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Tales of an unlikely missionary

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Service in Thailand was God’s idea, not hers
By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Photo Caption: Lorraine Shelstad holds up a copy of her book, Betel Nut in My Roses, published in 2016. She spent two decades working in Thailand as a lab technician and english teacher. (Agnieszka Krawczynski)

Lorraine Shelstad was a prairie girl on her first trip to the big city, starting what was supposed to be a year of Bible study in Toronto.

The only child of a Catholic mother and a Lutheran father who rarely went to church, Shelstad wanted to know more about her parents’ beliefs. “I didn’t know all the Bible verses you’re supposed to use to witness to people, so I thought I should go to Bible college,” she said simply.

She didn’t know that one year in Toronto would lead to nearly 20 years of mission work in Thai hospitals, dodging kidnap attempts, teaching English, becoming Catholic, and writing a new book on what it’s like to be a reluctant missionary.

Studying at Toronto Bible College (now Tyndale University College and Seminary), she initially heard about short-term mission trips. As someone who enjoyed the idea of travelling, she was intrigued.

However, as her parents’ only child, she was reluctant to live far away from them. “I didn’t really want to go as a missionary,” she told The B.C. Catholic.

Shelstad, a lab technician, found her one-year stay became three years, and along the way she met many missionaries. She was also particularly moved by a biography of James Hudson Taylor, a Protestant missionary who launched the China Inland Mission (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship) around 1865.

She learned the fellowship was still active and began reading their magazines. While flipping through the pages one day, an advertisement caught her eye, shocking her. The organization was looking for a lab technician.

“It was quite unusual,” said Shelstad. “They had three hospitals in Thailand, and (whenever) they advertised, it was doctors and nurses they needed.”

Yet, here was an advertisement seeking someone with her background. “I thought: is this God calling me?” Shelstad took it as a sign and applied, all the while secretly hoping her application would be turned down.

“In stories I had read about missionaries, they usually had a deep desire to tell people about Christianity,” she wrote. “I felt that Christianity was true and that people would only know real happiness if they became Christians, but my major reason to be a missionary was selfish.”

In the end, Shelstad’s thoughts were: “If God wanted me to be a missionary in Thailand, I would not be happy if I did not go.”

She agreed to join OFM and went overseas to spend one year in language school, then moved to South Thailand to work in a missionary hospital. Her team did tests on patients with leprosy, malaria, anemia, and worms in the gut, often with less complex tools than she was used to.

She was also called in after hours to cross-match blood for mothers with post-partum hemorrhage, before surgeries, or for patients with severe blood loss. In her region, Shelstad said the most common cause of severe blood loss was gunshot wounds.

“Sometimes it was a Thai policeman or soldier who had been shot in a skirmish with terrorists. Other times a Malay or Thai villager would be the victim,” she said. In 1971, suspects loosed several rounds of ammunition into the nurse aides’ home. Luckily, no nurses were injured.

While Thailand is a majority Buddhist country, Shelstad found out quickly the region she was working in was 80 per cent Muslim.

“One of the challenges of living in a Muslim area was Muslim separatists that wanted to separate, either have those provinces join Malaysia, or be on their own.” That caused much tension between the locals, separatists, and groups of bandits. The tiny group of area Christians was more or less ignored.

But Christianity didn’t save two OFM nurses from being kidnapped. “The reason was ransom. It wasn’t that they were kidnapped because they were Christians; they thought we were rich foreigners. Thai people were kidnapped all the time if they were thought to be rich.”

Shelstad laughed as she wondered why she ended up working in Thailand for 14 years. “I guess God wanted me to stay! I enjoyed the work and the people and life there, overall.”

About every four years she travelled back home to visit her ailing father and mother, and in 1984 she resigned and moved to Calgary to live with her then-widowed mother. She also decided to study linguistics at the University of Calgary.

Shelstad didn’t anticipate she would also pick up Catholicism. While studying at the university, she met David Bellusci, now a Dominican priest and B.C. Catholic columnist, and started attending a rosary group he led.

The welcoming community and thoughtful conversations had her coming back. Soon, she was going on outings with Catholic students, listening to Scott Hahn tapes, and asking tough questions about the faith her mother had grown up in.

By the time she graduated in 1991, she was in RCIA. “I felt I had to join. I felt I found the truth.” Her mother also returned to the Catholic Church before her death in 1997.

Shelstad, a passionate Catholic with a brand-new master’s degree in linguistics, decided to return to Thailand – but not to the lab. She got a job as a teacher and taught English as a second language for another five years.

She then retired, moved to Maple Ridge, and became involved in St. Luke’s Parish as a PREP teacher for five years. She has published two books, including her 270-page account of her life in Thailand, titled Betel Nut in My Roses, which was published in 2016 and became available on Amazon this year. q


Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 July 2017 14:16  

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