From Manila to Phnom Penh: An Interview with Efren and Becky Roxas

Overview of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia is only slowly starting to recover
socially, politically, and economically from the
four years of Khmer Rouge rule from 1975-1979.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, political
and social unrest brought the Khmer Rouge to
power. Once they took control of Phnom Penh
in 1975, the Khmer Rouge began a gross
reorganization of the country. The entire city of
Phnom Penh was evacuated—its citizens sent to
work camps around the country. The Khmer Rouge
began to detain, torture, and execute people who
were educated, working professionals, and those
thought to be “traitors” to Khmer society. Religion,
family, and all things considered Western were
banned. During the four years under the Khmer
Rouge communist regime, nearly one-third of the
Cambodian population perished.

While the country is still trying to heal from the
emotional, physical, and spiritual devastation of
the Khmer Rouge regime, its progress has been
crippled by new challenges: rampant political
corruption, an increasing sex trafficking industry,
and a looming AIDS crisis, all while millions of
landmines remain unearthed and undetonated
around the country.

Only one percent of the Cambodian population is
Christian. Buddhism is a strong influence and is
closely linked to Cambodian national and personal
identity. There are small but growing Muslim and
Hindu populations. Many still practice animism and

(Taken from Urbana’s Global Urban Trek overview
of Phnom Penh

Efren and Becky Roxas grew up in impoverished rural Filipino families. After meeting Christ, they plunged into ministry among the urban poor of Manila. For decades following, they were pastors, mentors, and friends to many individuals and families. More recently, they sensed a call to move out cross-culturally—to the urban poor of a nation that has suffered more tragedy than any other country in Asia: Cambodia. Craig Greenfield, international coordinator of Servants to Asia's Urban Poor, interviewed them for this article.

Question: What influence did Servants missionaries and the Servants mission style have on your lives?

Becky: I was two years into my Christian walk when I first met a missionary from Servants to Asia's Urban Poor working in my community. Coming from a church that was preaching a health and wealth gospel, I was amazed to see how these “rich Christians” from the West were prepared to live among those of us who were poor and fully immerse themselves in the life of our community.

At first I thought they were crazy, extreme risk-takers of some sort. But then one day my oldest daughter fell sick and that missionary, Hugh Todd, came to visit our little home in the slum. We were in a needy situation, and he really helped us out. We became friends, and he would visit us often, and minister to us in so many ways. We really saw servanthood and a deep love for Christ being expressed in Hugh's life. As our friendship grew closer, his life began to challenge us. We began to ask the question: How can we serve our fellow poor using our gifts and abilities? 

The Roxas serve in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Efren later went on to pastor one of the Living Springs churches planted among the urban poor of Manila, to serve on the board and as a pastor to the Onesimo ministry to at-risk youth (mostly kids off the street and on drugs), and to serve as a leader and mentor in the Lilok movement for holistic and informal theological training for urban poor leaders.

Question: Tell me about your lives growing up. What were the highlights? What were the struggles?

Efren: I grew up in a rural province as the son of a poor rice farmer. We were a large family; I am one of eight children, including two half brothers on my mother’s side. After I finished primary school my parents asked me to give up school for a year, as they needed my labour on the rice farm. I worked every day tending to our few animals and our rice fields. Because of this experience, I grew determined to work hard and do well if I ever got a chance to go back to school again. A year later, I got that chance. I did well and eventually gained entrance to a college in Manila.

Off I went to the big city. My tuition was free, but I still needed to raise the money to rent a small room, food, transport, and so on. I had to look for work to support myself. But by my third year things started to go wrong. I fell in with a circle of guys who introduced me to drugs and some other bad lifestyle choices, and after that I entered a tumultuous, risky period of my life.

Becky: I was also born into a poor family. My father was a fisherman who also ran a little store out of our house. From an early age, I remember being sent out into our community to sell vegetables in order to earn money. My father was very strict, and sometimes he would punish me severely. As a result, I grew up quite distant from my family, and instead grew very close to my grandmother.

Question: When and how did you hear the gospel?

Efren: After dropping out of school, I met Becky, we fell in love, we soon got married, and our first child followed fairly quickly after that. Our first five years of marriage grew increasingly rocky, and I got to a point where I felt I was up against a wall with no way ahead. I needed help desperately, and began to search for something else, something more powerful. I began to read the Bible and to search through the spiritual teachings of various religions. One day I happened to be watching an evangelist on television, and was seized with a strong sense of God calling me to personal repentance and renewal. From that day on I began my journey as a new person. After a year of observing positive changes in my life, Becky decided to follow in my footsteps. 

Efren and Becky Roxas now serve in
Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Question: What was the main thing you learned while ministering and pastoring among the urban poor in Manila?

