The man determined to convert all of Cambodia to Christianity
By James Fuller
Ted Olbrich is the head agent on a quest some might call missionary impossible: He wants to convert the entire Cambodian nation to Christianity.
The former Woodstock pastor isn’t asking for much – just an entirely new set of beliefs for every man, woman and child in a country that’s 95 percent Buddhist.
No one specifically asked for his help, and the occasional death threats and stones through his church windows suggest some Cambodians do not want him in their land.
Yet Olbrich, 52, said he does it because so many Cambodians lack hope. They are worn down after 30 years of war and civil strife.
“When you get up in the morning to go to the market to get food … you never know if the guy driving your motorbike taxi might be the person who killed your mother or sister,” Olbrich said. “Imagine living like that and what the impact would be on something like trust, or compassion or simple joy.”
Jesus Christ may not be a superstar in Cambodia, but Olbrich isn’t giving up. In fact, he’s actually making headway.
Since arriving five years ago, the former pig farmer has built more than 700 churches. In the process, with a little help from a Rolling Meadows charity, he’s become the “big daddy” to more than 2,000 children in more than 50 orphan homes.
Successes like these are the reason he willingly suffers through life in an impoverished land, and risks his own murder for people he never met in a country that does not welcome him.
“It’s my calling to do this,” Olbrich said. “When I got there it was a swirling chaos. I looked around, and I did not like it. Right then I was convinced and committed to do something, or die trying. No one deserves to go through all that.”
Pigs and princesses
Olbrich likes to think of himself as the “Forrest Gump of missionaries.” Like the Tom Hanks film character, he has an uncanny knack for stumbling onto success.
He fell in love with the church as a student at Iowa State University in response to a deep sense of emptiness.
Before long, he decided to enroll in seminary, a path his father labeled a “waste of a good life.”
But the government had other ideas. Uncle Sam wanted him to fight in Vietnam.
“I won the only contest I ever entered,” Olbrich said. “The draft lottery.”
There was, however, one way out. With his degree in agronomy, Olbrich landed a job with the U.S. government in Laos to help with rice production.
Forrest Gump was only getting started.
On his first day in Laos, Olbrich met Sou, a princess of the ancient kingdom of Iampa, part of which includes modern-day Cambodia.
Olbrich and Sou fell in love, married and returned to the United States to build a farm of their own. With more than 7,000 hogs and several thousand acres, Olbrich was soon a millionaire, at least on paper.
But those were rough times for farmers. Sky-rocketing interest rates cost him his farm. Once he got it back, it wasn’t worth nearly as much.
So he gave it up to go into business. After about eight years of white collar misery, Olbrich found happiness in another collar.
While attending a couples’ social group at his local church in Woodstock he rediscovered the fever to preach he’d left behind at his father’s command. Soon, he became a pastor in his own right. He’d finally found a profession he loved. But he was restless.
At night he’d find himself sitting alone, reading his Bible for guidance. He’d pray and ask God to help him find what he was lacking.
“It was 10:29 p.m., Aug. 29, 1982,” Olbrich recalls. “That’s when everything changed. I was thanking God for giving me my wife. And he told me, ‘I have given you this woman not so the two of you can enjoy life together, but so you can serve me, first in your country, then in her country.”
Olbrich had spent 12 years serving in Woodstock. It was time to go to Cambodia. The was no plan. No money. No roadmap for success.
“I did not have a clear vision of what I was supposed to do,” Olbrich said. “When I arrived in Cambodia I couldn’t even say ‘hello.’ I was honestly at a loss. But I knew God would equip me with what I needed.”
Buddha vs. Jesus
Olbrich suddenly found himself in an entirely different world. Gone were the telephones, computers, cable TV, clean drinking water, paved roads and the comfort of being able to walk freely without fear of landmines.
He was surrounded by desperation.
More than 1 million people have died in Cambodia as a result of three decades of civil war. Of the 13 million living there, 220,000 have HIV/AIDS, one of the highest infection rates in Asia. Only 70 percent of the population can read and write.
All that fuels an “anything goes” atmosphere in Cambodia, Olbrich said.
“Every Cambodian suffers from one of two things,” he said. “They are either so full of bitterness about the things done to them in the wars that they can’t forgive. Or, they are so full of guilt about what they did, they can’t forgive themselves.”
The solution, Olbrich said, was to give them a faith with a figurehead who believes in forgiving. He began preaching about the life of someone who “got it right.” Not anti-Buddha, but pro-Jesus.
“When you boil Buddhism down, it tells you that you get what you deserve, so accept it and be happy,” Olbrich said. “I keep asking Cambodians if they’re happy. They keep saying ‘no.’ So I tell them, well, we’ve got this guy named Jesus. If Buddha would have been around when Jesus was alive, he’d have signed up, too.”
Not everyone agrees.
Olbrich’s pitch about Jesus being the “guy that got it right” sounds like propaganda that wouldn’t sit well with many Buddhists, according to professor John C. Holt, a Buddhism expert at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Christian missionaries aren’t typically popular in Buddhist nations, he said. In fact, many are finding they’re less welcome than ever before.
