Finding refuge in Thai churches

“Hi respected person.my name is A* my wife name is B*. We have one kid. We have been in Bangkok since three years. We apply asylum here. we are facing here many problem sometime we don’t have food to eat. The food which is given by one church that is really not enough for whole month we can not fulfill our needs. We really need your help we want some help from you we are persecuted Christian from Pakistan. Hope you will conceder our request and hope that you answer us soon.” — Names concealed for privacy but everything else is unedited.

The Christian organization that I volunteer at has been getting an increasing number of such pleas. No matter if you refer them to their local church or other relevant charities; they just keep on asking.

There’s been an unprecedented influx of Pakistani Christians in Thailand in the last few years. They even have their own Facebook page. Currently, Thailand has up to 10,000 Pakistani Christian asylum seekers, said Farrukh Saif Foundation, which provides assistance and support to Pakistani and South Asian Christian asylum seekers.

Many of them were forced to flee their homeland because of violence and persecution. Youngest-ever Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai gave a face and voice to what’s happening in Pakistan when she was shot in the head by the Taliban for going to school.

Life was basically hell for them in Pakistan so they flew to Thailand in the hope of applying to be a refugee and end up in the US someday. Except that Thailand has not ratified the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention regarding the status of asylum seekers and refugees, so they’re all considered illegal immigrants. (According to UNHCR an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.)

And you won’t want to be an illegal immigrant in Thailand. You can’t work while waiting for your story to be verified and that leaves you open to being netted by the police. I know how corrupt the Thai police, so I’m not surprised to hear stories of them extorting money from the asylum seekers.

Limbo in Thailand

Thailand seems to be a magnet for people fleeing their country, maybe because it’s relatively easy to get into Thailand. It seems that they just fly to Thailand as a tourist, and then make their way to UNHCR to try to get an asylum-seeking certificate. No wonder there is such a backlog.

Here are the official figures from the UNHCR (unofficial numbers on the ground seem to be much higher):

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.10.42 PM

A senior regional public officer of UNHCR, Vivian Tan, explained the situation. “In Thailand there are about 120,000 refugees in nine camps. Then there are about 1,000 Rohingyas. For the urban refugees we have to differentiate between asylum seekers and refugees. All asylum seekers seek refugee status but not all get that. We do individual refugee determination, which is also why it takes so long even after they get registered. It is a very intensive process. You get called in for first interview. Then it is a very in-depth process, where we find out as to why did the person leave his home country.

“We have to double check to make sure that the story is correct because sometimes we hear stories that are exactly the same but from different families. It is like that somebody is feeding them these stories. We need to be conscious in the whole screening to ensure that migrants do not come in the guise of refugees.”

And screening is not an easy job. If someone says, “I’m seeking asylum because I’m a Christian and I’m persecuted for my faith”, how do you discern if that’s the truth?

In some countries, the refugee panel board tries to discover if the asylum seekers are genuine Christians by asking them about their knowledge of the New Testament or church doctrine. But sometimes, even “genuine” Christians don’t know anything about the Bible. Questions could range from what’s the name of Jesus’ grandmother to the names of Jesus’ apostles. Or how do you gauge claimants who just say they’ve “found Jesus in my heart”?

Plus head knowledge can always be learnt. A fraud network for Chinese asylum seekers in New York coaches applicants who are not Christians on the tenets of the faith before their immigration interviews.

Pakistani Christians in Thai churches

Churches in Thailand have been feeding and sheltering strangers in their midst for many years. Local churches have been working with stateless people in the hill tribes as well as refugees from Myanmar while international churches were often a safe place for asylum-seekers from Africa.

My personal experience with these stateless people, Burmese refugees and African asylum-seekers has always been positive. They were stoic, willing to work hard, and more importantly, they were not always trying to tell you their sob story and asking you for money. Not so with the South Asian Christians I’ve met so far in church.

I go to a Baptist church in Bangkok and, bless them, they are really sweet and caring people who want to help anyone in need. About two years back, they took in a Pakistani Christian refugee, who’s since now made his way to the US. But it’s a small community, word got around, and now there are 15-20 Pakistanis in church.

