At the rear of the sun-drenched chapel, behind the last row of chairs, a man squats on the floor happily bottle-feeding a baby. It’s not his baby. He’s just “borrowed” it from its mother. It gives her a chance to concentrate on the Gospel Doctrine lesson and gives him the pleasure of cradling a baby in his arms.
The man is Wisit Khanakam, president of the Chiang Mai District, Thailand, and the loving care he gives the baby is typical of the loving care he gives the five hundred members in the three branches he serves.
The members know that President Khanakam lives the gospel principles he teaches. In his home the day before, he said, “If there is one thing that helps me and my family stay active in the Church, it is living the gospel. That’s not just praying, not just studying the scriptures, not just serving in a calling, but applying all the gospel principles to our daily lives.
“For example, the Church teaches us how to build love and unity in the family—mother and father and the children helping each other. Just like today,” he says, “my wife had to go to work this afternoon. I had to work in the morning, but I came home in the afternoon to care for our two children, do some laundry, and wash the dishes.”
As he speaks, his seven-year-old daughter, Wisuchalak (nicknamed Buang), sleepily walks into the room from an afternoon nap. Seeing her father is busy, she turns on the television. Although she chooses a children’s program, it contains some rather frightening animation. Her father walks over to her, puts his arm around her, quietly explains that the program really isn’t suitable for her to watch, and successfully encourages her to go outside and play with her eight-year-old brother, Wisoodthiporn, or Ben. “We call him Ben after King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon,” explains President Khanakam.
“There are many things to do in the home,” he says. “It is the activities we do together as a family that help build our testimonies and strengthen us spiritually. For example, my wife is very good at preserving the oranges and mangoes we grow. We get the children involved in gathering the fruit and preparing it for storage. We also work together to keep family records—individual journals, as well as a family history.”
Teachers by profession, President and Sister Khanakam used family prayer and their training to help their son overcome what appeared to be a learning disability. “His teachers said he was very slow intellectually, and so we first thought of providing him with a tutor at home. But then we prayed about the problem, and we realized that the best teachers for our son were his mother and father. Our decision, based on the answer to our prayers, is turning out well. Ben is happy that his mother and father understand his needs and want to help him. As we help him with his school work, he is improving and learning faster. And it gives us the opportunity to grow closer together.”
The closeness of the family now is in contrast to the separation that employment forced upon Brother and Sister Khanakam after they were married in 1981. “A month after our marriage, we were sealed in the Tokyo Temple. When we came home, I returned to Chiang Mai, where I had a good-paying teacher’s position, and my wife returned to her family home in Mahasarakham 830 kilometers away. We lived that way for about a year. But the full-time missionaries would keep asking me, ‘Wisit, do you have the faith the Lord will bless you if you keep your temple covenants? You need to be with your wife.’
“So I quit my job in Chiang Mai and found one in Mahasarakham. I was earning less than half what I had made in Chiang Mai. That’s when we learned to apply welfare principles in our family. We learned how to budget our income, to work with our hands, and to raise a family in the gospel.
“I was called as president of the Mahasarakham branch, and my wife was called as Relief Society president. I was the only male member in the branch. It took a couple of years for the membership to grow. Now they have a chapel of their own—not because of anything we did, but because of the love and unity that the people there have.”
Before moving to Mahasarakham, Brother Khanakam served as Chiang Mai District President, a calling he received again when he returned to Chiang Mai three years ago to teach at the local high school.
The Khanakams live in a house outside the city of Chiang Mai on family property that contains fruit trees and about three acres of rice paddy. “We hire some people to grow the rice and then give the crop to my mother.”
His relationship with his mother is greatly improved from the days twenty years ago when he first made contact with Latter-day Saint missionaries.
He was introduced by a friend to the English language classes the missionaries presented. That led to the discussions and an invitation to attend Church.
