February 22, 2010

Roger and Out Cambodia – Chapter 8

Cry of the Gecko

Chapter Eight                        Roger and Out Cambodia


The Keller family lived in Pailin from October 1974 to March 1975, making a trip during that time to Vietnam for the 1975 SIL branch conference in January. During those months at Pailin, Chuck began initial study of Krung and Sally continued work on the English-Khmer medical glossary begun in Phnom Penh. Barbara Neath of World Vision had enlisted Sally’s help in giving Khmer explanations for English medical terms. This was anticipating the need for Khmer staff to be able to communicate with short-term English-speaking doctors who would serve at the pediatric hospital then being constructed by World Vision (Sally completed the medical glossary and it was accepted as her Masters thesis).

As Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces expanded a ring around the city refugees flooded into Phnom Penh from the provinces is search of food, shelter, and safety. The countryside was a raging war on a moonscape. In April 1975, WV conducted Operation “Lovelift,” flying food into the capital city from Bangkok and Los Angeles. The three million inhabitants of Phnom Penh needed 750 tons of food each day to support its surging population (Article, Christianity Today, March 14th 1975)

The very last convey of supplies to reach the city of Phnom Penh before the communist take- over was a barge carrying a container of Cambodian Bibles and other gospel literature.  Of the two barges to make the trip up the Mekong from Vietnam, only one barge with gospel literature made it into Phnom Penh.

In March of 1975, the Cambodia situation was deteriorating. While the Khmer Rouge continued to shell Phnom Penh from the outskirts of the city, wreaking havoc on its three million inhabitants, many of whom were refugees fleeing from the Khmer Rouge in the countryside, the border town of Pailin where the Kellers were ministering was booming economically, a peaceful haven far from the apocalypse raging in Phnom Penh.

To reach Pailin, the Kellers had traveled by air from Phnom Penh to Battambang and then by road from Battambang to Pailin. The last half of that road journey to Pailin was done with taxis, buses, and trucks traveling together as part of an armed convoy. On March 10th, the Kellers heard over FEBC radio the report that Ban Me Thout had fallen into the hands of the North Vietnamese Army juggernaut as it encroached on Saigon like a steamroller, crushing everything in its path. That report left Chuck with a strong impression that it was time for him to take the family and cross over to Thailand for a time to see how the situation in Cambodia would develop. He looked back on that impression as being the Lord’s way of telling him it was time to leave. At that time they did not know if any of their colleagues were still in Phnom Penh. The Kellers left most of their belongings in Pailin, in the care of Pastor Kuch Kong who pastored the church there. Pastor Kong now lives in Dallas, Texas.  In Pailin, he was a pastor who worked closely with Todd Burke. Earlier he had been with the C&MA. Pastor Kong’s son Kalvary helped bring the Kellers and a small amount of luggage to the Cambodian-Thai border twelve kilometers west of Pailin. The Kellers crossed there on March 14th into Thailand. The American embassy staff evacuated Phnom Penh by helicopter on April 12th, while their Cambodia counterparts stayed behind. Phnom Penh fell on April 17th to the Khmer Rouge and Saigon fell on April 30th to the North Vietnamese Army.

Chuck [MI1] and Sally, while living in Phnom Penh, often attended Todd Burke’s church on Nehru Street. Although a lot of controversy surrounded Todd Burke and his ministry in Cambodia, the Kellers only had positive impressions. For an English service, Chuck and Sally attended the International Church of Phnom Penh. They enjoyed having Norman and Marie Ens of the C&MA as friends during that year of Khmer study in Phnom Penh.

Todd Burke, who saw incredible success in his two years in Cambodia, said just before the fall of Phnom Penh; “We are ready. I believe that once we leave and the communists take over, evangelism is just going to expand in Cambodia.”[1] Many Cambodian Christians like Son Sonne were thinking the opposite, and were preparing to be martyred for their faith.  Son Sonne, experienced church leader, pastor, evangelist, and head of the Khmer Bible Society and his family were actually given tickets for an Air Cambodge flight out of Phnom Penh due to depart on April 15th but Air Cambodge cancelled all flights on the 13th of April. No one knew what happened to Son Sonne and his family during the years of Democratic Kampuchea.

When news began to leak out of Cambodia in 1979, it was learned that Son Sonne and his family were crossing the Mekong in a boat with another Christian family when it capsized in an abrupt violent squall. Most made it to shore but were separated for some time until finding each other once again. Son Sonne’s group took on the role and appearance of peasant farmers and survived the purges and persecution of Pol Pot’s cadre for a while but the shortage of food and sanitation in countryside took its toll and Son Sonne and most of his family members died from starvation or malnutrition.

The OMF team was evacuated from Cambodia at the end of February 1975, and Andrew and Alice stayed in Thailand to work with the refugees. Don Cormack, author of Killing Fields, Living Fields, joined them in the refugee camps later in 1979.

