Broadway and Likay

My name is Yuriam Manowanna. I work at the Christian Communications Institute (CCI) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Many years ago when I was in my final year at Payap University, I prayed to God that if He would like me to work for Him, I was willing. Upon graduation in 1980, I was offered a position at CCI, and it was an answer to prayer. I love Thai dance and I love to sing, so the opportunity to spread the Word of God through CCI’s performing arts ministry has been a great blessing to me.

CCI is a very unique ministry. It came about in the 1970s through the vision of a special missionary couple. One of them had been a performer on Broadway herself while her husband was an engineer-turned evangelist. They wanted to share the Gospel in a way Thai people could appreciate and understand, and what they chose was the traditional Thai art form of likay, or folk drama. These missionaries were brave because in those days the Thai church was wary of such things. Traditional musical instruments, dance and drama were associated with the Buddhist culture and had no part in Christian worship services. Slowly and with great care, the founders of CCI worked together with a family of professional likay artists, seminary students, and performers like myself, creating a ministry that not only became accepted by the church but was extremely popular as well.

This is a fact: if these missionaries had not come to Thailand and had not started CCI, we would not have our ministry today. We Thai Christians are almost embarrassed to admit that it was foreigners who thought of using our Thai artistic expressions to communicate God’s Word, and it was foreigners who have helped us to preserve a beautiful Thai art form! But of course, we are so thankful. And those of us who have been involved in CCI have been personally inspired and blessed. We have also learned many important things that help us grow in our faith.

I remember one trip our CCI likay troupe took to the town of Phetburi. I was quite new to the team at the time and I was struck by the way CCI’s founding couple truly reached out to the people there. In particular they were drawn to the Lao Song, an ethnic minority group. I watched as they tried to learn some of their language and expressed interest in their food and crafts. I was touched to see them continue to support and help these people long after we left that place. Genuine love for God’s children of all kinds — even those that we Thais sometimes overlook — is something quite difficult to cultivate, and yet over the years this love has been demonstrated over and over again by these missionary friends.

This couple also has modeled humility, which is something that was strange for me at first. In our culture, people in high positions rarely admit to a mistake or ask forgiveness of someone under them, but on many occasions I saw my colleague apologize after having a disagreement with one of our team members. Even more striking was that he always admitted his mistake. This demonstration of humility is a good thing that we at CCI have learned from and which I will always remember.

Over the years I have come to know not only the founders of CCI, who are almost like parents to me, but also many other short-term and long-term missionaries. They have shown us the importance of living together with people from other cultures. They have taught us the value of using our gifts for the glory of God—whatever those gifts may be. Above all else missionaries have taught us the virtue of patience. How patient they must be as they learn our language and customs! They do not just pack up and leave when things become difficult. They patiently persevere. The early missionaries to Thailand experienced great hardship, disease and loss. We Thai Christians are indebted to them for their sacrifices and for their contributions, not to mention for bringing the Gospel. Nowadays life is easier, but still we know there are challenges that require much patience. When these challenges arise we must help each other if we are going to be partners in ministry. Yes, it is good for missionaries to learn as much as they can about our country and culture before they arrive, and dedicate time to language study once they are here. But we Thais should also prepare ourselves and be willing to learn from our Christian partners who come from other places. What a valuable experience it is to live and work together, building the Kingdom of God!

Some people ask if missionaries are still needed in Thailand. It is true that the first missionaries came over a century ago and the Thai church has been well established for years, with qualified Thai leadership and adequate resources. It is also true that Thailand is not on the list of lesserdeveloped countries with great physical needs. No, our needs are not as obvious as those of many countries in the region and beyond. Yet I believe that we still value the Christian partnership and vision that our missionary colleagues have to offer. Thais helping Thais alone is not always enough. We need help with addressing contemporary issues that challenge the church. We need help with networking, with language skills. And we welcome creative, culturally appropriate ideas for sharing the Gospel—such as the idea CCI’s founders had when they stepped out of the boundaries to form a Christian likay troupe and establish CCI in Chiang Mai.

By Yuriam Manowanna with English and editorial assistance from Ellen Collins, who with her husband Andy are IS USA partners serving with CCI since 2006. (Photos from the CCI Archives).