Diversity and Incarnation:
A Report on a Missionary Gathering in Asia
By Thomas Kemper
Joseph Chan first visited Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex in the world, 40 years ago as a young Cambodian Buddhist. He had a sense of pride that Khmer culture had produced such an architectural marvel, combining Hinduism and Buddhism influences and dating from the 12th century.
Now, on an afternoon in late April 2018 that sense was still evident as he guided a group of United Methodist missionaries around the temple. Joseph is himself a United Methodist missionary; retired today, but still engaged in sharing the love of God through Jesus Christ with those he meets in Cambodia, where his missionary wife, Marilyn, coordinates women ministries for the Methodist Mission in Cambodia.
“This is how it should be,” I thought as Joseph explained the history of the enormous temple structure. “Here is a Christian evangelist, a church developer, comfortable in Khmer culture, theologically trained in the United States, and able to cross boundaries in witness to God’s worldwide grace in Jesus Christ.”
Marilyn and Joseph were two of 38 missionaries, plus 24 missionary family members, taking part in an Asian-Pacific regional gathering of Global Ministries missionaries held in Siem Reap, Cambodia, near Angkor Wat, on April 21-26, 2018. The agenda included prayer and Bible study, visits to local churches, and field trips like that to Angkor Wat, but such periodic regional events are primarily for rest, and fellowship and conversations among the missionaries; times to come to know one another and for their children to play together.
I was struck in Siem Reap by the growing diversity within our United Methodist missionary community—the diversity signaled by place of origin and location of their work, and also diversity of calling, of training and vocation. Our group in Cambodia had missionaries from 12 countries serving in eight countries. In Cambodia itself, we have missionaries from other parts of Asia, Africa, and North America. Globally, our missionaries are from everywhere to everywhere, and in that Global Ministries is one of few mainline Protestant mission agencies born in the US with an intentional and growing international missionary force.
This objective diversity underscores the universal incarnational nature of our theology, our Methodist awareness of “world parish” of many races, languages, ways of worship—differences east and west, north and south in one “fellowship” of love,” as the hymn puts it. Incarnation—in the flesh-- makes the Gospel real in the lives of people and their communities.
Our missionaries have such diverse backgrounds and often dramatic –in the flesh-- life stories. At the same time, they have a remarkable capacity to cross cultural boundaries, interacting with and caring about persons whose styles of worship and theological expression may differ from their own — all of that, of course, within the context of love for God and neighbor.
Faith in Real Life—the Flesh
For example, take Marilyn and Joseph Chan, missionaries who have, crossed many boundaries, some painful. Both grew up in Cambodia, Marilyn in Siem Reap Province. As teenagers, both were forced into slave labor by the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s, experiencing endless toil in the jungle by the despotic regime. They married and escaped together into Thailand when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. They were introduced to the Christian faith in a refugee camp and were baptized in 1979.
The Chans came to the United States in 1982 and became Americans, living first in New York, then Virginia and finally California. Joseph would become a clergy member of the California-Nevada Annual Conference; Marilyn a school teacher. Both where active in group of Cambodian-Americans that worked with Global Ministries in exploring mission opportunities back in their country of origin. That was in 1995-96, and Joseph and Marilyn would be among the first to qualify as global missionaries in the then new Cambodia Initiative.
Methodism in Cambodia
The current Cambodia Methodist Mission also reflects diversity and unity in Christ. It is a collaborative of Methodist mission energy representing not only Global Ministries but also Methodist mission organizations from South Korea, Singapore, France/Switzerland, and the World Federation of Chinese Methodist Churches. It is expected in September 2018 to become a Provisional Annual Conference, a step toward an autonomous Methodist Church in Cambodia.
The five sponsors have learned to respect, if sometimes to work around, differences in styles of operation and expectations; to engage in dialogue and, especially, make all decisions in close consultation with the indigenous Methodists their leaders. There are today more than 150 Methodist faith communities in the country and almost as many pastors.
Ministries are diverse and coordinated: evangelism and new church starts, community and economic development, women and children, health and agriculture.
I thank God that our United Methodist understanding of mission is broad and diverse within our Wesleyan heritage. John Wesley would want it that way. He was a Christian who clearly grasped the breadth of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.