SAMS connected with Missionary Heidi Whitaker, serving with her husband and four daughters. Heidi shares what it is like to be a mom and serve as a family in the mission field.
Where do you serve as a missionary and what is your ministry?
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – a very urban setting! Ministry-wise, I wear a number of hats, and find a lot of joy in each of them. Most importantly, I’m a wife and a mom to 4 daughters ages 4-17, and we are expecting our others in 5th child in June. Professionally, I am a pediatrician, and I work part time at a medical clinic teaching and discipling Khmer physicians-in-training. My husband serves as the priest of an English language international congregation, and I participate in the church in a variety of ways.
Did you serve as a single person before serving as a family? If so, how does serving as a family differ from serving as a single person?
I did. My experiences serving in these different capacities have been extremely different. As a single, it was much easier for me to study and learn language, and I was able to immerse in the culture more fully. Serving as a family means that a lot of time is spent on running a home and our family – and the fact is that we are an American family that speaks English.
However, having a home and a family means that now I have opportunity to invite others into our home – and we have found that to be an effective, meaningful form of ministry. In moving to Cambodia with a family, my nearest and dearest circle of people came with me, whereas in moving to India and Honduras as a single, I left all of them behind and had to develop a new set of relationships.
Missionary kids are certainly required to make sacrifices – and sometimes it can be hard as parents to watch them make their journey of sacrifice.
How do you see your children and family as a whole accompanying you in your ministry?
For our family, much of this is shaped by my husband’s role as an international congregation priest. Our older daughters have served in various capacities at the church, including leading the greeter team and the altar team, music ministry, and endless behind the scenes set up/take down/office work type tasks. Our younger daughters have also found simple ways to serve the church, and it is amazing to see the ownership they take and the sense of belonging they feel in the church. From time to time there are also opportunities for them to participate in outreaches or special events at the medical center where I work, and they have enjoyed that as well.
Where do you find your support as you juggle the tasks of mom, missionary, wife, friend, etc?
Much of it comes from other fellow workers who are in similar roles! I also find a lot of support from my prayer partner and from my family back home.
What can other mothers take away from your experience?
I have lived through many stages of motherhood that have looked many different ways – all the way from working crazy full-time-plus hours as resident to being a stay-at-home homeschooling mom. We have a continual challenge to remain open to what the Lord might have as a next step, because some of the turns in the path are hoped for or expected, and others are quite surprising. As in every area of life, we are called to live iwht open hands before the Lord, ready to release or receive whatever he places before us.
What can the readers do to support your family’s missionary work right now?
When we returned for home assignment, it was really helpful to have hand me downs of warm clothes gathered and waiting for us. English books are really hard to find, so we have really appreciated having collections of used books sent over with teams or visitors. As we move toward having children in college, I would love to have a couple of families who would be willing to send an occasional care package – it is very difficult for us to send mail from Cambodia.
SAMS Missionaries Gregory and Heidi Whitaker serve in Cambodia where Gregory leads the pastoral team at multi-ethnic Anglican Church of Christ Our Peace (International). Heidi is involved in medical outreach to several communities. In addition, SAMS Missionaries Jesse and Sarah Blaine are focused on church planting, outreach, and discipleship with the Anglican Church of Cambodia. Jesse serves as a priest and Sarah ministers with the youth and is training young women in the faith. The Lord is working in the Anglican Diocese of Singapore and the Deanery of Cambodia where your SAMS Missionaries serve:
Space is tight in the Phnom Penh chapel where Cambodian Anglican Christians have gathered to worship on a Sunday morning.
“If you can’t find a seat, just stand for a few minutes and seats will open up when the children go to their Sunday school,” advises Pastor Jesse Blaine, a Khmer-speaking American who leads the congregation.
Circulation fans whir in the quaint rented space that offers stained glass windows and a central location in the bustling Southeast Asian city, but no air conditioning. The church has posted significant growth in the past year. A missionary outpost of the worldwide Anglican Communion, it is one piece of the growing Christian community in Cambodia, where church attendees weigh the truth claims of Christianity a generation removed from the Khmer Rouge genocide.
