by David Sutherland

Lay Chheang Lim, now called Jean-Pierre Lim, and his wife Huy-Lan had been leading a quiet life in their home in Cambodia since their wedding in 1968. However, everything was about to change. In a civil war that continued for nearly five years, the Khmer Rouge opposed government forces in the Kingdom of Cambodia until the countryside was under its control. In 1975, Khmer Rouge forces took the capital city of Phnom Penh and the military leader, Pol Pot, became the new prime minister. The educated middle-classes, seen as intellectuals, were tortured and executed. Before the end of the war, Jean-Pierre was no longer allowed to work as an accountant and had to hide because he was considered an intellectual.

In 1975, Jean-Pierre crossed the border into Thailand and six months later his wife joined him with two of their three sons, leaving one son with his grandparents in order to maintain the family name in case other members of the family did not survive. Huy-Lan actually took the very last flight from Phnom Penh airport before it was closed by the communist government.

In Thailand, the family was told that members of a church were giving free meals to the Cambodian refugees every Sunday, after the morning service. One Sunday, the Lims arrived at the end of the service: being Buddhists, they did not want to go to a Christian service. Unfortunately, there was no meal provided that day. However, later in their refugee camp, the Lims met believers who had fled Cambodia where they had been missionaries.

Jean-Pierre was given a Bible in his own language and after attending some Bible studies in the camp, they along with many others, left Thailand and arrived in France. They were sent to another refugee camp, this time near the city of Lyon. Once again, they met ex-missionaries to Cambodia. Along with some French believers, the Lims and others were visited on a regular basis and helped with their daily needs. A number of them started to attend Bible studies in their language and a work of grace began. Many Cambodians were converted and a church was planted in the refugee camp in the 1980s.

Once the Lim family were settled into their new life in France, the grandparents sent their son who had been separated from his parents for a long time. What tremendous joy they all experienced on the day of their reunion. Since then, the children have all grown up and have children of their own.

A Growing Church

The church grew and elders were appointed. For practical reasons, most of the members moved closer to the town of Lyon and in 2001 they bought a building in the suburb of Bron. This building has been used as their place of worship ever since. Every Sunday between 60 and 80 people meet together. In July 2021, six people were baptised in a local lake. They also have a church plant in a town 25 miles south of Lyon.

For the last few years, the Cambodian assembly has had two elders, one of whom spends six months a year as an itinerant minister in Cambodia. I have the privilege of teaching and training three more men, who are in their probationary year as elders. We are looking at different aspects of the ministry of elders, including subjects such as: how to initiate and cope with changes in our local church; attitudes to have when we are criticised; finding the balance between church, family and work; and the kind of elders that God will not bless, for which I have 22 different categories.

I am also invited on a regular basis to preach on Sundays. My message is always translated from French into Cambodian for some of the older members of the church, many of whom are boat people,1 who have not mastered French that well.

Many Cambodians were converted and a church was planted in the refugee camp

A dozen young adults meet once a month and I also have the privilege of teaching them the Word of God. After going through a survey of every Old Testament and New Testament book, one by one, we have studied different subjects ranging from discipleship, marriage, witnessing, election, prayer, homosexuality and the occult. We have also studied the doctrine of conversion, including adoption, justification and sanctification. In 2021 we spent time looking at what the Bible says about God’s will for our lives. We will also be looking at different aspects of creation, the beauty found in nature, which is a gift from God.

In 2022, there are now five French Cambodian churches in Paris, Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Lille and Lyon. They organise a family camp every summer and many of the young people use their musical talents in the times of worship and praise. They also hold a youth weekend each spring, which is attended by 50 young people from the five churches. I was asked to preach at this annual event in 2019 and was amazed at the large percentage of these young people who are musically gifted.

Challenges to Face

Cambodian churches need to establish a strong leadership. The building in Lyon needs renovating. A church plant 25 miles south of Lyon is encouraging but nobody is available to teach and nurture this group of Cambodian believers. The young people in Cambodian churches tend not to mix with other Christian youth groups, which results in some of them marrying non-Christians. Some of the young adults are Christians by tradition: due to strong family ties, they still come to church despite not being converted as they want to please their parents. Another issue concerning family life is how to respond when Christians are invited to the wedding of a family member who is a Buddhist, as the ceremony will include a number of Buddhist rituals. Some believers refuse to attend in these circumstances whereas others do attend the wedding ceremony but feel very ill at ease. As we look to the future, we pray that the French Cambodian churches will see growth and blessing, with people who really trust the Lord and are on fire for Him, using their gifts to His glory.

To Every Nation

When I came to France in 1980, I would never have dreamed that the Lord would open a door for ministry to Cambodians. I smile when I think of the Lord’s leading, as over the last few years I have preached by translation in Armenian, Urdu, Laotian and Italian. All the glory goes to the Lord for what He is doing in ethnic churches in the country of France.

Pray

  • that God will provide the answers to challenges faced by the church in Lyon
  • for God to use the Cambodian young people to minister using their musical gifts
  • for young people to know Jesus as their personal Saviour, rather than just attending church because their parents are believers
  • for the churches and leaders to grow in their knowledge of the Word as they reach out to others.
1 The term ‘boat people’ was first used in reference to refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
In the following years, over 1 million refugees fled the war-ravaged countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The Vietnamese who took to the ocean in tiny overcrowded ships were dubbed the ‘boat people’.