Opportunities Abound in Outreach to Cambodian Immigrants
In the early 2010s, doctors diagnosed Sokha Te with scleroderma, an incurable, fatal illness that causes hardening of the skin. While the Cambodian-American grandmother had the means to seek medical treatment from the country’s best specialists, soon she learned that not even her considerable wealth could buy healing.
That quest ultimately led Sokha Te, 61, to Long Beach, California, where in 2013 she connected with the Khengs — Sopheak, 39, a licensed Assemblies of God minister, and his wife, Amy, 39, a U.S. missionary with Intercultural Ministries missionary. Together the couple are planting Jerusalem Cambodian Church, an outreach to the community’s 70,000-strong ethnic Cambodian population in Long Beach.
Amy Kheng notes that the influx of Cambodian immigrants came following the infamous “killing fields” ethnic cleansing of the mid-1970s in the Southeast Asian country. The most recent national census found that a quarter-million Cambodians now live in the U.S.
In 2007, the Khengs moved from Southeast Asia to minister to expatriate Cambodians in California, where 70 percent of the Asians in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town are Cambodian. Over the past decade, the couple have launched house churches, with 90 percent of attendees being non-Christian. While the Khengs’ ministry focuses on first-generation Cambodians, the children's program is composed of the second generation, who generally don't speak Cambodian after they reach school age. But while they may speak English, their culture remains Cambodian.
“They still have a Buddhist worldview in their home and worship many gods,” Amy says. “They don't know who God is.” Cambodians widely believe that sin is only sin if it’s seen by somebody else.
“All those hidden places in their heart isn't sin in their culture,” she says. “Their concept of sin is that if nobody saw you kill somebody, you're not guilty of sin.”
Tragically, many churches are rife with syncretism — the melding of distinct religions. Amy says that it’s common to hear of not only church congregants but even Cambodian pastors who believe Jesus is on the same level as founders of other religions. It’s also common to find witch doctors and hypnotists who are pastors and worship leaders, as well as those who don't acknowledge the Bible as true and infallible. That led to conflict in one Cambodian-American church network that refused to allow a Bible verse in its bylaws.
Amy recalls one Cambodian pastor’s epiphany regarding Christ following a message her own father presented. The pastor, who had been a minister for 30 years, shared that until hearing that presentation, he believed Jesus was the same as Buddha.
The Lord has granted the Khengs favor in Southern California and beyond as ministry opportunities abound. Cam-CC, or Cambodian Coordinating Council, an umbrella organization for all the Cambodian community groups in metro Long Beach, voted Sopheak Kheng as their president. As such, Sopheak is in contact with Cambodian legal, government, and cultural officials both in the U.S. and Cambodia.
A Long Beach-based satellite television station that broadcasts in the Cambodian language across the U.S. and around the world frequently gives Sopheak Kheng free air time as president of local community groups. Jerusalem Cambodian Church connects with fellow nationals at Southern California cultural events, such as Cambodian New Year. While Buddhist monks charge fees to bless festival attendees, Jerusalem Church puts up a sign offering free prayer, which has yielded many takers. Amy says that word of mouth is the biggest draw to their church and ministry events.
Sokha Te learned of the Khengs’ ministry while still in Cambodia. She contacted them and asked to visit.
“When I went to California, I was able to worship every week,” Sokha Te says. “I really felt at peace inside.” She was water baptized and discipled in Jerusalem Church.