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


The Word of the Lord grows in Cambodia

February 26, 2010

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.

Angkor Wat

Dr. Neitzel learns more about Cambodian history by visiting the famous 12th century Buddhist Temple, Angkor Wat.

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.

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