Dr. Stan Mooneyham made his last pre-Pol Pot visit to Cambodia in early March and World Vision’s National Pediatric Hospital was finished, to be dedicated on April 17, the day the Khmer Rouge made their triumphant entry into Phnom Penh.

“Cambodian and expatriate staff continued to serve until the siege of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Subsequently, all expatriates and several national staff member were evacuated. All WV programs ended. The Deputy Director of WV Cambodia, Minh Thien Voan, elected to stay and was later killed.[2]

In 1979, WV re-entered Cambodia shortly after the Vietnamese overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. Only three of the original 270 WV staff members survived the genocidal Khmer Rouge reign.

The initial focus of WV’s return to Cambodia included meeting emergency needs, assisting in restoring social services, rehabilitating the food producing sectors of the economy and restoring the National Pediatric Hospital which had been used as a torture and execution centre for political prisoners by the Khmer Rouge.

In February, 1975, President Gerald Ford appealed to the American Congress, “Are we to deliberately abandon a small country in the midst of its life and death struggle?” as he appealed to Congress for aid for Cambodia.

Christians with their hands on the pulse of Indochina could appreciate Ford’s appeal as they knew from reports published by the KEC that Protestant evangelicals in the KEC church and in other areas were experiencing a 300% increase in growth. With a communist takeover, this growth would be cut back drastically in the best case scenario. No one dreamed how horrible the reality would become. Many were already suffering from riots, striking, looting, not to mention inflation that had gone through the roof. Widespread malnutrition and disease were ravaging the people in the city. The church in the last few years had grown tremendously and in the last month before the fall, there was a count of thirty-eight congregations in Cambodia, with twenty-seven of them in Phnom Penh. More than 3,000 people were attending morning services, with about 1300 in Sunday school. [3]C&MA missionary Gene Hall reported to Christianity Today Magazine that personal evangelism was resulting in 100 new converts per week. More than 100 young people were attending Bible studies in the OMF Youth Centre near the Olympic Stadium.

As President Ford was appealing to Congress, the C&MA were evacuating its ten missionaries and two short-term doctors from Phnom Penh. Some World Vision International staff and student missionaries and relief workers from the Seventh Day Adventists were standing by to leave at the end of the month. Khmer Rouge revolutionary forces enter Phnom Penh, on April 17th, 1975, and after executing soldiers, police, and uniformed civil servants, they emptied the people from Phnom Penh and forced marched them to rural areas. Of the over the two million forced out, many died along the way of exhaustion, disease, malnutrition, and execution. Eventually, an estimated 80% of the city people would perish under the four year reign of the Khmer Rouge.[4] At the time of the fall of Cambodia, there were 27 Evangelical churches and 10,000 believers in Phnom Penh.

According to SAO,[5] “Cambodian Church leader, Chhirc Taing spoke at the Keswick Convention in 1973 issuing a challenging call to raise awareness and prayer for his country, out of which grew SAO Cambodia.  Chhirc was killed for his faith when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.  His widow, Bophana, lives in Edinburgh.” Just after the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh on 17th April 1975, Chhirc wrote the following letter to Bophana:

P Penh, April 20, 1975

“Dear Bophana,

Enclosed please find 321$US to be used for the Lord’s work among the Khmer refugees in France.

Please continue to win souls to our Lord Jesus Christ while we are waiting for His glorious return and His Kingdom. I am invited today to join our friends and brothers in the new Communist regime. Our parents are all well. Please pray for us and for me that one day the Lord will bring me our of Cambodia to serve Him in France and other free countries and meet with you again.

I am going to try my best to get out of the country as the Lord may lead me to do. …

Bophana, my darling, please stay true to the Lord Jesus. He is coming soon. Please read your Bible every day and keep on praying for me and our family.

from your husband,[6] (Southeast Asian Outreach Website. Letter to Taing Chhirc from Bopha”  ( http://www.saocambodia.org/index)

The Pol Pot reign of terror is responsible for the deaths of many Christians, Buddhist monks, and politicians.  Intellectuals, teachers and other professionals, and anyone associated with the former regime that are not immediately singled out for termination, did their best to take on a more rural appearance for the sake of their own survival. More than 1,000 pagodas and the Catholic Cathedral in Phnom Penh were destroyed while many statues and icons in Buddhist temples thrown into rivers and ponds. Money was burned and found blowing through the lifeless streets of Phnom Penh. Wind blown literature from ransacked and destroyed libraries was used for cigarette paper as most members of Angkor could not read. Most of the world was ignorant of all the atrocities and some western Cambodian scholars supported and applauded this new regime of death, not believing initial reports of terror that crossed the border into Thai Border regularly. In 1973, The UBS began the project of translating a new version of the Bible that would be easier to understand for non-believers. By 1975, a draft of the whole New Testament in Khmer was completed and the first four chapters of Matthew’s gospel were reviewed and corrected when the members of the committee had to flee for their lives. All but a few chapters of Matthew survived that two-year translation effort of the UBS.

