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Russell Board

Stronger than death

Cambodia | One man's ministry is working against the wounds of a nation

Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

PHNOM PENH-In a rented building on a dusty street in Phnom Penh, Samuel Lamanilao and his wife Merlen personally welcome the church members as they arrive for 8:30 a.m. Sunday worship. Soon the room is filled with over 100 people in closely packed plastic chairs. There are a few families, and a number of youth, but the congregation is mostly women and children.

Many come by tuk-tuk, a rickshaw pulled by a motorbike, or they climb into the back of flatbed trucks, the standard forms of public transportation in the city. Others have walked from nearby blocks of rented single-room dwellings, one per family. Many such homes have a sewing machine on a wooden platform outside, where husband or wife stitches together clothes or gloves for a couple of dollars a day.

The worship includes both contemporary praise choruses and familiar hymns, translated from English into Khmer. Some songs have Christian words set to Cambodian folk melodies, accompanied on traditional stringed instruments. A young girl in special costume performs a flowing dance, scattering flower petals. Pastor Sammy delivers an animated sermon, encouraging the congregation to trust and obey Christ. At the close of the service, about 20 people come forward for prayer. Pastor Sammy moves among them, laying hands on heads and shoulders, praying for individual needs.

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A second service is held two hours later in English, reaching a smaller congregation of expatriate Filipinos and Indonesians. In the afternoon, nearly 100 neighborhood children gather for the twice-weekly feeding program, which includes songs, skits, Bible stories, and a memory verse.

Seated on the floor, the children turn to face each other in rows as plates with rice, vegetables, chicken, and fruit are handed to each of them. The meals are eaten with eagerness, and some children return for seconds.

The Lamanilaos live upstairs in an apartment over the meeting room. This gives the congregation easy access to pastoral care, but at the cost of personal privacy. Once during a wedding ceremony, their apartment was broken into and their valuables stolen.

After eight years of pastoral ministry in the Philippines, the Lamanilaos came to Cambodia in 1999 on a mission funded jointly by Pentecostal Holiness churches in the Philippines and the United States. They faced the challenges common to all missionaries: adapting to different foods and customs, learning a foreign language, finding acceptance among the people.

They began by offering English instruction and guitar lessons to young people in the community. Many came to Christ, and those young disciples have grown to become leaders in the Phnom Penh church. Four have attended Bible school and are now serving as pastors of newly planted village churches under the supervision of Pastor Sammy.

The church in the village of Champay is a temporary structure with woven palm leaf walls and a tin roof. When the church dug a well for the congregation, they dug a second well at the village school to serve the community. While a new shopping mall in Phnom Penh suggests that economic prosperity has arrived, for some, village life remains a hand-to-mouth struggle.

The nation has yet to recover from the economic collapse brought about by the decimation of its population and destruction of its infrastructure during the regime of Pol Pot. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered an estimated 200,000 of their countrymen in the "killing fields," with 2 million more killed by deprivation and disease. Survivors included hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. Land mines buried then continue to take a toll today, exploded by farmers and children who lose limbs and sometimes lives.

On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, a memorial stupa displays the skulls of thousands of victims unearthed from scores of mass graves. Here infants were swung and smashed against tree trunks, while men, women, and children were shot, stabbed, poisoned, bludgeoned, and buried alive. Bones and teeth are visibly scattered along the paths between the burial sites.

For most of the victims, the last stop before transport to the killing fields was Tuol Sleng, a prison and interrogation facility run by the infamous Comrade Duch, now facing trial for his crimes-and also a confessing Christian ("Would you forgive this man?" May 17, 2008). First a school, then a prison, Tuol Sleng has now become a museum where cramped cells and grisly instruments of torture are on display, along with the photos of hundreds of victims meticulously catalogued by Comrade Duch.

Sammy and Merlen arrived in Phnom Penh childless after 14 years of marriage. But in 2002 they sealed their commitment to their new homeland by adopting a Cambodian baby. Born prematurely, gasping for breath with underdeveloped lungs, the infant girl weighed in at under 3 pounds. Already burdened with several small children and an unfaithful husband, her impoverished mother told the midwife to dispose of the baby.

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