The plan had been in place for months. Craig Greenfield and his Alongsiders in Phnom Penh, Cambodia had been in conversation with a group from Singapore about hosting a round table discussion about the heart of God for justice and how that translates to our worship. It would be a sort of meeting of minds, an opportunity to gain perspective, learn and have eyes opened and hearts reshaped. At the same time, we wrote Craig about a potential visit to Cambodia. We met Craig two years prior at a social justice conference in Australia called Surrender. We were taken by his story and stayed in touch with him. When our vision shifted from bus life to backpacks, South East Asia came on our radar and we reached out to Craig. He responded to our request stating that our dates lined up with the gathering he would be hosting and invited us to participate. He asked us to put together a few ideas for workshops and began preparations around the subject at hand. He painted a picture of what to expect when we arrived explaining that we, along with a handful of kinfolk from Singapore, would be staying in Phnom Penh for a few nights and then taking a van south to a small village for a weekend homestay, learning about local life and faith. It would be during this time that we would be sharing our workshops with the local villagers. He explained it all, however no words could have really prepared our hearts for what we would experience. We had no idea that we were about to experience the ministry of reconciliation.
We arrived on a Sunday evening and were welcomed by one of the Alongsiders staff, Darath. It was late and dark, our least favorite time to arrive in a new land. But Darath was very helpful in getting us acclimated to our new surroundings. The next morning we rose and met the Alongsiders staff, as well as, the Singapore team (KCC) at the office for our first of many Khmer meals. The meeting was surreal. It was pure joy to be in the same room with so many saints from this side of the globe.
Over the next two days we would all ride tuk tuk’s (local form of taxis) to the Killing Fields and to S-21 Prison where we would take a tour and learn about the recent Cambodian history and genocide. Our first stop was the Killing Fields and the mood was sober as we all donned the headsets and began our way through the horrifically descriptive and heartbreaking tour. The emotion felt after learning about the Khmer Rouge left us all dumbfounded, angry and sad.
For those who haven’t learned about the Cambodian Genocide in school, the basic gist (and, this is very basic, and in no way is meant to minimize or justify, it’s juswhat we gleaned from our visit. So please investigate more if you feel led) as I was saying, the basic gist involves a rebel party of farmers and men from the countryside who felt city folks were exploiting them and had esteemed goals of transforming their country under a communist ideology. They fought the existing Government for five years, simultaneously during the Vietnam war. In 1973 the Vietcong tried coming down through Cambodia to attack South Vietnam and to stop them the US launched bombs on Cambodian soil, killing thousands of Cambodians. This strengthened and fueled the rebels as they believed the US was in bed with their oppressive government. In 1975, the US pulled out of Vietnam and subsequently out of Cambodia, leaving a hole in the armor and the Capitol city for Slaughter. At that point, one of the rebel leaders, Saloth Sar emerged as sole leader (killing off some of his inner circle), renamed himself Pol Pot and declared himself Prime Minister and leader of newly named Democratic Kampuchea. He renamed his rebel forces Khmer Rouge and set out to systemically purge his country of anyone he felt opposed his views, really anyone he felt like killing. Most of those murdered by Pol Pots Khmer Rouge were educated city dwellers but many country folk were killed as well. Over time, the KR soldiers began to doubt the sanity of their leader as they saw their own family members, who were meant to be protected, murdered. And in 1979, the Vietnamese had had enough of the Khmer Rouge threatening their borders and in the name of liberating the Cambodians they initiated an assault and swiftly defeated the Khmer Rouge. They were ruthless in their “liberation” and for a period conditions did not improve but eventually, the Cambodian people pulled themselves up out of the ashes and began a slow, even to this day, rebuild. In the end, the Khmer Rouge murdered 2.2 million of its own citizens. Pol Pot was never brought to justice, in fact from 1979 till his death in 1998 he and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where they clung to power, with nominal United Nations recognition as the rightful government of Cambodia.
Sounds like a nightmare right?! Like something from another dimension, another time. But it was only 40 years ago. Only 40. And, although we were horrified to see the evil man can fabricate, it is really nothing new. It happened to the Jews and many more in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Guatemala, East Timor, in the US and Australia to its First Nation peoples, and even today in places like Tibet, Iraq, Syria and Ethiopia.
It’s more than heartbreaking, it’s paralyzingly. It’s one thing to engage and learn, but something wholly other to awaken awareness and empathy for those oppressed. So, what do we do with the emotions evoked by such evil? For starters, our family, had to sit down over dinner and talk about the feelings we had. They ranged the gamut from sadness, fright, paralysis and when we heard that no justice had come for Pol Pot we had to admit feelings of rage and thoughts of murder in our own hearts, our own depravity staring us in the face. Which then, forced us to remember the aged old story since the fall of man and seek something more, something beyond ourselves. We turned our focus to Love and read the ancient text that promises justice, promises that death will be swallowed forever. We read texts that declare that God is Sovereign and will wipe away the tears from all faces and remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. And then, we had to dig deeper and find more of the story.
It’s one thing to look at the history, read and visit museums but to meet those who have lived through the travesty and find out from them how God was proving faithful is an important part of the process. So when we met Rev Chea, who pastors a little church in the slums of Phnom Penh, and heard his story of losing his family and fleeing the Khmer Rouge, then life as a refugee. To hear the story of a victim finally finding grace and forgiveness was a significant piece of the puzzle.
Then we met Pastor Kong, we actually stayed in his home in the little village south of Phnom Penh. He and his family welcomed us to their home, village, and parish for three nights. It was here that we were meant to lead our creative workshops, which we did gladly. But something else was going on in our hearts and souls during our time in the village, specially after hearing Pastors story. This time we heard from a man who was once a soldier with the Khmer Rouge. We heard how he was seduced by the ideology of a better life for he and his family. We heard about his disillusionment after finding the leadership riddled with lies and corruption. We heard about his families decision to flee and life as a refuge in Thailand. We heard about his families decision to return to their village to reestablish a broken but new life. He told us about a man, who was also a refugee and sent to Canada. It was there this man was introduced to Jesus and the redemption story. The man spent the next years in seminary and finally in 1990 this man came back to Cambodia to tell his people about the God of all gods. In fact, during this time thousands of refugees who had had encounters with God in their host countries, returned to Cambodia to testify of Gods grace. And so it was with the man who walked into Pastors village and shared this good news. Pastor, his wife and six children were one of three families that turned their hearts toward God. They experienced forgiveness and mercy for the first time in theirs lives and made radical decisions to become beacons of light in their village.
We were absolutely wrapped in his story but honestly really had to grapple with the fact that he was originally the enemy, yet standing before us was a man genuinely transformed. Pastor Kong was once lost but now found. The words of Jesus rang in our ears, “love your enemies.” And, here standing with pastor, hearing his story, it all made sense. Love your enemies for they may one day become your brother! We glimpsed another piece of the puzzle. It’s true, we can’t see the whole puzzle yet, emotions are still high but we do know God is faithful, even during the darkest hours.
I don’t think either pastor would wish to go back to those dark days of genocide again but I do know that through it all they both found God and in finding God, they found each other, and in finding each other they found us. And, we are one. And, that is a miracle!