Carved teak statue of the Virgin Mary from Cambodia. Mount Carmel Cambodian Center.
Christianity, specifically Catholicism, was introduced to Cambodia by Portuguese missionaries in the mid 1500s, but few Khmer converted in the centuries which followed. In 1975 there were only about 5,000 Khmer Catholics in Cambodia (less than 1% of the population) and ten ethnic Khmer priests (all of whom were killed during the Khmer Rouge period). One reason Khmer did not convert to Christianity was because national, ethnic, and religious identities are not thought of as separate categories, but are all expressed in the single Khmer word, sah. In Cambodia prior to 1975, if an individual converted from Buddhism, they were no longer considered Khmer or part of society.[i] This was especially true of people in the countryside where Buddhist practices and the temple were completely intertwined with daily life.
A greater percentage of Long Beach Cambodians have become Protestant Christians for various spiritual as well as practical reasons associated, in part, with their experience as refugees. Many of the humanitarian organizations and individuals providing aid to refugees in the camps on the Thai border were Christian. Also, a high percentage of the individuals and organizations sponsoring Cambodians to the United States were Christian. In Long Beach many churches functioned as religious, social, and educational institutions for Cambodians. Congregations organized to help Cambodians find places to live, as well as clothing, food, access to medical care, transportation, English language classes, and employment. Many young Cambodians were attracted to churches as a place to learn English and make American friends. In this way Christian churches served as important links to mainstream America.
This section provides information on a limited number of Cambodian congregations in Long Beach. The churches included here are among the earliest to form in Long Beach. More histories will be added with time. Suggestions for further reading are provided at the end of each section. We invite anyone who would like to contribute to the archive to please contact us at the Historical Society of Long Beach, 562-424-2220, email http://hslb.org.
[i] Ponchaud, Francois (1990) The Cathedral of the Rice Paddy: 450 Years of History of the Church in Cambodia. Paris: Espace Cambodge.
Douglas, Tom (2004) Crossing the Lotus: Race, Religion and Rationality among Cambodian Immigrants in Long Beach and Seattle.
Kong, Chhean ((2003) On Buddhism and Psychotherapy. IN Not Just Victims: Conversations with Cambodian Community Leaders in the United States. Sucheng Chan, Editor. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Mortland, Carol (1994) Khmer Buddhists in the United States: Ultimate Questions. IN Cambodian Culture since 1975: Homeland and Exile. May Ebihara, Carol Mortland, and Judy Ledgerwood, Editors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Ong, Aiwa (2003) Buddha is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, The New America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ponchaud, Francois (1990) The Cathedral of the Rice Paddy: 450 Years of History of the Church in Cambodia. Paris: Espace Cambodge.