Dr. John Oakes traveled to SE Asia for three weeks. The report is below.
Bangkok Jan 6-8
This is my third visit to this world-class city of over ten million people. Thailand is a majority Buddhist country. I see signs banning the use of Buddha symbols at the airport on the way in, as this is disrespectful to Buddhism. Thailand is a wonderful country with friendly people, a beautiful culture and wonderful food. There was been a lot of political instability last year, with riots and demonstrations closing the capital for weeks on end. The elected government, which more or less represents the poor and the rural was overthrown by the military and the opposition which represents the wealthier and more urban interests, although this is a simplification. The king is now nearing ninety year old, and his ability to bring calm and sense to the politics has lessened. Things are in a relative peace right now, but at the cost of a military takeover. Democracy is on hold.
On Wednesday I had lunch with the church staff. I also began a two-part series on the Book of Hebrews. The church here has 110 members. They have a great hunger for deeper teaching. Many guests and former members were at the meeting. The church here has struggled the past ten years or so and there have been only a very few baptisms. Lately there has been no full time leadership for the group. A little over a year ago the church in Jakarta began to help and brought in an infusion of faith to the members. For the first time in more than a decade a good number were converted last year and the church has finally begun to grow again. The youth ministry was reestablished. There is a renewal of hope and faith in God here. I am met at the airport by Sokoun Chanpreda. He was part of the original planting of the church here almost thirty years ago. The church here is being team led by Sokoun and by Boonsovong and their wives. Sokoun’s brother Kenneth and his wife are also a very strong couple in the church here.
Thursday I got with Sokoun, Kenneth and Sunchen. Sunchen has had a lot of difficult faith issues and we have a great discussion over lunch of pad thai and tom yum soup. The traffic in this city is legendary. Fortunately a modern and efficient train and subway system has been constructed recently, which makes getting around reasonable. I have late lunch with Kenneth and his lovely family, followed by a second lesson for the church here on Hebrews, followed by eating again. Only in Thailand have I experienced eating four times in a day, but they love eating here. Every social event includes a meal.
Ubon Jan 8-9
On Friday I travel with Sokoun Chanpreda on a one hour flight to Ubon. This is a city of nearly two million on the Moon river in eastern Thailand, on the way to Laos. This is a very religious city, with more than one thousand Buddhist temples. The pace here is much slower than in Bangkok. We are met by Oat. He and his wife have been leading the small group here for seven years without any financial support. The church has only twelve members and only two of them are men, so it is fairly weak. Yet the church here is so friendly and loving. I am the first non-Thai teacher or preacher to visit this church in all the years they have been here, so you can imagine the visit was appreciated. On Friday I speak for the group on Living by Faith (Hebrews 11). This is a very appropriate lesson for the group. Some visitors are there, including a young man who is very interested. This is exciting for this church!
At church I met a sister who is now in her eighties. At one time was the nanny to a girl who became the crown princess of Thailand. She is very proud of her connection to the royal family. Unfortunately, the crown prince later divorced the woman chosen for him. Since then, he has lived a life of dissipation, with many wives and mistresses and great shame to Thailand. The king is very highly respected for his talent, his love for and service to Thailand. There is great concern that the next king may be quite the opposite. One can only hope for better. Continuing the pattern, Sokoun and I end up having four meals both days here. The Thai food here in the eastern part of the country is fantastic. You must visit some time.
On Saturday I teach a second lesson on evidence for Jesus. This is important here in Thailand where the influence of Buddhism and its “middle path” has people believing that all religions are similar and that we should accept all teachings. They thing of Jesus a simply a good teacher. Even the disciples here need to be reminded of how unique Jesus and to have convictions that he is the only way to God. Two new visitors came to this session which is a victory for the church. After more food, we are off to Bangkok again.
Bangkok Jan 10
Back in Bangkok on Sunday I was asked to give a lesson on Evidence for Jesus. There were many guests and more than one committed to studying the Bible. Yesterday was Children’s Day in Thailand. I explained that in the US we think every day is Children’s Day so we do not have a special day for the children. Many in the church here traveled to the countryside to put on events for poor children as part of their HOPE work. After church I spent several hours with the singles sharing about the singles in San Diego and dreaming about our common work for Jesus. Nearly half of the church here in Bangkok is single, which is something I have not seen very often.
