Bridges for Life
An excited and slightly nervous Louisiana Volunteers in Mission team boarded a flight from Shreveport on Jan. 25 that brought them- 30 hours later- to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the experience of a lifetime.
The primary purpose of the mission was to formalize a relationship with Spean Chivit “The Bridge of Life” United Methodist Church, located in the Dey Eth Community in the Kandal Province.
Rev. Doug Milliron, Cambodia Mission Initiative Coordinator for the Louisiana Conference, was joined by six other adults and five youth representing First United Methodist Church in DeRidder, First UMC in Ringgold, and Broadmoor UMC in Shreveport.
Until recently, Spean Chivit UMC gathered in Koki about two hundred yards to the east of their present location. The worship and education building was moved because it was previously standing less than three feet from the busy, main highway between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam.
While the team was in Cambodia, the Louisiana Annual Conference sent $35,000 to Spean Chivit UMC for new land and construction of a building that will serve as a sanctuary and a multi-purpose facility. "By reaching out to our brothers and sisters in Cambodia, United Methodists are getting the opportunity to participate in one of the most remarkable revivals in Christian history," said Milliron.
The mission team from Louisiana spent 11 days ministering at Spean Chivit UMC, visiting key areas of the impoverished country, and gathering facts to refine future missional efforts to Cambodia. "Most of the membership of Cambodian churches are in their 20's, and many are teens or children. The average life expectancy is around 41 years of age. Civil strife, war, land mines and poor health conditions have taken so many lives," said Rev. Larry Norman, director of Volunteers in Mission for the Louisiana Conference.
Rev. Jack O'Dell and Norman led Leadership Development Seminars for the adults, who ranged in age from 16-25. "Often, those in their late teens were the ones teaching classes. Many of the pastors are ages 18-25," said O'Dell, pastor of Broadmoor UMC in Shreveport. Despite their youth, the Cambodians exhibited an incredible faith that served as a witness to the visiting mission team. "They have a fire and zeal that many of our churches in America don't have. The depth of faith born of hardship and persecution is inspiring. They take nothing for granted," said Milliron.
Other members of the team assisted with Vacation Bible School and English As a Second Language classes. "The young adults who journeyed with us made the Vacation Bible School for the children of Spean Chivit a great success. They mixed with the children by using dramatization, craft activities, and by teaching them American dances. In turn, the children taught them Cambodian games. Smiles and love and care abounded. They embodied the words of the old song, 'Jesus loves me'," said Rev. Jon Tellifero, team member and pastor of First UMC in DeRidder.
Eighteen-year-old Magen Luther, a member of First UMC in DeRidder, said, "My trip to Cambodia was a life changing experience. I now view my life in a completely different way. Before I left for Cambodia, I spent money on items that seemed necessary to me. Now I know they are not, and I cherish the things that I have. I thank God for giving me the chance to venture to Cambodia. It changed my life forever!"
Magen and other members of the team also had the opportunity to work side-by-side with General Board of Global Ministries missionaries stationed in Cambodia. Those serving hail from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Cambodia.
The Cambodian Methodist Mission is a collaborative effort of the Korean Methodist Church; the Methodist Church of Singapore; The United Methodist Church in the United States, France and Switzerland; and the World Federation of Chinese Methodist Churches. The Cambodia Initiative, starting with three churches in 1989, has established close to 200 churches. Sunday school materials and a hymnal have been published in Khmer, the Cambodian native language.
Cambodia now has a Bible School for theological education, 63 full United Methodist congregations, 10 ordained Cambodian deacons and 35 lay pastors.
The Louisiana Volunteers in Mission (LAVIM) team visited several of the sites served by the Methodist Mission Center Staff. One of the most shocking experiences for the LAVIM team was a trip to the Phnom Penh garbage dump, Stung Mean Chey. It is the scene each day of hundreds of men, women and children rummaging through 500 acres of waste to find what they can for nourishment and for items to be sold. The Phnom Penh Post published an article stating that the recyclables are sold on the Black Market at the Vietnamese border because there is no infrastructure in Cambodia yet to process recycled waste. The poorest of the poor live and work and die in the dumpsite.
The church has a building on the perimeter of Stung Mean Chey where sewing and cosmetology classes are taught. Clara Biswas, a GBGM missionary from Bangladesh, shared the idea that a future missional project of the church could be the construction of public showers near the dumpsite so that people could have a place to bathe. As of this date, a LAVIM team is planning to return to Cambodia in early 2005 to work on the "bathing station" project. Biswas started the "Light at the Dump Sites" program last summer. The ministry offers scholarships and nutritional support for 20 students, along with a church school program for additional children on Sunday afternoons in a classroom provided by the Vulnerable Children Assistance Organization.
Other sites visited by the mission team were the Tonle Basacc and Boulding Villages. The Boulding Orphanage, which stands in the middle of this impoverished area, serves 130 young children. Thousands of homeless people have attached themselves to approximately two square blocks of land right off the Mekong River. Just within site of the Royal Palace, the residents of Basacc have fashioned homes out of scraps and anything they can find. In the midst of this depressed area is the hopeful sight of children receiving a home, food and a basic education through the orphanage, aided by the Methodist church. "Our initial conversations at Boulding Orphanage have shown us that future Volunteers in Mission teams should focus on improving health care, education, hygiene and shelter for these homeless."
The team's last full day in Cambodia was spent at the Siem Reap UMC Mission Center. Unfortunately, the facility had not officially opened for worship because a local governmental license had not yet been granted. Political red tape is often a delay in the efforts of the church and its missionaries.
A young mission volunteer from Colorado, Joel Heinan, greeted the team and explained his work as ESL teacher at a local pagoda, used as a school, many miles from the city in the countryside. Heinan also gives instruction in welding at a workshop on the church’s property during the week. He does not stay there alone as he has had difficulty with bandits.
"The opportunity for a United Methodist identity in Cambodia is evident. Education is valued there, and seen as the only way out of the crushing poverty. The most revered people in the country are its teachers. This is a perfect match for our denomination, which emphasizes the importance of education," said Milliron.
In the 1970’s the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, decimated the population with the execution of 1.7 million people, most of them Cambodian citizens. The horror of that time remains with the Cambodians. The Tuol Sleng High School was converted into a concentration camp used to extract information from their prisoners by rape, torture, and murder. Those who died at Tuol Sleng were taken out of the city to a place commonly known as the Killing Fields.
On a visit to this notorious place, Rev. Milliron observed, "Seeing the mountains of human skulls was sobering to each of our LaVIM team members. We wept while walking along beside the open mass graves where we found bones and bone fragments of infants and small children working their way up to the surface from shallow graves. "
Paul, a 41-year-old interpreter for the group, shared his miraculous story of conversion with the visiting team. "When I was 12 years old, I was captured by Pol Pot's soldiers and ordered to start digging my own grave. I had learned about Jesus in a refugee camp. I just started praying, saying that if He could get me out of this, I would devote my life to His service. The men started arguing among themselves over who was going to kill me, then got distracted and just forgot about me, walking away. I have served God ever since."
Rev. Milliron, who was touched by Paul's testimony, said, "The Cambodians' hunger for the things of God was very evident and compelling. It was inspiring to see our brothers and sisters in Christ nurtured by their faith. This trip was one of the greatest highlights of my life."
Date posted: Mar 26, 2004