Fr Ribolini: Christianity, 'a revolution' for tribal families

PIME missionary works in Ban Thoet Thai, especially among ethnic Akha, whose traditional family ties are not very strong or stable, a situation that leads to drug addiction, alcohol abuse, school dropout and child neglect.


Ban Thoet Thai (AsiaNews) – Fr Marco Ribolini (pictured) is a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) and pastor in Ban Thoet Thai, a remote village in the Diocese of Chiang Rai, north-western Thailand.

For him, the journey from evangelisation to true conversion among tribal people “is long and lasts several generations since Christian values are revolutionary for both religious and social life.”

Local Catholics belong to various ethnic minorities (Akha, Lana, Lahu, Isan, Thaiyai, Kachin), who live in the mountain and rural areas amid poverty as well as social and geographical marginalisation.

The four PIME missions in the north of the country – Fang, Ban Thoet Thai, Mae Suay and Ngao – have some hostels to meet the residential and education needs of young people from poor families.

"Our is still a 'catechumenal' church,” Fr Ribolini said. It is based on “first evangelisation and conversions. The geography is complex since Christians live in villages in the forests and far from each other."

The mission in Ban Thoet Thai alone caters to 27 settlements and offers young people various recreational activities, together with moments of prayer and catechism lessons. This is the case of the ‘Sacraments camp’ that started today involving some 70 kids aged 7 to 12 for four days.

"Through this initiative, we will prepare the children for the sacraments of Christian initiation: baptism, confirmation and the eucharist", the missionary explained.

“Praying never fails in PIME hostels," he added. But the mission also takes care of families, who have the opportunity to study catechesis through various programmes.

"The meetings offer us the opportunity to address issues related to family life. Tribal people view the family as a work in progress compared to our notion. For example, we have specific programmes for families who want to get married in church, even though their unions have already been celebrated according to their tradition and children have been born."

In Ban Thoet Thai, Fr Ribolini works mainly with recently converted ethnic Akha whose family ties are traditionally weak and unstable. "The advent of Christianity is changing things,” he noted, “but certain customs have left deep marks. When they were not Christians, young people had sex before and during the marriage.”

"According to local traditions, spouses are required to make offers (a pig for example) to elders, to whom they ask permission to live together. There is no concept of 'forever': separations, second families, unwanted children and confusion are the order of the day.”

"The figure of 'official lover' plays an important role among the Akha, and becomes almost a show of economic well-being and power. In addition, minors are sometimes left with elders who are often unable to raise and educate the children."

The missionary noted that "the lack of educational support that a united family might offer is partly due to serious social problems that afflict tribal people: drug addiction, alcohol, school dropout and child neglect, because without parents, children grow up in the street or in forest."

“The journey from evangelisation to true conversion is long and lasts several generations. Problems like unemployment, urbanisation and emigration can pose a threat to these values, which are not yet well rooted. Our young people leave the villages to seek fortune in the city or abroad. This comes with very high social costs."

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