Perhaps the greatest unmet need here in Bangkok is for someone to come here and help to restart the campus ministry. They would love for anyone thinking of taking the one year challenge to consider coming here to Bangkok. This is a very friendly and safe city with several major universities. The people are relatively open to Christianity and nearly all the students speak English. This would be a great Christian adventure. Please consider coming here where you could have a great eternal impact for Jesus.
Siem Reap, Cambodia January 11-12
On Monday AM I fly to Phnom Penh, the capitol of the wonderful country of Cambodia. This is my third time in the country. Great strides have been made here since the horrendous destruction in the late 1970s under the Khmer Rouge in which about 25% of the population was either slaughtered or killed by starvation. Virtually the entire educated and professional classes were wiped out. The country had to start virtually from scratch to rebuild. In the past half dozen years, foreign capital has finally begun to flow into the country now that the educated classes have begun to be rebuilt, yet the infrastructure here is way behind. The government is corrupt and not very democratic, yet there is peace and stability.
The flight is one and a half hours. I am met by Sovann and Pheap Seng; the couple who lead the church here. We drive directly to Siem Reap which is five hours to the northwest. The road between the two largest cities in Cambodia is surprisingly poor, with long stretches of dirt roads and sometimes only one lane. The dust is so thick that the trees along the road are red, with no green in sight. Despite this, the countryside is very charming and there is evidence of improved conditions. We are following the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers. The Tonle Sap is the only river that flows in both directions. During the rainy season, the Mekong rises 20 feet and the flows backward, filling the massive Tonle Sap lake. The rest of the year, the river drains from the Tonle Sap lake toward the Mekong.
After five hours of harrowing drive we arrive in Siem Reap. This is the center of the tourism industry as Angor Wat, Angor Tom and the dozens of spectacular temples lie just north of the city. The city has grown very fast and there are now dozens of hotels. The church here has grown from 15 the last time I was here to a bit over thirty now. Most are marrieds and they now have full time leadership.
On Tuesday morning I travel to visit some of the temples. Angkor Wat is a massive temple which is a representation of the Hindu view of the world. The bas relief sculptures are astounding. This should be on the bucket list for anyone. Angkor Tom is even larger—perhaps two kilometer across. We visit other temples as well. After this we travel back to Siem Reap to teach for the church. I teach on Hebrews from 2:30-5:30. This is work time for most of the members, but they were advised to ask for time off. Impressively, with thirty members about twenty-five come. I am really encouraged by their zeal to study the Bible deeply. After three hours of teaching, we have a 30 minute break, followed by two more hours of teaching on evidence for Jesus. Attendance is more than forty, which is fantastic for a church with thirty members. Clearly there were many guests. More than one commit to studying the Bible. This visit has been very encouraging.
Batambong, Cambodia Jan 13-14
On Wednesday, Sovan, Pheap and I make the three and one-half hour drive to the provincial capital of Batambong. Batambong is in the northwest, fairly close to Thailand. It is the second largest city in the country with a population of nearly one million. It has a little more of a French feel to it than Phnom Penh, as they were the colonizers in this area. It is quite hot here. Yesterday it was 98 oF (37 oF). Today it is cooler—about 97 degrees and this is the winter! At night it cools down to about 82 degrees.
They say that Batambong was the first city in Cambodia to receive Christian missionaries. There is a larger proportion of Christians here, although it is still well below ten per cent. We meet Sotea and Pisey Hok who lead the group here. This is a young church, as it was planted a little over three years ago. The original team of 17 has grown to more than 50. They have grown rapidly. There is a hospital here sponsored by the Handa (not Honda) foundation which hired nearly all the original missionaries. Many of the disciples here are doctors, nurses and other hospital staff.
There are a lot of talented people here, but their understanding of the Bible remains relatively weak. They were asked to study Hebrews before my visit and many said they did not understand the book. There is a great need for Bible teaching here. On Wednesday evening I gave a 2-1/2 hour class on Hebrews. There were at least fifty there. I sense a lot of idealism and zeal in this group.
