Art and music are being used as key tools in a broader church-planting mission in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand and the hub of the country’s artist community.
Missionaries Jon and Sharla Rubesh and Kennedy and Wendy Paizs had a vision for building up a community center where they could share the Gospel in creative ways with the people of Thailand.
“The only way to really get into that community is to be artists,” said Kennedy Paizs, a trained fine artist originally from California. “It’s not enough to look at art or buy art. You have to do art with them, either as a teacher, a student, or just as a friend. This fosters friendship and dialogue.” After months spent planning and searching, this vision became a reality when TEAM’s Arts and Music Center officially opened on October 5, 2012.
Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges
Culturally, the Thai people are very close-knit and family-oriented, explains Jon Rubesh, who grew up in Sri Lanka, where his parents were missionaries. “From the get-go, one of my struggles was relationship building. In Sri Lanka, it was very easy to build relationships: You can go out and say something in their language, and that night you’ll be eating supper in their home or you’ll be immersed in their family. It’s quite easy,” Rubesh said. “So it was a culture shock when I first got here. I’d say hi to someone in their language or practice my Thai and, while they’re very friendly in responding, that was it! They’d go back to their game or whatever they were doing.” During their first three years in Chiang Mai, Rubesh and his family – he and his wife Sharla have three children between the ages of two to eight – were invited to only two homes. “One of my strengths is that I love hanging out with people,” he said. “To really love a culture, to love a people, you have to have close friends. It’s a process God is working on in my life – developing a love for the Thai people.”
Rubesh and Paizs hope the new center will serve as a unique meeting place for students not only to learn how to play music or paint but also to hang out and do concerts or shows. “We have to have a reason to be here and a way to connect,” Rubesh said. “Music and art are like a gateway into peoples’ lives. There’s an immediate connection that you don’t get in a lot of other ways. The people that I’ve played music with, we’ve become friends instantly. We won’t invite them to ‘church,’ but we’ll invite them to the center where there’ll be a lot of different ways they see and experience Christ.”
The Gospel as Art
Paizs, his wife Wendy, and their two teenage children have been in Thailand for 13 years. Both artists, they tend to gravitate toward other artistic types wherever they go, so it was natural for them to connect this way in Chiang Mai. “About seven years ago, I started using art to try to make a bridge to people’s lives,” said Paizs. A friend gave him the idea of creating a piece of art depicting the stupa, a pointed structure commonly seen in Thailand, to present the Gospel so that people would start to relate that shape to Christ. “The imagery really helped people understand,” he said.
In his first painting, Life of Christ, Paizs wanted to share from the book of John. “I chose a circular pattern, which is a Tibetan and Buddhist idea,” Paizs said. He painted pictures of Jesus in a circular pattern with a depiction of the resurrection in the center. “I painted it in public, at the local market, with hundreds of people walking by and watching me,” he said. “If they stopped to ask questions, I’d explain the life of Christ to them. Some would keep coming back on their way to the market each day to see the progress of the stories. They were intrigued.”
This created a bridge to people in the community because they didn’t feel that Paizs was against their culture or against Buddhism. “They saw me as an artist painting things dear to me. They’re religious people by nature and like to talk about spiritual things, unlike in the West, so it was easy to talk with them and they got truth,” he said. One girl came to Christ through Paizs’ painting and later took art classes from him.
Another young woman also became interested in the Gospel because of Paizs’ art. The friend who had suggested that Paizs paint the stupa uses it in training about sharing one’s faith in a Buddhist context. He was at a hotel doing a training session when one of the hotel workers who had stopped to listen became intrigued by the artwork. “She came up to my friend and told him she’d like to believe in this Creator-God,” Paizs said. “She said that she had heard about Him but never heard it talked about in this way. It really made sense to her. She started weeping, which is very unusual for a Thai person. She said she really felt like God, this creator, is real and wanted to believe in Him and understand the whole idea of Jesus coming into this world and giving someone a chance to be set free from bad karma. She really wanted that.” Paizs’ wife Wendy now meets regularly with this young woman, a college student they have since introduced to a group of other young believers. “She’s growing in her faith!” Paizs said.
Striking the Right Chord
During a development meeting for the Arts and Music Center, Paizs and Rubesh were discussing how most of Paizs’ paintings are illustrative of the Gospel. Rubesh wondered how they could use music for the same purpose. “How do you do that with the guitar?” Rubesh said. “I mean, this is an E string. How do you transition that into the Gospel?” Some time later, Rubesh was teaching guitar at the center and talking about chords and finger-picking. “The students’ fingers were all over the place, so I had to explain that if they anchored their thumb on the E string or one of the bass strings, the other fingers would know where they are,” Rubesh said. “A little light went on! It’s kind of like Christ in my life when I believe in Him; Christ acts as the anchor. Without Christ as my anchor, my fingers don’t know where they’re going. It was an exciting moment for me, and I’ll keep looking for more of those illustrations.” they need Christ. “They’re closed to Christ, but not in an aggressive way,” he said. “They just don’t know that they need Him. They’re very good at whatever they do, so how do you find a need, a connection into their lives? With music, that’s something special. It gets you right into their lives, breaks down boundaries, and builds relationships. Everywhere you go, they’re always watching you. If you’re walking around on a Sunday morning, they ask if you’re going to church. They’re very observant and watch what we do. They’re very interested in the way we live life as Christians. It’s through those relationships that they can see how Christ is working in our lives.”
Art is secondary to their mission in Thailand. “Our passion is to see the Holy Spirit work and move above and beyond us,” Paizs said. “In our vision, we talk about the Holy Spirit moving like a rushing river among Thai families, seeing them come to faith in a family-centered environment that’s reproducible and where people are empowered to go out and share their faith and walk with God.” He’s not interested at the moment in teaching the Thai people the traditional Western mechanics of church planting. “My passion is to see them take their gifts and abilities as artists and have a desire to give those things to God and use them to glorify God and share their faith. If anything is going to take off, it’s going to be through their passions,” he said. Paizs believes that this movement might not even enter the established Thai church, which is very formal and westernized. “We’d love to see something more natural, more organic in nature, take off and be out of our control and in their control, or rather the Holy Spirit’s control,” he said. “We’d love to facilitate that more and more and push the limits of contextualization to give artists the freedom to be themselves. We’d like to see that spread into unreached areas of Thailand.”
-Written by Ann-Margret Hovsepian
-Photographed by Robert Johnson
[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, October 2012]