Houston’s Cambodian Baptist community, a tight-knit group of faithful refugees, is mourning the loss of two of its founding fathers to COVID-19.
Their churches now face the compounding challenges of recovering from pandemic disruptions and transitioning leadership from Khmer-speaking elders to younger generations without the wisdom of the influential pastors who dedicated their lives to their community.
Pastor Ty Bo of Metrey Pheap Baptist Church and pastor The Mey of Rosharon Bible Baptist Church fled the Khmer Rouge regime, founded two of the city’s four Cambodian Baptist congregations, pastored for decades, and supported ministries back in their home country. And both died of the coronavirus this year.
When asked about the two pastors, congregants cross their fingers and say they were “like this.” They were like “blood brothers,” their widows said. Though they led congregations on opposite sides of the Houston metro area, Ty Bo and The Mey would pray together over the phone for half an hour each Sunday morning as they prepared for the day’s service.
In February 2021, Ty Bo, my great uncle, lost his long battle with COVID-19 at age 69. San Jacinto Funeral Home and Memorial Park overflowed with masked guests on the day of his funeral, many standing in the hallway or even in the parking lot due to pandemic-related restrictions. Pastor Mey was there too, a black leather Bible tucked under his arm. I’ll always remember him that way.
Seven months and seven days later, The Mey, 76, died from the same disease that took the life of his best friend.
As a whole, Asian American communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but details about specific impacts have been scant, a 2020 report by McKinsey and Company confirmed. They’ve also suffered the double blow of xenophobia and rumors around COVID-19 hurting their businesses and weighing on their spirits.
Back in July 2020, the death of a 28-year-old in the Houston Cambodian community shocked and grieved members of both congregations (enough that my mom called to tell me the news). From there, the pandemic continued to take its toll, peaking among Asian Americans in Houston in March 2021, according to local statistics.
The loss of the two pastors was “a different kind of hurt,” wrote Lisa Khuth, who led Metrey Pheap Baptist Church’s children and youth ministries for more than a decade. Metrey Pheap, which means something close to friendship and reconciliation, was the place where Khuth accepted Christ as a child and received her first Bible.
Ty Bo and The Mey were more than just preachers on Sunday morning and active pastors who prayed and fellowshipped with their congregations. They were like family to many in the community, having helped hundreds of Cambodians come to the United States in hopes of starting better lives.
My parents are one of the 25 families Ty and his wife, Eang Kim Bo, sponsored to immigrate to the United States. When my dad’s father was taken by Khmer Rouge soldiers and never seen again, it was Ty Bo (or Tha Ty as I called him) who became like a father to my dad and, by extension, a grandfather to me.
Pastor Mey was like a father to Khuth’s mom. In fact, he was the one who suggested that Khuth’s mom name her Lisa. And Pastor Bo led Khuth to salvation in Christ and baptized her, and it was his church that she would go on to serve for 15 years.
Pastor Bo and Pastor Mey were known for their work as teachers and mentors for hundreds of Cambodian Christians in Houston. Khuth called them “faithful builders,” people who “not only worked their purpose in building a church but stayed faithful to continuing that on even through the hardship.”