Next to one of the lasting reminders of the Boxing Day tsunami in Buddhist Thailand, around 50 people gathered yesterday to worship Jesus Christ.
The Love in Action ministry is alongside a 65ft fishing trawler which was swept a mile inland in Nam Khem, the town worst affected by the wave.
A year ago there were no churches on the Khao Lak coast, where thousands died. As the first anniversary approaches there are a score, mostly set up by United States-based evangelical groups that moved in following the deluge.
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James Garwood, the leader of another ministry, Life in Action in Thailand, addressed the congregation in Nam Khem, most of them local residents who have recently converted.
A former heroin addict who found Christianity in prison in the US, Mr Garwood said “hundreds and hundreds” of local residents had converted since the tsunami.
He arrived three days after the earthquake, equipped with a bag of balloons to entertain children in a nearby refugee camp. “I didn’t come here to start a church,” he insisted. But, he added: “I felt God tugging at my heart.”
At a Christian drop-in centre, run by We Love Thailand, Phil Thompson, from Derby, said: “There were no churches along this stretch before the tsunami but now there’s 20.”
Missionary groups stress that they offer help to all, regardless of their religion. But there is frequently a co-incidence between conversions and the receipt of aid.
Nam Khem, a vast swathe of mud and rubble after the tsunami, has been transformed, almost entirely rebuilt by the Thai authorities.
A Christian organisation built about 50 concrete homes for Morgan sea gypsies, a few of whom have converted. Mon Khatalay, 28, said: “I came to know the Lord after the tsunami. I’m so happy, so grateful and thankful to God.” At the church, Gan Klathalay, 46, wore an orange T- shirt reading “Prayer changes things” on the front and “Thank you Jesus” on the back.
A Buddhist before the tsunami, he now attends worship five times a week and holds a prayer session at home. “It seems like the Christians are very good to me, that’s why I converted,” he said.
While Buddhism is renowned for its tolerance, some Thais are disturbed by the phenomenon. “I’m not feeling happy,” said Phra Viroth Titaphoonyo, the abbot at Wat Laem Pom, a Buddhist temple where some 20 families live in temporary homes in the grounds.
He laments the resources available to Western evangelists from fellow believers in their home countries.
“A lot convert to Christian because the Christians came to help them. We don’t have money from the temples to give to the victims, but Buddhist monks have good wishes. Maybe you have a new house now but Buddhism teaches you how to survive.”
“The way to help the people is totally different. If you are Buddhist, when the people jump in the water and ask for help a Buddhist teaches you how to swim. A Christian just gives them a hand and pulls them up.”
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