Survival First Need of Refugee Pastor’s Flock

Times Staff Writer

For a man who believes that prayer is the answer to ending the war in Cambodia, the Rev. Paul Sokun Nhem is very pragmatic when it comes to what his congregation needs most--education, jobs and food.

And even though he delivers a sermon every week and runs Sunday school and Bible study programs, Nhem has found that he is more often a teacher and a social worker than he is a minister.

Nhem runs the Cambodian Christian Church, the only such institution in Long Beach, a city often called “Little Phnom Penh” because nearly 10,000 Cambodians have moved here since 1975.

“In 1983, when the church opened, we had 100 people,” Nhem said. “In 1984 it was 200. Now, at the beginning of 1985, we have 300. And 50% of our church members depend on welfare.

“What my people need most are jobs, because the government won’t let them stay on welfare forever,” he said. “And they need English. At the Cambodian Christian Church, we go for the physical needs first and let the spiritual needs wait.”

Under Nhem’s leadership, the Cambodian Christian Church is one of only a handful of churches catering to the physical and spiritual needs of the 20,000 refugees from all over Southeast Asia who have moved to Long Beach in the past decade.

And even though Long Beach has the largest Cambodian population outside of Phnom Penh, Nhem’s is the only church in the city to hold all of its services and Sunday school classes in Cambodian.

According to Jack Jensen, director of a social service group here called Christian Outreach Appeal, Nhem fills a very special need in the community.

“The Cambodian people are really in need of a church,” said Jensen, who met Nhem when the pastor was interned in a Thai refugee camp in 1979. “He reaches out and ministers to all of his congregation and to other Cambodian people in town.

“He’s a very dynamic individual,” Jensen said. “It’s his whole life.”

Imprisoned 3 Times in Cambodia

Nhem came to the United States after fleeing the war and upheaval in his homeland, where he said he was imprisoned three times for preaching Christianity, beaten, starved, separated from his wife, left for dead and lost almost his entire family.

Since 1975, when the Communists took over his country, they killed more than 1 million Cambodians, Nhem said. “They were killed by starvation, put to death by sticks, jailed.

“My family was 51 people,” he said. “Only myself and my wife are still alive; 49 of 51 were killed.”

The first targets were the educated--lawyers, teachers and pastors. In the predominantly Buddhist nation, the Communists “were so against Christians that we were stoned, put in jail, not allowed to worship,” Nhem said.

But the soft-spoken 36-year-old cleric--who started out as a government information officer, journalist and political cartoonist--said that surviving a decade of horror only strengthened his faith in his religion and vocation.

After two years of study, Nhem became a pastor in 1975. That year, he built his first church, his country fell to the Communists and he was jailed for the first time.

This first imprisonment lasted only a few days, he said, but a subsequent jail term--on an island with 50,000 others--was his worst.

“People died all around me,” Nhem said. “We got two, three spoons of porridge a day, some salt, some water. My left arm and leg were in a chain. I weighed only 50 pounds. I was so skinny.”

Nhem said he was able to escape when he became so thin that his arms and legs slipped through his manacles. He fled to Phnom Penh, where he was jailed again and finally escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he was reunited with his wife in 1979.

The minister, who is about 5 feet tall, contends his religion gave him the physical strength to endure the hardships of life in his war-torn country.

‘Jesus Wanted Me Alive’

“I knew Jesus wanted me alive, so I decided to serve him all of my life,” Nhem said. In the camp, his son, Samuel, was born, and he built his second church with the help of Jensen, who worked as a field officer for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

When ministering to refugees in the camp, Nhem contends, he converted 35,000 of the 120,000 Cambodians there.

“The Cambodians look for God to see how God can help them after the Communists destroyed the country,” Nhem explained. “They had no hope, nothing. They were starving and looked to God.”

Jensen said he was amazed at the numbers of refugees to whom Nhem ministered.

“He did some fantastic things in the camp on the border,” Jensen said. “People just flocked to him. In the bamboo and thatch church there were 5,000 crowding in at a time.”

Nhem, his wife, Mala, and son came to the United States in 1980, living in Hawaii and Ohio before moving to Long Beach in 1983, when Nhem became pastor of the Cambodian Christian Church. It was then under the wing of the First Christian Church on Atlantic Avenue.

His job here, he said, is not too different from his work in the Thai refugee camp. Many members of his congregation are displaced, needy and often without hope.

“I help them get jobs, go to school,” he said.

With the assistance of Christian Outreach Appeal, he distributes 1,000 pounds of food every week to his congregation.

1985 a Watershed Year for Church

Although he says he never loses hope, 1985 will be a watershed year for Nhem and his congregation. By the end of the year, most of the women and men who worship at the Cambodian Christian Church will have been in the United States long enough to use up the 18 months of government assistance that is available to refugees from the federal government.

As a result, Nhem said, he is stepping up his efforts to find them jobs.

In addition, his church must be self-sufficient for the first time this year. Until the beginning of this year, the First Christian Church paid his salary, in addition to sharing its facilities.

“They (the First Christian Church) help me, but now they want me to grow strong by myself,” Nhem said. “So we are trying to raise our own money. And it is hard.

“What we cannot do, Jesus will,” Nhem said. “But we also need Americans to help us. I want other churches to understand that our poor people and our poor church need help.”