The church welcomes them, makes them feel as at home as possible, and meet their needs as much as its stretched finances could. But here’s the context: Christianity makes up just 1% of the population in Thailand (and that includes both Protestants and Roman Catholics). So the majority of churches in Thailand do not have a lot of money. As for this Baptist church, it’s about 200 to 300-strong but there are another 10 daughter churches under its wing, and they all have outreach activities to the community. Basically, the pie is pretty much fixed but more fingers are dipping into it.

Despite the church’s generosity and goodwill to them, the Pakistanis still complain that it’s not enough. This is what riled me into writing this post.

As mentioned, I volunteer at a Christian organization and we held a conference at the church. One of the asylum seekers, let’s call him F, came to the conference and he very quickly attached himself to the regional director of the organization, unloading his whole sob story to him.

After the conference, F wrote a long email to the regional director, saying that no one is helping him and he doesn’t even have money to buy his daughter a Christmas present.

But that is not true, I know for a fact that the church does give him some financial help. And the church has been trying to come up with various odd jobs for the asylum seekers so that they can have some income, but only one of them took it up.

If I have nowhere to go and I’m relying on handouts, I’ll be grateful for everything that I receive. I probably wouldn’t be complaining to other people that the church is not giving me enough.

To put it bluntly, in a totally calculative way, the church has absolutely nothing to gain from helping the asylum seekers. There is negative ROI. Helping them will not bring the gospel to more Thais (in fact it eats into the budget). Helping them is not likely to strengthen the church. Eventually, when the asylum seekers get their papers, they fly off to a happy life in the US (most people in Thailand can only dream of having a better life in the US).

But the church continues to help them, kudos to them. Whenever there’s pork for lunch after the service, the church will even cook something else for the Pakistanis because they don’t eat pork. My first question was, they’re Christians, not Muslims nor Jews, so why can’t they eat pork?

Moreover, most of the Pakistanis don’t understand English. The worship service is in Thai, translated into English and Mandarin. I’m not sure how much they get from the sermon. And the follow-up question from that is, if faith is so important to them, why don’t they attend Urdu Church in Hands of God, a church that is not only close to where they stay but also in a language they can understand?

I’ve seen firsthand how they are very attuned to people who might be able to help them and latch onto them. So they keep going back to the same individuals to ask for money. Thais are not very good at saying no, so they end up giving. One Thai eventually got so annoyed that he stopped coming to church because he got tired of being a walking ATM.

I know that like in all things there are asylum seekers who are nice and some who are annoying. And I know this sounds totally uncharitable but some of them (the not-nice ones) remind me of the beggar children I met in Cambodia. Those children were very aggressive, demanding for money and kept on insisting and insisting that we gave them money. But if you make the mistake of giving them some money, the entire neighbourhood of children will descend upon you and it’ll be impossible to extricate yourself.

I like helping people, but I don’t like to be coerced into helping people, especially those who expect and assume that others have to help them. One Sunday after service, I was getting into my car to drive home when one of them walked to my car and was about to get into it while telling me where she stayed, fully expecting me to drive her home. I’ve never even spoken to her. It’s as though she just walked out to the carpark and went to whichever car was about to leave. Because I’m cold and heartless (and it was in the opposite direction), I said no. She refused to budge until I said no a few times.

And then I feel bad for being so calloused. And then I get angry at being made to feel bad.

The fact is, yes, the Pakistani Christians have sad stories to tell but they’re not the most heart-wrenching. What about the Rohingya who are sold as slaves? What about the stateless people who can’t even leave their village because they don’t have papers?

Eventually the Pakistanis will leave for greener pastures and their tough time in Bangkok will be a thing of the past. But for the Rohingya, Burmese refugees or the stateless people, life continues as an unending nightmare.

So forgive me if I feel no compunction to give in to your strident demands for money. I’d much rather give to the voiceless, the oppressed who truly need help.

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Gone in 33 days

I saw my grandma less than two weeks ago. I’m going to see her again today — in a white wooden box.

