I was told we would meet with a key leader in the Cambodian church today, a certain Pastor Barnabas, a man many simply call Lokrou, or Teacher. I had no idea who he was, but knew I had many questions to ask him so that I could fine-tune my training of Thursday afternoon.
My two colleagues and I, as well as two other pastors sat down over coffee and Barnabas' smile blew me away. A colleague who worked closely with this man 20 years ago, when the UN intervened in Cambodia, commented on how young his friend looked, and asked what his secret was. Over the next several minutes, the pastor shared about the way God has blessed him with a wife who takes good care of him, how they eat well, drink lots of water, how they laugh a lot. He spoke with so much love and tenderness of this woman. "How did you meet?" I asked, not knowing what I was in for. Barnabas started sharing with me a bit of what he calls his "colorful story."
He was born into a devout Buddhist family and lived at a temple, where his uncle, a monk, took care of him. He knew the Buddhist scriptures well and even emceed many of the large chant gatherings with monks and novices. But in his 20s, during the war in Cambodia, he became a fervent Communist. He was sent by the Communist Party to spy at a Christian gathering where the speaker asked, “Who, created the lights we see in the night sky? Who made those we do not see? Who holds our planetary system—a system far more intricate than the traffic here in your beautiful city—in perfect order?” Says Barnabas in his book, "In the silence I realized I was holding my breath, longing for the answer. I completely forgot my mission. I forgot to scrutinize the crowd, to locate the leaders near the front and write their names. I forgot everything but this question: Who created me? And could I, could I really know this alleged Creator? For the first time in my life, the beginning—of the earth, of life, of my life—mattered to me. A split second of common sense was all it took to debunk my naïve Darwinism. I soon understood that a loving Creator God was behind all of the precision and beauty of life."
Shortly after, he met a man who asked him whether or not he was a believer. Barnabas answered, "Yes," and the man encouraged him with words that would sustain him during the four years of Pol Pot's rule, when the despot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers systematically tortured and killed more than 2 million Cambodians. Barnabas spent those four years in a prison camp and mentored younger believers to plant churches. He was one of just 200 Christians who survived the camps, but told us that the words from the man years before carried him through many difficult times in the prison camp: “Brother, you will never be sorry! You have made the greatest decision you could ever make.”
After the time of the Killing Fields, Barnabas met his wife, a woman four years his senior. As he shared, however, of some of the challenges after the prison camps, and how he got to a point where he tried to take his own life and how God spoke to him through a vision while he was dying from poisonous plants he took, both he and I had tears rolling down our faces... God spared his life and he ended up being a pillar in the Cambodian church.
But he also spoke of division among what he calls the first generation of Christians, of the second generation, young men and women whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge and who became foster children of the government, of the arrogance of that generation, and of the third generation who were born after the Killing Fields, and how many of them are driven by money. He shared of the persecution he experienced at the hands of the Church for the music he composed--hundreds of Cambodian hymns that were sent to the churches along the borders. He told of many other trials and tests, and all along, I sat there thinking, "God, what do I have to share with this group? I have nothing to offer them." Yet I know that I know that I know that being here today is an assignment from God, that it is meant to be something far bigger than I so that I can never say, "I taught them."
Tomorrow, Barnabas will take us to some of the outlying areas where we will meet rural church pastors. And I will still seek to know what it is that God wants me to share during our time on Thursday.
After our time with him this morning, though, my colleagues thought it would be a good thing for me to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21, one of many prison camps of the Khmer Rouge during Pol Pot's 4-year rule so that I would have a greater understanding of the background of the church in Cambodia and the history of the group I will be addressing on Thursday.
During the hour or so on the grounds of the former high school, I saw sights that I cannot imagine I'd ever forget. Some of the emotions were similar to what I experienced when I visited the Kigali Genocide Museum in Rwanda. "How can people be so cruel?" I kept wondering. In some ways, the events in Cambodia were worse than in Rwanda. Here, it was stretched out over four years. In Rwanda, everything was over within 100 days. But then again, how can I even contrast the events?? Genocide is genocide. It is merciless. Evil. Satanic. And yet, in both places, there are people who survived. People who have risen above the ashes of history and embraced a higher calling.
I am humbled by the fact that I will have time with three generations of pastors affected by Cambodia's Killing Fields. God knows what our time together on Thursday is supposed to look like. Right now, I don't. I wish to be nothing more than a facilitator and have them be the ones to come up with strategies for the way forward, for how they can mobilize the fourth and the fifth generations of Christians in Cambodia.
So help me, God.