Cambodia is known as the “Kingdom of Wonder.” Part of this reputation comes from its many juxtapositions: it’s exhilarating and devastating, beautiful and challenging, poor and thriving. Visitors encounter the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, the effects of genocide in the 1970s, the quiet countryside, bustling cities—and the graciousness of the people.
Amid this wonder, the Lutheran Church in Cambodia (LCC) was formed in 2011 through a common vision of Lutheran churches in Southeast Asia, the process facilitated by the Lutheran Church in Singapore. The LCC became fully national in 2017, which makes it one of the youngest Lutheran churches in the world.
Age is also relevant as it applies to the church’s membership. More than 30% of Cambodia’s population is younger than 15, and the national median age is 25. To some degree this reflects the devastation of the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s, in which as many as 2 million people—a quarter of the country’s population—were killed. Young people in the church today live in a context of what some describe as national and collective trauma, combined with rural poverty.
The LCC is small, with fewer than 400 members across only four congregations, but its head, Touchkeov Sreyliak, said she hopes the church will be a channel of Christ’s hope, love and life.
“We believe and proclaim that this small wave of a movement can bring change,” she said. Referencing a proverb about bamboo shoots being the future bamboo, Sreyliak said, “Even with the small seed of faith that has been planted by God, this will have fruitful results and be multiplied in the LCC and society.”
Children and youth are the bamboo shoots and an important part of the LCC’s ministry. One aspect of this is the church’s after-school education programs, which supplement school instruction. But the education doesn’t focus only on academics. “We really focus on how they can grow with responsibility, respect for others, love for neighbor and love of God,” Sreyliak said, adding that some of the lay volunteers are survivors of the genocide.
“I am excited about what LCC does, as it helps people through their difficulties.”
Beyond the after-school programs, the nurturing of young people extends to LCC’s City Church in Phnom Penh. There, through a hostel ministry for university students, young people can interact with others and extend their talents and gifts.
“Normally, young people don’t have chances to express their talents, and often they do not even know their own gifts,” Sreyliak said. “We are grateful that we have a place for young people to express and share their opinion and goals in life.”
Before graduating from university, Nhoung Sokheng wanted to experience working life, but doing so was challenging in a context where young people get few chances to use their gifts and talents. Sokheng was given a job in the LCC church office, where she helps coordinate church projects.
“I am excited about what LCC does, as it helps people through their difficulties,” she said. “Through the LCC, youth are able to get a quality education when they can’t support themselves toward higher education.”
A future pastor
Another young person whose life was impacted through involvement in the LCC is Yin Dara. After completing university, he returned to the LCC’s main rural congregation, located in Krus village in Kampong Chhnang, to serve as a project manager for the church’s agricultural projects. Now he’s also studying theology and preparing for ordination.
Dara said he is “excited and happy to show others Christ in my life” and that combining the gospel with community development is about wanting “others to know what we do and what we need as community.”
The LCC’s focus on rural ministry addresses poverty through nutrition education and agricultural development, but it’s a slow process to assist communities. Short-term solutions have typically consisted of younger generations flocking to cities, where pay isn’t always sufficient; finding work in garment production, which is a main industry in Cambodia but comes with harsh working conditions; or crossing to neighboring countries to find work, where young people often fall prey to human trafficking.
Mert Ya and her husband, Chea Kimsour, had contemplated working in Thailand, but with the LCC’s assistance, the family began to raise chickens and cultivate mushrooms at home instead. “All this has made it possible for me not to go out to work somewhere,” Ya said. “I can be my own boss, the owner of my life.”
Kimsour added that having an income and keeping the family together means there can be happiness in the family.
As Sreyliak looks to the LCC’s future, she knows the challenge is to be a prophetic voice among the marginalized and those without power. She seeks to build people up, both within the church and in communities, as an important part of witnessing in society. Throughout this work, and as the church seeks to be self-sustaining, Sreyliak argues that everyone must find ways to incorporate aspects of Cambodia’s rich culture into its Christian faith.
Sokheng agreed: “The church is important because we are all about a community that inspired me to do good and where a deeper love is explored. We are about being a good community in which the gospel of love can be channeled to the Cambodian nation and people. And together we can have a new start.”
Did you know?
The Young Adults in Global Mission program in Cambodia began when the ELCA received an invitation from two companions, the Lutheran Church in Cambodia and Life With Dignity, to start the program in 2015. Young adults can help support feeding programs for children and elderly, lead worship, participate in agricultural development work and more.