Even in lockdown, Asian church doesn’t let its building sit empty
SINGAPORE — In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the…
SIEM REAP, Cambodia — “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.”
Pharrell Williams’ summertime anthem, “Happy,” pulsates from an open-air nightclub. On the crowded dance floor, sweaty European backpackers writhe to the beat.
RELATED: “Of lice and men: Can a week of ‘voluntourism’ make a difference?” Read Erik Tryggestad’s Road Notes. See also: “A man named Ouch seeks healing for Cambodia” and more stories about Churches of Christ in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific in our series, From the East.
In this Southeast Asian city, tourists flock by day to the largest religious monument in the world — Angkor Wat, centuries-old temples dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.
At night, they’re here on Siem Reap’s Pub Street, weaving between booths selling fruit smoothies and pan-fried scorpions. Drivers of motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks offer hushed promises of “hashish” and “boom-boom.” Cambodia, still recovering from war and the reign of the despotic Khmer Rouge, is a hub of sex trafficking, human rights groups report.
Christian youths are here as well, attending an annual rally called Angkor of Faith. After an evening devotional in the lobby of their hotel (whose owners kindly moved a Buddha statue to accommodate them), the veteran participants lead first-timers through the maze of souls to their favorite gelato place.
And a few of them try the scorpions.
Pan-fried spiders, scorpions and other creatures on the streets of Siem Reap. (PHOTO BY JIMMY WANG)
The youths, who represent Churches of Christ across Southeast Asia and as far away as the U.S. and England, experienced a much different truth hours earlier — a truth few tourists here ever see.
The Christians spent the afternoon in a Cambodian village, where they fed, sang songs and danced with children. Then they shampooed and deloused the children’s hair.
“We also teach them how to cut their nails and brush their teeth,” said John Lim, 20, a member of the Pasir Panjang Church of Christ in Singapore. The goal is “basically just to help them improve their lives a little bit.”
In some Southeast Asian cities, division has plagued Churches of Christ. Members have disputed doctrine and fought over rights to church property.
John Lim and fellow Christians serve children in the village of Svean, Cambodia, during Angkor of Faith 10. (PHOTO BY TOMMY CHIA)
“Previously, from what my parents have said, churches used to be kind of isolated from each other,” Lim said.
Events such as Angkor of Faith and the annual Asian Mission Forum — next scheduled for late July in Malaysia — are “stepping stones to greater unity,” he said. “If things keep going as they are right now, I really think that we’re going to see a lot more sharing and integration.”
Unity was the theme of morning devotionals at the event, led by Wade Hodges, senior minister for the Preston Road Church of Christ in Dallas.
“I think this is the most diversity I’ve ever seen in a church,” he said as he surveyed the hotel lobby filled with 126 souls from 13 countries.
Wade Hodges discusses the apostle Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Ephesians during Angkor of Faith (PHOTO BY TOMMY CHIA)
“Our culture has taught us that it’s OK to treat people from different cultures differently,” Hodges said. Two millennia ago, the apostle Paul wrote letters to young churches in Galatia and Ephesus, urging them to be “not a church of the same” but “a fellowship of difference.”
“It is the diversity in the church,” Hodges said, “that reveals the power of the Gospel to a divided world.”
HEART-SOFTENING IN CAMBODIAN VILLAGES
“It is very hot — way hotter than it is in Singapore,” said Gladys Chen, 17, who somehow mustered the energy to jump and wave her arms as she sang “Today is the day, You have made. I will rejoice and be glad in it” with the village kids in 99-degree heat.
“Just seeing the joy in the kids’ faces, I guess, just keeps us going,” said Chen, who worships with the Moulmein Church of Christ in Singapore.
Theary Sy, in ball cap at left, helps a Cambodian child mimic animal noises as other kids guess the animal — and their parents watch. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
Kids were the inspiration for Angkor of Faith. More than a decade ago, when Siem Reap was the site of the Asian Mission Forum, missionaries wanted to find a way to serve the children they saw peddling souvenirs and begging for coins from tourists at Angkor Wat.
Several of those children, now grown, assist as the visitors feed and play games with the children. This year, instead of bringing them to Siem Reap, the participants took buses to two of the children’s home villages.
