PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Sokhom Hun had every reason not to come back here. His wife, Phaline, echoed that sentiment, telling him over and over, “We’re not going back.”
The young couple fled their homeland after Hun barely survived imprisonment, torture and persecution by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Seeking a classless society, the radical Communist party forced Cambodians to farm rice on large collectives. Party leaders abolished private property and money. Religion was forbidden.
They showed particular disdain for the educated — including Hun’s family. The regime killed 16 of his relatives, including his father and brother.
Sokhom and Phaline Hun escaped into Thailand. Phaline was pregnant, but they survived the dangerous journey and immigrated to the United States.
They studied the Bible and were baptized. They raised a family, ran an upholstery business, helped launch a congregation for Cambodian Christians and prepared to retire comfortably on eight acres in Texas.
Only, something happened to Hun.
“God changed my heart,” he said, simply.
Now 53, Hun sits in the shade of a veranda in this Southeastern Asian capital.
Though the sun’s glare is deflected somewhat, the refugee-turned-missionary sweats in the sticky heat.
Outside, mopeds clog the dusty streets. Orange-clad monks dodge street vendors selling pastries from bicycles. POL POT’S LEGACY
The scene is a stark contrast from the one 35 years earlier, when virtually no people could be found in Phnom Penh.
The Khmer Rouge evacuated the city after seizing power in 1975, claiming that the Americans, who had just pulled out of neighboring Vietnam, were about to bomb the city.
It was a lie — one of hundreds of lies the regime would tell the people of Cambodia in the next four years. And the effects of those lies are still felt today.
As many as 2 million Cambodians died from torture, combat and starvation under the Khmer Rouge. The regime killed doctors, lawyers — even people who wore glasses — and tortured them, claiming they were spies for the CIA.
The regime buried its victims in mass graves, later known as “The Killing Fields.”
Sokhom Hun was imprisoned for two years. He spent six months of his sentence shackled to iron bars, enduring bouts of malaria and dysentery.
Today, the average age of the nation’s 14.7 million people is 22.5 years, compared to 33.7 in neighboring Thailand and 36.8 in the U.S.
With few role models, Cambodia suffers from a moral vacuum. Poor families sell their children into slavery. Child prostitution is rampant, according to watchdog group humantrafficking.org.
Though the country is one of the poorest in the world, its burgeoning upper class is evident from the number of luxury cars on the roads of Phnom Penh.
A local newspaper interviewed a woman who bought a Lexus sport-utility vehicle. With importation fees and taxes, the total cost was nearly $100,000 U.S. The woman said that she survived the Khmer Rouge so she deserved the car.
As they suffered under the regime, most Cambodians never heard the name “Pol Pot” — the enigmatic leader of the Khmer Rouge. They were told only that they were part of “Angka” — “the organization.”
Neal Pollard, minister for the Bear Valley Church of Christ in Denver, makes mission trips to Cambodia. One Cambodian he knows, Mr. Han, drives a motorized bicycle taxi, or “tuk tuk.”
Mr. Han “is sympathetic to Christianity,” Pollard said, “but refuses to convert because he never, ever wants to be a part of any kind of group again.”
Those who do convert face persecution, Pollard said.
Recently, a young Christian was shunned by her parents and beaten by her brother because she refused to have a traditional Buddhist wedding.
“No one … spends much time thinking about the Khmer Rouge, compared to the daily, present struggles they face in leaving a religion (and) worldview that has dominated their country for over 1,100 years,” Pollard said. LOTS OF NEEDS — AND OPEN DOORS
On a sultry Tuesday evening, 19 people squeeze into the apartment home of Troy and Tabitha Snowbarger in Phnom Penh.
Sokhom Hun is the only Cambodian in the room. The rest are Westerners — young families learning the Khmer language and retirees on mission trips. They sing and pray about the opportunities and challenges they face.
The next morning, Troy Snowbarger helps Cambodian workers load trucks with bread, peanut butter and soy milk. In rural villages, the workers conduct lessons on hygiene, English and the Bible for children before giving out the nutritious snacks.
The Snowbargers graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and worked for the Peace Corps in East Timor until the tiny country became politically unstable.
Waiting for their next assignment in Thailand, they met Bill McDonough, director of Partners in Progress. In 2006 the Arkansas-based ministry launched the Ship of Life, a medical mission serving villages along the Mekong River.
McDonough recruited the Snowbargers to oversee a rural nutrition program, which serves about 1,600 children in 11 villages. Tabitha Snowbarger runs a back-to-school program and a village library club for Cambodian children. Cambodians need education about health, nutrition and hygiene, her husband said.
Most importantly, they need the “example of Christ to guide them toward lives of integrity, perseverance and the peace that passes understanding,” he added.
