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Chinese by birth, Thai by culture; Laotians are his passion

EDITORS’ NOTE: March 4-11 marks the 2007 Week of Prayer for North American missions. This is the second of eight stories in Baptist Press featuring North American Mission Board missionaries and their ministries supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–”The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering makes the thing that is impossible among us … possible.”

North American missionary Thira Siengsukon (pronounced See-eng-su-kone) -– Chinese by birth, Thai by culture and for whom English is a second language -– concisely voices just 14 words that reflect what the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is all about.

The 57-year-old Siengsukon, director of the Lao School of Ministry at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., also is an Asian missionary strategist and church planter for the North American Mission Board and the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists.

Siengsukon and his wife Montira are among the 5,300-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. He’s one of eight Southern Baptist missionaries highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 4-11. The 2007 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $57 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like the Siengsukons.

Born in Bangkok as the son of non-Christian Chinese parents, Siengsukon was raised in the Thai culture, educated in Thai schools and taught the Buddhist religion of his ancestors.

“When I joined an American missionary’s youth program at a chapel near my house, I heard about Jesus and the Gospel for the first time,” Siengsukon recounted. “I compared Christian beliefs to the Buddhist beliefs taught to me as a child at my school and home. After three years, I surrendered to Christ, admitted I was a sinner and Christ gave me a brand new life in Him,” a spiritual milestone that took place at Bangkok’s Sacred Light Baptist Church on Oct. 29, 1967.

After graduating from Trinity College and Thailand Baptist Theological Seminary in Bangkok, the Siengsukons came to the United States so Thira could continue his seminary studies.

The couple soon developed a passion for planting churches and winning to Christ the estimated 169,000 Lao immigrants in America. Siengsukon has served five years as the church planter and pastor of New Life Baptist Church, a Lao congregation in Olathe, Kan. –- one of only 80 Lao churches in the entire Southern Baptist Convention.

Siengsukon intended to return to Thailand — but God had other ideas.

“I couldn’t return to Thailand because I couldn’t find a Lao pastor to replace me. In the meantime, the Lord helped me see the struggles of most Lao congregations in the United States and the desperate need for biblical training for Lao pastors and church leaders,” Sienguson recounted.

“The Lord spoke to my heart, asking me, ‘Why can’t you train them?’”

In partnership with the North American Mission Board, the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Siengsukon founded the Lao School of Ministry in Kansas City, Mo., in 1988.

“My ministry equips Lao-culture pastors and church leaders, who are God-called, with a strong biblical education and practical training to serve the Lord and proclaim the Gospel to Laotian and other people in the U.S.,” Siengsukon said. “Our students are first-generation Christians who need basic biblical knowledge and background.”

It is difficult to reach Laotians in the United States, Siengsukon said, because although they can become Christians, they often have trouble letting go of their long-ingrained Buddhist-influenced culture and beliefs.

“This is a difficult challenge in ethnic ministries,” Siengsukon said. “Our pastors and leaders need to help their members put away their old ways and plant the church with deep roots in Christ and His Kingdom.”

Although Siengsukon’s school is headquartered at Midwestern Seminary, it’s difficult for most Laotian pastors to leave their congregations across the United States and travel to Missouri for training. Most of the pastors cannot afford the expense, and their congregations cannot afford to do without them for the period of time required for their studies.

So, instead of making the pastors and church leaders travel to them at the Kansas City seminary, Siengsukon takes the training to Lao pastors. Twelve satellite training centers have been established -– usually in existing churches — in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Vancouver, Canada. A 13th center will serve four congregations in Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.

Currently, some 100 students are participating in the 30-credit-hour curriculum at one of the local centers. While Siengsukon makes the rounds to each site several weekends during the year, much of the coursework is done by correspondence and with local, qualified instructors who speak Lao. Students who complete the curriculum earn a diploma in Christian ministry.

Childhood sweethearts who’ve been married 31 years with two sons, Thira and Montira Siengsukon learned English early on. Thira recently earned his doctorate at Midwestern Seminary and Montira has a master’s degree in education, and they both teach as instructors at the Lao School of Ministry.

They also write all of the school’s textbooks and course materials in Lao because English is a difficult second language to master for Laotian pastors, church leaders and members, Siengsukon said.

“I feel that God led me here and prepared me for this because of the educational background I have,” Siengsukon said, noting that he and Montira have worked with Laotians for 24 years. When he’s not traveling to teach, he’s counseling Lao pastors and grading their correspondence work. On Sundays, he’s usually preaching at one of the Lao churches.

Siengsukon’s greatest joy in his ministry is “seeing the Lao pastors and leaders, my students, succeed in their ministries and produce healthy, fruitful churches that, in turn, plant other healthy, fruitful Lao churches so that many Lao-American souls can come to faith in Christ and live for Him.

“There are many cultural differences between us and the Lao people, especially since Montira and I are Chinese by birth. However, we enjoy unity with the Lao people because of our oneness in Christ,” Siengsukon said.

He believes the impact of the Lao School of Ministry even crosses the borders of the United States and is felt all the way back to Laos itself, a country of 5.9 million people surrounded by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, China and Myanmar (Burma).

“Every year, Lao-Americans go back to Laos to visit their parents, their people,” Siengsukon said. “Their relatives ask why they don’t practice their cultural traditions anymore. Then the testimonies start. They tell their people in Laos that they have become Christians because they now believe in Christ, and that Christ is changing their lives back in America. And they tell their relatives that ‘Christ can change your life over here, too.’”

In Laos, a communist country, preaching and teaching the Bible are not allowed in public, Siengsukon said. “But they can’t keep us from answering questions.”

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  • Mickey Noah