On Thursday I had the pleasure of taking a ride on the bamboo railroad. This is what the name suggests—a railroad in which the “cars” are made of bamboo platforms. We ride through rice fields which stretch as far as the eye can see. Cambodia remains one of the most rural countries in the world, with most people still on the land. The countryside is very charming and the pace of life is fairly slow. I was blessed to tour the Handa hospital with its director *****. I have met her previously eight years ago in Phnom Penh. The hospital is not officially sponsored by HOPE, but many of the administrators and teachers are part of the church here.
Phom Penh, Cambodia Jan 15-17
On Friday morning Sovan and Pheap drive me five and one half hours back to Phnom Penh. We roughly follow the Tonle Sap Lake and River. Phnom Penh is the largest city and the capital of Cambodia. It is a bustling city with famously bad traffic, but it is fun driving around because there are so many interesting sights. The city was built largely by the French, and there is a bit of a European feel in places. The city has about two million inhabitants, out of fifteen million in the country. Cambodia has had a very long and slow recovery process from the total devastation of the Khmer Rouge times, but in the past four years or so things are beginning to take off. When I was here last, eight years ago, there were virtually no modern amenities. Now the city has shopping malls, fancy coffee shops, supermarkets and cineplexes. Whether this is an improvement is debatable, but it is very different.
I am staying with Sophon Lo and his wife. He is the brother of Sokoun and Kenneth from Bangkok. They moved here recently and are already becoming a key couple here. The church has almost 250 members. Lately it has been growing and, like Bangkok, there is a renewed spirit of vitality and a vision for God. In the past two years, two more churches have been planted, bringing the total in the country to five. I meet MJ who is still in college, yet is helping to lead the brand new church in Kampot on the sea, south of Phnom Penh. HOPEWordlwide recently started a second hospital in Cambodia in Kampot, which is part of the reason for the planting. Already they have had baptisms in less than one year. The fifth church is in Kakmpong Cham. There are already plans to plant two more churches in the near future. The need is for leaders to begin these churches. There are twenty-five provinces in the country and the faithful goal is to plant churches in each province. If someone wants to come to Cambodia to help the church here, they can perhaps help to train these leaders or take the place of others here in Phnom Penh to free them up to help fulfill their faithful vision to begin churches in all the main cities in this country.
On Friday evening I taught on the Holy Spirit to the church. Well over two hundred are in attendance, which is very encouraging. Saturday we have a three hour class on Hebrews, followed by a two hour evangelistic lesson on Evidence for Jesus. There are about two hundred at both events. Almost six hours of teaching and almost none have left. Clearly this is a healthy group of disciples. Their hunger for the scripture is an upward calling. On Sunday I preached on Living by Faith—a follow-up to Saturday’s teaching. The place holds 300 and it was nearly full, with visitors from three of the provinces. Also, a group came from Singapore to give free bicycles to the poor children of Phnom Penh. I met the daughter of Roland and Karen Jenneford , a couple I knew as students in Boulder more than thirty-five years ago. She is here for two years to teach English. Of course, we spend a lot time eating together. They love to eat here almost as much as in Thailand. The local food is simple and healthy, with rice and vegetables and fish the most common. I really like the lok lak. You should try it.
Please consider coming to visit our sister churches in Cambodia. You will be welcomed warmly and will be encouraged by their faith and devotion to sharing Christ in this Buddhist country.
Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam Jan 18-20
The flight to Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam is just under an hour. The flight more or less follows the Mekong River into Viet Nam. Ho Chi Minh is better known as Saigon in the West. The name was changed by the North Vietnamese after the war. This is an extremely busy city of twelve million. The government is still one-party communism, as in China, but, also as in China, the party has opened up to capitalism. Whether this is consistent with communist thinking is debatable, but it has led to a lot of economic progress here. Ho Chi Minh is the economic capital and there is plenty of evidence of prosperity. The city is very crowded. The number of motorcycles is incredible. Perhaps nearly 90% of the vehicles on the streets are motorcycles rather than cars. The people here follow the laws, so, despite the crowding, traffic moves pretty well. They love to eat and they love their coffee here. The coffee is strong enough to eat rather than to drink. People are quite friendly here. They seem to hold no bitterness left over from the destruction due to US military action, which is truly remarkable.
On Tuesday I visited the Cu Chi caves with Hai. This is about 200 miles of underground caves and tunnels built by the Viet Cong only about 30 miles from Saigon. The determination of these people to hold their land against what they saw as South Vietnamese or American invasion is astounding, whether or not one agrees with the politics of the North Vietnamese.
