Reflections from Thailand and Cambodia

January 26, 2011

by Robert Bugbee

(Photos by Carol Harms)

Even though I’m back in my office chair in Winnipeg, in my thoughts I’m still very much back “on the road” as I recall a week packed full with visiting our mission partners in Thailand and Cambodia. Internet headaches aborted a report I sent while I was gone, but I want to report to all of you what’s going on there while everything is still fresh in my mind.

The trip was lengthy—made lengthier by a delayed plane from Vancouver to Tokyo that made me miss my connection to Bangkok. I arrived 35 hours after leaving Winnipeg. Dr. Leonard and Carol Harms, gracious hosts throughout my visit, got me quickly to a welcome shower and cup of coffee, because my first informal meeting with staff began four hours after I arrived.

A long first day

President Bugbee discusses outreach with “Boom” Monta Ekwanit, director of the Lutheran Hour Ministries office for Thailand

President Bugbee discusses outreach with “Boom” Monta Ekwanit, director of the Lutheran Hour Ministries office for Thailand

Bangkok is home to a number of our ministry partners: The “Thailand Concordia Lutheran Church” (TCLC); “Into Light Lutheran Church” (a congregation in Bangkok); “Journey Into Light” (the Thai name for Lutheran Hour Ministries); and “Luther Institute – Southeast Asia” (LISA, the agency that provides seminary training for pastoral candidates in that part of the world). A number of co-workers from these groups spent coffee and conversation time with me the morning I arrived.

In the afternoon of that first day, we were off to the airport again, and another flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We were met there by Rev. Vanarith Chhim, president of the “Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cambodia” (ELCC). Pastor Vanarith, just 29 years old, was converted to Christianity in the 1990s, like most of his pastoral colleagues in the ELCC. He was also attracted by Luther’s Small Catechism and the clarity of our Law/Gospel approach to God’s Word.

Trained by LISA in Phnom Penh, Vanarith became an acknowledged leader of the church in his country despite his young age. Without any pushing or prompting by outsiders, the Cambodian Lutherans decided on their own to constitute their self-governing synod in 2009. The Cambodian government has formally recognized the ELCC a religious organization by, and already the new church body numbers dozens of congregations and/or preaching stations.

Encouragement and harsh reality

President Vanarith Chhim and President Bugbee in front of the building which houses Lutheran Heritage Foundation, LISA, headquarters for Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cambodia (ELCC) and services are held in this building also.

President Vanarith Chhim and President Bugbee in front of the building which houses Lutheran Heritage Foundation, LISA, headquarters for Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cambodia (ELCC) and services are held in this building also.

On my second day in the region, I met with the ELCC Board of Directors, and was heartened to hear these young pastors tell the stories of their conversions and their enthusiasm for having found their way to our Lutheran church. Many of them endured abuse and criticism from Buddhist relatives after their conversions. Still, their zeal for Christ, their desire for more resources translated and printed in their Khmer language, and their deep gratitude toward our Canadian church are a huge encouragement.

Of course, it’s hard to visit Cambodia without hearing something of the dreadful genocide which took place in the late 1970s. Though my schedule did not allow me to visit the infamous “killing fields,” I did see a former high school transformed into a torture-factory back in those days. I won’t go into details about the methods of torture employed by the regime, but they are chilling. It was especially upsetting to learn they treated babies and young children with the same harshness as adults.

The presidents beside a fish pond on Pastor Sem Sothea’s property. The fish provide food and income for the pastor and his congregation
The presidents beside a fish pond on Pastor Sem Sothea’s property. The fish provide food and income for the pastor and his congregation

My last day in Cambodia was taken up with a trip to the countryside. Near Kampot we had something like a “circuit forum” in which pastors, deaconesses and church members gathered to meet me, since they’d been unable to make the trip into the city. I saw one of the famous fish ponds and how it provides income for a poor pastor and his family, since the congregations don’t have the means to provide salaries for their ministers. (It made me proud of the Sunday school children back at Holy Cross, Kitchener, where I used to be pastor, who gave so much money for these projects. Yes, children, your love did make a difference!)

