Phnom Penh Mennonite Church
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|Phnom Penh Mennonite Church|
Phnom Penh: Lonely Planet, 2009
Number of Congregations
Phnom Penh Mennonite Church (PPMC) is a Mennonite Church located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's national capital. The Church began in 1996 as an Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) church plant. Although PPMC was not a member of Mennonite World Conference in 2009, several church members went to the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) gathering in Asunción, Paraguay in July 2009 to connect with the global Mennonite Church. To learn more about other Anabaptist-related groups in Asia and the Pacific click here.
The Phnom Penh Mennonite Church began through Mennonite mission work. Although Mennonite Central Committe's ((MCC) has had a presence in Cambodia for many years, no Mennonite church existed in Cambodia until Eastern Mennonite Mission (EMM) began its work there. Three factors all converged at the same time create the PPMC.
First, the Caldwell family sensed a call to go to Cambodia. Darrell and Susan Caldwell began working with Khmer refugees who fled Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge in 1981. The Caldwells hosted several Khmer people, and eventually the Caldwells started a Khmer church. Darrell became fluent in Khmer language, and in 1993 the Caldwells began looking for opportunities to go to Cambodia themselves. Some mission agencies were hesitant to send the Caldwells overseas because their youngest child had Downs Syndrome. Consequently, despite their Baptist background, the Caldwells began inquiring into MCC work in Cambodia. MCC, however, advised the Caldwells to look into EMM because their vision for church planting did not fit with MCC's mission.
Second, in 1994 when the Franklin Conference Mission Board was preparing their budget they felt that it was time for Franklin Conference to get involved in a new mission enterprise. They approached EMM for possible mission projects with which they could partner.
Third, EMM employee David Shenk had a vision for new work in Cambodia. When he received contact from both the Caldwells and the Franklin board it seemed like an answer to prayer. At the same time, Sarin Lay, the pastor of a Cambodian Mennonite Church in Philadelphia (Lancaster Mennonite Conference), recommended that EMM begin work in Cambodia, and he expressed interest in returning to Cambodia as a missionary. In addition, MCC workers in Cambodia suggested that EMM take steps toward beginning a Mennonite Church in Cambodia by facilitating leadership training. MCC was willing to help EMM in the process.Mennonite World Conference
Thus, all the pieces fit together, and in 1996 EMM commissioned the Caldwells to begin a church in Phnom Penh. The Caldwells began a church later that year which met in their home. Initially, the church was essentially an informal Bible study. The attendees were mostly young people in their late teens and early twenties. Darrell met many of these people out on the streets and in the markets, wherever he could strike up conversations.
The Caldwells opened their home to Khmer people. Several young people from the countryside came to live with them--at one point, they had three individuals living with them at once. The Caldwells invested in people and gave financial support to many young people so that they could go to school or Bible school or learn a trade. Darrell also befriended orphans on the streets and connected them with orphanages.
In an interview with Anna Showalter in 2008 Darrell admitted that his approach to missions was not contextualized. He preached a message of personal salvation based on what he believed to be essential to the Gospel. Darrell's goal was not to plant a "Mennonite" church. He was not Mennonite himself and thought that the best approach was to preach a simple gospel message. It seemed irrelevant to him to try to impose "Mennonite distinctives" on these young Khmer believers. According to Darrell, “[He] thought that establishing a dedicated group of believers in their faith was primary, rather than encouraging them to understand Mennonite distinctive."
In 2000 and 2002 EMM opened men's and women's dorms. In 2008, most members of PPMC were university students from the dorms. PPMC holds church services in the same building as the dorms, and the dorm and church identities are very closely related. The dorms have been a constant presence, and in some cases have kept the church going when it may have otherwise failed.
Contemporary Identity Issues
This section is based on interpretive analysis by Anna Showalter from an undergraduate research paper (Goshen College, Hist 318: Anabaptist History, Fall 2008).
Finding and defining a Mennonite identity is particularly challenging for PPMC. For most PPMC members, the more pressing question of identity is their Khmer vs. Christian identity. Many Khmer resist Christianity because they believe that it will compromise their Khmer identity. That is probably the most common objection to Christianity in Cambodia. For members at PPMC, a Khmer Christian identity is so hard to find that many of them don’t see the point in complicating the issue further with denominational identity. Yet, a few leaders do see value in a Mennonite identity and are pushing the church in that direction.
PPMC has had several formative influences in its theological development. One is the influence of the Caldwell's missiology. The Caldwells brought a basic evangelical gospel to the Khmer. They wanted to lead Khmer into personal relationships with God through Jesus. PPMC is also heavily influenced by the other evangelical churches in Phnom Penh. Many of their members and leaders attend Bible schools sponsored by these churches. The sporadic and limited theological formation from Mennonites came primarily from Chris and Dawn Landes and Paul and Tina Holderman. As such PPMC's theology does not really resemble something that is recognizable as distinctly Anabaptist or Mennonite (from the perspective of a North American Mennonite observer). Nonetheless, several PPMC leaders see a lot of value in being connected to Mennonites around the world.
