Houston’s Cambodian Baptist community, a tight-knit group of faithful refugees, is mourning the loss of two of its founding fathers to COVID-19.
Their churches now face the compounding challenges of recovering from pandemic disruptions and transitioning leadership from Khmer-speaking elders to younger generations without the wisdom of the influential pastors who dedicated their lives to their community.
Pastor Ty Bo of Metrey Pheap Baptist Church and pastor The Mey of Rosharon Bible Baptist Church fled the Khmer Rouge regime, founded two of the city’s four Cambodian Baptist congregations, pastored for decades, and supported ministries back in their home country. And both died of the coronavirus this year.
When asked about the two pastors, congregants cross their fingers and say they were “like this.” They were like “blood brothers,” their widows said. Though they led congregations on opposite sides of the Houston metro area, Ty Bo and The Mey would pray together over the phone for half an hour each Sunday morning as they prepared for the day’s service.
In February 2021, Ty Bo, my great uncle, lost his long battle with COVID-19 at age 69. San Jacinto Funeral Home and Memorial Park overflowed with masked guests on the day of his funeral, many standing in the hallway or even in the parking lot due to pandemic-related restrictions. Pastor Mey was there too, a black leather Bible tucked under his arm. I’ll always remember him that way.
Seven months and seven days later, The Mey, 76, died from the same disease that took the life of his best friend.
As a whole, Asian American communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but details about specific impacts have been scant, a 2020 report by McKinsey and Company confirmed. They’ve also suffered the double blow of xenophobia and rumors around COVID-19 hurting their businesses and weighing on their spirits.
Back in July 2020, the death of a 28-year-old in the Houston Cambodian community shocked and grieved members of both congregations (enough that my mom called to tell me the news). From there, the pandemic continued to take its toll, peaking among Asian Americans in Houston in March 2021, according to local statistics.
The loss of the two pastors was “a different kind of hurt,” wrote Lisa Khuth, who led Metrey Pheap Baptist Church’s children and youth ministries for more than a decade. Metrey Pheap, which means something close to friendship and reconciliation, was the place where Khuth accepted Christ as a child and received her first Bible.
Ty Bo and The Mey were more than just preachers on Sunday morning and active pastors who prayed and fellowshipped with their congregations. They were like family to many in the community, having helped hundreds of Cambodians come to the United States in hopes of starting better lives.
My parents are one of the 25 families Ty and his wife, Eang Kim Bo, sponsored to immigrate to the United States. When my dad’s father was taken by Khmer Rouge soldiers and never seen again, it was Ty Bo (or Tha Ty as I called him) who became like a father to my dad and, by extension, a grandfather to me.
Pastor Mey was like a father to Khuth’s mom. In fact, he was the one who suggested that Khuth’s mom name her Lisa. And Pastor Bo led Khuth to salvation in Christ and baptized her, and it was his church that she would go on to serve for 15 years.
Pastor Bo and Pastor Mey were known for their work as teachers and mentors for hundreds of Cambodian Christians in Houston. Khuth called them “faithful builders,” people who “not only worked their purpose in building a church but stayed faithful to continuing that on even through the hardship.”
‘God knew him then’
Bo and Mey represent a generation of Cambodian American Christians whose testimonies date back to fleeing the Khmer Rouge. They powerfully attest to a God who miraculously intervened, who saved them from the deadly regime that took over their home country in the late 1970s.
Ty Bo served as a commander in the Cambodian national army, effectively placing a target on his back when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. Ty and Kim Bo knew they couldn’t stay in the country, so they joined a group of Cambodians fleeing to Thailand by night. During the three- or four-day journey, their family couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group and got lost.
Kim Bo said they felt so sure that they would be found and killed, either by the Khmer Rouge or a tiger, that Ty Bo planned to kill her, their two-year-old daughter, and himself to ensure they could at least die on their own terms. But then the miraculous happened—what Kim Bo describes as an act of God.
Ty Bo, though not a believer at the time, began to pray, “God in heaven, help me please. God who created heaven and earth, help me.” Immediately, Kim Bo said she got up and instructed Ty Bo to follow closely behind her. She started walking again, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, four people found them and led them to safety.
“He didn’t know God,” Kim Bo said. “But Tha said God knew him then.”