Church relationships

President Bugbee models the Thai shirt presented to him by President Ted Na Thalang of Thailand Concordia Lutheran Church.

President Bugbee models the Thai shirt presented to him by President Ted Na Thalang of Thailand Concordia Lutheran Church.

After two days in Phnom Penh, I returned to Bangkok for two days in that enormous city of 11 million residents, Thailand’s capital. The country, home to 67 million people, is noticeably wealthier and more advanced than Cambodia. LISA courses in this city have helped train pastors for TCLC. I’m so grateful for “our” Dr. Len Harms and all the time he has taken in retirement to devote to this work. His wife, Carol, has also embraced Thailand as a second home and offers warm encouragement to the Thai church and its people.

The full-day meeting with TCLC leaders was a wonderful experience. They outlined the history of their church, their hopes for the future, and their desire to join the Cambodians in establishing a special working agreement with LCC. They treasure the fact that, instead of sending North American missionaries to do the work for them, we invest in training native pastors who speak the people’s language and can understand them more deeply than we ever will.

I think I was at eight different airports during this trip. After a flight southward from Bangkok, I spent my final two days in the region around Takuapa and Khok Kloi, where we’ve had partnership with the churches for many years. This region is the tropical part of Thailand that dangles like a “tail” toward Malaysia (check your atlas at home; you’ll see). It’s also the stunning waterfront region where the tsunami hit the beaches six years ago. Yes, the scars are still there: large ships driven inland by the water that cannot be moved back to the sea; refugee-type housing for families who lost their homes. But the rebuilding has happened, too. Now it’s a very swanky tourist region, especially frequented by people from Scandinavia and Germany. Rubber trees, pineapple farms and elephants meeting you as you drive along the highway are par for this course.

…and finally

Friends, I apologize this has become so long. During my initial term of office I have attempted to visit all our major mission fields: Ukraine in 2009 and 2010, Nicaragua in 2010, and now Thailand/Cambodia in 2011.

Everywhere I go it’s a wonderful story of people whose lives have meaning now because of God’s Son, Who died for them and was raised again. Everywhere I go it’s a wonderful story of people who thank you for the approach taken by our Canadian church to equip them for their work so they can reach their neighbours. Everywhere I go it’s mixed with a little frustration that I cannot pack all of you into the suitcase and take you along, because the story of our LCC mission work is a story of money carefully spent, grateful partners in far-off lands, and people who by their courage and devotion teach and give us far more than we can ever give them.

God bless you all for your prayer support and gifts of love for this work! And thanks for taking the time to read these lines, which I send to all of you…

…in the love of Christ,

Robert Bugbee, president


Lutheran missionary reports on Bangkok situation

May 15, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Leonard Harms

Carol and I are waiting in the departure area of the airport in Phnom Penh Cambodia. We have been watching the news closely. At the present time there are no reasons for us to fear returning to Bangkok. The news has certainly not been good. The military has decided to surround the area in which the dissidents have made their headquarters and rallying point. The Red Shirt takeover of that part of the city does not affect us where we live. We are about 26 km from where that action is located. However, there is a strong military presence to and from the airport and on highways approaching the city from the North of Thailand. The government is trying to prevent the dissidents from invading the city in large numbers. They have been successful

The social and financial impact of the past few months will take a long time to settle out. As you can imagine, foreign governments are advising their citizens not to travel to Thailand. However, it still remains quite safe for those of us who do not go downtown to the tourist areas. Foreigners are understandably not coming to Thailand in great numbers.

However, God is watching over all of us in the church here. We remain safe and we do not take chances. Next week Carol and I will be in the Phang Nga province to visit our brothers and sisters in Takuapa and Khok Kloi. We will be about 500 km from the far south where there is a continuing Islamic insurrection. We will still be safe.

Remember our brothers and sisters in Thailand Concordia Lutheran Church in your prayers. We remain comforted and protected in God’s loving hands.

Connecting with people is key to outreach everywhere

March 6, 2010

By Dr. William Mundt

Bangkok, Thailand – Phase one of a two-week teaching trip to southeast Asia has now come to an end for me and seminarians Jeff Swords and Wayne Zhange from Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, Ontario. They are assisting me in teaching while broadening their own horizons in regards to overseas missions and cross-cultural outreach.