In one of the villages, Troy Snowbarger crosses paths with students from the Cambodia Bible Institute, a satellite campus of Lubbock, Texas-based Sunset International Bible Institute. Rich and Rhonda Dolan oversee the school, with assistance from Dennis and Sharon Welch.
As the students play games with the village children and teach Bible lessons to young adults, Tawn Lork observes. He translates for the American teachers at the institute and helps with administration.
Lork’s brother, James, introduced him to the Gospel. James Lork ministers for the 75-member Phnom Penh Church of Christ. Two more brothers, Chann and Sokchea, preach in the city of Siem Reap.
Cambodians are inherent worshipers, Tawn Lork said. Most buildings have “spirit houses” — ornate, mailbox-size shrines meant to provide shelter for mystical beings that might otherwise cause trouble.
In the countryside, humble villages sit next to elaborate Buddhist temples.
“Some worship trees, ancestors,” Tawn Lork said. “People realize that there is someone higher.”
Cambodians are eager to hear the Gospel, but often think Jesus is one of many gods. Some claim to follow both Christianity and Buddhism, he said.
Some get baptized in hopes of receiving a gift, said Lor Sovann, a student at the institute. He remembers the first time Tawn Lork told him that Jesus died for his sins.
“At first, I didn’t believe him,” Sovann said. “I said, ‘I’m not a sinner.’” But after more Bible study and prayer, he came to the conclusion that he had sinned, and that “God has canceled the debt.”
To help Cambodians understand God’s word, visiting church members use it to teach English. Julie Broyles, who grew up in a missionary family in Thailand, oversees the Bible English Study and Training, or BEST, center in Phnom Penh. The center pairs Cambodians with teachers, using material from World English Institute.
One teacher, 84-year-old Nita Mansholt, has come twice a year for five years, staying two to four months each time, Broyles said. The center recently hosted eight members of the Aggies for Christ campus ministry from Texas.
“I really need teachers,” Broyles said. Cambodians are “eager to learn English and talk to a foreigner face-to-face, but also very eager to learn about religions.”
“They crave knowledge,” she said. “It is such an open door right now.”
Pollard has made mission trips across Europe, Africa and Asia, but he said,
“I have never felt such a strong affection for and bond with my Christian family than on my trips to Cambodia.”
He has taught classes at the Bear Valley Bible Institute’s campus in Siem Reap. Graduates are starting an orphanage there and taking the Gospel into the surrounding villages.
Increasingly, Cambodian Christians are reaching their own people, he said. KINDRED SPIRITS SERVING CHRIST
In 2005, Sokhom Hun returned to his hometown, Svay Rieng, in southeastern Cambodia. There he saw a man who had helped murder his family.
The man recognized Hun and ran. Hun yelled for him to stop.
The man fell at his feet, weeping.
“I am not here for revenge,” Hun told him. “I’m bringing you mosquito nets, medicine and the good news of Jesus Christ.”
Last year, Sokhom and Phaline Hun gave up their retirement plans and moved to Phnom Penh to serve as missionaries. The Walnut Hill Church of Christ in Dallas supports their work. Preacher Mike Meierhofer joins the couple in medical missions to rural Cambodian villages. In January, they treated 8,838 patients and fitted 1,956 with eyeglasses.
Sokhom Hun recruits Cambodian and Vietnamese doctors to help with the missions — and has baptized a few of them.
“There’s nobody over there like Sokhom,” Meierhofer said. “He commands unbelievable respect because most Cambodians that are 50 years old and are educated are dead.”
In Phnom Penh, as a Buddhist temple’s loudspeaker hums a chanted prayer in the background, Sokhom Hun talks about his partnership with Lim Sreng, a Cambodian who converted to Christianity from Islam.
Sreng is a Cham, an ethnic group of about 1 million people spread across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. More than 96 percent of Cambodians are Buddhists, but the Chams are predominantly Muslim.
Sreng was 10 when the Khmer Rouge were in power, and his people suffered immense persecution.
Just like Hun, Sreng watched as the regime killed his father and brother.
A few years ago, he began reading the New Testament and became fascinated by Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness. He learned that a loving savior was willing to forgive him for his wrongdoings. He also learned that he could forgive those who had wronged him. His own people persecuted him for converting, Sreng said as Hun translated, but this only gave him more chances to forgive.
“I asked him to be my younger brother,” Hun said, “so I work along with him.”
The two men are forming a non-governmental organization to do medical mission work among the Cham people. Sreng also is building rooms onto his house for new Christians from the villages to participate in a ministry training program.
In areas where they do medical missions, Hun has helped plant at least 17 churches.
“The Gospel is being spread everywhere in Cambodia,” Sokhom Hun said, and the young churches “need a lot of strong leadership training.”
“Right now,” he said, “I realize that God saved my life for a purpose.”