A Rapidly Changing City
Blaine preaches on Matthew Chapter 19, his Khmer peppered with recognizable brands: B-M-W, Ferrari, and Lamborghini. The message is about the rich young ruler who is dismayed to learn that he must give up the material things he loves in order to follow Jesus. Members of the congregation nod. Blaine later shares that foreign investment—some of it legitimate, some not—has brought new wealth and materialism to Phnom Penh. The neighborhood in which the Church of Christ Our Peace (CCOP) Khmer ministers bears little resemblance to its appearance just a few short years ago. An upscale gym near the church advertises an $800 annual membership, a price unimaginable to most Cambodians. A new Bentley dealership has also opened.
The Khmer Rouge regime-initiated genocide, which resulted in the deaths of between one-quarter and one-third of the Cambodian population in the late 1970s, left little church presence. Christians, along with any western-educated Cambodians, were targeted by the atheist regime. The church—like the 19th-century French Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral in Phnom Penh, torn down stone by stone—was nearly completely wiped out.
Vendors sell “merit birds” along the riverfront in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The birds are believed to carry away the misdeeds of those who purchase them. Most Cambodians consider themselves practitioners of Theravada Buddhism, but various animistic practices endure. (Photo: Jeff Walton / IRD)
Ten years after the genocide ended, only a few hundred Cambodian Christians survived. Today, that number has increased to approximately 150,000 Christian believers, according to Blaine, making it one of the fastest growing Christian populations in the world. Some estimate that 2-3 percent of Cambodia’s citizens practice Christianity. According to the Pew Research Center approximately 97 percent of Cambodia’s population follows Theravada Buddhism.
Protestant missionary activity in Cambodia dates to at least 1923, but the church grew slowly. Anglican Church activity began in 1993 after the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to the King of Cambodia asking permission to form a worshiping congregation in Phnom Penh. Three Anglican churches now minister in the city, with four mission extensions in the provinces.
“Serving in Cambodia is very challenging for many different reasons,” explains Blaine. “There is a very strong ‘cultural inertia’ towards retaining their culture, their historical background. For many Cambodians, it is difficult for them to consider something beyond what they’ve already known. On the flip side, it is very difficult for many young Cambodians because they want to chart a new path for themselves and the country going forward. As they do that, it’s hard for them to find role models. It’s hard for them to find ideas and pathways that they can pursue.”
Blaine explains that a successful Alpha (introductory Christian beliefs) course this past autumn and a personal finance training course are pushing the church out into the community and forcing them to find ways to creatively bring people into the church.
“Our hopes were to have 8-10 people for each [Alpha] session, and we ended up averaging about 30,” Blaine shared. “It was a pure joy on our parts to welcome several participants into the family of faith and we look forward to baptizing them in February,” Blaine explained that the Alpha course helped the disproportionately young congregation articulate their Christian beliefs. Two more Alpha sessions are planned for 2018.
Blaine is also instructing his flock on the importance of the sacraments. The congregation has increased from having communion only once a year, to twice a year, to now monthly. Later in 2018, the congregation will have communion weekly.
Dania Prak attends the morning prayer service at CCOP. She is an English-speaking Cambodian who once lived in the struggling neighborhood adjacent to the church that is now transformed with western brands and boutique hotels catering to foreign tourists. Prak remembers that as a small child the free biscuits lured her to church. She kept returning—and created mischief during Sunday school. But the Gospel message took hold in her heart, and now she is a key lay leader in the congregation.
The Rev. Steven Seah leads a tour of the future sanctuary of the Anglican Church of Christ Our Peace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Photo: Jeff Walton / IRD)
The Khmer congregation has outgrown its small chapel, but there will be more room when the congregation’s new building—shared with the English-speaking international congregation—is completed in mid-2018. The eight-story building replaces the congregation’s original re-purposed villa and is slated to open in June. Classrooms, offices, guest apartments, and a sanctuary seating more than 300 persons will facilitate ministry. A separate large meeting space will permit the Khmer congregation to worship simultaneously with the international congregation.
The Rev. Gregory Whitaker, who leads the International Congregation at the Church of Christ Our Peace, says that the congregation has found itself serving a highly transient community of educators, doctors, and non-government organization (NGO) workers.