Dr. William Mundt (left) consults with Dr. Leonard Harms prior to a teaching session in Bangkok.

The first week of classes ended Friday afternoon, March 5, at the Lutheran Institute of Southeast Asia centred in Bangkok, Thailand. Dr. Len Harms, former LCC mission executive coordinates training opportunities out of that centre. Twelve Thai pastors and deaconesses spent the week training in basic evangelism, mission and apologetic principles based on the Bible and lessons from the early church, and the history of missions.

Their final assignment was presenting their own proposals for intensifying outreach activities in the areas where they serve. Projects they identified included support for seniors, craft and a home-based bakery instruction for housewives, special open-house events, concern for the Thai native population (the Akha) and so on. If all these methods sound familiar, it may be because they are much like what LCC pastors and congregations might do.

The sights, sounds, tastes, smells and scheduling (Thai time is different!) may vary, but ultimately outreach is about speaking the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the needs of people we connect with daily.

Throughout the Bible and mission history, such personal contacts have proven most successful. The challenge now is for those trained to become trainers for the next two years in the cities and villiages where they already serve. The goal is to train and equip and encourage their members to be a part of the local mission.

After prayers and fond farewells from these brothers and sisters in Christ, whom we now know as friends also, we depart for Cambodia where a large group of eager learners will soon arrive at the Chin Tong Guest House, Phnom Penh, for a similar class beginning Monday afternoon, March 8.

After that we return, in stages, to St. Catharines, exchanging +40 degree Celsius dry weather for somewhat cooler and wetter conditions at home.

Rev. Dr. William Mundt is a professor of theology at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario.

New mission opportunities in Thailand

February 17, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Leonardo Neitzel
When visiting the communities and mission stations served by Pastors Suchat Srikakarn and Suchat Chujit in Takuapa and surroundings, I am impressed by the opportunities the Lord God opens for His people to witness to His salvation.

Dr. Leonardo Neitzel and Dr. Leonard Harms (at left) visit with pastors and church leaders in Takuapa, Thailand.

The first place we visited was the home of the chairman of a congregation in that area. He joyfully opened his home to us and showed us a piece of land by the highway next door to his home that he wants to donate to his congregation to build a church. It will take an estimated $ 8,000 to build the church. Would this project be of interest to congregations or individuals in LCC?

We visited two more mission stations where the both the needs and mission opportunities are great. In each place about twenty people regularly gather for worship and Bible study. According to the pastors, these would certainly be well-served if they could be blessed with forty hymnals and forty Bibles in Thai, along with forty chairs and one fan. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism is also available in Thai and generously provided by the Lutheran Heritage Foundation. According to Pastor Sompong in Bangkok, Luther’s Catechism has great acceptance among people beyond our Lutheran circles. It has served to sow the seed of God’s Word in the homes of many who are coming to know Christ.

We pray God’s blessings upon the mission and ministry of the pastors we joined for the weekend. We praise Him for the faithful work they are doing together with their congregations. We also pray that the Holy Spirit may continue to create faith in the hearts of people who are receiving and reading the Holy Scripture, Luther’s Catechism and we pray that other Lutheran resources may be made available and distributed by our brothers and sisters of the TCLC—Thai Concordia Lutheran Church.

“You will be my witnesses…”

February 15, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Leonardo Neitzel

Buddhist monks

Buddhism defines Thailand

Thailand is a kingdom of the Buddhist faith and practice where the influence of Islam is growing. It is a country of diverse and fascinating landscape; of the richest rubber tree and rice plantation; of contrasts between poor and rich; of friendly, kind and very respectful people.

Into this unique region, God has brought Lutheran Church–Canada to bear witness of His love through Jesus Christ as Savior for all people. Here is where we joined faithful Lutheran servants on our first day visiting the mission fields.

