Monday, November 28, 2011

Finding Love in Cambodia

Missionaries Marilyn and Joseph Chan shared their story of the
persistent power of love and faith. (Photo by Melissa Hinnen) 

by Melissa Hinnen*

Perhaps I should not be surprised that a road trip in Cambodia with a missionary couple named Mary and Joseph (okay well actually Marilyn and Joseph) would be full of amazing stories. From the moment they greeted me at 7:00 a.m. in my hotel lobby in Phnom Penh, I felt a sense of pure joy from the Chans--they are truly extraordinary people who radiate love.

We drove for about three hours to the rural area of Svay Rieng Province. We met with pastors, visited churches, studied the Bible, ate at a wonderful roadside restaurant, made some pastoral-care visits, and stopped in a village community where with the support of the Women's Division, women are learning basket weaving from church leadership to generate income.

It was a very full and rich day, and I heard many stories of how the Methodist Church in Cambodia is growing and how ministry with the poor is integrated into the fabric of the mission initiative. The community outreach is not exclusive to Christians, and their evangelism does not condemn the dominant Buddhist faith. They live out their faith as models of Christianity and invite others to share in the Good News.

I learned about their dream for starting a senior center when they retire (Joseph is 67). "Many people want to help children," said Marilyn, "but it is hard to find support for the elderly."

Woven into our visits, I heard a powerful love story. Joseph and Marilyn met once as children--her aunt was married to his cousin and they did not see each other again until ten years later in a Thai refugee camp. Marilyn was raised in the northern part of Cambodia in the northwestern Siem Reap Province, where she went to high school. Joseph was raised in Cambodia but attended university in Yugoslavia. In the late 1970s, he returned to Cambodia to Phnom Penh in the southeast because he wanted to help the people who had just come under a communist government--the Khmer Rouge.

Because they were educated, both Joseph and Marilyn were targeted by the government and forced into labor. While many people around him were slaughtered, Joseph survived because he had agrarian skills like "being able to catch eel in a bamboo shoot and planting rice." Marilyn survived in spite of herself--life had become so difficult that she attempted suicide repeatedly.

"When we were imprisoned in the temple, others were begging for their lives, but I was just relieved that finally all of this pain would be over," she recounted, showing me a photo of the temple that still stands in the village where she grew up. She was released after only a few days and put back to work.

They both escaped, making their way on foot over the border into Thailand. Joseph's journey took more than two months. Marilyn remembered that she had a relative (Joseph) who she believed was studying in Europe. She had hopes that, once she crossed the border into Thailand, she could contact him, and he would sponsor her to go to Europe. At the refugee camp in Thailand, she turned around and was surprised to see Joseph standing right behind her. "You have come to sponsor me?" she asked. He looked at her without recognition and replied, "Do I look like someone who can sponsor you? Look at my clothes--I don't even have any shoes. Do I even know you?" Marilyn removed her scarf and said her name, and as the pieces came together in their minds, they both cried.

Less than a week later they were separated and brought on buses back over the Thailand border into Cambodia. The bus released them into the forest and many people ran toward the river for water. Suddenly a landmine exploded and countless people were killed. Marilyn and Joseph each assumed the other had been killed. Stranded in the forest with no food and terrified of going to get water, they saw the situation as hopeless. Marilyn said that parents were forced to leave their young children to die because they could not carry them. Joseph spoke of people lying on the ground dying and begging for water.

There was a hole that they had to jump over that was filled with landmines. Those who were too weak fell into the ditch and were killed. Joseph crossed the ditch, and when he looked back he saw a child about to jump across by himself. Joseph crossed back over the hole and helped the boy across. He did this repeatedly because he could not think about watching anyone fall into the hole. When Marilyn got to the hole, someone helped her across because she was too weak to do it on her own.

Eventually, Marilyn and Joseph reunited. They made their way to Marilyn's mother's house. Marilyn's mother had been caring for refugees who had come her way with the hope that someone would be caring for her family in the same way. Arrangements were made for Joseph and Marilyn to be married because, Marilyn said, "we did not want him to get separated from me again." It wasn't quite that easy. After they married, they decided to escape again.

Joseph went ahead of Marilyn and her family to find the best way. Unfortunately he was not able to get back to them. Marilyn was determined not to lose her husband and set out after him. The path forked into three paths, and, having no idea which way to choose, she took a guess. Fortunately it was the same path Joseph had chosen. Finally they were reunited and walked to the refugee camp in Thailand. Marilyn commented to me that she is still amazed they kept finding each other. After 30 years, families are still reuniting in Cambodia, but she and Joseph were continually drawn together.

The Chans, on the left, are praying in Cambodia.
(photo by Melissa Hinnen)
It was in the refugee camp that Marilyn and Joseph converted to Christianity. The first Scripture they learned was Matthew 6:33: "But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." Joseph said that at first they thought it just sounded good and was superstition. Soon their hearts were changed, and Joseph began teaching Christianity in the camp. Marilyn said that through Christianity they came to understand that it was not just that they were "lucky" to have survived and found each other in this ordeal, but that God had a purpose for them.

"Thank you for sharing your story," I said as they dropped me off at my hotel and handed me some fresh bananas. "The story is not finished," Joseph reminded me. "Please pray for our senior center."

Joseph's and Marilyn's love for each other, for Christ, and for all people--especially those living in the margins, "the invisible and discarded," as Marilyn says--is simply and authentically beautiful. Sometimes you meet people who open your heart just a little more in a way that is transformational. Marilyn and Joseph had that effect on me. Cambodia is blessed to have them sharing the love of Christ throughout their country. I am blessed that they shared their love with me, and I pray that the light of Christ will shine a little brighter in me thanks to their witness.

(I suggested to Marilyn that they write a book, and as it happens there is already a book written about them that is part of the United Methodist Women 2012 reading list: Because He Lives by Catherine Guess. Proceeds will support the senior center.)

*Melissa Hinnen is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. 

To learn more about Marilyn's ministry in Cambodia, visit the missionary bio page of Marilyn Chan. To give to this ministry of love through the Advance, link to the secure page at Giving for Missionary Marilyn Chan.

To learn more about Joseph's ministry, visit the missionary bio page of Joseph Chan. Make an online donation through the Advance, the designated giving channel of the United Methodist Church at Giving for Missionary Joseph Chan.

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