CHIANG MAI, Thailand

In Thai there is an expression, Lek prik khi nuu, which means literally, “small like a mouse poop chili pepper.” The tiniest peppers (about the size of mouse poop) are the hottest of all. So to be small in this way means you are tiny but mighty.

This expression describes the long-awaited new president of Payap University, where I serve.  Assistant Professor Sompan Wongdee is a woman who is not much over five feet tall, but she knows and loves God and is disciplined and purposeful — she is lek prik khii nuu — small but mighty for the kingdom of God.

Dr. Sompan’s vision, discipline, and organization are inspiring me to step up my administrator game considerably. She called our first administrators meeting for 1:00 .p.m instead of the traditional Payap 1:30 start, and she was there waiting for the rest of us to show up.

She invited me to begin with a devotional, and one of her agenda items was to encourage all the leaders to attend Payap’s morning staff worship at least once a week. She committed to coming herself on Tuesdays. I nearly wept with gratitude. My staff in the chaplain’s office and I have been waiting for a long time for a leader who will model a strong Christian commitment.

Dr. Sompan told me that she grew up with family worship every evening at 8 p.m. sharp and everyone took turns leading. Singing hymns, studying God’s Word, and praying together were the foundation of their family life. God’s reality, majesty, truth, and goodness are rooted deeply in Sompan’s heart.

When Dr. Sompan came to morning chapel the first time, the chaplain, Rev. Mana, led a devotional based on Ecclesiastes 3 — there is a time for everything. As he finished, Dr. Sompan asked if she could share a testimony. She told the small group of Christian staff and teachers there that two years ago, when the board was first looking for a new president, she was ready, and she presented her vision with confidence.

When she was not chosen and an interim was put in place, her confidence was shaken, but she was also relieved and content to know she would never be president. She was happy to serve as an assistant to the interim while a president was sought. When she was called a few months ago by the search committee asking whether she was still willing to be president, she was shocked, and at first said no.

The chair urged her to reconsider, so she asked for some time to consult with family and mentors. She called several trusted advisors. The last one told her, “Two years ago was Sompan’s time, now it’s God’s time.” That spoke deeply to her heart, so she agreed to be presented. As she shared, I was moved by her transparency, and blessed to see how the Holy Spirit moved the chaplain to choose a text for the morning that our new president could make real for us through the example of her own life.

At the board meeting in which Dr. Sompan was approved as president one of the longtime board members, a high-level judge in Thailand, presented a substantial gift to McGilvary College of Divinity for scholarships. He is not a Christian but attended Catholic schools, growing up, and his mother graduated from the McCormick nursing school, one of the first faculties of Payap. I was surprised at the gift.

The inauguration of a new president at Payap.

The inauguration of a new president at Payap: (left to right) new president Sompan Wongdee; the Rev. Boonratna Boayen, moderator of the Church of Christ in Thailand; and Esther Wakeman, PC(USA) mission worker at Payap. —courtesy of Esther Wakeman

I was even more surprised when Dr. Sompan told us later that he talked with her and expressed a strong interest in becoming a Christian himself and asked her how to pray. I felt it significant that on the occasion of her being appointed president this man talked with her about his desire to follow Jesus. I hope it is a prophetic sign that her leadership at Payap will be used by God to lead many to know and love Jesus. She would be carrying on her family heritage: for many years her father was the evangelist at McCormick Hospital (started by Presbyterian missionaries).

We face huge challenges as a school, but Dr. Sompan has already made wise changes in placing people in positions that fit their gifts. She wants Payap to be a place where people love to work and learn. Please pray that God will bless us far beyond what we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20), and that He will be wonderfully honored in all we do.

I have never been more hopeful for what God is doing and will continue to do at this precious school. And a tiny woman who is a caring, disciplined, purposeful leader who loves God is at the heart of it.

Every now and again it hits me how blessed I am to be a part of what God is doing at Payap University and living in this amazing place. Thailand needs God’s love more than ever. Thank you for your interest and support — through letters, prayers, and for many of you, your financial contributions. Please continue — and prayerfully consider increasing your involvement in one of these ways.

The Rev. Esther Wakeman serves as vice president for spiritual and community life at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

To visit the web pages of all Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission workers, visit Mission Connections.