We met Dr. Leonard Harms (and his wife Carol) LCC mission area volunteer and director of Lutheran Institute of Southeast Asia (LISA) in Bangkok. LISA prepares pastors, deaconesses and lay leaders for the work of God’s kingdom. We also met Joe and Ar, his beloved wife, who together with Robin, have dedicated their time and gifts in reaching out to others, becoming God’s bridge-builders for the Gospel of Jesus Christ in such a challenging world.

Later we met Rev.Som Pong,  pastor of the Concordia Into Light Church in Bangkok, who also assists Dr. Harms at LISA. He speaks fluent English and has been a blessing and of great help to LCC’s mission.

As you interact with non-Christian Thais it seems their spiritual life is like living in a vacuum or nothingness, having no grasp of the salvation and blessed eternity of forgiveness, peace and joy which Jesus Christ has conquered for all people through His suffering, death and resurrection. Their faith-based life is shaped by the view that “each and every god helps a little bit in one or another way, should someone need help.” They believe that humans are perfect; they don’t know what sin is or whether it relates to their life. Based on your efforts at perfecting the law, whatever you do will be credited to you in some way.

There is also the secular and materialistic side of this world where the advances of technology and communication have come to stay; where investors from other parts of the world invest and conduct profitable businesses; where you meet tourists from almost all parts of the world touring and spending vacation along the fascinating beaches; where nationals work in many kinds of activities (bars, groceries, taxi drivers, restaurants of may kinds) as a way of living.

As the southern part of Thailand is rebuilding after the tsunami and seems thriving with a growing economy, our prayer is that the Lord will continue providing strength and give His people eyes wide open to see how to relate to the culture better and to serve here with the spiritual food people need most – the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ.

May the Lord sustain His servants in LCC as well as His church in Thailand as He has called us His witnesses for Jesus sake.

Time in Cambodia

January 17, 2010

by Dr. Edward Kettner

On Friday afternoon, January 8, the group flew from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Siem Reap is the site of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.  The earliest of these temples were built in the 12th century, during the time Hinduism was the chief religion of Cambodia.  The temples reflect the stories in the Hindu writing known as the Ramayana.  We spent Saturday touring the various temple sites, going from one to another by tuktuk, looking at the unusual buildings and carvings.  This tour helped us to increase our understanding of the religious background of the region, though the current predominant religion in Cambodia is Buddhism.

On Sunday we went by bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, a journey of about six hours.  On Sunday evening we attending worship at a local congregation, with the service being led by an LCMS missionary       stationed in Cambodia, and with Dr. Harms preaching the sermon.  On Monday morning we took a van to a village about 80 kilometers outside of Phom Penh, where we met members of the congregation, particularly the children of the congregation, along with the pastor and deaconess who serve them. The children of the community greeted us with a short play, acting out the story of the Good Samaritan for us.  We were told that because Christianity has come to this village the incidence of alcoholism and domestic violence is far less than it is in other villages.  Though there is a strict male-female hierarchy in the society, it is the women who are strongest in their gospel proclamation.  The deaconesses bring the faith to the women in the villages, and by their influence their husbands also come to know Christ.  In this particular village the pastor has moved to a Lutheran understanding of the faith because of the work of the deaconesses.  Pictures attached show the students in dialogue with the people of the village, and the Pastor, his wife, his daughter, and others.

Seminary classes began Monday afternoon, taking place at a guest house near the Phnom Penh airport.  The class contains both pastors and deaconesses, who are all eager learners.  Once again, the Edmonton students each took part in leading one of the class sessions.  They find in a challenge to work through a translator and to make sure that what they teach can be understood by those coming from a Cambodian culture.  When the class as part of their devotions one day sang “Jesus Loves Me” in the Khmer language, it really brought home the fact that the good news of Jesus is meant for people of all nations.  Attached pictures show some of the deaconesses in classes, students teaching the class, and the entire class along with the Edmonton students.

During the week, the students also had the opportunity to to visit the infamous “Killing Fields,” where many people had been put to death by the followers of Pol Pot, who had attempted to reinstate a completely rural agrarian society in Cambodia through the “re-education” and murder of anyone deemed to be an “intellectual.”  This sobering experience showed them the depths of human corruption that Christ came to redeem us from.  They also visited the church at the city dump, again seeing how people in terrible poverty are nevertheless able to worship God with dignity.