When I left her all swollen like Humpty Dumpty on May 10 to return to Bangkok for work, I knew it was the last time I’d see her alive. By then, she was on her last legs in a hospice. As I bade her farewell that day, her last words to me were “Let’s have a meal together and you can go back to Bangkok and we’ll go back to Singapore.” Perhaps she thought we were in Hong Kong.

Those were also her final lucid words before pain claimed her for its own, leaving only deep sighing groans and plaintive cries in its wake.

My paternal grandmother was surprisingly healthy for an 84-year-old. No diabetes, no high blood pressure. She wasn’t mobile but she certainly wasn’t in the line for being the First Death in my family.

Over the Easter weekend, she complained of abdominal pain and was warded. She was soon diagnosed as being in the final stage of liver cancer (this was to be recorded as uterine cancer on the death certificate, as that was the origin of the tumours).

Without knowing that she was dying, my grandma decided she wanted to get baptized and be a Christian, saying that she felt at peace whenever she hears about Jesus, a complete turnaround from decades of hostility towards my father’s faith.

By her own admission, she’s very fierce and probably not the nicest person around. Yet God wrought such an amazing transformation in her that, without prompting, she asked for forgiveness from those whom she had wronged and forgave those who had wronged her. Chasms were bridged; broken relationships were mended.

I was never terribly close to her. She was extremely deft with her hands and I always associated her with pyjama trousers, quilt blankets, homemade fishcakes, and crispy peanut puffs for Chinese New Year.

These were also the same things I thanked her for when I got to spend an entire week by her hospital bed earlier this month. I was working most of the time but being physically there meant I could at least serve her in minute ways, like adjusting the angle of her bed every five minutes in search of the ever-elusive comfortable position.

I showed her photos of the shoebox apartment that I rented in Hong Kong (wah, so small!) and the crowds in the city (you should come home) while she dispensed helpful advice (marry a Hokkien man because they take care of their wife).

Those were precious days for the family where her mind remained a steel trap and the pain had yet to engulf her. We returned from each hospital visit marvelling at her quickness and clarity of mind.

My parents had taught her a simple Christian song when she got baptized which went:

主耶稣爱我,主耶稣爱我

主耶稣爱我,因圣经告诉我

She was going through a particularly tough patch when we sang this song with her. When we stopped, she continued singing using her own lyrics:

主耶稣帮我,主耶稣帮我

主耶稣帮我,因圣经告诉我

This will always remain my favourite memory, along with another occasion when she sang Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So out of the blue. She was not trained in music but certainly passed those genes down.

I never knew my grandma loved music. It’s probably going to be one of my biggest regrets that she never got to hear me play the piano when she was alive. I suppose she’d just have to make do with listening from heaven tomorrow. And yes, we’ll be singing her version of “Jesus Loves Me”.

How to torture an introvert

Coming out is extremely liberating, i.e., coming out as an introvert.

For years, Myers-Briggs insisted that I’m an ENFP but I felt that it surely can’t be correct as I find people extremely draining and making small talk with them even more so. At the same time, I’m not awkward or shy, and I’m comfortable giving talks in front of hundreds of people. After some long conversations with a fellow introvert and some cursory reading (yes phone calls scare me to bits), I’m relieved to know that I’m actually not weird. I’m just an introvert and a Highly Sensitive Person (ok, i don’t sob over movies but loud noise and cigarette smoke do bother me a lot).

Being a newly minted introvert, I can now confidently say that the best way of torturing an introvert is to put him or her into group travel. In my case, it was 10 days with 47 other people in the Middle East. The last time I went on a group tour was when I was 16 with my parents, and I’d swore never to do it ever again. But my travel buddy couldn’t get a visa easily to where we were going, so we had to bite the bullet and go on this bloated group tour. It was possibly the most emotionally draining thing I’ve ever done, and I’m still recovering from it.

