June 7, 2015

Reaching Buddhists in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam

One of the most challenging areas to share Jesus Christ is in the Buddhist countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam

The growth of Adventism in those countries came to a virtual standstill after the Vietnam conflict, which culminated in 1975, and with the totalitarian regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia in 1975 to 1979, which led to the infamous “killing fields.”

During this time the work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church went underground; church members fled their countries or were evacuated, and many more simply disappeared.

Today, the population is predominantly Buddhist. Each country has a slightly different flavor of Buddhism, with various Hindu influences. In each of these countries, the work of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency has brought humanitarian relief.

Together Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have a combined population of just over 100 million people. Today Adventism has a growing presence in each of these three countries.

To aid in this growth the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, or AIIAS, located in the Philippines, partnered with the Adventist Church’s Southern Asia Union Mission ministerial department based in Singapore. For the second year in a row, they coordinated a series of Bible conferences for church workers in each of these countries. Working with the local mission officials, they determined the particular needs and challenges in each area.

For countries that are largely Buddhist, a missiologist is sent each year to train the pastors in ways to reach Buddhists. This is especially difficult in countries like Laos where public evangelism cannot be conducted. Instead, church members share their faith through friendship.

While religious persecution may still exist in some locales, it appears that the governments in each of these counties have become increasingly open to the work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. A trip by Adventist Church president Ted N.C. Wilson to Vietnam helped to open doors in countries that have been considered some of the most difficult in the world for Adventist mission.

While particular issues may differ, Adventist pastors in this part of the world have surprisingly similar challenges as church workers around the world. They are asked questions about the right person to marry, unclean food, or how to keep the Sabbath day holy. These Bible conferences are annual events to help train and equip pastors with Biblical tools and resources that are not readily available to them. One of the highlights of the conference is the question and answer period where pastors can ask questions about specific issues in the context of their areas.

A typical street scene in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Video by Michael W. Campbell

Going Home With Buddhists

Reaching Buddhists for Jesus Christ is a formidable challenge. In a region of the world where public evangelism is typically not an option, such outreach takes place through personal friendships.

While on our trip our team made a brief stop at the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. My friend and colleague from AIIAS, Jim Park, walked up to a group of monks. He asked them why they came to this place. They replied that it was their day off. Within a few minutes they were huddled as they explained their Buddhist beliefs. Park went back that afternoon to visit his new friends at their monastery. He arrived with a bag of mangos that he purchased for the monks. Now they invited him into their home. He gladly accepted their invitation to a visit as he recognized that this was an opportunity to share with them about his faith in God.

At each of the Bible meetings with Adventist pastors, Park subsequently challenged the pastors: “How many of you have ever visited a monk in their home?” Only a handful raised their hands, revealing that his question hit upon a very real problem. It is human nature to spend time with those whom we are the most similar to.

Adventists have thus done well at reaching other Christians, and even some remote mountain tribes, but for the church to significantly expand it is imperative that it develop an intentional mission strategy for reaching Buddhists. For this reason the General Conference established the Global Mission Center for East Asian Religions located in Bangkok, Thailand. Last year, the Center director, Greg Whitsett, participated in our round of Bible conferences. While much has been done, much more still remains to be done.

Bible Conference participants posing for a group photo in Cambodia. (Michael W. Campbell)

Adventists and the Vietnam War

I was able to tour through these three countries recognizing the incredible destruction and loss of life that occurred, particularly during the 1960s up through the cessation of hostilities in 1975.

While officially no bombing occurred in Laos, one does not have to go very far to find many bomb craters. While visiting Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, formerly named Saigon, I toured the War Museum dedicated to peace and the end of war. Nearby is the palace where the “war of reunification” finally ended.

On Sabbath I had the serendipitous privilege of meeting Ralph S. Watts, who famously shared his story about God’s providential leading during the Vietnam War conflict that resulted in the evacuation of more than 400 workers. (Read his story here.) As we posed for a picture in front of the Phu Nhuan Seventh-day Adventist Church located in Ho Chi Minh City, Watts commented that it was nearby that he was almost shot and killed while trying to carry out the evacuation order. Some Adventists chose to stay; others left. Either way he provided moral support.

After church we visited Train Cong Tan, who was a worker in the publishing work who chose to stay. Though his body is weak, Tan is the leader of the work of the Adventist Church in Vietnam. His body has fought cancer and he has lost a lot of weight since last year. Because of his faithfulness the denomination kept the church and mission property.

“Today the work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is growing,” Watts said.

Watts left with his son and a friend on a tour to see various development and relief projects. As the founding president of ADRA-Vietnam, he continues to keep close ties with many friends from the time when he served as union president and evacuated as many people as possible in the Communist takeover of 1975. He noted that the church gained official recognition from the government in 2008, opening a new era of opportunities for the church work to grow in Vietnam.

Ralph S. Watts, center, visiting Train Cong Tan, a publishing worker who chose to stay during the Vietnam War. (Michael W. Campbell)

Plans for the Future

Thanks to the Big Four program, a General Conference initiative coordinated through AIIAS, a team of professors and students will return to Indochina each year for the next five years.

“I don’t know why in the past 12 years as a professor I have never made it to any of these countries,” Park said. “This has been a neglected field.”

Each year Danson Ng, ministerial director of the Southern Asia Union Mission, has also committed to support this initiative. Food and logistical support for the initiative has been supplied by the union..

“Training our workers is one of the most important tasks in helping to fulfill the gospel commission,” Ng said.

AIIIAS plays a strategic role as a General Conference institution that provides graduate training, particularly for pastors in this region of the world. In a place like Indochina, where very few pastors have any training, it’s certainly our responsibility to go to them.

People worshiping at the Phu Nhuan Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in May 2015. Video by Michael W. Campbell

Michael W. Campbell is an assistant professor at Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in Silang, Cavite, Philippines. His area of specialty is Adventist Studies.