Wayne Hester: From Teaching Math to Training Church Planters in Cambodia
Wayne Hester moved his family halfway around the world to seize a unique opportunity in Cambodia
How did a math teacher from Texas, married with three kids, end up in Cambodia? What’s your backstory?
I grew up in a traditional Christian home, but when I was 13, I visited a church plant that actually met in a tractor repair shop, and I had an experience with the Lord there at the age of 15. I started preaching right away.
I met my wife in college, and she had a similar passion for missions. We got married and started our careers. I was the Executive Pastor of a church in Texas that was active in church planting.
I was also a math teacher. I love teaching and my education background has been very useful, as I understand curriculum, training and methods. My wife is a registered nurse with a passion for education as well. Till today, we do a lot of education work here in Cambodia.
“I thought I had no heart for Asia, but at that moment it all changed.“
Throughout those years, we were active in going on short-term mission trips and sending out young missionaries. We were at our one church for 13 years, and traveled to 14 different countries during that time.
We started feeling that a transition was coming, and on January 28, 2011, we asked the Lord, “God, is it our time to go?”
That’s when we were contacted by Samaritan’s Purse, and they offered us a short, six-month contract to serve in Cambodia. We only had 8 weeks from the time we said “yes” to the offer before we needed to be in Cambodia. So, in those few weeks we sold everything and moved. We had three boys at that point, aged 11, 9, and 5.
We just dove in headfirst.
What brought you specifically to Cambodia? Was it just that offer from Samaritan’s Purse, or was there anything else?
Back in 2005, we had sent a young lady as a missionary to Thailand. She was helping girls come out of the sex industry. While she was there, she began to learn and understand that the industry had a lot of girls coming across the border from Cambodia. She told us, “You need to go to Cambodia. On your next trip, can you go over there with me?”
So the next time I went, we brought a team and went to Cambodia. On one of the first days we were there, we were conducting a leadership training for pastors when they asked us, “Would you do a kids’ outreach?”
But I did not work with little kids! It’s just not my thing. I work with teenagers in school, but little kids is something else. Yet when they asked us I responded, “Sure!”
The next day they put us in the back of a pickup truck and took us out to see the kids. We were driving on dirt roads, bouncing around, and we stopped in a rice-field. We were surrounded by trees. I thought, “Why are they laying out all these tarps? Are the kids going to start showing up?” And then suddenly – kid after kid after kid comes. Before we knew it, we had 400 kids sitting on tarps under trees.
So I’m there in a Texas shirt and a cowboy hat, and the team and I are overwhelmed with these 400 kids. We get up and start doing this dance – “the cotton eyed joe”, and all these kids and teachers were laughing.
This was a rough area. They showed us what they had for the kids. They were doing schools on tarps – there was no official school system at that point in this area. Teachers stay with the kids for two days, under trees on the tarp, and then drive off to the next town. So it was really rough.
As I saw these same kids jumping and having a great time, it seemed wrong that they were normally so neglected. I saw the missionaries and teacher crying. One of the teachers told me, “These kids don’t know what fun is. It’s such a harsh environment after the war and the recovery area here. We just haven’t seen the kids laugh and have this much fun. It’s so good to see the kids laugh so much.”
In that moment, in that rice-field, I heard God calling me. I thought, “This is not right. The fact that these kids don’t hear, and never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel isn’t right.” I knew I had to help serve the teachers and leaders there, and help them get established. I thought I had no heart for Asia, but at that moment it all changed.
What part of your experiences in the United States helped prepare you for the work in Cambodia?
Honestly, it was my teaching background. We have built 25 primary schools in Cambodia in the last five years. My education background has helped me understand training and curriculum and how to put together quality training programs. This helps not just our primary schools but also our church planting training with the Church Planting Center.
The other thing that prepared us was that our church did a lot of leadership development, stressing that the everyday person is called to be Christian leaders in their communities. It’s not just seminary-trained people who have gone through Bible school, but everyone – the nurse, the school teacher, the business man. There was a real strong emphasis on leadership development.
Finally, we were a multicultural church. It had people from all different walks of life – different backgrounds, different socio-economic backgrounds, different cultures. This was really helpful. It prepared me for being in a different culture when we came to Cambodia.
What surprised you the most coming to Cambodia, when compared to the U.S.? Does anything come to mind?
I was shocked at the openness of the people to the Gospel. I’ve traveled to many countries and we’ve done events and outreaches and leadership development. And so often the people are so closed, it’s hard to share the Gospel.
“People are so hungry to hear the Gospel and so hungry and open to developing themselves.”
But in Cambodia, there’s such an openness to the Gospel. People are hungry. The Cambodian Civil War caused by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, caused such devastation that now there’s just this openness.
Let’s go a little deeper on this openness. Cambodia is only 2% Christian, but like you’ve said it’s one of the most receptive countries to Christianity in the world. Why do you think that’s so?
There’s a kind of vacuum. There is a leadership vacuum, a spiritual vacuum. People are so hungry to hear the Gospel and so hungry and open to developing themselves. When you share the gospel, or you open up the opportunity for people to learn, they’re eager and hungry. That is just so refreshing.
The Khmer Rouge was a brutal, ultra-Communist regime. They literally wanted to take over Cambodia. They even got rid of international dates and started at year zero day one. In a literal sense, they wiped out education and every system that makes society a society. They even eliminated a lot of Cambodian history and culture at that point.
So if you take a people and you strip their identity and culture away, it creates this kind of vacuum. They have a need to understand, “What is my culture? Who am I?”
When you have that vacuum, when you have that need, the people are just open for answers. And obviously, Jesus provides those answers. He provides not just salvation eternally, but the Bible is also a manual for life. It’s a manual for society.
When Cambodians hear the message, that Jesus is there to forgive them and give them eternal life – that He wants an eternal relationship with them – they’re open to that. But then they also see, “Wait a minute! The Gospel is the answer to every part of loss!” I think that’s what makes Cambodians so receptive. The nation needs that structure for society.
Cambodia is also a Buddhist culture as well, and Buddhism is very open spiritually, to a lot of things.
What can the worldwide church do to take advantage of this unique opportunity, this unique receptiveness among the Cambodians?
It’s almost like the book of Acts, as you have these budding church planting leaders and apostolic leaders throughout the nation. The opportunity is really getting in behind them and beside them, supporting them.
We’ve got a team of trainers and we work with networks of churches. There’s a number of church leaders in Cambodia that have come into the forefront.
Back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, there was a huge need for missionaries to lead the way.
But now there’s this generation of young, passionate Cambodian leaders who have a vision and heart to plant churches. It’s time for the international church to come in and get behind these young leaders and really just cheer them on, support them financially, and provide them with opportunities to train and develop leaders across the country.
Wayne Hester is the Director of Cambodia Church Planting Center, partnering with New Life Fellowship of Churches. He is also an advisor to Samaritan’s Purse. His wife, Tricia, is a consultant and educator in Patient Care Ministries. Together with their three sons, they have been serving in Cambodia since 2011.
Come back next week to hear more from Wayne about their hands-on experience in church planting in Cambodia.