I recently read this article by a well known worker in the Northeast of Thailand named Paul DeNeui and I wanted to share it with you all. It gives a great insight into the Isaan people of Northeast Thailand and the supernatural struggles they face in coming to faith in Jesus. Take a little time to read it and enter their world with me.
Come Join the Dance by Paul DeNeui
She wasn’t someone you would notice Like so many other northeastern Thai women she wore the short haircut and sarong garments of the elderly. Usually she talked with a mouthful of betel nut which made it difficult to understand her speech. But she loved Jesus. She had a beautiful smile. She longed for worship. And she loved to dance.
Grandma Noo Pon was eighty-two when I first met her at a village Christmas celebration. There was nothing that distinguished her from so many other elderly church members. I was still a new missionary not at all sure that I wanted to get up and dance for the Lord yet. But she was up there. And there is an embarrassing custom here when people dance in the circle of seated observers. They will occasionally bow low with hand palms together to someone sitting outside. This is a silent request to come join the dance. And she invited me.
There is no polite way to say no to your elders in Thai, so up I went. I had enough of the movements down to at least do something, but I soon learned that that was not the important part. I knew dancing was not a “pair” thing. Grandma soon wandered off to another part of the circle. Nor was this a display of talent (I knew I didn’t have that). This was simply a cultural invitation to celebrate life in our Lord Jesus. When people dance they have a certain glow, the light of life.
When the dance was over and the celebration was done everyone went back to their homes. I didn’t think much of Grandma again until a couple of years later when our Thai organization received some funds to help people build toilets. Several of our elderly church members did not have a latrine or toilet to use. Grandma was one of them.
Once again, being culturally inept (this time in building toilets) I wasn’t part of the actual construction. Soon after the project was completed the problems began. The owners of the land where Grandma Noo Pon was living were upset about the location of this latrine. It had been dug without their permission. They stated that she would have to leave. After much discussion with church leaders, the land owners agreed to let Grandma stay if we moved the latrine. We re-dug the latrine.
Later we began having weekly worship at our fish farm and Grandma, living close by, was invited to come. Her health wasn’t very good but she always came. When we ate together she nibbled less than a bird. She didn’t sing but she clapped offbeat. She asked for prayer that she would be hired to harvest rice. She said if she wasn’t she wouldn’t eat.
When Grandma was eighty-six the owners of her property sold another piece of property in a busy part of Roi Et which had been their family home for several years. In typical Thai fashion the family’s old wooden house was carefully taken down board-by-board and then rebuilt on the property where Grandma Noo Pon lived. But her old shack was an eyesore. The owners wanted her out of the way. Once again she was going to be evicted.
Some of our Thai staff, with church leaders, again approached the owners and volunteered to move Grandma’s house (such as it was) off to one side. They grudgingly agreed to this. But when it came time to move her house the rotted boards collapsed. Only a few sheets of tin roofing were salvageable. When the church members began to gather boards and panels to replace the building, the owners were finally embarrassed enough to help.
They donated nails and some coconut trunks (notoriously soft wood). Finally a new hut was up under a tamarind tree in the corner of the property, near the latrine. Meanwhile the old family house was going up behind all of this. I noted the large verandah that wrapped around the ground floor. There were double doors to let in cool air. The peaked roof was well above the second floor to keep the hot air up and out of the rooms. The house had plumbing and electricity and a fresh new coat of paint. It was then that I learned no one would ever live in it.
It was a life-size spirit house containing small tables for urns holding the ashes of relatives.
Old photographs of these bygone people hung on the walls. Outside the house were three small spirit houses on poles. Usually only one is placed on a property. Each day family members passed Grandma’s hut to make food offerings to the spirits of that place. To say the least Grandma was less than pleased. It was obvious to her that a spiritual battle was going on and she asked for prayer often.