1. Extrovert Thais

Thais in general are extroverts who love being social and being with people. They have an inordinate fear of being alone. They love going everywhere in groups and doing things together. Being introverts, my travel buddy and I found it very difficult to be part of this happy-clappity group. They seemed to be governed by a herd mentality that causes them to be uncomfortable with people who are different from them. And worst of all, they couldn’t stop talking. It wouldn’t be so bad if their chatter made sense. I was perpetually stuck sitting in front of this lady who made the most inane and stupid observations throughout the trip. I didn’t have my earphones with me and I thought my eyeballs were going to drop out from the constant rolling.

2. Unspoken expectations

The 48 people in the tour group hailed from three churches. I was one of the 14 from my church, a church that I’ve joined for about a year or two and I don’t know many people there. There were two free days during the trip. And being the obsessive planner that I am, I already knew where I would go on those two days. I even bought tickets online in advance. So during those two days, my buddy and I just went to do our thing. When we met the bigger group after those two days, we were greeted with words like, “oh we’d almost forgot that you came along with us” or “are you sure you’re part of our group”. Thank you for the sarcasm. To me, free means free = I can do whatever I want. And I’m not obliged to bring the whole village with me, especially when you’re probably not interested to spend four hours in a museum.

During the two free days, the rest of the tour group (minus me and my buddy) went to do stuff together. Remember what I said about herd mentality? One of the things they did was to go for additional teaching on God’s plan for Israel. I’d have loved to go. But it wasn’t communicated to us beforehand, just the night before, and I’d already planned out the two free days. But because we missed it, there was the assumption that we understood/knew less about what God is doing in Israel, compared to other people in the group. (Keep this at the back of your mind, as I’ll circle back to it later.)

Thais love to shop. They were constantly buying stuff. And I’m ok with that, even though I’d have much preferred to spend the time doing something more educational, but it’s a group tour and majority rules. But what I’m not ok with is people expecting us to be their mules and to carry their stuff because they shopped so much that they were over the baggage limit. And also expecting us to have to help them because they’re old. My adage is shop as much as you can carry. If you can’t carry your own stuff, you can’t expect others to carry your burden.

And don’t even get me started on Thais and cameras. Thais love taking photos of themselves. I love being behind the camera not in front. And I can’t help but grimace each time they drag me into a group photo, which is every time they get off the bus. So there you have the tour guide doing his best to explain stuff to us, and you have everyone taking photos of everyone at the same time. Again, I have no problem if you want to take photos of yourself in 101 cutesy poses using your mobile phone, but please don’t expect me to be your personal photographer and taking 10 to 20 portraits of you when there are other infinitely more interesting things to capture.

3. Worldly Christians

I’ve been a Christian long enough to know that being Christian is no guarantee of good manners or behaviour. Afterall, Jesus came to save the sinners, right? The only problem is that when it is a “Christian” tour group, one have to show “Christian” love even when other people are behaving badly.

Tour buses have a certain number of “good” seats and to me, the fairest way is to rotate everyday so that everyone has a chance to get a good view during the trip. But it seems that Thais prefer to sit in the same place from Day One. But what happens when someone takes your “good” seat on Day Two? I thought it was ok to change seats and plonked myself into another “good” seat but ended up causing a lot of unhappiness because I’d displaced the “owner” of the seat. By Day Three, I went back to the “bad” seat vacated by the person who “stole” my seat. So on Day Eight, when we went to Jordan, we changed buses and I as usual got the “good” seat. On Day Nine, the same person took my seat. I very politely asked her if she had moved. She said, yes, someone put her stuff there on my seat. Yeah right, scarves have feet. I’d have felt better if she’d asked if we could exchange seats. But because she’s from my church, and I can’t possibly be sarcastic at someone that I might have to see again, I just have to smile and take the “bad” seat.

Or here’s another example. We had half an hour for lunch and it was at a canteen where each of us were given a coupon. We were served the mains and we helped ourselves to the salad buffet, which had a wide selection of dressing, after which we were supposed to hand over the coupon as we left the line. So there were three people in front of me dithering over the dressing as they couldn’t figure out which was which. I don’t put dressing on my salad, so I just bypassed them and handed my coupon over. And one guy said quite loudly “queue-cutter”. But because I have to be Christian and “turn the other cheek”, I just walked away without engaging him even though I was boiling mad inside. Fatso, do you seriously expect me to wait behind you and your two ignorant pals as you figure out your left hand from your right? Plus there’s absolutely no loss to you if I go ahead of you. You’re not going to end up with less food, and neither do you have to wait extra.