“I attended the investigators’ class. What I heard there made little sense to me at first. I was an active Buddhist in a family of active Buddhists. But the name of Jesus touched my heart. I remember as a boy hearing Protestant missionaries talk of Jesus and Christianity. My parents and relatives did not like Christians and they said harsh things about them and about Jesus. I couldn’t help but wonder about this man Jesus. What happened to him? Why did my family talk only of bad things about him?
“So when the missionaries talked to me of Jesus, I decided to invite them to my cousin’s home where I was living while going to school. He and his family listened to some of the discussions, but then stopped.
“I continued with the discussions and with attending church, and I finally gained a testimony.
“I was baptized when I was eighteen years old.
“When I told my mother that I had been baptized, she became very upset, and she cut me from the family. I was the ‘baby’ in the family, with three older brothers and an older sister. From that time on, I suffered a great deal of persecution from my family, and I left home.
“Knowing of my situation, the branch president wisely counseled me that if I loved God I would want to obey his commandments and show love and respect for my parents. The Lord would bless me, the president said, if I would return home and be an example of Christian living to my family.
“When I went home, my mother said, ‘What do you need? A mattress, pillows, or anything? I’ll give them to you, but you can’t stay here with us.’
“But I told her I loved her and my father and my brothers and my sister, and I wanted to stay. The family was very upset, and no one would talk to me. But apart from going to school, I stayed home and worked very hard doing whatever I could around the house, or around the property.
“When I completed high school I wanted to go to the university. My mother said, ‘Tell me you are not a Mormon and I will let you go to the university. If you tell me you are a Mormon, you will never go to school.’ I said, ‘Mother, I am a Mormon.’ ‘That’s enough,’ she said.
“I didn’t even try to take the entrance examination.”
Instead, Brother Khanakam studied at the English Language Center in Chiang Mai, and eventually he successfully applied for a position with an American professor studying in Thailand. Later, with his mother’s approval, he attended the university in Bangkok for almost four years.
“Although my father died at this time, the university was a good experience for me. But I always made sure that the campus activities would not interfere with my church attendance. My friends urged me to serve a mission. Although I didn’t have a personal testimony of being a missionary, I encouraged others to go.
“After the university, I taught in public schools to earn some money and then decided I would go on a mission. When I told my mother, she was very, very angry with me. She contacted her attorney and had me cut from her will. She told me, ‘Choose what you want: your family or your church.’ I told her I wanted to serve a mission for the Lord. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘but you’ll get no support from the family.’”
Brother Khanakam served in the Thailand Bangkok Mission, where he had “many good experiences.” One of these experiences involved his mother and his sister. They were visiting in Bangkok, and Brother Khanakam invited them to a fireside where Elder Jacob de Jager of the Seventy was speaking.
“I was asked to be his interpreter. I knelt with him and prayed for my family. In his talk, Elder de Jager made some complimentary comments about my family. I looked at my mother, and she was crying. Even my sister, who had been so opposed to my joining the Church that she almost shot me, was crying, too. After the fireside my mother said if there was anything she could do to support me on my mission I was to let her know. I know that she was touched that day by the Spirit.
“My relationship with my family is good now. They love me, and they love my wife and children. My mother lives in a house close to us.”
While on his mission, Brother Khanakam first met a newly called lady missionary, Sumamaan Srisarakham. Three years after his mission, he made contact with her again through a mutual friend, and they began a correspondence. When they started talking of marriage, Sister Srisarakham prayed for guidance and felt as though “the Savior’s hand was on my head confirming my decision to marry and have a family.”
Currently, Sister Khanakam serves as the district Relief Society president and teaches a Primary class in the Chiang Mai Branch.
“What we do within the four walls of our home is most important to us and to those we can influence for good,” says President Khanakam. “For example, a neighboring couple has been taking the missionary discussions and now permits their son to attend church with us. This has come about because they liked what they saw in us as a family. As a family, as Latter-day Saints everywhere, we can perfect our lives through living the gospel.”