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CURRENT ISSUE:  June 20, 2011
VOL. 49, NO. 12   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
First Neophyte Mass
celebrated at cathedral

Interfaith blood drive begins in July
Challenge grant for seminarian education
Local Asians flock to hear
Thai priest report on homeland

He works in a part of the world that most people have never heard of, is difficult to travel to, and where the residents are in need of everything — food, water, shelter and hope.

It is where Father Rangsan Phanurak is based as a missionary. He serves in several villages in northern Thailand — on the border between Laos and Cambodia — which even he describes as a “wild place.” Political and social “hot spots” dot the area, including Thailand’s Communist government, which keeps close watch on him, and the nearby country of Myanmar, or Burma, is known for reported human rights violations and lack of freedoms.

Thailand is officially a kingdom, and Buddhism is practiced by around 95 percent of the people.

Conversely, there are about 300,000 Catholics in the Southeast Asian country, roughly half a percent of the population. While the Buddhists have left the missionary alone for the most part, he knows that other Communist governments in the area are watching them, the priest said.

Father Phanurak strives to have good relationships with government and religious leaders. This spirit has helped the ministry. Two years ago, the missionary was able to visit a village and baptize 170 persons. “I did it quickly,” he said, not wishing to press his luck.

Father Phanurak came to the U.S. after receiving an invitation from his friend, Kamseng Souriya, who is involved in the diocesan Kmhmu/Laotian Pastoral and Cultural Center. The priest used his month-long visit for some much-needed rest as well as a chance to meet with Kmhmu/Laotian communities up and down the western U.S.

Local Kmhmu, Laotians and other groups that fled the hilly and remote region, to escape religious persecution, welcomed the missionary with open arms, reported Redemptorist Father Don MacKinnon, the center’s director. Many were thrilled to simply meet the priest and receive news about what was happening in their homeland. Every evening Father Phanurak spent in the diocese, a good number of people showed up at the house he was staying at to hear him talk. “They ate it up,” Father MacKinnon said.

Father Phanurak is a member of the Thailand Missionary Society (TMS), which was established about 20 years ago to train and send missionaries from Thailand to remote areas of their own country — and neighboring countries like Laos — to help people address needs like health care that are specific for each community. TMS is closely associated with the Redemptorist order.

As a missionary, Father Phanurak has been a kind of social worker, educator, government negotiator and whatever else he needs to be to help the people. The priest, whose comments were translated to English by Souriya and Father MacKinnon, said he has worked to build community compounds that he described as “bases for freedom.” His base offers two hostels — one to support and assist families, and the other to provide a place where people with AIDS can stay during treatment without scrutiny. People with AIDS are often stigmatized, the priest said.

The compound also serves as a training center for Catholic leaders from Laos and other nearby cities.
The idea is not only to provide food and medicine to people, the missionary said, “but also prayer.”

Missionary work, however, is hampered by a shortage of priests, said Father Phanurak, who was one of the first native Thai priests to be ordained. The hope is that TMS will help draw more missionaries for this part of the world and possibly missionaries that can be sent to serve in countries far from home.

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