By God’s providence, Kim and Ty Bo made it to Thailand, where they lived until the opportunity to immigrate to the United States arose. That was another act of God, she said. In 1976, they arrived in Houston, where they lived in a downtown hotel room sponsored by the YMCA.
It was there that someone knocked on their door and invited them to church for the first time in their lives. After a year at a Church of Christ congregation, the couple began attending South Main Baptist Church in Houston, where Ty Bo grew in his faith and was asked to lead the church’s Cambodian ministry.
Ty Bo was ordained around 1985, per Kim Bo’s memory, and pastored among the Cambodian Christian community until the time of his death. He led Khmer-speaking congregations that met in the buildings of other local churches before finally moving to what would become Metrey Pheap Baptist Church on Van Hut Lane in 2000.
“It was his one job before he went to heaven,” Kim Bo said.
Sent to serve
Roughly one month before Pastor Mey died, he began writing an account of his church’s history on sheets of wide-ruled notebook paper. The Mey started by “thanking God for sending him over to serve and to share the gospel,” said his sister-in-law Chamroeun Lor, translating from the curly Khmer script on the page.
Like many Cambodian converts, Mey and his wife, Khim, became Christians at the famed Khao I Dang refugee camp, which housed up to 140,000 people at the Thai border.
In Houston, he settled in the far south suburb of Rosharon, in an area nicknamed “Little Cambodia,” and began Rosharon Bible Baptist Church in 1987. In Cambodian circles, the neighborhood is known as srok sreh, meaning “farm village” or “country.” Most of the Cambodians who live there are vegetable farmers, growing crops like mustard greens and water spinach, or trakuon in Khmer.
Like Pastor Bo, Pastor Mey began in Cambodian ministries connected with other local churches, such as First Baptist Church of Missouri City, another Houston suburb, before launching his own congregation. He didn’t always know ministry would be his vocation and initially hesitated to get involved.
Khim Mey remembers a church member asking her husband, “If you don’t do it, who’s going to do it? All these people need the Khmer language.”
Mey’s ministry also extended to his home country. He took more than a dozen trips back to Cambodia, spending more than a day in transit, to visit the ministries his church supported. In 2015, the journey became too difficult to undertake, so he started sharing sermons for small groups in Cambodia over the phone instead.
Every Saturday at 8 p.m., he would preach over the phone for an 8 a.m. service at a church in Cambodia—and then another, then another.
“He believes in God—whatever God called him to do, he would do it. So that’s how he started” his ministry, Lor said. “He just prayed that God would lead him to do bigger things in the future. That was his vision.”
After his death, Texas Baptist leaders remembered Mey as “small in stature, quiet in manner, but a giant in the faith” and said, “Whenever The Mey shared his testimony, he made it clear that every bit of his salvation was accomplished by God.”
COVID-19 and the refugee experience
Like many other churches, Metrey Pheap Baptist Church and Rosharon Bible Baptist Church adjusted during the pandemic, streaming sermons on Facebook Live, then adopting social distancing, masking, and outdoor services.
“Even though we could not meet together, we met online, prayed together, and served together,” said Chhoeur Khlot, a longtime church member of Metrey Pheap and nephew of Pastor Bo.
But there are no guidelines on how to grieve the loss of pastors who were mentors and supporters for many members and even father figures for some.
Not only did Pastor Bo and Pastor Mey serve as models in the faith, but their ministries also helped Houston transplants adjust to life in a new country. When they first arrived in the States, many of the families Pastor Bo sponsored, like my parents and Khlot’s family, lived for an extended period of time at the Bo family’s three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Houston’s Northshore neighborhood.
The latest data shows about 7,000 Cambodians lived in the Houston metro area in 2015. But that figure has since dwindled; Houston wasn’t even listed among the nation’s top 10 cities by Cambodian population in 2019.
Many Cambodians in Houston arrived in the early 1980s and have known each other since. They were neighbors and fellow church members supporting one another as they navigated their new lives. And Pastor Bo and Pastor Mey were there making connections, ministering, and offering help.
Cambodians describe how in the refugee community the pastor becomes more than a typical spiritual leader; he’s a friend and father figure too.
“The way [Pastor Bo] related to me is very, very close … like I gave my right hand to him,” said Vuthy Chea, a deacon at Metrey Pheap who immigrated to the US in 1984 after accepting Christ at Khao I Dang. “I help him; he helps me. I keep my eye on him, and he keeps his eye on me.”
