By Blake Adams
Originally appeared in the Herald, 8/31
Patrick Henry College
Hannah Cudal in Thailand
Freshman Hannah Cudal had half a Thai upbringing in her Florida home. Her father, though born in the Philippines, spent most of his childhood in Thailand. When she graduated high school and wanted to wait before applying for college, she had no plans. Yet Cudal would spend an accumulated twelve months serving in Thailand over the next two years, beginning in Bangkok.
It was the end of February and over a hundred degrees in the street with eighty-percent humidity. The sun was a murky yellow orb behind a brownish atmosphere. Despite the weather, most homes – even those that could afford it easily – did not own air-conditioners. Fans, meanwhile, were abundant and often lined the walls.
The streets were packed. Over fifty percent of Thailand travels by motorbike, which are cheaper, easier to repair, and can maneuver through traffic. Sometimes the whole family packs aboard. “The most I’ve counted [on a motorbike] is five,” said Cudal. There are even motorbike taxis. Traffic laws, if there are any, are ignored: an unsettling realization as Cudal’s driver squeezed onto the road like it was a game of Tetris.
Among the dense traffic, the droves of street vendors, and the enormous circus colored advertisements, Bangkok offered an impressive visual dynamic, but something seemed off.
It was the quietness.
The Thai people have a strong Buddhist background: a religious philosophy which teaches desire is evil – even desires for good things. For centuries, Buddhist monks have attempted to empty their minds to achieve nirvana: a so-called enlightened state of being which transcends all wants. The rest do their best to avoid conflict and focus on self-improvement.
In the streets, the vendors don’t yell, the cars don’t honk, and all general noises are on their lowest setting. “The visual impact is enormous,” Cudal said, “but the people are subtle.”
The Thais come across as very polite – perhaps too polite. “A Thai will lie to you to make you happy,” Cudal said. “If you are impassioned about sharing the Word, a Thai will often become a ‘convert’ then and there, and even attend church for six months just to be polite … [In Thailand], you can’t criticize or hurt feelings.”
Cudal spent her first month in Bangkok working in the mission’s primary outreach, the prisons. Usually, the method involved calling a random prisoner for visitation and witness. For Cudal, they selected African sounding names because it increased the likelihood that the inmate spoke English. Visitations were limited to forty minutes at the women’s prisons; twenty at the men’s.
It was usually impossible to evangelize to a person – who had likely heard it all before – in less than an hour. However, sometimes showing you cared was enough. “Some become Christians just because the Christians were the only ones who visited,” Cudal said.
Most inmates are offenders of Thailand’s drug laws. These are strict; perhaps outrageously so. One story is told of an Algerian woman caught with three ounces of opium. When told she faced five years, she burst out laughing in the courtroom, and was sentenced an additional five.
The women’s prison holds over 6,000 inmates, 400 of whom are Christians. They have formed their own church within the prison walls. The Department of Correction in Thailand allows missionaries to host church service; they even encourage it since Christian inmates have better behavior than the non-Christians.
Conditions within the prisons are poor. People sleep like lined-up sardines. The food is bad and medicine is often inaccessible. The drug problem in Thailand is so severe that the prison has its own underground market. Some dealers bribe the officers, but others are even slyer. Missionaries used to accept packages from family members to give to inmates, until they discovered one these contained a pound of heroin. The drugs were flushed down the toilet instead of being reported to officials. Laws are so tight that anyone caught with drugs risks prosecution.
“The Christians inside have strong faith,” Cudal said. There is a special meeting area where the inmates hold worship services. One Sunday, the guards had to use the space. When the women came to ask for it, they were told to postpone their service until the next week. After persisting, the guards suggested the basketball court: a baking slab without fans, ceiling, or a place to sit. The women worshiped there anyway – over three hundred of them. For two uncomfortable hours, they sang and preached in the open for all to see. “It was a witness,” Cudal said. “Prisoners are more likely to convert because they have actually suffered [in life] and want answers; they want hope.”
Beyond the prison, the Thais are not interested in discussing religion. “They look at the lifestyle,” Cudal said. “The Bible fits more closely to the Thai worldview than to ours. We think in terms that we owe God something: Jesus paid for it, and now we’re guilt free. They see things in terms of honor and shame; they don’t think of debt an awful lot. We have dishonored God by disobeying Him, and are now ashamed.” This understanding of the biblical story is already intact in the Thai culture.
The real culture shock for Cudal came upon her return to the United States. “I landed in Atlanta and a television newsmaker was lambasting someone else. It appeared so rude,” she said. “What they do in America! I think I burst into tears a couple times because everyone here is so unkind. I got over it eventually.”
Cudal does not think she will return to Thailand. “I don’t really like Thailand, but I like the work they do….What I learned from missionaries was they had this unconditional love for everyone. It inspired me to serve God more than I had thought previously….It’s simply a matter of sharing the gospel.”