Taking Christ to Cambodia

by Paula Schlueter Ross

Peter Sok was a young man serving in the Cambodian army when the Khmer Rouge took over, systematically slaughtering the wealthy, the educated, and the religious in its quest to turn the country into a communist state.

Sok let his hair grow long and shaggy so he would look more like a simple peasant–and less threatening–to the Pol Pot regime. He stopped wearing his eyeglasses because the communist leader’s henchmen “knew those people had been well educated” and “they tried to eliminate all the educated people,” he said.

Like others who were allowed to live, Sok became a slave for his captors, working long hours in the rice fields digging irrigation ditches and building dams.

On an evening in late 1976, a year after the red-sashed Khmer Rouge came into power, Sok and eight friends made a run for the Thailand border. One morning at daybreak, as they squatted beside a river to wash, they heard gunfire. Five in the group were shot by Pol Pot’s soldiers.

His heart pounding, Sok ran for his life. As he looked back, his fallen comrades motioned to the others as if to say “don’t worry about [us], just keep going,” Sok recalled.

For three weeks, the four survivors traveled only at night, winding their way through the dense jungle, eating roots and other vegetation, wary of setting off land mines. Weak, but alive, they made it across the border.

Like thousands of other refugees who escaped from Cambodia, Sok had to undergo “processing” in a Thai prison. A missionary visited him and gave him a Bible in the Cambodian language, Khmer.

That was the beginning of his life as a Christian, says Peter Sok, who was brought to the United States by Lutheran sponsors in 1979 and is now lay minister for Trinity Lutheran Church, Stockton, Calif., a Cambodian congregation.

And, though he didn’t realize it then, that long-ago experience planted a seed for a ministry that has taken him back to Cambodia many times.

The first time, in 1996, Sok and his wife, Mary, returned to visit his elderly mother after a 20-year absence. It upset him to see his fellow countrymen “worshiping everything–trees, stones, statues”–as Buddhists.

“For many years Christ has made my life blessed, and they should know that [blessing], too,” Sok thought. “They should know the true God, the God that can help them and can save them.”

At that time, he prayed, “Lord, if You will, give us the opportunity to come back again and share the Good News with the people.”

God answered, Sok says, by providing not only the opportunities, but also congregational funding partners–like Mount Hope, Boulder, Colo.; Shepherd of the Rockies, Bailey, Colo.; and his own congregation, Trinity, Stockton–which have enabled him to return to his homeland to:

  • tell people in Battambang–in the western, less developed, part of the country–about Jesus (2001);
  • start a congregation there and buy land for a church and school (2002);
  • build the church (2003);
  • teach and encourage the congregation (2004);
  • build the school (2005);
  • train church leaders (2006).

Today, the congregation–“Cambodian Trinity Lutheran Church Battambang”–has some 80 worshipers. About 100 children attend its school, which offers only two courses: English as a foreign language and religion. (The students attend classes there during midday breaks from their government schools.)

“This is my dream coming true,” says Sok, now 53 and the father of six children. “There’s no more Khmer Rouge, no more communist, and I can go anyplace.

“I can share the Good News in the hotel, I can share the Good News in the restaurants, I can share the Good News in the food stand, in the schools. No fear at all. It is different.

“That is my dream, that Christianity will be growing over there.”

Open door to hearts
That dream is shared by LCMS missionaries Peg Wolfram and Rev. Chuck and Dr. Jeanette Groth, who have been serving in Cambodia since May 2005 and February 2006, respectively. A fourth missionary, Greg Holz, began his service there last month.

Wolfram teaches English and leads classes for Sunday-school teachers, “builds relationships” with villagers, and helps with human-care projects. She says it was “very exciting to come into a new culture, to meet the people, and see how God was–and is–working in this country.

“Because of the genocide in the ’70s, many of the people I am working with had been captured by the Khmer Rouge at a very young age and had suffered unimaginable acts,” she said. “I learn so much from them and how God is using their past experiences to further His kingdom. Their strong faith and total trust in our risen Lord is a continual inspiration.”

Assisting Wolfram are three young Cambodian men in their 20s who specialize in youth ministry. Dubbed the “Praise Team,” the trio “is connecting with not just youth but all age groups,” according to Wolfram. “Their gifts of music, dance, and song–which they also teach–are giving youth in the villages nourishment in faith and they are having a lot of fun as well.”

The team also leads discussions with teens about HIV/AIDS, drugs, making choices, peer pressure, and family relationships. Wolfram says “they base all of their topics on What does the Bible say?'”

Wolfram’s partners in ministry–the Groths–spent five years serving in Ghana, West Africa, before accepting calls to Cambodia.

This month the couple marks their first year in Cambodia, where they are involved in theological education. Chuck serves as pastor/mentor to a dozen pastors-in-training. Jeanette, who holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, works with the pastors, Sunday-school teachers, and other church leaders, helping them to improve their teaching skills.