There, meters away from spirit houses — mailbox-size shrines where Cambodians offer fruits and cola to appease protective spirits — the young Christians hosted what they called a “mini-Vacation Bible School.”
Bailey Kate leads children past a spirit house during Angkor of Faith hygiene day in the village of Kvean, Cambodia. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
With an ever-present smile, Theary Sy spoke to the children in their native Khmer language as the foreigners tried to help them improve their English with an animal guessing game. She roared, barked, “moo-ed” and cackled with delight as the children yelled “Lion!” “Dog!” and “Cow!”
The Cambodian Christian grew up in a village outside the capital, Phnom Penh, and used to sew and sell vegetables to survive.
“My house was smaller than this,” she said, pointing up at one of the humble wood dwellings on stilts. She became a Christian after meeting missionaries in Phnom Penh and “seeing the love that they have.”
Now, she hopes the village children she serves — and their parents — will find what she’s found in Christ.
“I pray this will lighten their hearts, soften their hearts and that, hopefully, they will see the love to God,” Sy said.
After an afternoon of games and face-painting in a Cambodian village, a preaching student loads supplies.An increasing number of Cambodians take oversight roles in Angkor of Faith. In one village, students from the International Bible School of Siem Reap, a program supported by Churches of Christ, and a few of the children dressed up in costume and presented a skit in Khmer about the life of Joseph from the Old Testament.
“They were paying attention,” said Piseth Rin, a graduate and teacher at the Bible school who asked questions after the performance.
In a country where people pay homage to multiple spirits, “what’s most difficult is to show them the true God,” he said. Showing their children the love of Christ is a good first step — something “I can learn from the brothers and sisters overseas.”
That spirit of unity, despite doctrinal differences, keeps Don Buo coming back to Angkor of Faith.
It also keeps him young.
“I’m not young anymore. I’m 43,” said the Bible college instructor and song leader from the island of Cebu in the Philippines. “Serving with the young people somehow makes me feel young.
“Within the Philippines there is division,” he added, “and I know that’s the same in other countries as well.
“But being in an environment like this … we all put down our differences and we serve as one.
“That, to me, is amazing.”
In the village of Kvean, Cambodia, Mit Vikraman and fellow Christians sing “Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah, Praise ye the Lord!” with children during the 10th Angkor of Faith. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD) Faces of Angkor of Faith
Murrell, a member of the Moulmein Church of Christ, is “the dedicated, super-stressed, detailed planner (and perfectionist) who has given so many hours to help pull Angkor of Faith 10 together, and has been the backbone of our organizing team,” said her husband, Kendon, who also served on the team.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
“She is an indomitable force that gets anything and everything done.” That’s how Faith Murrell describes Lougn, a member of the Siem Reap Church of Christ who organized buses and tuk-tuks and handled much of the logistics for Angkor of Faith 10.
“We could not have done this without Minea,” Murrell said.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Angkor of Faith is one way Sareephan gives back to his community. Baptized 10 years ago in Thailand, he runs Bay’s Café, a coffee shop in Chiang Mai that follows what he calls a “missions-as-business” model. Profits from the business help ministry efforts. The shop also provides a safe place to talk about faith.
“I can feel God working here,” Haxhiraj said of Southeast Asia. Her parents left Albania during the Balkan Wars, and she grew up in the Wembley Church of Christ in London.
Serving as a missions intern in Thailand and at Angkor of Faith influenced her decision to become a teacher, she said.
“Don’t let Ankor of Faith just be a single week,” Vikraman, one of the organizers, told participants. The Malaysia native brought a team from Oklahoma Christian University, where he’s earning a graduate degree in theology. “Let the passion that was flamed … continue to spread across the nations,” he said.
CHURCHES OF CHRIST: Cambodian refugees in neighboring Thailand were taught by evangelist Wanat Hun and others. In 1992, 15 refugee families planted a church in Siem Reap. Missionaries serve in Phnom Penh and other parts of the country. Medical ministries including the Ship of Life help spread the Gospel.
ANGKOR OF FAITH: Launched in 2007, the conference is organized by church members in Southeast Asia. Organizers for the 10th gathering included Faith and Kendon Murrell, Mit Vikraman and Sue Ann Mak of Singapore.
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