WORTHINGTON - Fifty-eight years ago, Peggy Olson made a journal entry she never forgot.
“I had wanted to go on a mission trip or be available for going on a mission, and I wrote that in 1959 in my journal,” Peggy recalled last week.
Peggy recently had that wish fulfilled, as she and Lois Larson traveled to Thailand for a month last fall to teach English to young students in the capital city of Bangkok.
“I have known about this Christian church in Thailand and one of the outreaches of the church is teaching English, and they’re always looking for volunteers to come,” said Lois, whose husband, Jonathan, is the pastor at Indian Lake Baptist Church in rural Worthington. “I’ve known the missionaries that run it for many years; they’ve actually had more than 1,000 volunteers come and teach English through their outreach with the church.”
The missionaries, Steve and Nopaluck Cable, have been supported by Indian Lake Baptist Church for many years, and the Cables made a visit to the Worthington congregation a few years ago. Peggy expressed in an interest in traveling to Thailand at that time, and Lois said she’d be willing to go with her, but the final push came in 2016 when an email was received that new volunteers were sorely needed.
“We had to fill out an application and have reference letters,” Peggy said of what was required after she and Lois resolved to make the trip together.
“My husband had to decide whether or not he was going to cook for himself for a month,” Lois chimed in, laughing.
Once accepted, the duo found themselves flying in late August from Sioux Falls, S.D. to Minneapolis, and then on to Tokyo and finally Bangkok - a 26-hour journey.
“I had traveled out of the country in 1966 and made a trip to the Holy Land,” Peggy said. “Other than going to Canada and just crossing the border into Mexico, I hadn’t done any traveling out of the country since.”
Lois, meanwhile, was born in China and lived both there and in Japan. She’d also traveled to Europe, the Philippines and Ecuador, among other places.
Lois and Peggy spent the weekdays of their month-long stay in Thailand at Santisuk English School, the Bangkok school affiliated with the Cables’ church, helping students improve their English-language skills.
“There are classes for children, but I would say most of the students are high school, university students and professionals,” Lois explained. “English is a very valuable commodity in Thailand. My students had a little English, but it was really a beginning class.”
“Lois was teaching what they called Level 1, and I had a Level 3 class,” Peggy added. “My responsibility was to work on conversational English with them. My class would start with me writing a sentence on the board and with a question like, ‘what did you do yesterday?’ Everybody in the class had to answer that. In the first days it was very slow with them being able to do a complete sentence, but by the end of the class they were becoming more fluent in responding to a question.”
“Every day they had to write 10 sentences incorporating certain simple everyday words,” Lois described of her students. “Every class began with each person going through their sentences and my correcting them for the whole class. They had to read what they had written and use their vocabulary correctly.”
Lois had two classes - an early morning class from 7 to 9 a.m., before her students went to work or school, and an evening class from 4:45 to 6:45 p.m. that was made up of high school and university students.
“It’s a good thing I’m a morning person,” Lois said, chuckling. “That says something about the people … they’re willing to go classes early to learn and then go to their daily activities after that.”
Peggy, meanwhile, had her Level 3 class from 7 to 9 p.m., and also had a “pre-1” class that began at 2 p.m.
“I was a teacher assistant in a pre-1 class and I taught the Bible story and pronunciation,” she said. “There was a Thai teacher in the class, but this gave them some of both. I taught a Level 3, was a teacher assistant in the pre-1 class, and then I substituted in the other Level 3 class when the teacher had to be out of the country. … I just had to be flexible. They (school) also encouraged you to go out and eat with the students and have coffee with them. They feel that's when you can best share your faith with them -when you're outside the classroom - and they get to practice their English.”
Lois enthusiastically reported that Peggy “just made such wonderful impressions on her students” and frequently invited her to activities. Peggy recalls a single day as an example of her students’ desire to be with her.
“They took me to a very nice restaurant ... and they expected me to eat with chopsticks that day, and the waiters and waitresses would line up to watch,” Peggy said with a smile. “Then they took me to a Starbucks, but even after getting done with this big meal and then going to Starbucks, there was more. We then we went to an outdoor market, and that was about an hour’s drive. One of the students had a booth at this market, and she knew many of the people and introduced us to all of them.”
“She was out gallivanting until late at night,” Lois said. “It was great.”