Our Week in Thailand

January 16, 2010

by Dr. Ed Kettner

During the week in Thailand day began as students took a turn at leading opening devotions, and each student took a turn teaching to the Thai students. Attached pictures show yours truly along with seminarian Stephen Bartlett working with Pastor Sompong, our translator.

During the times when they were not teaching they had the opportunity for preparations, and for visiting other mission sites in Bangkok. Of special interest and appeal was a visit to a day care centre run by one of the congregations. The person in charge, a young woman by the name of Goi, gave the students an opportunity to meet the children and to also ask her some questions about how this enterprise gives opportunity for the proclamation of the Gospel.
There were opportunities during the week for the students to get out and see the city of Bangkok. Missouri Synod deaconess interns Betsy and Sarah took the group to the major shopping mall on evening and to Chinatown on another, and the students had the opportunity to try bargaining for goods with local merchants. This helped them see the challenges of communicating cross culturally, and provided opportunities for discussion about differences in Eastern and Western values. The challenges of moving across a huge city were met in a single evening as the group traveled by cab, subway and tuk-tuk (a rickshaw-like conveyance powered by motorcycle) to get to Chinatown.
On Thursday evening, Dr. and Mrs. Harms had the group over to their apartment complex for dinner. Seminarian Mike Montague led a Bible Study on the account of the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, the Gospel for Epiphany. This was quite appropriate since the theme of the Gospel is Jesus as light to the nations.

Edmonton students learn and serve in Thailand

January 5, 2010

Dr. Ed Kettner (yours truly) arrived in Bangkok, Thailand at about 11:30 p.m. January 1 with five second-year students from Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Edmonton. They were met at the airport by Pastor Sompong, the local pastor. After a night’s rest, the students began an orientation session with Dr. Leonard Harms, who led them through some principles of communicating the Gospel cross culturally, as well as some important aspects of Thai culture.
Sunday included church at Into Light Church in Bangkok (on the same compound as Luther Institute Southeast Asia), where seminarian Darren Dressler preached, and visits to Bangkok’s weekend market and night market.
On Monday the class on Lutheran Confessional Writings began for the students from Thailand. During the week the students from Edmonton will lead devotions for the students and will as assist with the classes for the Thai students.
This is a welcome opportunity to immerse the students in a different culture and to give them insight and practice in serving God and people for whom Christ died.

Thoughtful at home

March 5, 2009

I arrived back in Winnipeg after a double Wednesday. Travelling across the International Dateline takes away one day travelling west and gives it back travelling east. Either way, it makes for a long journey. My body isn’t sure that time it is, but at least the weather here is not extremely cold so the re-entry into winter wasn’t so bad.

I’ve had some time to think about my experience in Thailand and Cambodia and what I learned.

The first lesson is about God’s Spirit and the power of His Word. In both countries I saw how Christians, responding to God’s love in Christ reach out to their communities spontaneously—from the pastors in Phnom Penh who work with children in the garbage dump, to a pastor in Thailand who interrupts the traffic of young women headed for the streets of Bangkok. They simply saw the need and responded in faith. There were no committee discussions, task force investigations or budget discussions. They had no idea who would fund the work; but God did! He moved the hearts of men and women on the other side of the world to provide financial support. We have similar needs and similar outreach opportunities in Canada. And we don’t have to look halfway around the world for funding. Maybe we are too willing to let the government do the compassionate work of the church!

The second lesson relates to culture. Southeast Asia is more than 97 percent Buddhist—and that is in name only. A close look at the spirituality would show a veneer of Buddhism over layers of animism, and Hinduism, particularly in Thailand. The Christians know they are outnumbered, yet they faithfully attend worship, study God’s Word and find ways to make their presence visible. For them, to be a Christian sets them at odds with their culture. Many find themselves alone because their families have disowned them for turning their back on their culture. On the other hand, some families are intrigued with the Christian faith because they see the difference Christ has made in the lives of their loved ones. After coming to faith in Christ, one young man stopped stealing money for gambling from his father. And his father noticed and appreciated the change. He is still not a believer, but that time may soon come!

