Annie Zellhoefer rides in the back of a run-down truck that speeds along a poorly paved highway in Thailand. Balancing upon a tall stack of bricks, she gulps at air tasting of spices. Casual chatter of religious beliefs rises over the truck clatter, and she wonders if this is a safe place to say such things.
When Zellhoefer, an MU sophomore, and freshman Brittany Lupardus began their four-month mission trip last January, each had hopes of helping a country ravaged by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Neither imagined they would be the ones to change and question their commitment to their faith.
At the annual Campus Crusade for Christ international conference, held in Thailand this year, Zellhoefer and Lupardus heard reports of religious persecution against Christians in neighboring Laos and Burma.
“Here in the United States you think you are persecuted because people don’t like you,” Lupardus said. “In Laos and Burma you are interrogated or put in jail for openly expressing your beliefs.”
Emotional tales of missing persons, arrests and possible murders moved both women.
“I realized that I had never actually been in the same room as someone who is literally willing to die for their faith,” Zellhoefer said. Both Zellhoefer and Lupardus began to question if they would be able to promote their beliefs under such persecution.
“My faith is so small,” Zellhoefer said.
The International Religious Freedom Report of 2006, released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, reported on governmental actions against minority religions in both Laos and Burma. Imprisonment for holding religious gatherings in homes, restrictions on building facilities to worship, constant surveillance and occasional killings of religious figures by the military are some documented happenings.
While Christianity is a minority religion in Thailand, Zellhoefer and Lupardus were never in any danger of religious persecution during their visit. People are allowed to openly practice their beliefs — a fact which frequently leads many Burmese and Laotians to flee into Thailand to escape persecution. Because of this, both Zellhoefer and Lupardus believe the Thai do not take their religious freedom for granted as much as Americans.
This conference was only one night of the women’s four-month stay in Thailand. Empowered by the accounts at the conference, Zellhoefer and Lupardus began to critically examine their beliefs and attempt to promote Christianity in Thailand.
At Rajabhat University in Phuket, a southern province of Thailand, Zellhoefer and Lupardus surveyed students about their religious beliefs.
“We are brought up in a Christian society where even if you aren’t Christian, you kind of are by culture,” Zellhoefer said. But the two women found themselves in the minority in Thailand. When Rajabhat University students were asked about who God was to them, most were uncertain or replied, “Allah.”
Lupardus and Zellhoefer then read to the students from a book published by Campus Crusade for Christ. The book offers a simple explanation of who God is, how he feels about the world, how society falls short of the laws outlined in the Bible and that if a person believes in Jesus’ sacrifice, he or she will be saved. The students were given all this information to digest in a mere 10 to 15 minute period.
“We tried having conversations with them afterwards, but we had to rely on our Thai translators,” Zellhoefer said.
Although students were open to the survey and teachings, Zellhoefer and Lupardus feared that the students were seduced by their nationality and English-speaking capabilities, rather than their mission to teach others about Christianity.
The language barrier prevented Zellhoefer and Lupardus from taking a first-hand role in explaining Christianity to the students. Though both women continued to survey students and daily repeat their teachings for an entire month, no one made the switch to Christianity.
A majority of their time was spent building community centers and other housing facilities for those trying to establish places to practice Christianity. On the island of Koh Kho Khao, Khoa Lak and Koh-Chang, Lupardus and Zellhoefer worked sunrise to sundown, hauling bricks and cement buckets. Lupardus enjoyed these times the most. She was able to interact with villagers and learn about Thai culture.
“I don’t think they know how much they challenged me,” Lupardus said.
Now back in the United States, Zellhoefer is hoping to share her Thailand experience with Columbia. She is looking to the MU student body and the greater community to help raise awareness of religious persecution in Laos and Burma.
“I am planning to write letters to local churches, contact local and national news affiliates and work with organizations on MU’s campus to advocate for Laos and Burmese conflict awareness,” Zellhoefer said.