4. Standing with Israel

One of the recurrent themes on the trip was how we Gentile Christians should “stand with Israel”. This could be through a variety of ways including prayer and giving. And the trip had also given me a better understanding of what it meant to “stand with Israel”.

To me, what better way to show that we “stand with Israel” by eating the food that they eat? But you see, Thais have a very set palate that finds very little joy in anything else other than Thai food. So they went on the trip well-prepared: fish sauce, shrimp paste, maggi sauce, chilli sauce, chilli flakes, canned tuna, instant noodles, dried fish. And they brought pork too. Lots of pork. Enough to last the whole group for 10 days. Dried pork (like bak gwa) in two-litre tupperware boxes. Plus packs and packs of pork floss. Every meal, they would lay out all these on the table and liberally sprinkle the pork on their rice. With no sense of inappropriateness. Despite us staying in the Muslim quarter in an Arab hotel. Despite us being in the kibbutz serving kosher food. They did this even in posh Arab restaurants outside. I grew up in a multicultural society and was always sensitive to the utensils used by my Muslim friends. And I was so embarrassed by what they did. How is this a good Christian witness? Oh we love you, Israel, but we just can’t eat your food. And the perpetrators? The pastors who’ve been to the country at least three to four times to “stand with Israel”. Eat cup noodles if you find that you don’t like the local food. But pork? Seriously?

At the end of the tour, it’s customary to tip the tour guide and the driver. In our case, our guide is a Messianic Jew (meaning a Jew who believes in Jesus). For Christians who “stand with Israel”, the Messianic Jew is like the best person you can show that love to by giving. And the tour leader (Thai) also emphasized that, plus the tour guide’s wife was giving birth on the same day. So she said that the minimum is USD 10 per person, but feel free to give more than that. The tour leader’s assistant went around with an envelope to collect the tips and she came to this woman, the same one who was always sitting behind me with the inane prattle. She’s not poor by any chance, judging from the undiscriminating way and amount she shopped. The same woman, who a few moments ago was telling everyone how much God blessed her with money and how she ended up with three new cars, handed over a ten-dollar note, and asked for five dollars in change. So be it, amen. Oh and by the way, she did go for that additional teaching on God’s plan for Israel, which I-the-one-with-little-understanding missed.

This entire post has been a very long rant, although I’ve tried very hard to keep my blog from degenerating into a complaint bureau. But it was 10 days of being cheek to jowl with people that I could hardly tolerate except for a handful. And I feel that I can’t start processing what I’ve learnt from the trip until I air all these bad feelings that have been bottled up.

Now that it’s all out, I do feel strangely liberated. Just like when I came out.

“Dust you are and to dust you shall return”

Today is Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent – a little-known fact here, even among Christians.

I’m not surprised. I grew up in an Anglican church, and I was never interested in church calendars or church festivals. Liturgy is boring and fetters the spontaneous move of God, I used to think. Liturgy is the reason people stop going to church because no one understands why we have to stand, sit, and kneel so many times in two hours, I used to argue. I disdained liturgy and all the trappings that went with it — men in long white house-dresses is so medieval age (or so gay, as my more cynical friends would say).

It was a wise teacher whom I got to know during a stint in the UK nine years ago who pointed out that every Christian denomination has a “liturgy” even if they don’t call it that. From the strictest Presbyterian to the most free-flowing Charismatic, every church has an order of service which is followed faithfully every week. The Anglicans have the Book of Common Prayer which is a collection of prayers to be used for different days or occasions. I used to be able to mind-numbingly rattle off the most often-used prayers while I thought of what I should have for lunch after service.

It was in UK that I realised that perhaps the problem didn’t lie with the prayer but with the person praying (and/or leading) it. If we recite it as we do a boring history text, then the words are devoid of meaning to us. But if we read it and mean what we say, then it comes alive.