“It was very tiring,” Peggy continued. “They were working on their English the whole time; they would constantly take their cell phone and say, ‘Teacher, what does this word mean? How do you pronounce that?’ The students I was with during the social time would use that time to keep on learning. I would come home just exhausted.”
Expending that energy outside of the classroom, Lois pointed out, was important in fulfilling the purpose of the mission on multiple levels.
“It is an important thing to remember that the reason why we went was to teach English as an outreach of the Thai church,” Lois related. “We used Bible stories in part of the lesson to teach English, and we were encouraged to take students out of class hours … and it was outside of the class where we could share more of our convictions and faith. These people are paying money to learn English, and it would not be ethically correct to not give them their money's worth.”
“The students liked coming to Santisuk because they have native English speakers, and that helps them draw students to the school,” Peggy stated.
Both the school and church building sat at the end of a small Bangkok alley-like street known as a soi.
“The soi is just a little alleyway and all along it are little booths or little shops that are set up behind a bicycle,” Lois described. “They’ll set up a shop during the day to sell noodle soup … or the most marvelous smoothies with tropical fruits. That’s where we’d go to pick up something for lunch or supper - it was very handy and very good.
“The school was actually on a busy highway, and you walk down the alley behind it and there are apartment buildings all along there. Peggy and I each had our own apartment that had been vacated for the month, and they were very nice and air-conditioned and within about a two-minute walk from the school. It was not a problem walking home at night, and I never felt in danger.”
Traffic, though, could be extremely busy, and Lois said they “always had to watch out, because some taxi could be right on your heels.” Stray dogs were a common sight, she added, and people from other countries were often seen at a large “tourist hospital” located near the school and church.
One highlight Lois and Peggy experienced during their time in Thailand was a trip to the Grand Palace.
“That’s where the king would worship,” noted Lois of Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who ruled the country for nearly 70 years. “The king died just two weeks after we got home. He was a much-loved king ... he became king when he was about 18 and when he died he was in his late 80s. Everywhere you would go in Bangkok, you would see Buddha statues and huge pictures of the king and queen.”
There were other, more familiar activities as well.
“They (church and school) have outreach into the community beyond the students,” Peggy said. “On Tuesday morning, they go and play badminton, and they collect at the school ... they are very competitive. I didn’t dare try it. On Sunday afternoon, anyone who wants to comes to the parking lot at the school, and the first activity is pickleball. They learned it when Steve (Cable) was on his last furlough, and they sent back balls, nets and rackets with. After the pickleball, then they played basketball.”
“The church parking lot is transformed into a pickleball court and then a basketball court,” Lois added.
Naturally, time spent at the church was an important component of Peggy’s and Lois’ experience.
“Peace Fellowship Church is the name of the church, which meets on the fifth floor of the school building on Friday evenings,” Lois detailed. “Worship service included a praise band with all that you’d typically expect to hear in a church that didn't use pipe organs, and there’s a message that is translated because this is really a multicultural worship experience - English speakers have headphones so they can understand what's happening in the service. People attend who are from South Africa, Pakistan, the United States, the Philippines, Myanmar and other nations.
“One thing that was interesting for Peggy and me, being from Worthington, was the multicultural setting,” Lois continued. “It’s just a privilege to be part of the most diverse community in the state, and then be able to see people worshiping multiculturally over there. At our church ... we maybe have 300 Karen that are affiliated with our church. They came from the refugee camps in Thailand, so it's kind of a circle.”
Both women also participated in “cell groups,” which met on a weekly basis, with group members encouraging each other in their faith and participating in outreach activities.
“There were about 10 people in the group I was in,” Peggy said. “We would discuss the sermon, and you shared what you'd been studying in the Bible on your own and if you had spiritual concerns for friends or family, and then you spent time praying with one another.”
Peggy probably didn’t realize that the thoughts she expressed in a journal entry she wrote in 1959 would come to fruition nearly 60 years later, but she’s certainly happy she did. She also knows the trip wouldn’t have been possible without Lois.
“This was a real good opportunity to go and help Peggy,” Lois said. “She was the impetus with this.”
And, now that’s taken part in mission work, Peggy is open to a return trip to Thailand.
“If someone wanted to go and needed someone to go with them, I would be willing to go,” Peggy said.
While Peggy doesn’t know what future travel plans may await, she does point to a quote from C.S. Lewis as words of wisdom to follow:
"You are never too old to set another goal or dream another dream."