Peder Jorgensen has been more closely involved with the lives of the poor rural people of Thailand than any other living Dane today.
For ten years, between 1962 and 1972, he and his wife Ruth worked as missionaries with more than 3000 cases of leprosy in a rural area near Nakornsawan where there was no electricity and the mail during the rainy season was delivered by elephant.
From 1984 he and his wife Ruth were back again, serving this time for another eleven years as missionaries in Phibun Mangsahn north of Ubon Ratchathani where they established a church and opened a hostel for poor but gifted children to be able to go to school after the 6th grade.
Today, living in retirement back in Denmark, Peder Jorgensen’s hobby now and then still brings him back to Thailand: He enjoys searching through old historical archives in Bangkok as well as up-country to find traces of the many lesser known Danes, who – not unlike himself – spent a lifetime of dedication to Thailand and the Thai people but of whom today less than a century later very little evidence exists.
Although his life has been more remarkable and colourful than that of most of his countrymen, Peder Jorgensen would not like to live it all over again if he was given the chance.
“I look back on my life with gratitude but life was tough sometimes, and if I did have the chance, I would not choose to re-live it,” he says.
If I were to write a book about myself it would simply be about my life and that includes the good, the bad, the hardships and the pain and discomforts I have had to carry, some with me to my old age.”
The urge to dedicate his life to be a missionary came to Peder Jorgensen during his final years in high school, and after finishing his education as a deacon, Peder moved from Jutland, where he was born and raised in a peasant family, to Copenhagen, where he started working as a missionary at “Kirkens Korshær”.
“When I look back on my life, I am certain that my life has been controlled in some manner…I am a peasant boy and nothing has ever been more useful to me.”
Life among lepers
Peder’s first mission to Thailand began in 1962 when he had finished further studies abroad at a school in England. He and his wife Ruth Eleonora Leed were commissioned by the “Overseas Missionary Fellowship”, formerly known as the “China Inland Mission”, to work in some of the poorest rural areas of Issaan.
“I worked with the rehabilitation of the victims of leprosy and Ruth worked as a midwife at two missionary hospitals in Nongbua and Manorom.”
“It was a very remote and poor area and everyone in the village, including us, got water from an open water reservoir which was filled during the rainy season and almost empty when the rainy season finally came around again. No electricity, no phones and during the rain season the mail was brought in by elephant!”
“There were so many lepers then, and the missionary had registered over 3000 attending the various basic ‘clinics’. Many of the lepers had indescribably miserable lives, keeping body and soul together only by becoming beggars.”
“Our children were in a Malaysian school from the age of 5 which meant that we only saw them twice a year. By 1971 our oldest daughter was 12 years old which meant that it was time for her to change school. We could either send her to England or back to Denmark, and we chose the latter option.”
“Thus we moved to Karup after Ruth was offered a job as district midwife. At that time there were still district midwifes who once appointed, received a special license. That new law was passed in 1973. As for myself, I was employed with the Karup municipality, until in 1977 I became Secretary General of the “Dansk Santalmission”.
Building the future
The chance to move back to Thailand came in 1983 when Peder and Ruth were offered a mission to work in Northeast Thailand – or Issaan as it’s better known today – by the secretary general of the “Norske Misjonsselskap” (Norwegian Missionary Community or NMS).
“We accepted and returning to Thailand, we started working in Ubon Ratchathani, a province on the border with Laos. After a while there we moved to Phibun Mangsahan in the same province. At that time there were no Christian missionary workers in the Phibun Mangsahan district.
“I cooperated closely with the local school authorities in Ubon and launched small projects in many of the poor villages and partly through financial support from DANIDA, I managed to create 100 fishponds connected to village schools.
“Through my projects with the village schools I discovered that the teachers were limited as to what they could offer the kids and they approached me regarding a pupil who ended his studies in the 6th grade with no opportunity to continue his studies. I worked out an arrangement with abbots of different temples, so that some of the pupils could stay at the temple and thereby receive further education. But then of course I was responsible for further expenses, such as school uniforms, books and the like!
“In the longer run however this arrangement proved a little unsatisfying, mainly because girls – according to cultural tradition – were not allowed to stay at the temples. Furthermore, some of the monks believed that the boys should work as labourers in their spare-time with no time spent studying. And of course I wanted the students to be influenced by Christian beliefs to some extent at least.
Our own school
“Hence, we established a school/community in two rented houses and through support from the “Skolenes U-landsaksjon” in Norway, managed to build a new school. Half of the funds were collected by Norwegian pupils and the other half donated by NORAD (equal to DANIDA). Through this kind support, 30 girls and 15 boys had the opportunity to continue their studies for another six years.
“After much effort and discussions we bought an empty house and started building. The master builder was Nai Nicom Santaveesuk a man born in Ubon, educated as a graduate engineer and employed by the Pattaya City Council. He had his own company, Pattana Pongsit Engineering Co. Ltd and I was introduced to him by the then Catholic bishop in Ubon, Michael Bunluen Mansap who is now the only Archbishop in Thailand. The son of Nai Nicom, Kittipat, was in charge of supervising the construction of our school.
“The same people were in charge of building our church.
“On the 30th of January 1994 “Immanuelshjemmet” was opened by the H.E. the Norwegian Ambassador and by the Governor of the Ubon Rachathani.
As planned NORAD, the Norwegian governments development cooperation agency, supported the school through “Skolenes U-landsaksjon” for the first five years. Today the evangelical Lutheran Church in Thailand is in charge of operations, but since the church is both small and poor, the school itself is also very basic.
“Regarding the church in Phibun, we were particularly pleased to see it built and to grow to become an important part of the community.
“I will never forget the day one of our Norwegian colleagues told someone: “Had Ruth and Peder not started their work in the northeast, the NMS would never have started at all in the area.”
“Those were really kind words and whether or not the NMS would have started in that area or not, it is hard to tell. But it is true, however, that most other missionaries wanted just to settle in Bangkok and the Finnish missionaries cooperating with the Lutheran missionary in Thailand, stated openly that they were against anyone idea of settling anywhere outside of Bangkok.
“But I am glad that we started in Ubon, despite the sceptics. To see the church, the people, a vigorous congregation blossom and grow, is without doubt the greatest biggest experience of my life.”
And it is deeply touching for me today to receive letters of gratitude from some of the poor children, whom we helped grow up to a better life than they would ever have been able to otherwise.”
“Recently, when I turned on the computer, I found this email from one of our children from Phibun. She came from an extremely poor family where her father was an incorrigible alcoholic. But today she studies Art History in Stuttgart, Germany.
She started her letter with these words:
คุณพ่อค่ะขอบพระคุณมากนะค่ะสำหรับความกรุณาที่มีต่อลูกๆๆที่อยู่เมืองไทย และรวมทั้งตัวหนูด้วยเช่นเดียวกัน ถ้าไม่มีคุณพ่อคุณแม่ที่ทุ่มเทให้พวกเรา เราก็คงไม่มีวันนี้แน่นอน หนูรักคุณพ่อค่ะ และหนูก็มีความรักจากพระเจ้าด้วย หนูอยู่ในพระเจ้าตอนนี้หนูก็มีความสุขค่ะ
(Dad! Thank you for your goodness towards all the children in Thailand, which included also myself. If we did not have Dad and Mom to take care of us we would for sure not be where we are today. I love you Dad and I also have the love of God. Today I live in his love and I am happy.)
“That day I felt I had not lived my life in vain.”