DJD Cambodia Ministries founder Bryans Fitzhugh joked that he once considered Houston hot and sticky.
“But then I got to Cambodia and thought, ‘Yeah, Houston has nothing on this,’” Fitzhugh said.
But, because the spiritual and physical needs are great, Fitzhugh and his wife, Brenda Fitzhugh, return to Cambodia annually with their team to do their part to make a difference.
The double-take spelling of his first name, Fitzhugh explained, derives from his mother’s maiden name and is actually his middle name.
“I’ve been spelling it and explaining it to people all my life,” Fitzhugh joked.
Bryans and Brenda Fitzhugh discussed their ministry during Wednesday’s weekly luncheon of the Cleburne Lions Club.
A Texas A&M University graduate and a U.S. Army veteran, whose service included a tour of Vietnam, Fitzhugh began a career in banking in Houston after his military service. He relocated to Fort Worth in 1978 and continued in banking through 1998.
At that point, Fitzhugh became the lay missions minister at Fort Worth’s University Baptist Church until he retired from that position in 2010.
Following his retirement, Fitzhugh and others formed DJD to continue the Cambodian mission work he had already participated in through his church.
The initials, which stand for doung jet jaung baiy, translate from Cambodia’s primary language, Khmer, into heart, legs and hands.
Live and learn, Fitzhugh said, adding that he learned never to wear white tennis shoes after his first Cambodian trip.
“That picture of us [walking] is because we got tired of having to push our van out of the mud,” Fitzhugh said. “That’s the wrecker service in Cambodia, people pushing.”
Cambodia has endured a “checkered” past, Fitzhugh said.
From about the year 800 the Angkorian Empire in present-day Cambodia ruled all of southwest Asia. Cambodia’s premiere tourist attraction, the Angkor Wat Temple dates from about 1100 and served both as a religious and political headquarters.
The Angkorian Empire fell around 1400 after which Thailand and Vietnam dominated the area. France stepped in in 1863 to establish a French colony and protect Cambodia from being swallowed up by Vietnam and Thailand. The Japanese occupied the area in 1941 but were expelled by the French in 1945, Fitzhugh said.
Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953 but suffered still thanks to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s initially small communist party, in 1960.
Former Cambodian Prime Minister Pol Pot continued to amass power and, in 1975, began instituting a genocide that resulted in the deaths of more than 2 million Cambodians.
Communist Vietnam drove Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge out in 1979 and ruled Cambodia for the next decade. In 1989, Vietnam signed a treaty with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen who remains in power to this day.
Cambodia is home to about 15 million people of which about 83 percent are Buddhists while about 3 percent are Christian, Fitzhugh said.
Long route to Fort Worth
Rindo Nong now calls Cowtown home but began his life in Cambodia, Fitzhugh said.
“They were driven out of their home by the Khmer Rouge and put to work in work camps in his home province,” Fitzhugh said. “He and his family helped build a dam used for control of flooding for growing rice, which is still there.”
One night Nong and his family walked out of the camp and continued on until they arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand. Over the next five years the family lived in three such camps, two in Thailand and one in the Philippines. World Relief sponsored the family and brought Nong, his wife and then young daughter to Fort Worth.
Nong found work at Cook Children’s Medical Center.
“But, because he had become a believer in Jesus Christ during his time in the refugee camp, he didn’t like having to work on Sunday.
So he took a job as a custodian at University Baptist Church in 1984 and is now on his 35th year there. Nong also serves as pastor of a Cambodian mission church through Fort Worth’s Travis Avenue Baptist Church.
“He’s the reason I go to Cambodia,” Fitzhugh said of Nong. “In 2003, when I was lay minister, he got me to help put a team together and we made our first mission trip to Cambodia.”
After Fitzhugh’s retirement, he Nong and others formed DJD.
Bryans and Brenda Fitzhugh in 2011 moved to Cambodia for 18 months to establish the ministry.
“Now we take teams annually but have people in Cambodia who continue to work with us so we can have projects that go on year round,” Fitzhugh said.
Helping feet and souls
Through DJD, missionaries strive to help and to undertake an array of outreach projects both to spread the Gospel and help meet basic educational and human needs.
Distribution of school uniforms and supplies represent DJD’s largest outreach project.
“Children can go to school free but must supply their own uniforms and supplies,” Fitzhugh said. “Most of the children, particularly those in rural villages, their families don’t have the money to buy those things, especially the uniforms. So we began that as a ministry.”
Through the ministry, they are able to produce the uniforms at $5 per unit and to supply school supplies at $7 per packet.
DJD volunteers produced about 2.500 uniforms last year and expect to produce about 3,000 this year.
“So, for $12, we can give a child a uniform, school supplies and a new pair of flip flops,” Fitzhugh said.
Such are the shoes of choice in Cambodia.
“Because Cambodian culture is to take your shoes off before you go into a building,” Fitzhugh said. “As we distribute we call each child’s name and they come up and get their uniform and supplies. For many children these become the only shoes they’ve ever owned and for almost all of them their first pair of new shoes.”
School begins in November in Cambodia, the end of the rainy season.
“Cambodia is close enough to the Equator that they only have two seasons, the wet season and the dry season,” Fitzhugh said. “I just checked. It’s midnight there now, 73 degrees and 90 percent humidity. It’s supposed to hit 94 today with more humidity so you can imagine what it’s like there.”
Volunteers also distribute Bibles to the children and share Bible stories with them.
Another projects involves teaching the children English
Cambodian school concludes with eighth grade for many, especially students in rural areas. Those wishing to continue to high school must apply, be accepted and be proficient in English.
“We teach them basic English because it’s easier to learn another language as a young child than as a high school student,” Fitzhugh said.
Pastor training is another major area of focus.
“The Cambodian Baptist Union lets us use their facility in return for us training their pastors,” Fitzhugh said. “None of the pastors there have been to seminary and very few to Bible school. All work in [other jobs] and are volunteers since the church there does not have the money to pay pastors or support staff.”
DJD volunteers carry out extension training as well to help train rural pastors who cannot afford to travel to the city.
Another project is a youth camp.
“We had 185 kids last year,” Fitzhugh said. “The three-day camp includes worship time, group discussion, fellowship and different fun activities.”
DJD volunteers also distribute rice and other food to Cambodians in need.
Fitzhugh, in answer to one Lions’ question, joked that he’s a Cambodian language school drop out.
“Some of our younger people have learned it,” Fitzhugh said. “But I’m too old to learn. The Khmer language has 59 letters in its alphabet.
Another Lion asked how Christianity is accepted in a predominantly Buddhist country.
“As long as we’re helping out they’re very open to having us there,” Fitzhugh said. “They don’t mind us sharing the Gospel. The government just doesn’t want us getting into their politics, which, we’re not going to be doing that anyway.”
Yet another Lion asked about crime.
“In the 18 months we lived there we never worried about our safety,” Fitzhugh said. “If you’re not careful about the things you own they may get stolen. Most of the crime there is property as opposed to violent crimes.”
Two DJD mission trips are planned in May and openings remain.
Fitzhugh urged anyone interested in joining in, donating or simply learning more to visit DJDCambodiaMinistries.org.