Here’s an example. Every church takes an offering every Sunday. And after every offering, someone says a prayer which usually goes along the line of thanking God for His provision and that the offering be used for His kingdom. Having heard so many of these prayers over the years, and I may be biased, but I still find the Anglican offertory prayer the most beautiful. “Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour, and the majesty, for everything in heaven and on earth is Yours. All things come from You, and of Your own do we give You.” Pre-prepared words, yes, but how does one improve upon them?

That was my awakening to church liturgy in a nutshell and a digression from the main topic.

So, Ash Wednesday got its name from the practice of believers getting ashes put on their forehead as a reminder of their mortality and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ash is from the burning of Palm Sunday crosses from the year before. Some churches still do it, others don’t. I didn’t get an ashy forehead at the church this evening.

"For all false judgements, for uncharitable thoughts towards our neighbours and for our prejudice and contempt towards those who differ from us." -- oops....

“For all false judgements, for uncharitable thoughts towards our neighbours and for our prejudice and contempt towards those who differ from us.” — oops….

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, which is a 40-day period during which believers prepare themselves to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s also a time of spiritual stock-taking, perhaps we’ve squeezed God out of our busy lives without realising it.

Some people fast or give up something during Lent to remember the hardships Jesus went through on the Cross. Traditionally, people would give up meat or rich delicacies. But in moving with the times, some of my friends are giving up Facebook for Lent, which I think might be more difficult than not eating meat!

A cup a day keeps me happy all the way

A cup a day keeps me happy all day!

I’m giving up chocolate for Lent. Chocolate to me is what coffee is to caffeine addicts. I eat chocolate when I’m happy, I eat chocolate when I’m sad. I eat chocolate everyday, more regularly than my vitamins.

Some people ask me why Christians need to torture themselves by giving up something for Lent? Is it to make God love us more? Do we get extra brownie points in heaven for doing so? Perhaps it’s not about giving up something but more about doing something for Lent.

So each time I say “No” to chocolate, it’s a reminder of what I should do this Lent — to be more loving, more gracious and less ballistic over idiot drivers. It reminds me in that split second to think of someone else other than myself. But just to make sure I keep my hands off chocolate, I’m going to keep my stash under lock, stock and barrel until Easter.

Holy God, our lives are laid open before you:
rescue us from the chaos of sin
and through the death of your Son
bring us healing and make us whole
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

No to women bishops? We don’t even have women priests!

Today I grieve alongside many friends in England who are saddened over the Church of England’s vote to no women bishops. I can’t even explain why I’m feeling so sad over something happening so far away. Perhaps because it was a stint in England that helped me discover how special the Anglican church was. Or perhaps because there was one particular communion service led by a woman priest that suddenly brought the entire liturgy to life for me. Or maybe I was gripped by the contrast between the almost-national outpouring of indignation over the no vote to women bishops in England and the deafening silence on the issue of women clergy in the Province on Southeast Asia.

It is not something talked about in this part of the world. Many years ago, my pastor asked the bishop then on his views on the ordination of women during his ordination interview. He almost jeopardised his own ordination. The bishop didn’t want some wildcard coming into the old boys’ club. My pastor finally got the go-ahead to get ordained at the last minute, only after high-ranking reverends convinced the bishop that my pastor is not a maverick. The women in ministry here also don’t speak up because they feel they can serve God in whichever role they are in. Fair enough.

But the situation is exacerbated when it comes to the mission field, where the Anglican church in Southeast Asia has a policy/strategy of getting male clergy to plant and lead the church. There are two ways of getting male clergy: send in a foreigner or raise up a Thai local.

When you send in a foreigner, it takes at least three years for the person to be able to actually preach in Thai. Some have been here for years and still speak broken Thai. I don’t want to stereotype, but men generally don’t seem to do as well in language as women. Plus most of these male clergy come with young babies and children who need their time and attention too. And I do believe that family should come first before ministry.

