Breaking the mold
In Thailand, it is said, “to be Thai is to be Buddhist.” Generations have reinforced the connection between Buddhism and Thai culture making Thailand the most Buddhist nation on earth. Much of the nation’s culture, holidays, and customs revolve around Buddhism. Thais have a custom for moving into a new home and children utter Buddhist prayers in the mornings at school. Thailand has twenty-three national holidays, and the majority are linked to Buddhism. The Thai king is believed to be semi-divine and is required to be Buddhist. The king’s picture is hung higher than other images in homes and business places. Royalty is linked to nationalism. Thus, despite nearly two hundred years of Protestant Christianity in Thailand, the gospel has advanced slowly because the Christian faith is still seen as a Western religion, a foreign invader. This perhaps stems from Thailand’s pride that it is the only Southeast Asian nation to not have been colonized by a Western nation. It is considered one of the least-reached areas in the world with less than 1% Christians.
In a country where being Buddhist is a part of one’s identity, to Daniel Saesong a different identity was taught to him as he grew up in a Christian orphanage. One that was forged in Christ and His finished work at the cross. As he grew physically and spiritually in the orphanage, God was preparing and equipping him for the work of the ministry. With the Lord’s call on his heart to declare His gospel of salvation, Daniel knew he would become a pastor. Today, Daniel and his wife Abbi and their three children serve in Thailand but not without a bumpy ride getting there.
Walking with God in all seasons
At the age of 24, Daniel gathered a team to establish Oneway Church, a youth church in the city of Sriracha, Thailand. And yes, the popular hot sauce, Sriracha, is named after the town. Around the same time in 2006, halfway around the world in Canada, Abbi was preparing for a mission trip to Thailand. As a pastor’s kid, she also grew up loving ministry work and said once she was in Thailand, “I immediately felt that God had called me there.” On that trip, their two lives would intersect and would soon become one, as Abbi’s eyes smile stating, “One year later, we were married in Canada and began serving in Thailand together.” Both Oneway Church and their family grew over the next several years but in their busy lives, both physical and mental exhaustion took its toll forcing them to pause. So, in 2010 the family moved back to Canada. Although, they quickly became involved in worship, media, and youth in their new church, God continued to tug at their hearts compelling them to return back to the land of smiles.
Leaving behind family, friends, and familiar surroundings for the children, they arrived in Thailand in early 2016. As Abbi recalls, “Our first year back was very challenging. We had very little financial support and constantly felt like we were hitting the wall as we tried to sort out what God would have us do. We didn’t have a clear sense yet of why God had called us back and felt like we were just walking in obedience.” Both their marriage and their children were tested during this season. “Both of us were working full-time teaching English to provide enough income to support our family. Our kids were struggling too,” Abbi stated. Though they were dual citizens, they were disconnected from their Thai roots and spoke no Thai. Homeschooling the first year was also not a good fit for them. “In 2017 we enrolled our kids, ages 3, 7, and 9 in a Thai school where they’d be immersed in the language. This was also challenging for them and there were tears every day. Our kids had challenges re-adapting after living in Canada. They didn’t feel like they fit in at first. It took years before they could identify with their citizenship.”
Daniel and Abbi had only been back in Thailand a few months when they began to hear the appeals from friends who’d served with them in the youth church, to start their own church. Abbi says, “That wasn’t our original plan, so we told people we wouldn’t. And soon it became apparent that we had a group of about 15 people who had no church home. Our hearts went out to them so we started meeting and worshiping together in our home regularly. By early 2017, we had clearly grown out of our own home.” Encounter Church in Sriracha, was opened in June and was thriving but that same peace had alluded every other area of their lives. By the end of their first year back, they were feeling enough pressure that they’d questioned praying seriously whether God would have them return to Canada.
A turning point and a new vision
Abbi recalls how they felt alone in their journey in Thailand, “It was during that season of prayer that God spoke to us independently and confirmed in our hearts that we were to stay and he’d give us the strength. Looking back, that’s when the situation began to improve and everything started to come together.” God had placed a divine encounter for Abbi during a women’s conference, a lady who was a missionary through ACCI. Connection with ACCI marked a major milestone in their lives bridging the missing link between them and their church back home. Abbi smiles, “It was like finding a new home.”
Their children’s lives also turned a corner, Abbi says, “Our kids began to improve in their Thai very quickly and even made a few friends at school. Rather than be negative about the experience, we found ourselves praying together that they would be the light in their Buddhist school and that their friends would come to know Jesus.”