According to the Alliance Witness; “Just prior to the fall of the American-backed regime of Lon Nol in 1975, about 3,000 Cambodians, mostly new believers, were attending Alliance churches in Phnom Penh, and perhaps several thousand more were meeting in the provinces. Among them were top-ranking government officials, high-level business people and gifted lay leaders. Most, if not all, of them were purged in the systematic and prolonged campaign of the Pol Pot regime.”

A sixteen year old teenage girl named Samouen, trapped inside Cambodian and marked for execution, married Philippine National, Robledo Intal in Cambodia, and the Philippine government helped get the, to safety in the Philippines where Samoeun heard the gospel on television and became a Christian. She began her work at FEBC in Manila in 1975.

. Alice Compain began working with the Cambodian refugees from Bangkok, visiting the border camps and keeping Khmer Christian literature circulating up until 1990.

Father Francois Ponchaud reported of the ordination of Bishop Salas just before the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. Ponchaud was there to witness their arrival after days of intense shelling. He took refuge in the French embassy where he worked as a translator for the French in negotiations with the Khmer Rouge until he was forced to leave by car on May 7th.  He went up through the totally empty provincial cities of Kompong Chhnang, Pursat, and Battambang before crossing the Thai border to Aranyaprathet. Monsignor Tep Im and Father Jean Badre were assassinated, and all Catholic priests, sisters, and teachers were either deported or killed. Catholics and evangelicals were targeted for killing.[7] Paul Ellison estimated that more than 8,000 evangelical Christians perished, and out of the 33 pastors and leaders of the KEC, 27 were martyred or died of forced starvation. The KEC church in Battambang was dynamited as well as the Catholic Cathedral in Phnom Penh.

When the Khmer Rouge poured into the city and forced all the people to leave, carrying all their belongings, sick family members, and their animals as they went, it was one mass chaotic exodus. All families from the city of Phnom Penh were forced to return the villages of their birth.  Miraculously, Arun Sok Nhep and his family set out with ten other families from his church. Each night they had very precious times of prayer and fellowship together. Arun would never again experience such sweet fellowship with God and other brothers and sisters in Christ and believes it was a special deposit by the Holy Spirit of things to come, to get him through the difficult time ahead. The group of believers, pushed along by Khmer Rouge soldiers, had no idea where they were going. When they found themselves in Kompong Speu, the Khmer Rouge split the group, sending them back to their own provinces. Bit by bit, each family that traveled with Arun and his family disappeared along the way. Six weeks later, toward the end of May, Arun and his family arrived in Svay Rieng, where his father was immediately arrested and later executed by the Khmer Rouge.

Arun learned that he was to be arrested shortly and he fled to Vietnam in July of 1975. Unfortunately, he had given his bible to his brother and it had been confiscated. Arun eventually crossed the border into Vietnam with a distant cousin and found a Vietnamese church to attend where he was given a Khmer New Testament. Vietnam, having fallen to the communists on April 30th shortly after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, was akin to jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Arun and his cousin traveled to Rach Gia in order to escape Vietnam by boat with other people. Arun began to wheel and deal with the other boat people, only to find out he and his cousin were unable to pay the exorbitant prices demanded by the brokers. The only way he could afford to pay the inflated rates was to work and by that time, there would be no guarantee that boats would still be available. Arun suggested to his cousin that they travel north and cross over into Laos and then Thailand where they could seek refuge.  His cousin was not in agreement, and so Arun found three friends, two Cambodians and one Vietnamese, and traveled north to Kontum. They arrived in Kontum in October of 1975, and soon embarked upon their journey to Thailand. After leaving Kontum, they spent three days wandering through the thick canopied jungle to the west of Kontum, and just before they reached the Laotian border, they were captured by the NVA and placed under house arrest.

The four were allowed to wander around the city of Kontum where they bought supplies for their second planned escape. Arun bought a detailed U.S. Army topographical map and a compass to help them chart their course through the jungle of the Vietnamese central highlands and Laos. This time, their journey lasted ten days and brought them 20 kilometers inside the border of Laos. They stumbled over American, Pathet Lao, and NVA base camps and outposts dating back to the mid sixties, and often bivouacked in these locations. Cutting through the dense jungle was time consuming and exhausting, and Arun and his three friends were looking for some sort of road when they were once again captured by the NVA. This time they lasted ten days before capture. Arun’s Vietnamese friend managed to slip away in the jungle, and no one ever heard from him again.

