Lives Entwined for a Greater Purpose
by Jim and Cherish Cotton
A strange and wonderful path of life brought Cherish and me together. We were born 20 years and 12,000 miles apart—Cherish in Thailand and I in America, and yet God in His wisdom placed us together for a purpose greater than ourselves.
In 1968, at 23 years of age, I came to Asia as a soldier to fight in an unpopular war. I was seeking God, having previously at age 17 converted to Buddhism while serving in the military in Spain—and I was trying to make sense of this strange world.
While in Asia, I met and married a kind and wonderful Thai woman who was a devout Buddhist. We moved to the States, and after 23 years of marriage, Pen’s health failed, and I lived up to my promise to return her to her homeland to die. We moved back to Songkorn, a small village on the banks of the Mekong River where she was from.
Pen’s death four months later truly devastated me. During this time, however, I remembered a pledge I had made with God seven months earlier. I had been meditating by a pond at a Buddhist temple in Keller, Texas, searching for a spiritual meaning to life, and had prayed, “Lord, I have done man’s work my whole life. Now I am getting ready to retire from the military. Let me be Your servant; use me as You will.” Remembering this promise helped me to know my life would still have some purpose, though I didn’t understand why Creator God had taken my wife from me.
The first purpose I found in living came when I was asked to teach conversational English in the local Thai schools. As a teacher, when the Mekong River flooded during the summer recess, the head school master asked that I help survey the damage done by the flooding to the school property. I traveled by canoe, along with three other people—a couple and a single young lady—to survey the damage. The young lady was Cherish, a Community Development Social Worker assigned to our village.
My name Wirak, translates directly to Cherish in English. I come from a rice-farming, Buddhist family in the lower northeastern corner of Thailand. Part of my job in community development was to assess the devastation done by the flooding to the village under my care. As two friends and I canoed around the flooded area, we took on a passenger, an American known by everyone as Mr. Jim and a teacher of English in our schools. He was also a Buddhist and was active in our local Buddhist temple. I was curious to know why he, an American, was a Buddhist. He explained that he had been a Buddhist for nearly thirty years.
After this initial canoe trip, Mr. Jim and I met for further conversations, and our friendship grew. Then one day he shocked me by asking me to marry him. I told him I was a very traditional Thai woman from a very conservative Thai family and could not answer his request or even express how I felt without first speaking with my parents and asking them how I was supposed to feel. Two months later my brother came to take me and Jim home to hear my father’s response. Very untraditionally, my father told me to follow my heart. So Jim and I were married in a village ceremony, and after visas were granted, we came to the U.S., where I met Jim’s two sons and one daughter and members of his large immediate family.
After Cherish and I returned to the States, I enrolled in the university to finish a degree in social work. Cherish began English language classes offered by the Baptist Student Union, a Christian organization on campus. Concerned that she not be pressured to become a Christian, we met with David Strickland, the BSU Director, and Katrina Newhardt, her teacher. We were assured there would be no pressure. Ironically, David later became my best friend. He knew I had been ordained a Buddhist monk in Thailand and he often listened to me talk about Buddhism. He also answered questions I had about Christianity. He always accepted me, which was an important element in the growth of our friendship.
Before the spring break at the university that year, Cherish and I learned about a mission trip the BSU was planning to Chihuahua, Mexico. Many of the things they were planning to do in Mexico interested me as a social worker. I also felt that God put it in my heart to go on this mission trip. When I approached David, I told him we would be willing to help in any way, except in the mission of evangelizing. The BSU team talked and prayed and also felt that God must be doing something special, so, odd as
it was, we were approved to go.
During the week in Chihuahua, we painted and repaired a local Mexican church in one of the poorest barrios of the city and ministered to children in the local park. I served as photographer for the park ministry, and Cherish taught the children songs and games. On our last day, we took a walking tour of the city where we saw great statues of Mexican heroes and many beautiful, old church buildings. One of the great cathedrals housed a collection of ancient, lifesized paintings of the stations of the cross. As we made our way around the stations, we reached the foot of the cross, with Jesus hanging there, dying. Looking up at Jesus, Cherish asked, “If he was so good, why did they kill him?” David shared with Cherish the reason Jesus died, and he told her that Jesus died for her! He also told her that Jesus rose again so that death no longer has a hold on those who believe in Him. After hearing this, Cherish became very thoughtful, and remained that way for weeks after we returned home. I could sense that Cherish had changed...that now I was a Buddhist with a Christian wife! Later I was able to assure her that it was okay, as all good Buddhists have to seek their own enlightenment.
The last day we were in Chihuahua I knew why we had been given special permission to join the mission trip. Standing at the foot of a life-sized painting of Jesus on the cross, I was introduced to Jesus’ true love—for me! What a wonderful and amazing thing, that the Creator of the universe would become a man and die on a cross and rise again, that I might be saved and be with Him for eternity.
While I continued to seek my own enlightenment through Buddhism, our Christian friends were trying to convince me the Bible was true. One Sunday at an international student luncheon, we heard a Chinese professor give his testimony. He had come to this country as a rationalist to teach engineering at MIT in Boston. He said to keep his Christian friends off his back, he determined to prove the Bible was false. He had checked out over ten thousand references, but he could not find any evidence that the Bible was false. His testimony was very persuasive, and my rock-solid belief in Buddhism began to crack. I became more open to considering that the Bible is true.
To my surprise the very next week my friend David asked if I would do a Bible study in the book of John with him. He had no idea where I had moved in my thinking about the Bible being true. As we began the study, we came to the first passage where John writes “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God.” David explained that “the Word” meant Jesus, and he showed me other passages that supported this idea. Amazingly, just understanding this one truth opened my heart to believe. I felt suddenly transformed—from a rocksolid Buddhist to a believer in Jesus Christ.
At the end of the semester, Cherish and I were baptized in a river because we wanted everyone who had been on the Mexico mission trip to join in the celebration. For the next nine months, both of us were in new believers’ discipleship groups. As we grew in our Christian faith, Cherish wanted to do something to help raise money for missions. She, being an artist, exhibited and auctioned off 20 of her paintings. This act of sacrifice was a testimony to me and many others.
The hardest thing I have ever had to do was tell my traditional Buddhist family in Thailand that I was a Christian. But the following year, I had the opportunity to do so. My family called to say that I must hurry home because my mother had cancer and was dying. I was scared, since Jim was in school working hard on his degree and could not go with me. Before I left, I asked all my Christian friends to pray for a miracle. The Lordprovided two miracles that trip. The first miracle was that my mother was miraculously healed of cancer after the doctors told her there was no more they could do for her.
The other miracle was that He gave me strength to tell my father I was a Christian. I took my father to the gold store, where I bought a gold cross and chain. Then I took my Buddhist medallion off my neckand gave it to my father. I told him I could no longer wear it because I was a Christian. And then I told him why I was a Christian. I assured him that as a Christian I would always respect him as my father. We both cried, but I was so grateful for the privilege of sharing Jesus with my family.
Cherish and I believe that God had an ultimate purpose in bringing us together and we have searched to know His plan for our lives. We came to feel God wanted us to go back to Thailand, to her village, to share God’s love with people there who have yet to know Him. So we have returned “home” to Thailand and God is allowing us to be His servants—giving us a true purpose for life, just as I had longed for as aBuddhist, when I meditated beside a pond in Keller, Texas.