Against All Odds
God’s Word germinates in Asian refugee camps.
By Judy Aitken
The spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ crept along at a snail’s pace during the early and mid-1900s in the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Although God sent visionary, faith-filled individuals who possessed a missionary spirit mirroring that of our church’s pioneers to this part of the world, progress was slow. The governments were resistant to Christianity, and the deep, cultural Buddhist beliefs were woven into the very fabric of society.
In the late 1970s Communism, coupled with war, forced masses of men, women, and children to flee for their lives with only the clothes on their backs. Many also witnessed the horrors accompanying war, including seeing loved ones killed before their eyes. Secretly, some wondered, “Where is Buddha now, when we need him?”
Those who reached the refugee camps on the border of Thailand made it there against all odds. The Cambodians left behind work camps and a bloodbath caused by the Pol Pot regime. They scavenged barely enough food and water along the way to survive, gingerly bypassing land mines each step of the dark journey. The Laotians endured hours of swimming the Mekong River, trying to stay underwater as long as possible to evade the bullets fired from above. The Vietnamese often arrived on boats, narrowly escaping pirate raids and a watery grave. Their survival was not by chance; God wanted to reveal Himself to them.
Decision to Go
My attention and prayers turned to this part of the world after I saw an emaciated Cambodian child lying lifeless in her mother’s arms pictured on the cover of Time magazine’s November 12, 1979, issue. The look of grief and terror in the eyes of the mother resonated with me, a mother of three children myself. The Holy Spirit strongly impressed me to help these suffering people. I was a nurse, and I promised the Lord that I would go if He opened up an opportunity. Only one week later I learned of an urgent appeal from Seventh-day Adventist World Service (SAWS)—now theAdventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA)—for volunteers to go to Southeast Asia to help the refugees flooding into the camps. Many of these refugees were dying of malnutrition, war wounds, and disease. My family and I responded and stepped into a world of incredible suffering. What started out as a short-term mission trip turned into a passion that continues to this day.
VISITING REFUGEES: ASAP director Judy Aitken (right) during a visit to Odem Village, CambodiaNursing in this environment was like nothing I had ever done before. Seeds of love planted in practical ways sprouted such questions as “What does the name ‘Seventh-day Adventist’ mean?” “Who is this Jesus you pray to?” These questions led to Bible studies, which grew into small study groups. Through God’s miraculous leading, 15 Adventist churches were established in the refugee camps, and more than 10,000 refugees were baptized between 1980 and 1987.
In order to support the new believers spiritually and physically, I ceased nursing and started working with Volunteers International. Eventually, along with others, I began a nonprofit ministry called Projects Asia. God sent volunteers from all around the world to share Jesus with a people who were eager to hear the gospel message. My family and I felt privileged to witness miracle after miracle when God used a lack of political freedom and the confinement of camps to loosen Satan’s bonds and bring spiritual freedom.
Between 1986 and 1987 the refugee camps closed down, and those refugees who had not repatriated to the United States were forced back into their home countries. These new believers arrived in their home villages much different people from when they left. With a burning love for Jesus in their hearts, they began sharing their testimonies. Worship groups spontaneously sprouted up throughout the country. I had already returned to the United States; my heart, however, remained in Asia.
In 1991 the Southeast Asia Union Mission (SAUM) established the Cambodia Attached District. As a worker with Adventist Frontier Missions (AFM), I prayerfully and readily began refugee projects to help support the work in the war-torn country of Cambodia.
Mary Ann McNeilus—a physician who had worked in the refugee camp hospital—and I were asked to help locate Adventist church leaders, teachers, and members who had returned to their home villages from the refugee camps. We earnestly prayed for the Lord to lead us to our friends so that we could introduce them to the Adventist Mission and support them with Bibles and literature. The Lord miraculously led each step of the way in this endeavor.
In one instance Hang Dara, a former church leader in Site II Refugee Camp, was working for the United Nations in Kampong Cham City, Cambodia. We went to the U.N. office on a Sunday, but it was closed. We then asked a security guard if he knew Hang Dara. The guard did know him and gave us directions to Hang Dara’s home. When we arrived, however, we found it empty. The neighbors told us that the family had moved the week before, but they didn’t know where.
Mary Ann and I prayed right there on the busy street in front of the house, asking God to lead us to Hang Dara and his wife, Bun Sokhom. When we arose from our knees, we saw Hang Dara coming toward us on his motorbike. He “happened” to be driving by right at that moment and saw us. What a grand and joyous reunion we had! The Lord spoke to Hang Dara’s and Bun Sokhom’s hearts, impressing them to join the Seventh-day Adventist Mission. Hang Dara today is the ministerial director of the Cambodia Advent-ist Mission, and Bun Sokhom is the women’s ministries leader.
Seventeen years ago God opened the doors for the birth of Adventist Southeast Asia Projects (ASAP), a nonprofit ministry that continues to support the Seventh-day Adventist Church in spreading the gospel message to the people of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. This came about in response to a request from Robin Riches, the president of SAUM at that time. Since then, the gospel has spread at an astounding rate, particularly in the closed country of Vietnam. Throughout the past 23 years ASAP has steadily increased the support of the house-church movement in Vietnam, mainly through Isaiah Duong, a pastor and the speaker for Peace and Happiness, an Adventist World Radio broadcast. The number of members in the house-church movement continues to grow as ASAP national missionaries courageously evangelize publicly in this Communist country.
As I reflect on the history of the Adventist Church in Southeast Asia, I marvel at the way God chooses individuals who are in very difficult situations to do the impossible for His glory. In Southeast Asia today are many faithful brothers and sisters who endured much suffering, but are now working for the church and united with its mission. Some of these individuals first came to accept the Lord while in the refugee camps many years ago. Others are the fruit of their labors.
There is still a great work to do, but by remembering how God has led us in the past, we gain hope for the future.
Readers may join in praying for the millions of people in this world region who have yet to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior by signing up to be a prayer partner on the ASAP Web site atwww.asapministries.org.
Judy Aitken is founder and director of Adventist Southeast Asia Projects (ASAP). She has a passion to help save the lost not only in Southeast Asia but in her own community in Michigan, United States.