Arun was surprised to find out the NVA were so deep into Laotian territory, and it would be years later that he would realize that Vietnam had their hooks deep into the country Laos, back since the early sixties up until the present day. This time they were thrown into a proper jail in the city of Kontum. Conditions were very primitive and as he looked around, he saw the irony of having a jail full of good people rather than criminals. They were mostly high ranking Vietnamese officials from the former regime and separatist Montagnards. He sank into hopelessness. He was striving after freedom, but he was rewarded with jail! He was extremely depressed, even to the point of having suicidal thoughts until he discovered a Bahnar Christian with a Bahnar language Bible. He also found out that his two Cambodian friends were held in another cell close by, but in worse condition. He began to pray with the Bahnar and Jarai Christians and after a while, began to learn Bahnar until he could read the Bible in the Bahnar language. Arun would end up spending over four months in the Kontum jail. He read the story of Joseph in Bahnar and was really impressed with the story, and he especially related to Joseph in the Egyptian prison. Arun prayed to God and told God that if he were to be released, he would serve Him by bringing the Scripture to people living in this part of Asia.

Just before the communist takeover in 1975, Heng Cheng was living with other students at Wat Lanka in Phnom Penh, studying at the Faculty of Medicine. The temple was getting a little crowded with other students, so he and his student friends rented a house near Psa Tmei (New Market) across from what is now the Soriya Mall. His older cousin Samrit [M2] Samoeurn, who at this time was a CMA church leader in Ang Tasom, Takeo, helped out with the rent expenses. When the Khmer Rouge invaded in April, Cheng headed down Route One, over the Chbar Ampeau Bridge, and toward Vietnam to Prek Eine, just past Kean Svay, where he stayed for 20 days, then on to the west bank of the Mekong in Neak Luong where he stayed for a month. Cheng then crossed the Mekong and journeyed on to Prey Veng, Tda Hoey Commune, Zone 24, where he stayed until October 16, 1976. On that day, knowing that the Khmer Rouge wanted to kill him because he was a former soldier, was educated and knew medicine, Cheng fled to Vietnam just before they came.

Hostilities ceased between the United States and North Vietnam on May 1st, 1975, just little over two weeks after the fall of Phnom Penh. “Approximately 58,000 American men and women died in the Vietnam War. Out of the 4.2 million that served in the United States armed forces there were 450,000 casualties.  From 1975, until 1982, there had been more suicides among Vietnam vets than causalities of the war itself.  Two and a half million vets were exposed to Agent Orange and by 1982, over 30,000 were behind bars.”[8]

The United State’s last military action in Southeast Asia was a response to the boarding and seizure of the American merchant ship, the USS Mayaguez, which had been temporarily boarded and seized by the Khmer Rouge a few days earlier. President Gerald Ford sent 230 U.S. Marines from bases in Thailand by helicopter to Tang Island which is 35 kilometers off the coast of Cambodia. At least one US Air Force CH53 helicopter was shot down off Tang Island. Eighteen U.S. Marines were killed, and 40 were wounded in the incident as the Marines tried to free the hostages of the Mayaguez, who had already been released prior to the fighting. The Marines unexpectedly met with a much larger force of Khmer Rouge soldiers, therefore suffering high causalities. Intelligence was gathered hastily, and the mission seemed to have been poorly planned, coordinated, and executed. President Ford ordered the port of Sihanoukville to be bombed by the U.S. Air force. Cambodians still living in the area remember the bombing well. Khmer Rouge soldiers involved in the action who still live in the area have given information to the Joint MIA task force, helping them to recover the remains of the U.S. Marines who were killed on Tang Island.[9]

As 1975 began, more and more political refugees were trickling into Thailand and Vietnam. John Ellison, son of David Ellison, was now in Surin Province doing church planting and translating work among the Cambodians in Surin, and is about to experience a major paradigm shift in his life and ministry. Let’s pick up John’s story where we left him in 1943 after he was repatriated to United States from being interned by the Japanese in Thailand.

After John was repatriated with his family in 1943, he finished high school in Danville, Ontario. After finishing high school, he enrolled at Nyack Missionary Institute where he met his wife-to-be. This was the same school where his parents met. When he was in the infirmary with measles and mumps he saw her heading over to administration building for chapel. Here name was Jean Alrene Beck, and she ended up sitting near him in chapel. He asked her for a date down in Tarrytown, New York.

John enrolled at Nyack for the first time in 1944. During this time, he felt that he was under intense pressure and he remembers pushing a hand mower at a running pace up the hills at Nyack, where he wore himself out working on top of that, sirens or horns would rattle him, bringing on what we might recognize as PTSD from his internment with the Japanese and the heavy bombings in Thailand when he was a teenager. The internment experience was nerve wracking; a lot of bombing, flares, sirens, and an anti-aircraft battery going in the immediate area. Once, a United States Air Force B-29 was shot down not far from John’s camp, sending up a huge mushroom cloud over his station. John had a nervous breakdown at Nyack and spent six months in hospital before returning to his studies at Nyack.