Now compare this situation to the single woman who’s dedicated her life to serving God. She doesn’t have many distractions and she’s focused fully on the ministry. I’m not devaluing men clergy missionaries, I’m just pointing out all the lost opportunities for church growth in Thailand because we have to wait for a male clergy to come first when there are already so many willing and able women on the field.

Let’s look at the second option of raising up local male clergy. It is doable but extremely difficult. Women outnumber men at least 4 to 1 in churches here. Whittle that down further to those who actually respond to God’s calling, you have a pathetically small pool to choose  from. And that person will still have to go through seminary before he can be ordained.

With such a small pool to choose from, you can sometimes end up with a dud. For example, you might end up having a priest who only talks to people that he likes and still boasts that that’s the way he is (so much for being a shepherd), allows his children to run riot (managing his household?), posts inappropriate comments on social media (above reproach?), can’t even be bothered to attend the church prayer meetings. The list goes on. Will this problem be solved with having women priests? Possibly. Simply because there’s a bigger pool to choose from, and you’re not forced into having to ordain the only man that has gone through seminary, despite him not even meeting the basic qualifications to tend to the sheep.

And this strategy of having a male clergy spearhead a work can actually backfire. In many cases, the work has been started by the women. They hold the relationships with the people in that fledgling church plant. Once the numbers start growing, the powers that be will have to parachute a man in to “lead” the work. It could be someone who’s just about to finish seminary and is a candidate for ordination. So this person is expected to go in, “understudy” for a bit and take over, and he has to lead a group of people who are loyal to the woman who started the ministry. That’s not a nice position to be in. And we’ve lost an “ordainable” man because he just couldn’t fit in. So the woman continues with the ministry and warm the seat until the next man comes along.

Next, I would like to touch on the uncomfortable subject of money although I suppose it pertains more to missionaries than local staff. You see, as the children of the male clergy grow older, they eventually have to go back to study at their home country. In some cases, the male clergy returns to the home country to be with the family and continue to commute to the field regularly because there aren’t enough priests. This could entail staying in the field for three weeks and staying home for a week, which works out to flying every month. Go figure the math, even though budget airlines can make travelling cheaper.

Let me emphasize again that I believe being with the family is important and there’s a role for both the married clergy and the single woman in ministry.

But money is where the glass ceiling really is. The Anglican church, like any monolith corporation, has a pecking order. Depending on where you are on that ladder, the salary and benefits vary quite greatly, with a marked difference between clergy and non-clergy. A petty example would be if you were a clergy missionary, you get a car as part of the benefits, you might also get a bigger rental allowance. If you were a non-clergy missionary (man or woman) and you need a car, you might have to buy one yourself or pray that God will provide one. But the problem is because a woman cannot be ordained, she will never be able to have a car and petrol allowance as part of her package. “Sorry you can’t have a car, you’re not a man.” Such blatant injustice is what irks me so badly.

I have a good friend here who’s been ordained as a Buddhist monk. We used to have long conversations on the ordination of women in the Buddhist and Anglican circles. When she felt the call to be ordained – not as a nun in white robes as most would do – but as a monk in saffron robes, she knew she was going against convention and tradition. But she found an abbot who is brave enough to go against the majority and has been quietly ordaining women monks. Currently there are at least 15 women monks in Thailand.

So to my friends who are disappointed over the synod’s decision today, do take heart that almost three-quarters had backed the vote and that there are people brave enough to stand up for you. Take heart that you have advocates in high echelons like Rowan Williams and Justin Welby. I had to choke back a tear when the outgoing Archbishop was asked for his message to women who were thinking of leaving the ministry following the vote, he said:

“I would say first of all that I can well understand that feeling of rejection and unhappiness and deep perhaps disillusion with the institutional Church that many women may be feeling.

I would also say it is still your Church and your voice matters and always will be heard and it is important therefore not to give up.

It is easy for me to say that, I don’t have to carry it in the same deeply personal way that these women particularly will but I still want to say it is your Church, not mine and not Synod’s.”

Such genuine empathy. I now know why I’m sad. Unlike you, my friends, we have no advocates here. No one stands up for us. Our voice will not be heard. The silence continues.