Efren: That although I was weak and poor, yet I learned to say that “I am rich and strong because of God who gives me strength.” I discovered that as a poor person I have something to offer to others who are needy, not only in material things but also in spiritual things. I learned to empower others by setting an example of how to have faith in the midst of suffering and overwhelming needs. I learned to disciple and train other leaders, not only in the spiritual dimension of the gospel but in every aspect of life.

Question: How did you sense a call to minister overseas and cross-culturally to Buddhists/Cambodians?

Efren: In the 1990s I attended a seminar about the unreached Buddhists in Asia, and particularly in Bangkok. I felt a strong challenge to start praying for the Buddhist people group in Asia. That same year Becky and I received a Khmer visitor from Servants Cambodia whom we hosted and oriented to Servants and Living Springs work among the urban poor in Manila. Through that visit I grew more and more drawn to hearing about Cambodia and its tragic, painful journey as a nation. Later, I had the chance to visit both Bangkok and Cambodia. Those two places became the focus of my prayers concerning cross-cultural mission. However, last year Becky and I traveled to both places again, asking God to clarify which of the two he was calling us to. By the end of that trip we knew it was Cambodia.

Question: Has it been an advantage to come from an Asian culture and go to another Asian culture (compared to non-Asian missionaries)?

Efren: Various Asian cultures do have similarities, which is obviously to our advantage. The sense of being an outsider is lessened in some ways. We can easily fit into the Asian culture. We even look similar, and at first glance, people assume we are Cambodians. Also, I think there is less expectation of us having big financial resources to throw around. Western missionaries also have certain advantages, however. Being so different in appearance and perceived economic status can create a kind of “charismatic attraction.” This is something the non-Asian missionary can use for good.

Question: Is it an advantage to come from an urban poor background in Manila and then go to the urban poor in Cambodia?

Efren: We are already familiar with urban poor conditions—heat, germs, over-crowding, lack of privacy, the overwhelming needs of the community—and are probably less likely to get sick physically and emotionally. Suffering is familiar music to our ears, and we can probably respond with more discernment than someone who has never had to face these dilemmas before. We have already had a lot of practice living with the creative tension between battling injustice and relying on grace. Overall, it is easier for us to integrate into a culture of poverty and into the living conditions of the urban poor. 

Question: What are your dreams for the future and for ministry in Cambodia?

Efren: We are hoping our life-journeys, ministry experience, and all that God has taught us so far can now be used to serve the poor and advance God's kingdom on this side of the world. Looking ahead for the next three years, we are praying about several things. First, we want to be involved in local churches here. We dream Cambodian churches will express their faith in ways that are relevant and attractive to their own culture. We hope we can play a part in helping churches bear witness to Christ's love in ways that will tear down the walls of mistrust and hurt so present in Cambodia, in part due to Pol Pot's legacy. We dream of a church that will play a role in seeking justice, in pursuing peace, in alleviating poverty, in building God's kingdom in all areas of life.

Second, there is a present and growing breakdown in family structures due to all the war and genocide Cambodia has been through. More recently, it has been exacerbated by the AIDS catastrophe, and by other social and moral issues wreacking havoc on family life. On top of all this, there are the new dangers of consumerism and materialism being presented by the media. We are dreaming of ways to help strengthen family values through participatory discussions, seminars, retreats, forums, and so on. There are huge needs and huge opportunities for ministry in these areas.

One of my experiences in Manila was with a youth-at-risk training program. In light of this, we would be happy to be involved in a teenage drug rehabilitation programme that was recently initiated. Becky was a teacher for eleven years in preschool and then primary school. Once our language acquisition has reached a good stage, she may get involved with the educational needs of kids with physical disabilities and with AIDS orphans.

Question: What is the biggest struggle for you in Cambodia?

Efren: Pulling out our deep roots in the Philippines and trying to replant them here in Cambodia. We are trying to build new relationships with the Khmer people, but also with our Western Servants teammates. That's two sets of cross-cultural differences we are trying to bridge at once.

Also, Filipinos are extremely family and friendship-oriented. Leaving our grown-up kids, extended family, church, and friends behind in the Philippines has been very hard.

A third struggle has been financial. Our friends and church network back home have been amazingly supportive and generous, but coming from urban poor churches and communities is a real struggle. It’s not quite enough to fully support us financially. We are relying on the Body of Christ from all over the world to join with us and make up this gap.

Craig Greenfield is the international coordinator of Servants to Asia's Urban Poor. For the past six years he and his wife, Nay, have lived among the urban poor in the slums of Cambodia. They are now pioneering a new Servants team in downtown Vancouver, Canada. Greenfield is the co-founder and former director of Project HALO (Hope, Assistance, and Love for Orphans), a ministry of Servants Cambodia, which has helped Cambodian communities care for nearly one thousand children orphaned and affected by AIDS. Greenfield is also founder of Big Brothers and Sisters of Cambodia, a rapidly spreading youth movement mobilizing and training Christian young people in Cambodia to be mentors to orphans. He is the author of The Urban Halo: Hope for Orphans of the Poor.