PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (BP)–Some have been in Cambodia for generations; others flow back and forth across the border on a regular basis.
Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia comprise a 1 million-strong “pocket of lostness.” Overall, Cambodia’s population is approximately 10 percent Vietnamese.
A large portion of immigrants come as a result of economic migration, although some came in the 1980s and ’90s to work as professionals among native Cambodians.
But getting settled in Cambodia, tucked between Thailand and Vietnam in Southeast Asia, is not easy for Vietnamese immigrants. Problems for many begin at birth. Because most Vietnamese children do not receive birth certificates or other documentation showing they are living in Cambodia, they are not able to go to school.
“It makes their lives more difficult,” said Rebecca*, a Christian medical worker ministering among the Vietnamese immigrants. “It makes it harder for them to go to school, to get a job, to get papers to own land. And all of those issues are complicated by the fact that from the time of their birth they have no papers here.”
Some people in Cambodia view the Vietnamese as a hated minority. But that attitude provides Christian workers the opportunity to show them the love of Christ.
Rebecca and her team work in approximately eight communities in Cambodia as medical workers, sharing the Gospel and providing treatment to those in need.
“We are trying to go to places where no one else is working and cooperating with our brothers and sisters from other organizations, since there are so many people who have never heard,” Rebecca said.
The team works at a large outpatient clinic, with a mobile medical program and in churches throughout the area.
“We have a very tight tie with our outreach and evangelism work when people come to see us at the clinic,” Rebecca said. “It has given us access to new communities because when [our chaplain] talks to them and we find out where they are from, then we begin to look at the Vietnamese in the area and see if it’s a place where God wants us to work.”
Many immigrants view Christianity as an American religion. Unless they have a Catholic background, most have never heard of Jesus.
“We share with the family and we share with the community,” said Benjamin*, Rebecca’s co-worker. “We see people responding positively to the Gospel. We don’t push for anything. We share, talk and encourage them…. Then they want to learn more.”
One of the greatest barriers to the Gospel in Vietnamese culture is ancestor worship. Practically all Vietnamese, regardless of religious affiliation, have an ancestor altar in their home or business. To become a believer means being disloyal to family members.
“It is a big misunderstanding,” Rebecca said. “We try to explain that we are also commanded to honor our parents but that we do that while they are alive. Then, we honor them after death but do not worship them.”
In many cases, the team sees people become believers, but pressure from their families prevents them from continuing a relationship with Christ.
“In some cases, there are seeds planted but discipleship does not follow,” Rebecca said. “There is bitterness and distrust of who believers are and who Christians are and what that means.”
Both Rebecca and Benjamin agree that fervent prayers are needed for the Vietnamese people in Cambodia to come to Christ and experience true discipleship.
“When we get a letter that says we are praying for you, that means more than anything,” Benjamin said. “Pray that the Lord will continue to open doors for us to share the Gospel with people. Pray that we would be bold and persistent in sharing in a smart way.”
Rebecca agreed, saying that it is fun to help people and to share Christ with people who have never heard. Even though the work is difficult, she said she has learned to love the people in Cambodia.
“We need Southern Baptist prayer support for people to come to genuine faith and become true followers of Christ,” Rebecca said. “We are not looking for numbers but true disciples.”
*Names changed. Michael Chute wrote this story for the International Mission Board.