From Killing Fields to Living Fields: The Cambodian Ministries of the Emmanuel Gospel Center
The Killing Fields of the Cambodian holocaust that took place from 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of the Khmer Rouge left over a million dead and led to a flood of refugees fleeing from Cambodia. Many escaped from this horrific event to neighboring countries, while others sought safety around the world. A portion of the refugees came to the United States in the early 1980s in an attempt to start their lives afresh. Today, the Greater Boston area has the second highest concentration of Cambodians in America, some estimating as many as 30,000, with the majority living in Lynn, just 10 miles north of Boston, and Lowell, 30 miles to the northwest.
Like most refugees, those coming from Cambodia had little or no resources and struggled to learn the language and find employment. The lack of economic opportunity led to a concentration of poverty in which the next generation of Cambodians grew up. This is a community with many hardships and little or no exposure to the Gospel, a plentiful harvest potential that simply requires a few willing servants.
It was out of this great need that a collaborative effort was undertaken by Grace Chapel of Lexington, Mass., EGC, and the Cambodian Christian community. This eventually gave rise to EGC’s Cambodian Ministries, with Pastor PoSan Ung serving as Minister-at-Large. Pastor PoSan felt a call to reach out to his people with the love of Christ and was especially suited to do just that. Originally from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Pastor PoSan came to the United States in February 1982 at the age of 10, after having survived the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge. His spiritual journey began in an unlikely place. “We went from refugee camp to refugee camp from mid-’79 until we got to America in ’82,” recalls Pastor PoSan, “spending most of the time in Thailand at the UNICEF refugee camp. That’s where we ran into missionaries, and I had a chance to study with them.” PoSan’s mother wanted both she and PoSan to learn English, hoping that it would increase their chances of being admitted into the United States, so they began to attend Sunday worship and Sunday school classes with the missionaries. Not only did PoSan begin to speak English, he also learned of the love of Jesus Christ.
In the United States, PoSan worked hard at school, and upon graduation from high school enrolled at Brown University to study biochemistry. He hoped to become a doctor, remembering all the good done by doctors in the refugee camps. “It was in college when the Lord took me all over again to the basics in my faith and…I grew out of my childhood faith into an adult faith,” explains PoSan. Then in his junior year at Brown, he experienced a call to ministry. What seemed to be “just another Friday night Bible study” became a crossroads in his life. “I felt God call me to give up my medical aspiration and go into ministry full time.”
Following this conviction in his heart, PoSan moved to Boston in 1995. From 1996-1997 he was a youth worker with Cambodians through Tremont Temple Baptist Church before answering a call to serve as the English-ministry pastor for the Revere Cambodian Evangelical Church. He then worked with New Covenant Presbyterian Church as a church planter until 2000, when the Lord opened the door for him to be Minister-at-Large to the Cambodian community with the Emmanuel Gospel Center. Pastor PoSan felt a strong call to foster unity among Christians serving Cambodians across New England, and to call together the leadership of these churches.
The partnerships that Pastor PoSan has formed are the core of his work as Cambodian Minister-at-Large. He works both to bring together Cambodian churches and leaders as well as to connect them to the broader Christian community in New England. An active participant in this networking continues to be Grace Chapel in Lexington, and Pastor PoSan is always looking for additional churches to come alongside this Kingdom work. In 2000, the Christian Cambodian American Fellowship (CCAF) was started to bring together church leaders who work with the Cambodian community, and for the past seven years Pastor PoSan has served on the leadership team of the CCAF, acting as Chair for the past four.
“God continued to open up my ministry opportunities,” Pastor PoSan says. Beyond leadership development and encouraging churches, new church planting became an important focus. He felt that the Cambodian Americans, especially the one-and-a-half [those who immigrated to the U.S. as children] and second-generation Cambodians, needed a healthy, thriving church. In 2004, he planted a church in Lynn to address this need, appropriately called Living Fields. This “harvest of the living people, not dead in sin,” as PoSan says, continued the work of bringing new hope to the Cambodian community through the promises found in Christ.
Throughout the different initiatives of EGC’s Cambodian Ministries—whether it’s convening pastors, doing an outreach event, or starting a church—Pastor PoSan’s focus remains on three key areas: leadership training, partnership building, and evangelism. In addition to his work with CCAF, Pastor PoSan, along with Rev. Dr. Gregg Detwiler, director of EGC’s Intercultural Ministries, has co-taught a bilingual course at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education (CUME) aimed at serving the Cambodian community. He is also involved in pastoral training back in Cambodia. In 2004, he helped to bring Asian Access, an interdenominational evangelical church development organization, to Cambodia, and he serves as the organization’s Cambodia Country Resource Person. Both Cambodian and non-Cambodian pastors travel with PoSan to Cambodia to learn how best to support the churches there and also serve the Cambodian community in the United States. There they work to foster networking and leadership development, wanting to engage churches in “Kingdom-level ministry to foster a Kingdom vision,” Pastor PoSan explains. He has also been able to collect Khmer language ministry material during his mission trips in Cambodia, to better reach out to Cambodians in Greater Boston who know little or no English.
Evangelism is central to EGC’s Cambodian Ministries. Pastor PoSan is passionate about helping people come to a realization of what we all truly are in our fallen states and of the offer of forgiveness found in Christ. This is evident in all of the outreach efforts of Pastor PoSan and his volunteer team, whether it’s the homework center run out of the Living Fields office space, the music and English lessons offered, or the clothing closet and food pantry they operate. Outreach to Cambodian youth, young people in the one-and-a-half and second generations, remains a focal point of Pastor PoSan’s ministry.
The need to serve the new generations has resulted in a collaborative ministry effort as Cambodian Ministries works with area churches, such as the First Baptist Church of Lynn, to put on a Vacation Bible School (VBS) for Cambodian children in both Lynn and Lowell. Unlike typical VBS recruitment, which usually occurs months in advance through church signups, Cambodian Ministries has to deal with the reality that many in the Cambodian community are not Christians and do not attend church. Youth from Living Fields and partnering churches go door-to-door to extend an invitation to VBS. The churches’ youth are trained on how to approach families with the Gospel and an invitation to VBS to come hear more. This is no easy task, as the youth volunteers are often confronted with skepticism, suspicion, and even hostility. Yet every year, children from the community come, leaving with at least a seed of hope planted in their lives. Living Fields seeks to draw the families in on this process as well, offering a family dinner at the end of VBS. Scholarships are also offered to the vast majority of participants as an outreach tool, making VBS a reality for children for whom finances would be a barrier to hearing the message of Christ.
When asked about his vision for Cambodian Ministries, Pastor PoSan says it is to “see true disciples of Christ encompass genuine worship of God and live out their faith in life, demonstrating the awesome faith found in Christ—that unreasonable generosity found in the cross of Christ. It is unreasonable because we don’t deserve it—it’s just so big and lavish!”
by Sally Steele