“The challenge is not to see them as appendages or someone whom ‘oh, you’re only here a short time and it doesn’t matter what we do with you because you’ll be gone.’ If we adopt that mindset, then 70 percent of the church goes unpastored,” Whitaker explained.
On a typical Sunday, between 140-200 internationals and English-speaking Khmer meet in an auditorium for a 90-minute liturgical worship service that also features a praise band and evangelical songs. According to Whitaker, only about five members of the congregation have an Anglican background. Families with kids, Canadians, Nigerians, and Americans are in attendance.
Anglicans are also ministering among the sizeable Khmer-language ethnic Chinese population, nearly 80,000 strong in Phnom Penh, some of whom hail from the Chinese diaspora and others from mainland China.
At Church of the Good Shepherd (COGS) in Phnom Penh, one visiting Chinese pastor is in the process of relocating after police shut down his Bible school in China. Cambodia has relatively few religious restrictions, and enterprising pastors see the growing ethnic Chinese population as receptive to the Gospel.
Congregants sing songs in Khmer at a recent Sunday service, some of which are Taiwanese compositions instead of songs translated from English. A multi-ethnic feel permeates the space; two recently arrived students from Beijing introduce themselves. The pair will learn Khmer and then teach Chinese, with the ambitious goal of leaning the language in four months.
Rokakos Field Visit
Outside of the city, ministry takes place at informal rural preaching stations, including a small tidy building in Rokakos, where young children pile in for games and stories.
Ministry in Rokakos, by necessity, looks different from that in Phnom Penh. According to The Rev. Steven Seah, Associate Dean for Cambodia, the congregation has only three adults but dozens of children—up to 200 came on Christmas Day. The difficulty of ministering to so many children with little adult help has led to the goal of discipling a smaller number of children who, as they grow older, can serve as leaders to educate the younger children.
Children, Seah notes, are far more receptive to the Gospel than their parents, although parents encourage them to attend church ministries because they see value in the structure and moral instruction that the children receive.
Nass Sowannia, a Khmer lay pastor at the site, says they could do a lot here if they had more help.
Church growth has also been facilitated through ministries like Project Khmer Hope (PKH), where vulnerable young people in Kampong Speu Province learn skills and are discipled. Begun as a ministry of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore, PKH has identified ways at-risk children can achieve financial security by preparing for work in Cambodia’s growing hospitality sector.
Susan Gok speaks with hospitality trainees at Project Khmer Hope before their morning departure for internships in Phnom Penh. (Photo: Jeff Walton/IRD)[/caption]
Susan Gok served as cabin crew with Singapore Airlines for 15 years, became a Christian in 2001, and eventually came to Cambodia to serve at PKH. With a background in hotel/hospitality management, she trains the approximately 50 people ages 17-23 who cycle through PKH’s two-year program each year. English is taught the first year. First and second year students can be placed in internships with hotels, including some of the top hotels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Many of the trainees become Christians—48 were baptized last year—and the program has grown from placing trainees from its first graduating class in 2006 in three hotels to 15 hotels today.
“[Our] ongoing prayer request is that God would raise up leaders, Cambodian leaders, from within the congregation, maybe from within Alpha groups or within the financial peace group,” Seah reports, “people who have a true heart for the Lord and heart for their country.”
By Jeff Walton
Communications Manager for the Institute on Religion & Democracy
Big news in the Benton household! We are thrilled to announce the arrival of a new one in the coming months. sorry we have not been active on our blog, a few things including this have been occupying our time. But we are BACK!!! more updates to come. meanwhile, please pray for Summer and baby’s health and wellbeing.
Hey Family. We have regretfully been very slow on our blog and newsletter over the past few months.
We have been under the pump since our house flooded 4 times in 1 week! Cambodia has an annual festival called Pchum Ben which is in the thick of rainy season and this year was particularly bad. It rained so hard that even when it wasn’t raining the water was coming up through the ground. We weren’t the only ones hit hard, the open sewer running through the city flooded twice and reports say over 100 cambodians lost their lives.
We are now through having major reconstruction on our house to raise the bottom floor up about 2 feet in an attempt to avoid future flooding. We thought that we would share some of our journey with everyone so you can see what it was like.
Here are some pictures of what we went through over the last couple of months.