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New property a ‘miracle work of the Lord’ for Cambodian Baptists

Seang Yiv, chairman of the Cambodian Baptist Fellowship, prepares to cut the ribbon on a new property purchased by the group for meetings and retreats. Photo provided

STATESBORO, Ga. – Emotions ran high for the 150 Cambodians present June 28 to July 1 for the 39th annual gathering of the Cambodian Southern Baptist Fellowship.

They met at – and dedicated – what they have named the “Blessing Field,” their new seven-acre property in southeastern Georgia that previously was a wedding venue.

The property, dubbed the Blessing Field, includes lush, green lawns, large gazebos and a fishpond. Submitted photo

With a theme of I Am that I Am, based on Exodus 3:14, adults, teens and children from the Cambodian Southern Baptist Fellowship gathered for four days of exuberant fellowship, stirring worship, impassioned preaching and a solemn dedication of the property they see as coming from God.

“We dedicated it to the Lord because we all knew in our heart that the Lord gave it to us,” Chairman Seang Yiv told Baptist Press. “Seeing how magnificent the place was, it was an emotional time for everyone.”

The facility’s name harkens back to the people’s recent history. Yiv said those present saw the pristine location, which includes deep green lawns and a fishpond, large gazebos, plus interior carpeting and several chandeliers in one of the buildings. Yet mental images in attendees’ minds often recall the “killing fields” Cambodians endured the last half of the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge, a Communist group, purged more than 2 million people it deemed resistant to its vision.

Those present at the dedication of the Blessing Field had seen or heard about Cambodian rice fields teeming with decaying bodies, including those of children, that had been killed by a pickaxe or a hoe to the head to save bullets. A million or more other Cambodians died from starvation, hard labor or disease during the four years that followed five years of civil war.

About 130,000 Cambodian refugees found their way to America between 1975 and 1985, and today about 500,000 first- second- and third-generation Cambodians live across the nation. About 35 Cambodian churches in 31 states are part of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Fellowship itself started in 1985 as part of a multicultural gathering in Bolivar, Mo.

“I think it’s something they will remember for a long time,” Yiv said, referring to the dedication. “They were people hungry for three or four years. Many died along the way, and from that a blessing? It’s almost unimaginable.

Traditional Cambodian meals are cooked three times a day on site at the meetings. Submitted photo

“Many who attended the dedication waited for their turn to die any day, when the killing fields were liberated,” the Fellowship’s chairman continued. “With that background, I can see how each person here was affected by the Blessing Field.”

The seven-acre wedding venue in Statesboro, Ga., was brought to Yiv’s attention after the sale of the group’s previous meeting place. The new property, which had undergone $3 million in improvements, was now owned by a bank. Sine the Fellowship had cash on hand from the sale of the previous property, the bank was willing to work with them.

“It was a miracle work of the Lord,” Yiv said. “No one among us can claim we did anything to get that kind of land. It can only be the work of God.”

The beautifully landscaped Statesboro property comes with two buildings: one about 9,000 square feet and the other 11,000. “We never imagined we would have this kind of facility for this small fellowship,” Yiv said.

Many of the dozens of adults, youth and children attending the annual gathering slept on cots or air mattresses in one building during the four-day camp, aided by several temporary showers. They waited for better lodging construction to be completed. Separate programs were planned for each age group.

The adult program included several different groups and soloists. Six speakers: Sithon Nuon and Map Voun, Cambodian pastors at Chets Creek Church, Jacksonville, Fla.; Brian Moore, Anglo pastor of New Providence Baptist Church, Forsyth, Ga., who has been friends with the Fellowship members for many years; Yiv, a member of Summit Church, Garner Campus, N.C.; Mike Jefferson, who has been a friend to Cambodians for a long time; Sokhom Khim from Cambodia, who arrived in the United States recently to serve the Cambodians at First Baptist Church, Jonesboro, Ga.; and Sophal Kes, worship leader, pastor of the Evangelical Baptist Church, Palm Coast, Fla .

In an effort to unify the older and younger generations, longtime Next Gen leader Caleb Soch of Long Beach, Calif., was called two weeks prior to the annual gathering to serve as vice chairman of the Cambodian Southern Baptist Fellowship.

“We worked together for six years in California, and ever since that time,” Yiv said. “He is a people person and connects with young people well. He’s on fire for the task ahead. He has a vision that matches mine.” Soch also will work with the Next Gen leaders of the SBC’s Asian Collective, Yiv added.

The Cambodian Fellowship’s officers, in addition to Yiv as chair and Soch as vice-chair, are Sithon Nuon, Map Voun and Mrs. Tzi Wei Wong. The officers handle the business of the Fellowship.

Socializing time is an essential part of the annual gatherings, Yiv said, since so many members are in different states and only see each other when they come to the gathering. “Many of the older generation knew each other since the refugees camp era in Thailand. They treasured their time for reminiscence, selfies, hugs and cries.”

Cambodian meals – three each day – cooked onsite “are quite involved. It’s a big job,” Yiv said, one that requires much pre-planning, pre-shopping, and storing, as well as onsite early mornings. More than half a dozen volunteers assisted two chefs.

“In addition to fellowship times we have preaching and worship, and churches reporting,” Yiv said. “The pandemic really caused some churches to stop altogether. Some other churches [became] more vibrant. Through chatting with some church leaders, I saw both sides of the pandemic’s effect. A few pastors and church leaders died. In Ohio, a church lost its pastor and stopped meeting.

“But God loves the Cambodians and He is with them even when the Khmer Rouge is making killing fields. We see Him here now, bringing us warmth, reassurance, and peace in this Blessing Field,” Yiv said. “We are humbled and in awe by a sheer manifestation of His goodness and grace! We are truly grateful that we are in God’s family.”

Next year is to be the 40th anniversary of the Cambodian Southern Baptist Fellowship. It is set for Tuesday through Saturday, June 25-29, 2024, at the Blessing Field.

Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press.