000 meetinghouse.

More than $10,000 was provided by Trinity and other congregations in Mennonite Church USA to help fund the project. Other financial gifts came from a Schowalter Foundation grant and other Thai groups. The resources enabled the congregation to build a two-story, concrete church with classrooms, an office and a sanctuary to replace a dilapidated bamboo hut.

“As a pastor, who is constantly called upon to give and give and give, it’s always a blessing to find places that fuel my inspiration and hope, and that is what my global friends have done,” he said. “They did a lot of the labor themselves, including the women who scooped out sand from the river and carried it to the work site to be mixed for cement. They made the cement one bucketful at a time because there was no way for a cement truck to get to them.”

Wintermote first connected with the Hmong in Thailand when Max Ediger, of Turpin (Okla.) Mennonite Church where Wintermote served before Trinity, invited Wintermote on an overseas trip. Ediger had been a longtime Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker in Asia.

Five more pilgrimages followed for Wintermote. During a 2009 trip, three members from Trinity as well as one member of Zion Mennonite Church in Elbing traveled there with Wintermote. That’s when the idea for helping them raise funds for the new meetinghouse took root.

“We visited 14 Hmong churches in the villages, where we saw the broken-down bamboo hut and thought, we have to do something,” Wintermote said. “The church had purchased 1.5 acres of land but did not have funds to build the actual meetinghouse.”

The meetinghouse is a palace compared to the bamboo huts that dot the small village of farmers. They earn no more than $1.50 a day by selling what their family doesn’t eat from their corn and cabbage crops, Wintermote said.

Congregations in Thailand must belong to one of five umbrella groups – none of which are Anabaptist – so the congregation is not Mennonite. Nevertheless, the Thai congregation and Christians in neighboring Laos are interested in the Anabaptist emphasis on peacemaking because of the violence in their society.

“There is an ongoing discussion among the Hmong and Anglos in Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada about how we can best reach out to our global brothers and sisters and share our Mennonite theology,” he said. “Despite the distance, we share an affinity for close-knit communities, family life and peace. … There is a lot of hope and inspiration that can flow between our two lands.”