It took John three years to graduate in 1947, and then a year of post graduate course made it four years. John married Jean Arlene Beck in 1948. On Fridays he would go down to the Bronx where his wife was in nurse training at Booth Memorial Hospital, and where he attended a course on medicine for non-medical missionaries offered by American Methodist Mission. When both of them graduated, they were not yet assigned, and needed to take a church first. If it were Cambodia that they were assigned to, they’d have to go to France to study French.

John felt the C&MA wanted to test him before they sent him out, and he served as a pastor in Nebraska as a test for overseas work. John pastored in Two Rivers, Nebraska, in a church that was only a basement on which they eventually erected a building. It was very rural. The parsonage was also like a basement, an old chicken coop, and had no indoor plumbing. Winters were tough. Parishioners provided meat, eggs, and milk for them. He enjoyed the visitation part of pastoring and meeting people, and sharing the gospel. Just two extended families were in the church and he saw this as a sort of hardship tour because only a few adults came out but sent all their children.

In 1948, John returned to Southeast Asia, but this time with his wife. In 1947 he was given permission to go back overseas but toward the end of his stay in the U.S., when they just finished deputation among their C&MA supporting churches, had said their goodbyes, were packing, and ready to leave, they received news that the board decided not to send them after all. Then Dr. R Brown petitioned the board and in three days the board reversed their decision. John suspects that because of his nervous breakdown they weren’t convinced that he would work out.

In January of 1950, they left for the area north of the Thai-Cambodian border called Surin Province, Thailand, where 400,000 Cambodians were living (ancestors of Cambodian slaves). His job was church planting and evangelism. He did a lot of visitation, handing out the gospel of John. He did a lot of this by bicycling. He lost his way once on his bike and while was asking for direction, 40 people gathered around and he was able to share the gospel in Cambodian with all of them-they were surprised because he was talking Cambodian, not Thai. Next week while preaching in the chapel, two Thai women arrived on bicycle taxi, and the two women came into the chapel shouting, we’re Christians, we’re Christians. They were saved through his message when he was lost on his bicycle. Through that, his work with young people developed.

The Thai reaction John’s tract ministry (gospel of John tract) was not hostile because they had printed the tract in Thai. The government liked the tracts because they strengthened the Cambodians knowledge of Thai and it was a good quality, attractive tract, bold print and the people enjoyed the gospel stories. The Cambodian people in John’s immediate area could read simple Thai, but they could not read the Cambodian language. Another Cambodian commune further away had a pagoda that taught monks to read Cambodian.

Presenting the gospel began with the creation story, fall of man, and need for a savior, then the story of Jesus, and his death and resurrection. Since Buddhist scriptures were written many years after the passing of Buddha, many Buddhists weren’t sure whether Buddha really said certain things. One thing that Buddha is believed to have said was: “there is nothing certain, nothing sure, I am not the god, wait for the God to follow, everything belongs to him.” John used this for a spring board.  Alfred Smead had impressed upon John that it was easier to convert people from animism than Buddhism because Buddhism is based on good deeds.

John took a year of Cambodian language to familiarize him self with writing, and took a year of Thai as well. It took two and one half years for his wife to get a working knowledge of Cambodian, then she began to study Thai. He only had six months of Thai before the powers that be sent him out to witness, although he wished he could have had more time in Thai language proficiency.

The Thai government showed passive resistance to his work, but since he was teaching ESL, the Thai government sent its military officers and school teachers to learn in his classes. John used scripture, but they said, “All religions are good because they teach people to be good.”  It was healings and signs that caused Buddhists to turn to Christ, and the sign of changed lives.

For church services, they met underneath of the home of two Bible school students who studied in Khon Kaen in the northeast Thailand. After John went home from another nervous breakdown, the Southern Baptists set up a church in the town of Surin.

They did leadership training and short term Bible schools out in the country though they mainly used a Thai hymnal. Local Cambodian Christians in the Surin area came as well as curious villagers. The purpose of the school was to establish local Christians in the faith and to find leaders to carry on the work. It was open to any Christians to come. They would tithe in rice, and John photographed it as concrete lesson to teach on tithing, so that one day they could support their own leaders and church workers.

The trainings were ten days long and they taught about prayer, how to witness, more about the gospel story, etc.  Usually about 8-10 people attended. They wanted to establish a Bible school but the mission wouldn’t allow it because there already was one in the area but it was for Thai Christians. After sending a few of his potential Cambodian leaders, he found that they would tend to forget the Cambodian Biblical terminology. John argued for his own school but did not get too far. It would be too difficult to send them to his father’s Bible school in Battambang, but Cambodian Bible school graduates Chan and Nim came to help John in Surin.

In 1965, when the Prince exiled American missionaries, Joe and Paula Doty came to work in Thailand in neighboring Sisaket which was 80% Cambodian, and in another county east in Sisaket, was 55% Cambodian which was called Kantharlak. They were able to work in the city and in the jails. Joe did preaching in the country areas where there were Cambodian people.

