It is rare in predominantly Buddhist Thailand to find Thai Orthodox Christians, let alone a young Thai from a Buddhist family who has committed himself to becoming a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church.
But Danai Wanna, 24, is one such person. He is preparing for ordination as an Orthodox priest, and he expects that to happen in about eight years.
Danai already has completed one year of training at a seminary in St. Petersburg, 650 kilometers northwest of Moscow. Lately, he has been on home leave in Bangkok, but he will return to Russia on Aug. 23 to continue his studies in St. Petersburg, which some people call Russia’s “northern capital.”
The young former Buddhist hails from Prachin Buri province, 134 kilometers east of Bangkok. He recently spoke with UCA News about his conversion, the Russian Orthodox Church in Thailand and his desire to become a priest.
Danai was baptized an Orthodox Christian in 2001 and he credits Father Oleg Cherepanin, a 42-year-old Russian Orthodox priest who ministers to Orthodox Christians in Thailand, as a major reason for him wanting to become a priest. The seminarian said personal contacts with Father Cherepanin and other priests in Russia have helped him form a model of what priesthood is all about.
He says a priest is someone with whom he can talk when he experiences life’s troubles,
“a person who can sit down with you and discuss any problem.”
He added that a priest also helps guide people toward a closer relation with God.
Danai says he wants to become such a priest so that he can help people know God. He pointed out that Thailand has only 10 Thai Orthodox Christians amid its 62 million people, and 95 percent of all Thais are Buddhists.
He recalled that his life changed four years ago when he came as a computer dealer and technician to repair Father Cherepanin’s computer in Bangkok. The priest was so successful in introducing Danai to the Russian Orthodox Church that their encounter led Danai to study the Bible in Thai for nearly a year.
Danai said his conversion came about due to the personal influence of Father Cherepanin as well as Church teachings and the Bible. His Buddhist parents did not object to him becoming a Christian, provided he remains a good person and shows respect for religion, he said.
Danai then became so interested in Russian Orthodox history that he decided to enter the seminary because that is “the best way to study Orthodoxy.” As a result, he added, “I now also like Russian literature and Russian culture.”
After his Baptism, Danai became the newest addition to the Russian Orthodox parish of St. Nicolas in Bangkok. The parish was set up in December 1999 as an official representative of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Danai attends Russian Orthodox liturgy on Sundays in the parish, which is housed in a modern two-storied residential building. The church serves the Russian and Russian-speaking community, made up largely of businessmen and tourists. On average, it hosts 10 churchgoers for Sunday liturgy, but as many as 200 Orthodox followers squeeze into the premises on religious holidays.
Father Cherepanin, the only Russian Orthodox priest in Thailand, told UCA News that he has set his hopes on Danai. Even at this stage, Danai has become active in the ministry, such as when he recently attended a theological conference as a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Thailand. The meeting took place Aug. 3-10 in Chiang Mai, 700 kilometers north of Bangkok.
According to Father Cherepanin, Danai seems to be genuinely dedicated, especially since he already put in a year of laborious work at the seminary in St. Petersburg learning the Russian language, necessary for seminary studies.
Danai says that during his second year there, he will study philosophy, theology, liturgy, Bible history, the Old Testament and Russian history.
He grits his teeth when he talks of winter in Russia and the severe cold winds blowing from the Neva River in the city founded by Czar Peter the Great 300 years ago. Temperatures in St. Petersburg plunge below minus 20 degrees Celsius, a sharp contrast to Bangkok’s minimum temperature of 20 degrees.
Danai says he is at ease with bread and potatoes served in the seminary after a lifetime of rice and spicy food back home. But when he does miss his spices in Russia, Father Cherepanin sends him chili peppers from Bangkok.
It is not just the Church or books and culture that draw Danai back to Russia. In Moscow, he also has a Russian girlfriend, whom Father Cherepanin baptized when he was working in Moscow Patriarchate’s missionary department.
Having a girlfriend and priesthood are not mutually exclusive for Danai. Unlike Buddhism in which monks must be celibate, the Russian Orthodox Church allows its priests to choose celibacy or marriage. Danai has made his choice.
AND THIS UPDATE!
THALANG, PHUKET: A Russian Orthodox Church now under construction in Tambon Thepkrasattri is scheduled for completion by the end of next year.
The groundbreaking religious ceremony at 4pm yesterday was performed by Archbishop Hilaion of Volokolamsk from Moscow and other clerics representing the Russian Orthodox Church in Thailand. The service was attended by Vice Governor Smith Palawatvichai and Rasada Mayor Surathin Lianudom. About 50 Russian tourists and expats also joined the ceremony.
The 50-million-baht church will stand on two rai of rubber tree plantation land off Nanai Rd in Thepkrasattri Village 3, Thalang. It will be dedicated as the ‘Holy Life-Giving Trinity on Phuket Island Church’ after its completion.
The church priest will be 31-year-old Thai National Danai Wanna of Prachinburi province, the first Thai ever to be ordained as a Russian Orthodox priest.
His preparation included six years of seminary study in St Petersburg, he said. There are currently two Russian Orthodox churches in Thailand, one in Bangkok and the other in Chonburi. A fourth church is under construction in Ratchaburi.