Efren and Becky Roxas grew up in impoverished rural Filipino families. After meeting Christ, they plunged into ministry among the urban poor of Manila. There they were pastors, mentors and friends to many, over decades of high quality and dedicated work. 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 in Asia: Cambodia.
1. What influence did Servants missionaries and the Servants mission style have on your lives?
I was two years into my Christian walk when I first met a Servants missionary 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 amongst us who were poor, fully immersing 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 – whose name was Hugh Todd – he came to visit our little home in the slum. We were in a really needy situation, and he really helped us out. We became friends, and he would often visit us, and minister to us in so many ways. We really saw servanthood and a deep love for Christ being expressed in Hugh’s life. And as our friendship grew closer, his life began to challenge us and ask us the question: how can we serve our fellow poor using our gifts and ability’s?
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 Lilok movement for wholistic and informal theological training for urban poor leaders.
2. Tell me about your early lives growing up. What were the highlights? What were the struggles?
Efren: I grew up in a rural province as the son of poor rice farmer. We were a large family – I am one of eight children, including two half brothers on the mother 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 everyday, 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, and that chance to return to school did arrive. I did well, progressing to Secondary level and eventually gaining entrance to a college in Manila.
So off I went to the big city to study in a college there. My tuition was free, but I still needed to raise the money to rent a small room, food, transport (and so on), and so 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, with my father being 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.
3. When and how did you hear the gospel?
Efren: After dropping out of school I met Becky, we fell in love and not a lot of time elapsed before and we got married, and our first child followed fairly quickly after that too. But our first five years marriage grew increasingly rocky, and I came 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 TV, and was seized with a strong sense of God calling me to personal repentance and renewal. From that day 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
4. What do you think was the main thing you learnt while ministering and pastoring among the urban poor in Manila?
That though 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 around me 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 in the midst of 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.
5. How did you sense a call to minister overseas and cross culturally to Buddhists/Cambodians?
Sometime in the 90’s I attended a seminar that talked about the un-reached Buddhists in Asia, and particularly in Bangkok. I felt a strong challenge to start praying for the Buddhist people group in Asia. In that same year, Becky and I received a Khmer visitor from Servants Cambodia who we hosted and orientated 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, and those two places became the focus of my prayers and thoughts 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, and by the end of that trip we knew it was Cambodia.
6. Do you think it has been an advantage coming from an Asian culture to another Asian culture (compared to all the other missionaries who are mostly non Asian)?
The advantages are that the various Asian cultures do have many 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 people at first glance assume we are Cambodians. I think too, there’s less expectation of us having big financial resources to throw around (though, amongst Asians, Koreans as well as Westerners have also created that impression).
Westerner missionaries also have certain advantages: being so different in appearance and perceived economic status can create a kind of ‘charismatic attraction’. This is something that the non-Asian missionary can use for good.
7. Do you think it’s an advantage coming from an urban poor back-ground in Manila and coming to the urban poor here in Cambodia?
We are already familiar with urban poor conditions – heat, germs, over crowding, lack of privacy, the overwhelming needs of the community, etc – 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’s never had to face these dilemmas before. We’ve already had a lot of practice living with the creative tension between battling injustice and relying on grace. I think overall, it is easier for us to integrate into a culture of poverty and into the living conditions of the urban poor.
8. What are your dreams for the future, and for ministry here in Cambodia?
We are hoping that 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, areas of ministry we are praying about:
We want to be involved in local churches here. We have a dream of the Cambodian churches finding ways to express their faith that are relevant and attractive to their own culture. We hope we can play a part in helping the church will bear witness to Christ’s love in ways that will tear down the walls of mistrust and hurt so present in this 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 fact, in building God’s kingdom in all areas of life.
There is a present and growing breakdown in family structures due to all the war and genocide that Cambodia has been through – and more lately, exacerbated by the AIDS catastrophe, and by other social and moral issues that are wrecking havoc on family life. On top of all this, there are the new dangers being presented by the influence of media in terms of consumerism and materialism.
So we are a dreaming of ways to respond 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 (Efren) experiences in Manila was with a Youth-at-Risk training program. In the light of this, we would be happy to be involved in the Teenage Drug Rehabilitation programme that TASK have recently initiated for kids on glue and amphetamines. We feel we could really help with the networking side of this, and so help TASK deepen the prevention, rehabilitation and re-integration needed for these young people.
For Becky on the other hand, she was a teacher for 11 years in preschool and then the primary school. Once our language acquisition has reached a good stage, she may get involved with TASK’s ministries to the educational needs of kids with physical disabilities and with aids orphans.
9. What is the biggest struggle for you being here in Cambodia?
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 team mates – so that’s two sets of cross-cultural differences we are trying to bridge at the moment!
And of course, as you know, we Filipino’s are extremely family and friendship oriented. Leaving our grown up kids, extended family, church and friends behind in the Philippines has been very wrenching.
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 it’s a real struggle.
Financially, it’s not quite enough to fully support us yet. We are really relying on the Body of Christ from all over the world to join with us and make up this gap.
[If you would like to prayerfully or financially support Efren and Becky in their ministry to Phnom Penh’s urban poor, please contact your nearest Servants Office.]