“Ten years later, on April 17th, 1975, when Cambodia first fell news was heard the Voice of America, three huge Cambodian army helicopters landed close by with Thai military aboard. The helicopters were met and escorted by Thai army jeeps. We followed them in our land rover right into their camp and no one stopped us. We talked to generals and officers and arranged church services for them. Andy Bishop (worked with refugees) sponsored one of these Cambodian officer’s family. Two other camps were set up and one was near the city across from the army camp and one near the border. We went around to all the camps having well attended services (people were open) and over those 6 years, 1,600 Cambodians came to know the Lord.

John had to leave the translation work to help with the intensive demands refugee work, but he still had to supervise the church planting. He was doing the work of three missionaries but a lot fruit came out of his work with the Cambodian refugees. One day 55 people were baptized, and some very good leaders were developed through his work in the camps.

“I had visited Khao I Dang, Site 8, and Site 2, all on the border. We were at Site 8, Khmer Rouge communist camp, and while were there for a month and a half, we saw 200 people come to the lord. Occasionally they would allow church services in Site 2 to appear reasonable to the international community.”

The governor of the province had invited John to help select a new camp site further from the border, away from the communist KR forces. I wondered why he asked me. Of all the places they considered, he would ask me first about my idea of the potential site. He was eventually removed because he was too generous and too kind.”

Doing the job of three full time missionaries at one time brought on a serious nervous break-down. John was repatriated home again in 1980, and became involved with Cambodians in the USA so that there would be more Cambodian churches started here.

“We moved to Lansing, Michigan because my wife’s parent’s home was vacant, then we moved closer to Wheaton in 1982. On a furlough before coming home, I asked permission from Nyack to allow me not to go on missionary tour but to visit Cambodian groups to encourage them to plant churches. From that tour of encouragement, they did plant some self supporting churches, one which is in Olympia, Washington. There were three Cambodian churches in Thailand that John planted and he prays daily for the growth of their leadership, in order that the fruit of his many years effort might continue to touch the lives of Cambodians who are living in Thailand.  John went home to be with the Lord on October 3, 1998 at his home in Wheaton, Illinois (CDs of Interviews of John Ellison by Robert Shuster for archives of the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton College Oct 2, 1992, used by kind permission of Ruth Ellison).

Sar Paulerk, the Man Behind the Scenes

Pastor Sar Paulerk was born in Phnom Penh in 1955, to a typical Buddhist family who observed the traditions of going to the pagoda to listen to the preaching of the monks as well as taking part in religious festivals and holy days. During the early sixties, the Cambodian education system was the best it ever was, and his father worked as the building and grounds supervisor of the American School of Pedagogy in Kompong Kontuet while his mother worked as a nurse at the same location. The American School of Pedagogy was a school designed to train Cambodian teachers. Also on the grounds was a “model primary school” where Paulerk attended beginning at age six.  His secondary school education was in Phnom Penh at the Secondary School Faculty of Pedagogy. This school was under the auspices of the Supervision of Pedagogy Schools of Cambodia.  Paulerk graduated from the Application High School (also a model school) with a diploma in 1973.

In October of 1972, while Paulerk was still in high school, World Vision’s Stan Mooneyham came to Phnom Penh for his second crusade that year. Mooneyham and the Palermo Brothers came to Paulerk’s High School but he was absent on that day. Everyone at school was talking about the concert and speaker so Paulerk went to the riverfront to hear Dr. Mooneyham at the Basaac Theater, which has since burned down.  Paulerk milled about with a multitude of students looking for a place to sit. According to Helen Penfold, 10,000 people attended this second crusade and 4000 committed their lives to Christ. Dr. Mooneyham and the Palermo Brothers went to 19 high schools and over 22,000 students heard the gospel.  Many who became Christians over those three days went on to be the catalysts for an evangelism explosion that lasted until April 17th, 1975.  Those converts, along with Paulerk[M3] , also were instrumental in carrying on the work of the underground church during the eighties and initiated church planting and training of leaders in the nineties.

“For the two evangelistic missions in 1972, Son Sonne had acted as interpreter. In what was said to be the first Christian mission of its kind, World Vision President Dr Stanley Mooneyham related his messages to the themes of the specially-prepared Bible Society selections. Every person in the packed conference hall and in the overflow area outside received a Scripture selection.

It was after this first campaign that the 600 local churches involved in supporting the outreach witnessed their membership increasing three-fold. But the response following the November mission was even greater.

