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My Heart Is for the People of Cambodia

‘My Heart Is for the People of Cambodia’

Moody couple shines Christ’s light in one of the world’s darkest nations.
  • Rachael Varnum
  • December 31, 2021

In the slums of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a man sits unnoticed, eyes burning in pain from an infection, without money or family. But Josh Smith ’17 has learned to recognize these soft cries of hopelessness. He buys the man food, takes him to the hospital, and then shares about Jesus, the God of love.

“Anywhere we go, I think that God’s calling us to share the gospel, whether it be through actions or words,” he says.

Whether in the streets of Chicago or now in the squalor of Phnom Penh, Josh and his wife, Hillary (May ’16–’17) Smith, have dedicated themselves to proclaiming the hope of knowing Jesus Christ.

Unexpected mission field

While Josh and Hillary have served God for most of their lives, they never expected that the Lord would lead them thousands of miles away from home to the people of Cambodia. Although Josh lived there as a missionary kid for a year in high school, he attended Moody with hopes of serving as a pastor in the United States. At Moody, Josh was passionate about evangelism. Along with a few other friends, he helped begin several evangelistic PCMs (practical Christian ministries), one of them now called Free Prayer.

Josh felt the need to share the gospel, especially in Chicago. But through personal times in God’s Word and conversations with mentors, he recalls, “I really began to feel this conviction to go and reach the unreached who hadn’t heard before, and I really felt the call of being a missionary.”

Hillary was also an MK, spending most of her childhood in the Philippines. After high school she pursued cosmetology. But when God redirected her to Moody, she recognized the importance of serving God in whatever she did. Hillary says, “Whether it's working a secular job and that’s your mission field, or whether it’s opening up something in America or going overseas, no matter where you are, you’re serving God.”

While at Moody, Hillary met Josh, and they began dating. As serving in Cambodia became a growing desire for Josh, Hillary believed that God could be leading them there. Soon after they married, Josh graduated, and they began to plan for overseas ministry.

Strategically reaching the poor

Although Josh received a couple of job offers to serve as a pastor in the US as he originally planned, a few months after his graduation, Josh, Hillary, and their infant daughter, Melody, traveled to Phnom Penh. They moved into a small house just one kilometer away from the crowded alleys and shacks of the city’s poor community.

“Our main heart is caring for the poor in the slum communities,” Josh says.

During their first three years in Cambodia, Josh worked for Logos, an international school in Phnom Penh. His income from Logos provided for the family’s needs, while all money received from supporters went toward caring for the poor and buying resources for evangelism.

With less than one percent of Cambodians embracing Christianity, Josh and Hillary prioritize evangelism not only to the people in Phnom Penh but also in villages throughout the country. Along with two Kumai believers, Josh frequently travels where many people have never heard the gospel. Because many people are hungry, they often carry food or buy bread to distribute to a whole village. “While everyone’s eating and they’re all sitting down, we’ll just start sharing,” Josh says. “We’ll ask some questions like, ‘Hey, where do you think you go when you die? We want to share this with you—the one true God who made you. He loves you.’”

Taking the gospel to Buddhist temples

After reading that the apostle Paul “went into the synagogues” (Acts 17:2), Josh and his team were inspired to do the same, visiting many temples. Because of language barriers and widespread illiteracy among the people, Josh and Hillary developed booklets to tell the gospel story through pictures.

Beginning in Genesis, the booklets explain creation and the fall, including a list of sins accompanied by pictures of people moving away from God. Then they show pictures of Jesus coming to save sinners, ending with a description of how to be saved.

While they have experienced little persecution, the Cambodian men and women face alienation from family members if they choose to convert to Christianity.

One monk told Josh, “Look, I know that what you’re saying is right, I know what you’re saying is true. But if I believe in Jesus, my temple will cut me off, my family will cut me off.”

Nevertheless, men and women are still responding to the message of the gospel. One elderly woman named Deeuh surrendered her life to Christ after looking at the pictures in a children’s Bible that Josh and Hillary gave to her grandson. With the book in hand, she called the Smiths to her house, asking them how she could believe in Jesus.

Pointing children and mothers to Christ

Josh and Hillary have bought and distributed over 300 Bibles to the kids that attend their after-school program. During their program, Hillary teaches the children English, including a Bible lesson with each class. Her idea to begin an after-school program was sparked during a visit to the slum. A young girl named Lza approached Hillary, asking, “Teach me English, teach me English.”

Hillary also cares for impoverished young mothers. Because many of the women are malnourished, they struggle to breastfeed, and as a young mother herself with a second child, Tiger, Hillary was quick to notice their need.

“Just to hear a baby cry for milk, and you don’t have milk for them!” Hillary laments.

To combat their malnourishment, Hillary sometimes takes the mothers on shopping sprees, allowing them to buy whatever they need.

Nearly 30 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished. “As often as support allows, we share food and medical care with those living in the slum communities,” Josh says.

As they care for these families, teach the children in their after-school program, and witness in the villages, Josh and Hillary point the people to Christ’s heart for them. Josh says, “Through either the little booklets that we’ve shared or just through our presence in the poor community, they recognize that Jesus is a God of love, not a God of just taking things from them and demanding sacrifices. He loves them and provides a way for them to be saved.”

‘My heart is for the people of Cambodia’

Although Josh and Hillary originally envisioned pastoral ministry in the US, “My heart is for the people of Cambodia,” Josh says now. “And the best way to reach them, I think, is through just being there long term. And so, as years go by, that’s our heart.”

Their email address, cambodia4jesuschrist@gmail.com, describes their desire. After furloughs, “we’re going back to the same country,” Josh says, “and we will be until we die, because that’s really what the Lord put on our hearts.”

About the Author

  • Rachael Varnum

Rachael Varnum is a class of 2022 Moody student and editorial assistant for the Moody Alumni Association.