I found out later that Grandma Noo Pon had done a number of things in her life. She had worked as a maid for the owners of the land on which she now lived. She had raised twelve children. She had outlived three husbands. But she had made her living finding spirit herbs, or rather digging up herbs the spirits told her to find. At a young age she began to worship the spirit of the city pillar of Roi Et.
This ancient post, now completely covered with gold leaf and tied with colorful scarves, was positioned several hundred years ago when Roi Et was first established as a marker to establish distances. It was also understood to be the location of the city spirit, the powerful one who watched over the whole region.
She worshiped this spirit faithfully and was promised that if she would keep up the worship the spirit would tell her where she could find powerful herbs in the forest to sell. She agreed and it worked. She found many different types of herbs, roots, leaves, and twigs to make specific herbal remedies that healed a variety of ailments.
But the price for this advice was dear. She had to be extremely careful to obey the spirit’s every instruction and heed its every whim. Each phase of the moon a new offering had to be made at the city pillar. If she did not keep up her promises she would have terrible headaches and misfortunes. She could eat only certain foods and she wore special amulets that had to be respected always and be worn certain ways. The instructions were tediously long and she felt she could never please the spirit.
Meanwhile her ability to heal increased. Her popularity grew. In addition to the herbs she could interpret dreams and ward off evil curses. She became a medium to help others with their spiritual dilemmas while at the same time losing her own soul.
One day when she was at the peak of her popularity and her misery, she had a vision of a great serpent rising from the east over the trees where she lived. As it drew nearer and loomed larger, a growing fear came over her. Then, just as it was about to devour her, she saw someone dressed in white also coming from the east. He said, “Don’t be afraid. I have come to drive out Satan.” Not knowing who this person was, she waited. But for the first time she knew to whom she was enslaved.
A short time later two of our Thai church workers moved into the house next to her place. One day they came walking toward her from the same direction as the vision she had seen. They explained who they were and what they were doing and presented her with an opportunity to accept Jesus. Immediately she did so with joy and relief.
That night she had horrible dreams. She felt demons pulling on her legs, her arms, and even on her chest. They threatened to kill her. Not knowing what else to do she called out, “Jesus, Help me!” A stream of light shone down on her and the tugging instantly stopped. That incident convinced her of the truth. The scattered spirits never came near her again. She had freedom at last.
Her spirit was now free, but she paid a heavy price for it. The owners of the property where she lived made life miserable for her. They built the spirit house there to spite her. She often asked for spiritual protection in prayer. Even though her children were all well established none would care for her as is expected in Thai society. Only one daughter, a mute, would come and stay with her from time to time. Normally this woman could say nothing or speak only in grunts, but whenever we came to pray, read the word or pick Grandma up to take her to worship this daughter would suddenly curse in fluent Thai and fly into a rage. “Don’t feed it!” she would yell to us about her mother, “Let it die!” We felt it was demonic.
In June of her last year Grandma’s health took a turn for the worse. She ate very little. She wanted to be with Jesus. Her family refused to take her to the doctor since they were eager to get rid of her. Our Thai staff helped with medicine but finally she stopped eating and drinking. She died peacefully on Sunday, September 10,1995.
At that point the family stepped in, extremely concerned that we would want to take her body away. We assured them we did not want it. We were also informed that they would take care of the funeral. None of us were invited but we went anyway. It was held at the largest Buddhist temple in Roi Et and no expenses were spared. As one Thai observed, “Thai people love the dead.”
I sat and listened to her relatives gossip. They condemned the youngest daughter for refusing to take her mother in because of Jesus (true) Another said that Grandma’s husband died when she decided to follow Christ (untrue). The eldest son noticed our group and asked us all to stand in front of the coffin for a picture. I’m sure Grandma was looking down from her dancing posture of worship in heaven and repeating what she had said so often, “The old way is never satisfied. It is greedy, always demanding more. God is not like that. Thank you God for Jesus.”
This article appeared in the Covenant Companion, February, 1998