This six-day gospel campaign had a tremendous impact upon the people who attended. The Khmer churches and the Khmer Bible Society were key participants. During the campaign, 18,000 Khmer Selections published by the Bible Society were distributed. A total of 2,681 people made a decision to accept Christ. More than 80 percent of these were under 21 years of age.”[10]

Paulerk hopped around from church to church and, by his own admission, wasn’t exactly sure where he stood as a Christian back in those days as he focused more on his studies than his faith, but he remembers his younger brothers were very faithful in attending the service of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.  Paulerk said Christians in the early seventies were even less informed about denominations than they are today. They only knew of two groups and those were Protestants and Catholics. Although he had no contact with Todd Burke, he does remember hearing about his crusade in the Olympic Stadium in 1974, where many were saved and healed.

When he did go to church, Paulerk normally attended the Bethlehem Church, not too far from Toul Sleng, which he said consisted mainly of poor and working class people. Ngeth Saman, Arun Sok Nhep, Mam Barnabas and Ru Sarai attended Bethany which seemed to draw more government officials and wealthier types of citizens.[11]

Still a nominal Christian in 1975 when Pol Pot finally captured Phnom Penh, Paulerk and the three million other city dwellers were forced to evacuate the city. Paulerk found himself in Mesang District of Prey Veng province. At first he did not think much about God as he was exhausted by the 20-hour days of building dikes and canals with barely a bite of food: a bowl of water gruel with a few kernels of rice at the bottom per day.

One of the bigger projects on which the Khmer Rouge forced him to labor was a huge canal that was many miles long, to be used for irrigation as well as to trap Vietnamese tanks coming from the east in the event of an invasion. As the majority of the “new people” began to disappear family by family, he began to understand that for some reason, God was protecting him and his family. Although the grass roots cadre was extremely cruel and looked for occasions to catch him or a family member doing something against “Angka Leou”, a few higher ranking cadres seemed to love his group and did their best to see that they stayed protected from the lower level brutes. During that time, which was just before the purge of the [M4] “Khmer Bophea”[12] by the “Khmer Nearaday,” thousands simply disappeared and later were discovered slaughtered and buried in mass graves. Others died of sickness, disease, and starvation, but Paulerk and his family remained miraculously untouched by the angel of death—suffer they did as they worked long hours in the hot sun and spent cold wet nights in rudimentary shelters. It was God’s divine providential protection that re-affirmed his initial faith in the God of the Bible.

In late 1977 and 1978, there were great purges of the Khmer Rouge in the Eastern Division by the Khmer Rouge from the North Central Division. There was also fighting near the Vietnamese border in Prey Veng and Svay Rieng as Pol Pot massacred many Vietnamese civilians in cross-border raids. This was the time when Paulerk was digging the huge canal to trap Vietnamese tanks. Pol Pot’s insane attacks on the Vietnamese in Kampuchea Krom and the border areas eventually led to an invasion by the Vietnamese in late December of 1978.

The eastern provinces were liberated, before Phnom Penh so Sar Paulerk found himself free of his Khmer Rouge taskmasters on January 4th, 1979. He traveled back and forth from Prey Veng and moved to Phnom Penh permanently in 1980. Upon returning, Paulerk met missionaries Jean Clavaud and Swiss national Michele Jean Richard. A few months later his parents relocated to Phnom Penh and his father was able to get a job at World Vision’s National Pediatric Hospital as cook.

Paulerk remembers celebrating his first Christmas in 1980, after Pol Pot’s retreat to his mountain border sanctuaries, in a house near Psa Kandal, and the secret meetings after that where he met Mam Barnabas, Yorng Soth, Bun Saban, Muth Bunthy and others. After Stan Mooneyham’s unique [M5] and miraculous encounter with Hun Sen, World Vision had re-entered Cambodia in late 1979, bringing in a doctor named Andre Josanne who was one of the first expatriates to help the fledgling underground church. World Vision then began working in the National Pediatric Hospital for the fist time. Paulerk’s father, while remaining an unbeliever, was able to update Dr. Mooneyham on the status of the underground church until his father [M6] died in 1982. Paulerk was married the same year his father passed away.

Although the church was careful about meeting publicly and openly, there was no imminent threat from the People’s Republic of Kampuchea until the end of 1980, when the government was emphatic about the cessation of all Christian activities. There were few well developed “leaders” at the time. Some pre-’75 believers with initiative were more or less facilitating opportunities for believers to meet together for fellowship and passing around information.  In spite of the danger, they gathered anyway and Paulerk began to attend meetings where he first met “Timothy” who was associated with the C&MA (Savandy Hang or Savandy Him), Mam Barnabas, Muth Bunthy, Ngeth Marene, Priep Savary, and others.

Paulerk was quite involved in all aspects of the church during the eighties, when they were forced to meet in secret for fear of interrogation, arrest, and jail. Cambodians were considered treasonous if found to be embracing the Christian faith. Toward the mid eighties the underground church began trying to incorporate some leadership training. In 1986, Paulerk and Bunthy desired to do some leadership training with their house groups. They showed the Jesus film with tarps on all the windows, listened to cassette tapes, and tuned into FEBC Radio. With help of Paulerk, Mr. Priep Savary began a fellowship meeting, which eventually became the Santho Mok church in her house. The leadership of this fellowship group was eventually turned over to Pastor Muth Bunthy, who turned it back over to Priep Savary when he moved to Germany in 1996 to continue his work for the UNDP.