There are a myriad of challenges and hardships related to carrying out the missionary task, but those hardships can be met with enduring hope and prayer. And through their sacrifice and hardship, God gave them a new passion and vision. “God gave us a burden to open our own non-profit foundation to legally run the church under. This was processed in a miraculous amount of time and we called the foundation ONEWAY, as this name hadn’t left our hearts since the youth church days.” Daniel and Abbi’s vision for their church can be summed up in one statement: Find Truth – Find Family.
Finding truth and finding family has significant cultural implications for the Thai Christians. Many Thai churches feel like an extended family because Thai Christians often are cold-shouldered by biological family members and the non-Christians community. It can be a challenge for Thais to reconcile their cultural and spiritual identities. Thai Christians have had to take a step away from their home culture in order to be Jesus followers because so much of Thai culture and customs revolve around Buddhism. Many people find a sense of family they’ve never experienced and “belong” to this new community before they actually begin to “believe.”
A tale of two cities
In the city of Pattaya, known for its beaches and resort hotels, an English speaking church filled with ex-pats was weeks away from closing its doors. The church’s retired founders were personal mentors to Daniel and Abbi and they had begun preaching there once a month when the church was experiencing difficult times.
In contrast, Daniel and Abbi’s church in Sriracha was predominately Thai so it was a surprise that they were asked to also lead the church in Pattaya. Abbi says, “We had never heard of someone pastoring two churches before, but after many days of prayer, talking it over with our family and mentors, we sensed that God was leading us to do this. It was incredibly difficult at first but also filled with joy.” The Pattaya church welcomed them with open arms and within 2 months the church had doubled and the gap left in the Sriracha location was quickly filled.
Despite this, an undercurrent of rivalry existed between the two locations. Abbi explains, “It was as if there was this wall between the Thai and the English speaking community and paying attention to one, meant ignoring the other one. Historically, the Pattaya church always had conducted services in English only. We weren’t sure how to change that without creating waves. Our heart was to see the two churches become one and for there to be unity. ”
Who knew that a worldwide pandemic would serve as the impetus towards unity between the two churches? Like other churches around the world, they began putting the services online as a result of the lockdown, “This gave us the golden opportunity to present a single bilingual service to both our campuses!” During this time, they also adopted the name ONEWAY Church for both locations. The Holy Spirit was also at work drawing unity between the two locations. The Pattaya location lost its meeting place due to financial strain, requiring people to gather in Sriracha once the lockdown was lifted in May. Visible signs of unity began to emerge when volunteers in Pattaya began serving in Sriracha.
Trusting the Spirit’s work among their own
The search for a new location for the Pattaya campus proved difficult with a tight budget. But the fall-out from COVID offered a perfect location – a recently closed bar. Although the rent was very low with plenty of space and parking nearby, it was also run down and would require $40,000 CAD for renovations. Armed with high faith and hope, they decided to pursue it. Abbi and Daniel felt in their hearts that work on the renovation would not be halted at any point due to finances. They stood on the Lord’s Prayer quoting, “Give us this day our daily bread.” God answered and the funds flowed in from unexpected places.
Serving side by side at the Sriracha campus softened hearts and melted any threats between the two locations, leading the Sriracha campus to surprise the Pattaya campus by kick-starting the giving with one third of the amount. And of course, not be outdone, a friendly rivalry ensued to raise funds that forged the two campuses together that only God’s hands could have orchestrated. Abbi added, “Local people we didn’t know began following our journey and giving financially as we built, and they started to get excited about what God was doing.”
In September, both locations came together to celebrate the grand opening of the Pattaya ONEWAY campus with 160 people present for service. Abbi shared, “Thirty percent of the people who came were there for the first time and have continued attending since. It was a huge win for the entire church. Now we regularly hold two bilingual services on a Sunday; Pattaya in the AM and Sriracha in the PM. Both services are identical and have the same core team serving.”
Find Truth – Find Family
The journey of ONEWAY church has been a significant victory in Daniel and Abbi’s vision and desire to lead a church that would set a pattern for the modern-day church in Thailand, a church that bridges the gap between English and Thai speaking community that will serve towards the growing hope for spiritual renewal and revival.
Global mission requires an inescapable element of sacrifice and is some of the most difficult work on the planet. But Abbi shares her thoughts on how their lives have been richer because of their cross-cultural service, “We wouldn’t have it any other way. Our experience being involved in ministry in both Canada and Thailand has given us an understanding of so many perspectives. It has developed an empathy for people of many different backgrounds.” They leave this advice for those who are considering cross-cultural service, “Don’t just empower local people to follow, empower them to lead. Recognize that if a nation is going to be saved, it has to be taught and caught by locals. In the end, you might not get to be the star, but if the gospel goes forth, you have accomplished your goal.”
Learn more about Daniel and Abbi’s ministry: https://www.adventive.ca/all-project-list/daniel-abbi-saesong/