by Rev. Leonardo Neitzel
It is interesting to watch the dynamics of an ant’s nest and trail and observe the way they carry on their ‘business’ in high-speed and in an orderly way. In the same way I found it amazing to observe the people in Phnom Penh conduct their daily life’s routine as I joined Dr. Leonard and Mrs. Harms on our mission visit to Cambodia February 20-23. The noisy streets are crowded with people riding their bicycles, motorcycles, tricycles, tuk-tuks (motorcycles with a two-wheel cart attached with space for four people in normal circumstances), and cars. The city never seems to stop and the traffic is intense. Traffic lights are few, tuk-tuks, motorcycles and bicycles may emerge from almost any direction. There is a code of trust among the residents which guarantees their safety as they drive in the heavy traffic. The beep-beep of motorcycles as well as the honking of cars is loud and almost endless. Even with low income and living in poverty, people here seem happy and there is always a smile on their faces.
Cambodia has 23 provinces, 14 million inhabitants of which one-third live in the capital, Phnom Penh. A considerable population of Chinese and Vietnamese live and work here as well. The official language is Khmer and the people love to speak English. The people live mostly in an informal or subsistence-level economy. However, the automotive, textile and electronics industry and commerce are booming. There are large universities in the capital and in some of the major cities. There are many marginalized children, living below the poverty level, begging on the streets and working at the city’s garbage dump trying to collect whatever is still valuable to sell or trade to provide for their meagre daily bread. Drug abuse and sexual promiscuity among the young people is high. The country is gradually recovering from the civil war and genocide carried out by its communist dictator and political leader Pol Pot and the Khmer political regime of the ‘70s. The marks of this leader’s atrocities are easily seen as one visits the Killing Fields and S-21 sites in the capital where millions of people perished in mass murders including thousands of children.
Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) and affiliated agencies are assisting the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cambodia (ELCC), founded in 2009, to develop its mission and social ministry in the country. LCC has assisted the national church with several mission and social ministry projects during past years. The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League-Canada (LWMLC), Concordia Lutheran Mission Society (CLMS) as well as individuals, congregations and others have been of great blessing to the church as they support the mission and social ministry projects of ELCC.
LCC’s presence is carried out in cooperation with Luther Institute Southeast Asia (LISA) of which Dr. Harms serves as director. Dr. Harms and his wife Carol live in Bangkok and he is also LCC’s volunteer missionary responsible for our mission and education activity in this area.
Nine deaconesses will graduate from LISA in May. They are serving in many provinces in Cambodia. A class of 29 pastoral candidates will complete their seminary training through LISA this May. Many are already serving the ELCC.
The church comprises about 35 congregations and mission stations with 14 pastors working in different regions of the country. All of them are tent-maker pastors (dentists, fishermen, small business owners, etc). Some are just beginning to work with new congregations, and others shepherd several established congregations, Bible study groups and social work. All are involved regularly in mission outreach to their countrymen.
Many congregations and mission stations are small, but the pastors’ commitment to the spreading of the Gospel is tremendous. The ELCC’s main office is located in a rented facility in the capital city from which it carries out its mission and ministry to the entire country. Rev. Vanarith Chhim, the current chairman (the title by which he is called here) has had meetings with his Board of Directors and is working on a strategic plan for the church body. Even before its founding, the ELCC was consulting with Dr. Harms on specific steps in the formation of the national church. It was established on the same Biblical, theological and confessional foundation as LCC. It is an autonomous church body in its administration and is looking forward to continuing its relationship with LCC in terms of mission and social ministry. A complete report of this visit will be presented to President Robert Bugbee for his evaluation.
As it has been in the past, there are numerous opportunities to serve together in God’s mission in Cambodia: training of pastors, deaconesses and church leaders; the continuing education of pastors through LISA; the expansion of the projects in which both churches are already engaged; continuing the social work already started and the prospect of starting new ones; the children’s Christian education and others.
We thank and praise the Lord for the opportunity to visit and meet with the leaders of the church in Cambodia, for their faithfulness and commitment to the work of the Lord. We pray that the Lord of the Church continue to open the doors for ELCC to reach out to the people of Cambodia with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that many more may come to the knowledge of the truth and salvation through Jesus Christ.