This minority status evokes a passion for the Gospel that is a hallmark of new believers and a new church. We who have grown up Christian and lived our lives in the church world often become complacent, even apathetic. We don’t always notice the signs of spiritual battle surrounding us. In Thailand, you can go 10 meters down any road without seeing a spirit house with a fresh offering or a Buddhist Wat or monk.

So much of our culture is equally heathen, just not as obvious. The danger we face is contented Christianity.

My third reflection on my Southeast Asia experience is how much we don’t ‘get’ when we read the Bible. Essentially, the Bible is an ‘Eastern’ book. It comes from a culture that is not ours, yet through God’s Spirit it still speaks to our Western minds. For the Eastern mind, it says so much more. This came to mind when I was preparing for the planning session with the Takuapa church. During a discussion with a long-time observer of Thai culture, I discovered that the concept of planning two or three years down the road is completely foreign. The culture is very much day-to-day. This reminded me of Jesus’ words: Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matt. 6:34).

Our Western rationalism has also robbed us of understanding the ongoing battle waging in the spiritual realm. When you are face-to-face with Buddhist temples, monks chanting and people living in fear of evil spirits, Paul’s words about our battle “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12) become real. Eastern Christians understand this. Western Christians explain it all away.

Finally, I was reminded of the global nature of God’s family. Whether in Thailand or Cambodia or Canada, God’s love in Christ and His Word unifies us and His people are all different colours, shapes and sizes. On Sunday during the service, I joined about a dozen other believers in Takuapa, Thailand at the Lord’s Table. If given the chance, I couldn’t hold a conversation with them, or read their translation of the Bible, but I could share the reality of God’s forgiveness and strengthening found in the Holy Communion. We are brothers and sisters, thousands of kilometers apart, but united by Christ.

Southern reflections

March 1, 2009

We returned to Bangkok Sunday afternoon. The visit south was encouraging. It was good to see the new housing for the tsunami refugees and see the area rebuilt and slowly attracting more tourists. Saturday, I sat in on the council meeting for Takuapa Sahatay Lutheran Church. I couldn’t understand anything, but the agenda showed me they were going through the same kinds of discussions Lutheran Church–Canada’s Board of Directors will encounter next weekend, like budgets!

One of the reasons I came to Thailand was to help the board with some strategic planning. I knew coming into the exercise there would be some cultural differences.
In stilted conversation and translation we managed to talk about the church’s strengths and weaknesses, and from there we identified three areas upon which the church can concentrate some of its efforts.

The first was the need to identify future pastors and deaconesses. This is something every congregation needs to do. I posed the question “What if your pastors were not there to do all the things they do now?” Fortunately, everyone understood the question, especially the two pastors. We set a goal that by the next meeting of the council, each congregation will bring the name of someone they believe God may be calling to serve as a pastor or church worker. In the meantime, I also encouraged the pastors to train and equip lay people to help them in some of their responsibilities.

An issue that came up a couple of times was that Thais do not understand Christianity, or what they do know is not correct. (I think this is a worldwide issue!) Again, I suggested a two-pronged approach: pastors need to make sure members of their congregations know about their faith and the members need to be ready to talk about it and correct any misconceptions.

The third direction involved visibility. Make sure people know there is a vibrant Christian community of faith in their neighbourhood. Earlier in the day, the board discussed the annual joint Easter Service, where the two congregations and three preaching stations gather as a single community to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection. The board discussed the service, the began making arrangements for a church picnic on the beach afterward. There could easily be 75-100 people gathered. I suggested that once they are at the beach, that they have a brief resurrection hymn sing and an explanation of what Easter is about. It was wonderful to see faces light up with excitement as they saw how the church could be visible on such an important day. I wish I could come back to see how it works out!

I find visiting mission fields so encouraging. There is passion and excitement for sharing the Gospel. They want to see their family, friends and neighbours come to faith in Christ. The tyranny of works-righteousness found in Buddhism and animism is only broken by God’s grace. Here in southern Thailand, the message is proclaimed every Sunday by enthusiastic pastors and eagerly received by equally enthusiastic people of God.

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