OMF’s history in Cambodia is not straight-forward. Our beginnings were dangerous, unfamiliar and emotional. To shed some light on those early days, we caught up with retired General Director Michael Griffiths, who oversaw the CIM’s entry into, and exit from Cambodia.
Josh: Can you tell us little bit about the lead-up to entering Cambodia in late 1973?
Michael: Well, I had tried to get OMF to send workers into Cambodia twelve months earlier, but I could get no common commitment from my fellow Directors. It was a difficult time, the war meant Cambodia was dominating the scene, but we still needed more workers for Thailand, so why embark on a new country, with a new language and all the other implications?
You have to remember that the Christian and Missionary Alliance had been working in South East Asia for quite a few years and they were very much involved. They were a group with similar convictions to ourselves so we were able to take advice from them.
Josh: In the March 1974 edition of East Asia’s Millions, one item describes the call to move into Cambodia as ‘the will of God requiring action as soon as possible’. What brought the leadership to this recognition?
Michael: Well, I was a lone voice for a bit; then, a Major Chhirc Taing visited us in Singapore. He spoke of the need and opportunity (in Cambodia). He impressed us all with his reality and commitment. We were all very much influenced by him and what he had to say about his home country, and its gospel needs.
So we sent Denis Lane, the Overseas Director, to have a look. He came back saying how he’d been ‘converted’; he recognised the need to send people in.
Josh: At this point, the leadership agreed that the CIM would send workers to Cambodia. What kind of challenges did you expect to face?
Michael: It was very dangerous at that time; rockets were falling in Phnom Penh throughout the whole period. We were asking for volunteers who would know how dangerous it was. We weren’t willing to send married people, because we recognised the real danger and didn’t want any orphans. It was a very moving and striking period. One enormously respected the courage of these folk.
Beside the danger, we also had nobody who spoke Khmer. What we did have was Alice Compain, who spoke French, which made a tremendous difference. She was also highly competent musically, and had an opportunity with the Conservatoire there.
Josh: With hindsight, we know that God only allowed the CIM to remain in Cambodia for a short time; the danger became so great. What are your memories from around the time that they had to leave?
Michael: The few months we had there were really heart-moving, and we were deeply impressed by the Khmer Christians; there weren’t large numbers, but those that we were in touch with were impressive in their commitment.
One of the decisions that we made when we had to leave, and it was very clear we would have to leave, was that we’d all leave together; there would be no odious comparisons between missionary societies.
So the missionaries left weeping. In fact, for months afterwards, they couldn’t speak about Cambodia without tears. One is struck remembering the phrase, ‘…how through all these years, we did not shrink from teaching you with tears’ (based on Acts 20:31); certainly that was authentic in the lives of these folk, who were themselves deeply moved at having to leave, and their Khmer friends were in tears as they left.
Josh: It sounds as though leaving was a heartbreaking time for all the mission agencies. Did leaving mean the work with the Khmer was over?
Michael: We had done what we could, while we could. There had been progress, even in the ten months that we were there. And we continued the work when we crossed the Mekong into Thailand. So we had on-going mission work among them (the Khmer).
There was a kind of continuum: people going in, having to leave and then going to work with Khmer refugees, who’d just come out of Cambodia into Thailand.
I remember seeing Alice at work in a refugee camp; she spoke French to a local official, and taught songs in Lao and spoke some Khmer; her facility for moving from one language to another was quite remarkable.
The other thing that one noticed (in the refugee camps) was the intense listening of the Khmer refugees; people listened passionately, if I can put it that way; it was very striking.
Josh: Out of all this, do you think there is anything we can learn for today?
Michael: One does have a sense that the Lord is always working his purposes out, and though we may not always understand what’s happening, we can be sure of that one thing – the progress of the gospel and the Lord working things through to completion.