“This is important, as the strategy for spreading the Gospel in Asia is to coordinate with existing Christian schools, help them develop, and grow up a nation of Christian leaders,” explains Jeanette.

Chuck describes the ministry as “exciting because it’s brand-new work. Christianity is definitely a minority”–representing just 2 percent of the overwhelmingly Buddhist population.

But a number of Christian groups are providing education and human-care services in the country, so “that creates an interest,” he says. “People ask you about Christianity–they’re curious. And that gives you an open door.”

Open Gate—a Christian Partner
LCMS World Mission has sponsored theological education and human-care ministries in Cambodia since 1999, with funding from LCMS World Relief/Human Care. Synod efforts are conducted through Open Gate Christian Fellowship, an independent Christian church body based in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, with more than a dozen congregations and preaching stations and a membership of 3,000-plus.

LCMS contributions have funded a daycare, kindergarten, English classes, computer training, and seminars for Christian leaders at Open Gate.

And, while Open Gate isn’t historically Lutheran, the theological training it sponsors is, since it’s taught by LCMS missionaries.

“We are definitely Lutheran and we make no apologies for that,” explains Jeanette Groth. “We share Lutheran theology, we are conservative in our theology, and that’s what people are hearing.”

The Groths say they are amazed at the popularity of Christian leadership seminars in Cambodia. It’s not unusual for 60 people to attend one of their workshops for Sunday-school teachers.

“It’s the response to what we’re offering,” says Chuck. “It’s just a huge response.”

The Cambodians come because of the Holy Spirit’s influence and “a four letter word: hope,” says Jeanette. Christianity offers real hope–the promise of forgiveness and salvation that doesn’t have to be earned.

To many, it’s a more attractive alternative to Buddhism, which followers believe requires multiple reincarnations to atone for their failings. And, although Buddhists may pray to many “gods,” they can’t be sure of anything like the Christian’s heaven.

Wolfram relishes comments from Cambodians who have come to know Christ:

“I never knew God loved me so much.”

“No one has ever given me a gift or shown me love before.

“Unconditional love for me?”

“My son is sick–will you pray with me for him?”

Chuck Groth recalled helping an Open Gate pastor with his weekly sermons. The pastor often calls Groth on Sunday afternoon to relate what he preached earlier that day.

“His tag line last time was, and I felt so good,'” said Groth.

Water for a parched land
Unlike some Asian countries that are closed to Christian evangelists, in Cambodia “you don’t feel like you’re pushing against an immovable wall,” he said. “You rather feel like you’re spreading water on parched land.”

Last March, the missionaries witnessed the baptism of 164 Cambodians in a lake near Phnom Penh. Some came from as far as 300 miles away, and one large group arrived standing in the back of a dump truck!

Three Open Gate pastors performed the baptisms.

“It was a moving event to see these people publicly proclaim their faith in a country where many have no Christians in their family and where being a Christian may cause separation and ridicule,” wrote the Groths in their April 2006 “Groth Report” letter to supporters.

Wolfram described it as “a wonderful and emotional experience to see so many people called to serve God in His kingdom.” The sight in the lake reminded her of John the Baptist and Jesus, she said, and was “a strong reminder of how God is working in His kingdom here in Cambodia.”

In addition to Battambang, in northwest Cambodia, Synod missionaries also are working in Siem Reap, northeast of Battambang; and in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, in the south.

As for the future, “the church that Peter built” at Battambang likely will become a theological training center, say missionaries.

The Groths have identified 12 men from across Cambodia as their first pastoral leadership class. They had initially limited the class to 10, because of logistics and the cost involved, but “then our arms were twisted,” says Chuck. “There were two others who said, Oh please, please, please.'”

Even now, others continue to ask, “Only 12?” laughs Jeanette.

The class will meet in weeklong workshops several times throughout the year, studying topics such as “interpreting the Scriptures.”

“We want to send them back [home] with a tool box’ [so] they can take the training they’ve had and train others in their area,” says Chuck.

Even now, “the growth of the [Christian] church is amazing,” says Wolfram. “When I first came [in 2005], the percentage of Christianity was 1 percent–now I’m told that it has grown to 2 percent, maybe due to having access to remote villages, identifying Christian leaders in the villages, providing leadership training, and being able to encourage those leaders.”

Peter Sok believes more Cambodians will see “how the Lord has blessed the church and the school” at Battambang, and through its theological training center “there will be more people coming to know Christ. That’s in my heart. I can see because [religious freedom there] is quite different from before.”

Says Jeanette: “We have a terrific message to throw out to the world: If you are lost, we have a Savior! if you need love and support, our Jesus is always with us and in us!”

A song written by a Cambodian refugee and often performed at Trinity, Battambang, and other churches is titled “Cambodia for Christ,” she adds.

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