When asked what they know about Mennonite theology and whether or not they were attracted to it, several PPMC leaders noted that the Mennonite Church is just one of many denominations. When asked to articulate what it meant to be Mennonite, several of them mentioned "Menosymon" (Menno Simons) and the "revolution" that he started against the Catholics. However, they didn't personally identify spiritually with the name. Some of them said that they were attracted to Mennonite people and their theology, although Pastor Dady said that he was not. When asked whether there was anything that separated Mennonites from other Christian denominations, all the PPMC members interviewed noted that they held the same beliefs as other Christians. Most of them did, however, note that Mennonites do not believe in war and will not join the army. Still, it was unclear whether or not they shared pacifist beliefs, although several of the leaders seemed to agree with the Mennonite peace position. As of 2008 PPMC leaders had yet to formally articulate an official statement on nonresistance and the Christian relationship to the state. Other than these leaders, however, congregation members appear quite unfamiliar with the peace position.
When asked how PPMC demonstrated Mennonite theology their answers were diverse and generalized. When describing how PPMC demonstrated Mennonite theology Pastor Dady summarized several broadly accepted evangelical Christian doctrines, noting especially the Trinity: God the father, Son, and Spirit. He went on to state that as Mennonites, PPMC members believed "[they were] sinner[s] and need[ed] [to be] save[d] from God..." and that "GOD [gave them] eternal life from Jesus by [their] faith in him." PPMC member Yann Sokhom identified the lack of Mennonite distinctiveness bluntly saying, "Actually, PPMC doesn’t focus on Mennonite or other denominations." Likewise, Hem Sopheary said that PPMC hadn't placed much of an emphasis on being Mennonite because the church wanted to first focus on being a Christian. Referencing new Christians Sopheary said, "We don’t want to confuse them." Nevertheless, she thought it important to teach committed members and leaders "about Mennonite history and theology."
Yet despite a cursory understanding of Mennonite theology, this small, young Church has had a surprising amount of interaction with the global Mennonite Church. Several leaders expressed a desire to learn more about Mennonite theology and to be more connected to the global Mennonite Church. Four PPMC members--Sopheary, Mades, Sopheak, and Sokhom--spent a year in North American Mennonite communities with MCC IVEP. When Sopheary returned from her year abroad she hoped to connect PPMC with other Mennonites. Up until that point, PPMC was called the Church of Peace in Christ. Government regulations required that he church needed to identify itself with a denomination if it wanted government recognition. Sopheary encouraged the church to take the Mennonite name, so the Church of Peace in Christ officially became the Phnom Penh Mennonite Church. Sopheary and the other IVEPers are the individuals most interested in developing a Mennonite identity. Several of them have also visited Mennonite Churches in Indonesia and Thailand to discern what it means to be Mennonite.
During his term, Paul Holderman worked with the church to formulate their vision and mission. As part of this process he helped them write a constitution and taught a class on Mennonite history and theology. They studied the "Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective," and Holderman hired Sopheak to translate the confession into Khmer so that everyone in the church could read it. Holderman said that the Khmer leaders agreed with what they read in the confession, although they tended to focus more on the general Christian beliefs rather than on distinctly Mennonite emphases. One concept the Khmer struggled to grasp was the priesthood of believers. This style of ecclesiology went against the grain of the emphasis on hierarchy and patronage in Khmer culture.
While PPMC leaders valued being connected with the global Mennonite Church, they were not necessarily attracted to Mennonites specifically. Rather, they simply desired global connections, and it was easiest to identify with Mennonites since they were a Mennonite church plant. Participation in the broader Mennonite Church is a way of connecting to a larger movement. Without a global Mennonite connection, PPMC would be a small, isolated church, forced to survive on its own. More than a specific Mennonite identity, however, PPMC wants mutually supportive connections. Pastor Dady said he wanted PPMC to connect to global Mennonites "because we want to encourage each other."
In 2007, several North American young adult Mennonites biked through South East Asia visiting Mennonite Churches there. Their first stop was PPMC. These North American Mennonites did not immediately recognize anything at PPMC as distinctly Mennonite. Like many North American Mennonite young adults, these individuals came with reservations about missions and evangelicalism. What they found at PPMC was exactly that: a mission church with a evangelical approach to faith. Bike Movement listened to pastor Dady and other PPMC members give testimony after testimony of how God had saved them from sin and distress. They told stories of being freed from the bonds of evil spirits, of healings and finding a place to belong at the student dorms. Their worship was lively, energetic, and spirit filled.
Bike Movement member, Adele Liechty, reflected on the dissonance between her Mennonite identity and that of the members of PPMC.
I wish that I could have listened to the stories of the people of Phnom Penh Mennonite Church with an open mind and heart, but I soon realized that I was much too jaded. For them, Christianity is so simple.… I note with great emphasis that the new Christians of Phnom Penh were extremely excited about their faith. They told their stories with conviction and vigor, and I can never discredit or take those stories away from them. Perhaps I even have a hint of jealousy as they have found something to believe with their whole heart and I have not….