“It is really becoming a major issue,” Holt said. “Traditional Buddhist societies used to be very assimilative. I think that’s changing now. The resistance to missionaries is part of the wider resistance to globalization. It reflects a growing antipathy to outsiders coming in.”
A tough sell
The Cambodian government makes it clear that Jesus isn’t part of the spiritual sandwich delineated in the national motto, “Nation, Religion, King.”
Teachers lobby to have all references to “God” removed from textbooks, saying it’s unconstitutional. Most national holidays are related to Buddhist observances.
Needless to say, criticizing Buddhism would not curry favor with the Cambodian government. If Olbrich’s churches were going to survive, he’d have to get creative. Agreeing to pay a $700 licensing fee for each church proved to be just the ticket.
“They like that,” Olbrich said.
The next hurdle was even easier. Churches and missionaries often fail in Cambodia because only Cambodians can own land. No land, no church. But Olbrich’s wife, Sou, has Cambodian citizenship. All the property for the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel is in her name.
Olbrich had found a way to please the politicians. Now he’d have to persuade the people. He started with a house of prostitution.
He turned a brothel into a church, and began preaching to women, including many widows who were prostituting themselves just to survive. From inside the converted house of prostitution, he told them if God could exist in what used to be a den of sin, then surely he had a place for them, too.
“We found that people wanted to be part of that because it gave them hope,” Olbrich said.
His first prostitute convert laid the groundwork for what was yet to come.
“After a sermon in 1999, she came to the altar weeping with the joy of the Lord,” Olbrich recalled.
But she returned the following Sunday with a different problem.
“She told me she had 25 people that wanted to be Christians after she told them about what she had learned,” Olbrich said. “So a few days later we went to her home to meet these people. There were 40 people waiting to be baptized.”
The next week she had 60 more people ready to convert. In life, she was a practicing thief who sold her body to survive and carried a loaded gun in her purse for protection. But she also had an uncanny knack for memorizing church sermons and delivering them with power.
“I told her, ‘Well, you got us into this mess. I guess you’re the new pastor,'” Olbrich said.
He used the same formula to spawn hundreds of churches with pastors trained in the same fashion.
Once again, the Forrest Gump of missionaries had fallen into success. Then something unexpected began to happen.
Slowly, babies and small children began to appear on the church doorstep. First one, then six. Olbrich took them to local orphanages. But they were already bursting with children. So much so, they wanted Olbrich to take more children back with him.
“We were there to plant churches,” Olbrich said. “This wasn’t part of the mission.”
But now he had 40 orphans to raise. He was only one man. It was time to take stock of his capabilities.
“You have to use the people God gives you,” Olbrich said. “Never allow fear, or lack of resources to keep you from doing the right thing.”
Before long, the former prostitutes were acting as pseudo-foster moms and the Foursquare Gospel was gaining notoriety as “the church that loves children.”
Olbrich’s name and church are well-known in Cambodia. Officials at the U.S. Embassy there said the church is extremely active. And it’s growing.
Olbrich opened an official training center for followers and orphans last year. The center will help make the orphans self-sufficient. Nearly 70 percent of them want to be pastors just like Olbrich.
But the process of building a new legion of Cambodian Christians isn’t cheap. By the end of his first year of work, Olbrich had accumulated $15,000 of credit card debt trying to keep the churches running and the orphans fed.
“You can’t ignore the social and economic sides of mission work,” Olbrich said. “Do you expect the people to respond to the Gospel while their children are dying and they don’t have enough to eat? If there’s a key to the success, it’s probably being desperate.”
Letters of begging and word of mouth eventually hit the right people in their pocketbooks. Wealthy bankers and rich humanitarians would give millions to Olbrich’s work after flying out to see it first-hand.
One of them was Craig Muller, a businessman who now runs the orphan home operation from Rolling Meadows, raising money for whole-home sponsorship (see related story). But there’s no doubt who is responsible for the overall success of the mission.
“Ted makes it work because he really is a Gump,” Muller said. “God has given Ted a unique skill set perfect for this work. He can preach in the morning. He can manage in the afternoon. And in the evening, he can castrate hogs.”
Olbrich’s making progress, but he has his setbacks as well.
Every year some of his new pastors succumb to temptation. Money is stolen from orphans. Converted prostitutes fall back to old habits. Lust conquers.
“It’s like the Wild West out there if you have money,” Olbrich said. “It’s easy and everyone’s doing it. I fear pride more than death.”
Still, Olbrich remains determined to pierce the cloud of hopelessness hanging over Cambodia.
“It’ll be years and years before that happens,” Olbrich said. “I just assume I’ll die in Cambodia doing what I’m doing now.”
GRAPHIC: A few facts about Cambodia
Location: Southeastern Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand, between Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
Size: Slightly smaller than Oklahoma
Population: 13 million
Median Age: 19.2 years
Infant mortality: 76 deaths per 1,000 live births
Government: Multiparty democracy under constitutional monarchy
Religion: 95 percent of the population is Buddhist
Poverty rate: 36 percent of people earn less than $1 per day, the international standard of poverty. That’s three times higher than the poverty rate in the United States.
Source: 2003 CIA World Factbook