Even before the pandemic, even before the deaths of the two influential pastors, their small and aging congregations faced big questions about their future.
Khuth left Metrey Pheap—the congregation where she came to faith—in 2014, when she said she felt God prompting her to attend a church that focused more on the Holy Spirit and healing. For Khuth, the generational divide between the older and younger congregants was a “huge barrier,” but not an insurmountable one; it wasn’t why she decided to go.
But it’s significant factor for younger Cambodian American churchgoers. Most understand but are not fluent in the Khmer, making language an obstacle even if they still feel a cultural connection and enjoy the traditional homemade cuisine offered at the weekly or monthly potluck fellowships.
Currently, Rosharon Bible Baptist Church has bilingual services, singing and praying in both languages, according to Rokha Mey. Sermons are preached in English and then translated in real time to Khmer. But after the older generation passes away, leaders say the church will gear more toward English speakers.
Metrey Pheap over the years has integrated more bilingual practices at the church. For instance, each church service begins with a Khmer and English Scripture reading now, rather than a reading only in Khmer.
But even with expanded ministries for children and more English in services, the second generation of believers is “gone” from the church, according to Khlot. Church leaders and members are praying and planning for ways they “can invite the second generation to come back.”
Both Metrey Pheap and Rosharon Bible Baptist average about 30 parishioners each Sunday, with no more than a handful of young people.
“For now, we pray for our children. We pray our children come closer to the Lord,” said Chea, from Metrey Pheap. “We pray for the Lord to protect them … for our generation to pass on to our children so they can build and can minister the gospel of the Lord.”
Chea said that this time in-between pastors has actually made the church stronger. All the congregants, from deacons to church members, have “opened their minds” to see how they can serve and become more-active participants in the life of the church, Chea said.
Currently, two deacons, including Chea, and longtime church member Khlot are working as a team to lead the congregation. Each week, the three men alternate leading and preaching that Sunday’s service. When decisions arise––such as, for example, whether to proceed with Sunday school classes in the midst of the pandemic––the leaders will meet, reach a consensus, and then bring the decision to the congregation to get their input. The congregation will then discuss and vote if necessary.
Although the church knows how they’ll choose their next pastor––with a simple majority vote––the timeline for when that vote will happen remains in limbo. It seems likely that the lead pastor will be chosen from among the three men currently at the helm, but Chea said he thinks a vote within the next year would not give the pastor-elect enough time to prepare.
Still, he said the church is continuing to pray and consider whatever door God opens, whether it’s to appoint a pastor from the “outside or inside,” from the younger generation or “from [one] of our children.”
At Rosharon Bible Baptist Church, two of The Mey’s four sons, Reaksa Mey and Rokha Mey, serve as associate pastors. They’re also praying for the church’s senior pastor role to be filled. Currently, a church committee is “in the process” of conducting the search and plans to select a pastor within the next three to six months, Rokha Mey said.
Rokha Mey said he believes it’s possible that the committee will choose a lead pastor from among the church’s community, likely from one of the three associate pastors. “I think it makes sense because we’re all familiar with the community, the members, and the people,” he said.
Church members miss the pastors they knew and loved for so long. But during moments of grief or uncertainty, they think of their steady and faithful examples.
“I know that members still grieve. It’s hard, but we all have to continue to serve God. [Pastor Mey] would want us to do that, even though he’s not here. He’d say, ‘I want you all to keep worshiping God, praying, sharing the gospel. Go out and do something for God,’” Lor said. “He doesn’t want us to stay still. He just wants us to continue his legacy, or God’s work, in other words.”
Pastor Bo, too, spoke of wanting his church to grow and continue on for the sake of the community.
“What that looks like now, I don’t know,” Khuth said. “But I did know that he wanted us to all take part in continuing on what he started, what he felt God telling him to do.”
Khuth has gone on to support or start children’s ministries at other churches, and she gives credit to Pastor Bo for allowing her to learn the ins and outs of ministry at his church. Still, her heart is with the Cambodian church, and she said she’s praying for ways she can contribute to the ministry that Pastor Bo started.
“I used to think ‘Oh my gosh, I go to this really small church,’ but I can take it with pride now,” Khuth said. “I am a part of the Cambodian church. It’s something unique. And I know that without [Pastor Bo and Pastor Mey] being builders of God’s church, I wouldn’t be able to say that.”
Phoebe Suy Gibson is a writer based in Houston.