By the late eighties, Sar Paulerk had planted churches in Prey Veng, Svay Rieng and Takeo.  In 1989, Sar Paulerk started the Toul Tompong Church in the house of Mrs. Prom Mean Phal, as well as a fellowship in the house of Srey Heim’s mother. The second was later turned over to Uong Rein who re-named it Psa Tmei 3.  Pastor Im Chhrorm was leading a larger church called Psa Tmei 1 on Pochentong Road a few hundred meters north of the New Market.

During this time, Alli Blair, formerly of the World Council of Churches, and then with World Vision, facilitated church leader training for Paulerk, especially in the area of teaching on cassettes for church leaders. World Vision helped to buy a recording machine for the project and Alli donated a motorcycle.

Paulerk and some others were now learning TEE[13] with Joe Sarom Kong as he had been making many short-term mission trips into Cambodia during 1991 and 1992. San Hay Seng, also from the CEC[14] [M7] in Long Beach, came in and helped with TEE. They met at the Singapore Bank and Alice Compain [M8] joined Paulerk’s group to help teach TEE and Sunday school, as well as to mentor Paulerk personally. In late 1991, Paulerk began his first real job working with Christian Outreach under Country Director Tim Grayling.

The following year, 1993, Sar Paulerk, Barnabas and some other leaders created the “General Council” at about the same time Kong Phan Chhon was getting Cambodian Christian Services [M9] off the ground in Phnom Penh but the General Council was also short lived as it soon dissolved over leadership quarrels. The General Council was strictly national leaders while CCS was a mix of nationals and expatriates.

Paulerk turned over Toul Tompong Church to Mrs. Prom Mean Phal as she had expectations for leadership because the church met in her house. Two years later, she turned over the congregation to Koreans who bought a building and named the church Holy Mountain Church.

Sar Paulerk then became a part of an American Christian organization called, “Every Home for Christ,” which does a lot of literature distribution and encourages small groups to meet in homes. He set up the “School of Practical Ministry” at the large Global Network compound for provincial pastors who came from the provinces for leadership training.  SPMC continued under Living Hope in Christ (Barnabas Mam’s church) after Paulerk left.

In 1995, Barnabas began the Living Hope in Christ Church and invited Pastor Chor Sihorath[15] to pastor it with him (Rath had left Global Network half a year before.)  Barnabas also invited Paulerk to partner with him because he didn’t know how well Sihorath would work out. Sihorath left to start River of Life Church and a few years later Paulerk went out on his own, starting a church fellowship called Hosanna. Pastor and gifted musician, Ru Sarai came alongside Paulerk to help him oversee the church, and Paulerk continued with “Every Home for Christ” which encourages home fellowships.

Pastor Paulerk was not only instrumental in nurturing the spiritual life of the underground church in the eighties but in the birth of the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia in the mid-nineties. He has served three consecutive terms as chairman of the board of the EFC. He has also served as president of the Cambodian Bible Society and as an active board member as well.

Advice Paulerk has for missionaries:  First, you must know clearly what God is calling you to do here in Cambodia. If church planting is your primary call, don’t get side tracked by all the other needs in the Cambodian society: concentrate on the one sure thing you know God is calling you to do and focus on that.

Secondly, know that you need to take responsibility for what you do in and with the Cambodian church. Be responsible for your actions. Don’t make a mess and get on the plane and head back to your country.  Stay here and clean up the mess, and then leave if you must.  Weigh your actions because they can have long reaching effects. Know your role; if you don’t you’ll make a mess. Ask yourself what role you have taken, an overseer or a partner?  I could give you many examples where foreign missionaries wanted to do it their way all by themselves and how it all went wrong. When it went wrong, they backed off and let the nationals clean up the mess. Take responsibility!


Article, Alliance Witness, 1978

Article, Cambodia Daily, Monday, November 13th, 1995.

Article, Christianity Today, March 14th 1975

Article, Sad End to First Bible Society Operation in Cambodia. Reading, England

Capps, Walter H. The Unfinished War, Beacon Press.1981

Ellison, Paul Rev., Paper on Cambodian Evangelical History, CCS Conference, San Jose, CA. 1991

Lockerbie, Jeannette, When Blood Flows, the Heart Grows Softer.

Sar Paulerk, Personal Interview, EFC Office. 2004.

Southeast Asian Outreach Website. Letter to Taing Chhirc from Bopha. http://www.saocambodia.org/index.

World Vision Website: www.wvi.org

Written by: Cambodianchristian.Com

Filed Under: Book, Chapter 8, Cry of the Gecko - By Brian Maher

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