BANGKOK, Thailand – What was supposed to be a year-long stateside assignment for missionaries to Thailand, Daniel and MariaLee Watson, took a slight COVID-19 detour. But after waiting out the pandemic with friends and family in Kansas City, the International Mission Board missionaries and their four children are back in on the field in Bangkok, the capital city of the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Both Daniel and MariaLee are Kansas City natives, with Daniel growing up at Tower View and Providence Baptist Churches and MariaLee at North Heartland Community Church. They both felt God’s call to missions early. For MariaLee, the tug to the mission field has been there as long as she can remember. Daniel, on the other hand, had zero interest until God laid a clear call to international missions on his heart during a Promise Keepers event at the age of 16.
Through dating, college and later seminary, they pursued the mission field, ultimately serving with the International Mission Board in India for some time before security concerns pushed them out. They shifted to church planting/evangelism in northern Thailand in 2016.
“The Lord just keeps confirming that he wants us overseas,” Daniel said.
But not before coming back to Missouri. In late 2019 they came back to Kansas City so Daniel could finish his Ph.D. at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. COVID kept travel clamped down, meaning they weren’t able to return to Thailand in late 2020 as originally planned and only just arrived back in Bangkok, June 1.
While a state-side assignment aligning with a worldwide pandemic isn’t ideal, Daniel said it worked out well for the Watsons. They were able to stay with MariaLee’s parents in Gladstone and joined a new church family in the area, Faith Community Church.
One downside to the extra time in the U.S. is loss of language skills. This would be important for any missionary, but it’s especially vital for Daniel, who will be teaching in Thai at the Thai Baptist Seminary in Bangkok.
“We’re starting a two-year undergraduate course in churches for lay leaders and pastors who wouldn’t physically be able to go to the seminary to get a degree,” Daniel said. “On top of that, every missionary is involved in church planting and evangelism.”
Bangkok is a city of 11 million people – for comparison, New York City only has a population of 8 million – and like the rest of Thailand, is overwhelmingly Buddhist.
“It’s one of the most Buddhist countries in the world, and the people, for whatever reason, have been very resistant to the gospel historically,” Daniel said. “Even though we’re allowed to go as missionaries and we are starting to see some cracks even this last year due to COVID, the people are not very responsive to the gospel. There are temples everywhere, idol worship and monks walking down the street. If you walk into a coffee shop in Missouri, you’ll almost always find someone reading their Bible. That’s just not the case there.”
Daniel said his family is anxious to get back to work, but for now they are quarantined in a hotel for two weeks. Just as COVID restrictions have begun to lift in the U.S., the situation in Thailand is very different.
“They’re experiencing their very first outbreak of COVID,” Daniel said. “They had been a model country and kept it out for over year, but now they’re having their first major outbreak. It’s like stepping back in time a year for us with them in complete lock down mode: no restaurants open, masks on the sidewalk and no church. It’s going to be a rough few months.”
The Watsons asked for prayer as their family gets settled in Bangkok, specifically that God would work in the hearts of the millions of people there who need the gospel.
“If the Lord is not moving in their hearts, we can have all the strategies and plans in the world and nothing will happen,” Daniel said.
Southern Baptist churches in Missouri and across the nation support the ministry of the Watsons through their giving to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
From ‘The King and I’ to modern missionaries
That missionary families like the Watsons are able to openly speak about Thailand being their field of service stands in stark contrast to many of the nations in Southeast Asia. Many of those sharing the gospel in the region must protect their identities and operate quietly in nations closed to Christianity. However, International Mission Board personnel in Thailand are there on officially recognized missionary visas. For the reason why, you have to look at “The King and I.”
The 1951 stage musical and 1956 film adaptation of Margaret Landon’s book, Anna and the King of Siam fudge a lot of details, but there is some truth to the story. It tells of King Mongkut of Siam (it became known as Thailand in 1938) and his real-life friendship with his children’s American governess, Anna Leonowens, during the 1860s. In the story, Anna aids the king in his ambitious “modernization” efforts and convinces him that adopting certain western practices will help keep his country free of British control.
Though many of the details of the plot are disputed or made up (for example, western and eastern historians agree there was never any hint of romance between Anna and the king, and the modernization efforts long predated Anna’s journey), it is true that the royal family of Siam made considerable and intentional efforts to import western culture, technology and ideas. Scholars say that in being open to the west, these monarchs’ diplomacy and modernizing reforms helped make Siam the only country in South and Southeast Asia to avoid European colonization. Indeed, the “thai” in Thailand literally means “free.”
In a sense, the exchanges depicted in “The King and I” helped foster an openness to Christian missionaries in what is still an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.
Interestingly, unconditional freedom of speech is not a western ideal fully shared with Thailand: the movie “The King and I” is banned. Yul Brynner’s depiction of King Mongkut – the current king’s great-great grandfather – is considered false and disrespectful.