Clearly, integration into a broader global Mennonite community will involve difficulties, but Mennonites both in Cambodia and the broader global Mennonite Church have shown a desire to engage one another in transformative interaction.
- Mao Dady Ezra
- Dady has served as pastor for PPMC since 2003 and has been a key member since 1997.
- Hem Sopheary
- In 2008 and 2009 Sopheary served as the chair of the leadership committee at PPMC. Sopheary is a very gifted young woman and a long time leader of the church. The congregation chose her as an elder in 2006. Sopheary began attending PPMC in 1998 because her family had connections with the Caldwells and because her older sister Sopheaktra was the director of EMM’s women’s dormitory. Unlike most PPMC members, Sopheary comes from a strong Christian family. Sopheary had the opportunity to spend a year in the United States through Mennonite Central Committee's MCC International Visitor Exchange Program (IVEP). During that year, Sopheary gained an understanding of what it might mean to be a part of the Mennonite church. Upon returning to Cambodia, Sopheary married a man named Mades who had also been an IVEPer. Sopheary and Mades have maintained a commitment to PPMC despite some discouraging times. Sopheary will likely be key a visionary for the future of PPMC.
- Ea Sopheak
- Sopheak joined PPMC in 2001 when he came to Phnom Penh from his family’s farm in the province of Kampong Cham. He stayed in the men’s dorm as a student and became the dorm director in 2006. Sopheak was very involved in PPMC as a member of the ministry team beginning in 2004 and the church asked him to be an elder in 2006. Sopheak is a gifted worship leader and has done translation work for EMM and PPMC, including translating the "Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective" into Khmer. In 2007 Sopheak joined the IVEP program and spent a year in Alberta (Canada). Since returning, Sopheak got married and has been living in the countryside in his wife’s village. He has as vision for starting an orphanage in his home town with the help of EMM. He attends PPMC when he comes to the city, but as of 2008 he was not a regular attender.
- Yann Sokhom
- Sokhom came to the dorms in 2003 as a student and began attending PPMC. He became convinced of Jesus' message and decided to become a Christian. He was on PPMC's ministry team as a youth leader. In 2007 he, along with Sopheak, joined the IVEP program and spent a year in Bethel, Kansas. Since returning to Cambodia Sokhom has returned to his studies and is still a student in the men's dorm.
- Anna Showalter's undergraduate research paper on the Phnom Penh Mennonite Church written for History 318: Anabaptist History (Goshen College, Fall 2008
In 2009 literature written on PPMC was virtually nonexistent, except for a handful of articles in Missionary Messenger and The Burning Bush [(Available at the Mennonite Historical Library (MHL)]. Therefore, Anna Showalter, a Goshen College student, relied heavily on interviews with personal contacts and her own experience as a Youth Evangelism Service (YES) participant with Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) from 2005-2006. During that time she worked closely with the Phnom Penh Mennonite Church.
Eastern Mennonite Missionaries
- Paul and Tina Holderman
- The Holdermans were missionaries in Phnom Penh from 2003-2006. They attend Marion Mennonite Church.
- Darrel and Susan Caldwell
- The Caldwells were missionaries in Phnom Penh from the mid 1990s to 2008. They were the founders of the PPMC.
- Carrol and Skip Tobin
- The Tobins are longtime EMM missionaries in Thailand and now serve as EMM representatives in Southeast Asia. They understand the PPMC very well and have provided good guidance to both missionaries and Khmer leaders.
These were responses to a email questionnaire that Anna Showalter sent to Khmer PPMC leaders.
- Mao Dady Ezra
- Hem Sopheary
- Ea Sopheak
- Yann Sokhom
Unpublished Written Documents
Anna Showalter has several unpublished written sources in her personal collection. The majority are from Paul and Tina Holderman and include various statements about EMM's activity in Cambodia as well as their reports as missionaries.
- The Burning Bush
- The Burning Bush is the Franklin Mennonite Conference periodical. Since the Franklin Mennonite Conference has been the sole financial supporter of EMM’s work in Cambodia, it prints reports from Cambodia in The Burning Bush. In addition, three families/individuals from the conference have served in Cambodia, while others have visited. The reports in The Burning Bush are slightly scattered and reflect the missionary experience more than the Khmer experience.
- The Missionary Messenger
- The Missionary Messenger is the monthly publication of EMM, and it includes a few reports from the missionaries in Cambodia.
- "Bike Movement Asia." Bike Movement. http://www.bikemovement.org/. (accessed 8 December 2008).
- In the summer of 2007 a group of North American young adults biked through Southeast Asia visiting and conversing with Mennonite churches there. The purpose of the trip was to try to better understand the global Anabaptist church. The group met with people from PPMC and wrote their reflections on their blog.
- "Map of Phnom Penh," Lonely Planet. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/maps/asia/cambodia/phnom-penh/ (accessed 15 June 2009).
Anna Showalter compiled much of the information presented here in an undergraduate research paper written for an Anabaptist History Class at Goshen College (Fall 2008).