The church here has grown steadily. They had about seventy members when I was last here, with only one church. Now they have about 210, with three churches, including one in the political capital of Hanoi. Plantings in Da Nang and Haiphong are planned for the near future. As usual, the training of leaders is key, but they have a well-thought-out plan. The Christians here are more devoted to evangelism and to one another than I am used to. Their heart for the lost and willingness to go the extra mile are a great inspiration to me.
On Wednesday I spent the morning with Quoc Hung. He and his wife Quoc Hong lead the churches here in Viet Nam. They are an inspiration to me. I learn a lot about what makes the churches here unique. They are not yet an official church so must work underground. No visitors are allowed to the church at all until they are virtually ready to be baptized. The government is aware of the church and is gradually giving them more freedom as long as they try to be sensitive to not share agressively and will do many works to help the poor and disadvantaged. Of course, the church would do many works for the poor anyway, as this is what we do. They sponsor schools for the disadvantaged, renovating the schools, bringing gifts for the parents, sponsoring the children and providing overall support to the schools.
Another unique aspect here is that church purposefully does not want to grow too big. This may sound strange to us, but they must stay “under the radar.” When they get too big, they send out groups to other areas to start new churches. The disciples here are so grateful and so devoted to God and to the church that when they ask for volunteers, the majority volunteer to leave their lives and jobs to go. Their heart for God is an upward call to me and is something I have not seen before. The entire membership consider themselves as missionaries. No wonder the group is growing.
On Wednesday evening I met with the church and taught on Living by Faith. To a great extent they are already living out this lifestyle. Attendance at midweek is nearly 100%. I am so warmly received it is almost overwhelming. Afterward we have dinner of pho, of course.
I suggest that you consider coming to see this remarkable church for yourself. Please consider taking the “one year challenge” to come to this city where those under 30 years all speak English. You will not be able to work with campus, but the singles and marrieds would love to receive you and put you to work.
Manila, Philippines Jan 21-24
This is my sixth visit to Manila. I am here to teach for the APSOM program (Asia Pacific School of Ministry). The Manila Christian Church is one of the most mature in our fellowship of churches. There are over two thousand members in metro Manila and about twenty-five churches in the country. Their goal is to plant five more churches in the next two years, in Luzon, the Visayas (the islands in the center of the country and Davao (the large southern island). They are self-supporting, but appreciate funding from Denver, Albuquerque and San Diego to help the plantings. There is a good emphasis on teaching here with the two different schools, including APLA. Rolan Monje is one of my best friends and a fully trained teacher. I feel like a proud papa.
With a population of over 17 million, this is one of the great world cities. The traffic is bad and getting worse at least in part because of problems with corruption in the government which means that needed infrastructure is not built. They tell me that the arrival of Uber and the local equivalent, Grab, has made things much worse which is surprising to me, but the thousands of new drivers have purchased new cars, adding to an already extreme congestion. The people here are friendly and happy. They love their food and it seems everyone is a singer here. I love Manila.
On Thursday I spent several hours catching up with my friend Rolan. We both share our vision for the teaching ministry and our excitement about what we have been learning from the scriptures. Friday I taught an open class on the need for Apologetics in Christianity. Despite traffic of biblical proportions, about three hundred come to learn how to more effectively share the gospel with their friends. Saturday is a six hour class for APSOM titled Answering Calvinism. This is a fairly deep topic, but if we want to help teach those who have accepted false doctrines such as praying-Jesus-into-your-heart and once-saved-always-saved, it is important to understand the theology which underlies these incorrect teachings. I had lunch with Coco Enrile and two other friends. Coco and his wife Farida lead the churches in the Philippines. I am pleased that Coco’s focus is to share his vision for the churches here and seeking help to make it happen.
Sunday I had the privilege of speaking on God and Science for a church-wide campus and parents group. The church has 170 campus Christians, and with parents there are over three hundred at church. This group is very lively. A number are interns for the church. A surprisingly high percentage are children of the members of the church, which is a strong basis for them to grow, but it also tells me they have a lot of work to do. I look forward to hearing great things.
In the evening I am off to the US encouraged and inspired by many new friends I have made in our sister churches in Southeast Asia.