Today, Sunday, is a day of rest for my son and I. It is the sixth day of our Freedom Walk and a much-needed break for our weary legs and bodies. Having walked nearly 150km our bodies are spent. Emotionally it has been a difficult journey for my son and me as we hear the stories of genocide and survival. Once arriving in Kompong Chhnang, a rest point for my wife in her journey as well in 1979, we spent the day ministering with a beloved pastor and long-time friend Pastor Houn.
Pastor Houn told me his story during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. He was a teenager when the Khmer Rouge swept into his village. He was separated into what is called the “Kong Chlat”, or Teenager Unit. These groups were worked hard and to the death. The Khmer Rouge knew teenagers had more energy than most, so they utilized that to their fullest devious intentions. They used them to build massive water dikes, moving as much as 12 cubic meters of dirt a day by hand, or they could not eat the spoonful of rice allotted to them. Houn, with only a third grade education, was a prime specimen for the Khmer Rouge’s warped ideals: uneducated, hard-working and submissive. They worked him nearly to his death. Each day, he thought, would be his last. They worked from the wee hours of the morning, all through the day and even were force to plant rice fields in the night by torch-light.
Then one night at a community “building” meeting the community leader asked a question. (The term ‘Kosang’ is a term which literally means “building up”, but became synonymous with execution. ‘Kosang’ meetings were held nightly and the latest victims were taken away into the night and tortured to death for the sick pleasure of their captors.) The leader asked, “Who knows how to climb palm trees and tap their juice?” Two hands quickly shot up in the crowd, and instantly Houn had an idea. He raised his hand too. The community leader said, “Ok, you three, will now be responsible for tapping the sugar palms.”
Houn had lied. He had never in his life climbed a sugar palm tree, or even knew how too. A sugar palm, looking similar to a coconut tree, can easily grow to sixty feet high with no branches to cling on to. However, he had to hide his secret or it would mean death. He only knew that if he didn’t get out of the Teenager Unit he would soon die anyway.
The next day the three were sent off to tap palm trees. He secretly watched each of the other men prepare as he fiddled with his small knife he was entrusted with. Soon, he learned how to climb the trees and get over his fear of heights. Amazingly, he was able to harvest more palm juice than any of the other two experienced tappers. From high above his perch he could see the workers below. He could hear their agony. Tree after tree he would climb, but he was given much freedom and no Khmer Rouge soldiers watched him as he worked. He was never fed any rice, but he survived on stealing drinks from the palm juice. He dared not steal too much, but he continued to have the largest amounts of palm juice for processing.
Whenever he would see the Teenager Unit come nearby, he would climb down the tree and call the teenagers away from the prying eyes of the Khmer Rouge soldiers and tell them to drink the palm juice as fast as they could. In this way, endangering his very life, he certainly allowed many others to live.
One day, he received word that his mother was sick and dying. He saw the Khmer Rouge unit commanders sitting around eating and drinking wine fermented from his palm juice. He approached them cautiously and bowing his head petitioned them that he may have permission to go see his mother, as she was very sick.
Immediately, the Khmer Rouge commander pointed his finger down at him (this is a very aggressive and violent gesture in Cambodia) and cursed him by saying, “I will kill you, you #$%@ coward.” Houn dropped prostrate to the ground fearing instant death. He raised his hands in humiliation (praying hands) over his head and begged for his life. The death-blow did not come. He continued to beg as he crawled away in the dirt.
He didn’t dare to cry. Tears would surely be met with instant torture and death. The next day he climbed the palm trees again. He looked into the direction of where he thought his mother was. It was as if he could hear her crying from the tree. From his treetop perch he wept uncontrollably. He never saw his mother again.
Crying from the treetops would become routine for Houn. He cried for his family, he cried for his friends and cried for his father who was also in some remote village. It was as if he could see the sorrows of the whole nation before him. He wept and wept from his isolated perch.
From the treetops one day he could also see the advancing Vietnamese army. Finally, one day, it was over. He had survived. Only three of his other siblings survived, but they were all glad to be alive. Soon the Vietnamese army was responsible for building a new nation. They looked for any medical people they could find. Once again, Houn volunteered as a medic. He didn’t know the least bit of anything about medicine with his third grade education, but it didn’t faze him a bit. Initially, they gave him a nine month “refresher” course, which was his first medical teaching ever. Within the year he was in charge of medical triage at a newly formed hospital. He looked at everyone’s wounds and decided which department to send them and learned basic first-aid. They were impressed with his efficiency and decided he should be ‘upgraded’ to a doctor. Soon, he was given a little more training and was giving hundreds of injections a day.
When I asked him how he could be so confident in his medical ‘training’, he just joked, “There were so many sick and dying people that there was nowhere to even step in the hospital grounds without stepping on a patient. I had to give hundreds and hundreds of injections per day. Anyone could learn medicine with that much practice!” Within a period of less than three years, including training and practical hands on treatment, he was performing surgeries. Even to this day, having retired as a ‘doctor’, many people still request the hospital to allow Dr. Houn to perform their required surgeries.
Houn is not a medical doctor anymore. One day he heard about Jesus and was given a Bible. He would read it in the surgery ward and the other doctors would curse him trying to embarrass him. Very few people had ever met in a Christian before in those days and the Christian religion, as were all ‘reactionary’ religions, was banned by the communist Cambodian government. Medical people could easily make money on the suffering of ignorant people in those days in Cambodia. They would routinely insist on irrelevant or fake surgeries in exchange for more money. They would force sick people to go home and sell their cows and homes in an effort to pay the doctors, before any medical service was performed. When he chose to follow Jesus his conscious wouldn’t allow him to do that anymore. He would help the poor people free of charge which angered the other doctors. They treated him terribly after that. Finally, he gave up his medical position in the government hospital to serve the Lord with his whole life. He later married and he and his wife together serve God with every ounce of their energy.
In Kompong Chhnang province, where he was born and where he suffered under the Khmer Rouge, he now serves God and the supervising Methodist pastors for all of Western Cambodia. Nearly all of the more than twenty churches were started by Houn and his wife. Every day, from the wee hours before dawn to late at night they serve the Almighty God bringing restoration from their people. In the Methodist system, their salaries are determined by their theological education certification. They were Christians long before the first Methodist ever touch the Cambodian soil, and they were starting and pastoring churches a decade before a Bible school was ever started. They don’t survive on the measly two hundred dollars per month combined salary determined by their lack of theological certification, but by selling off and renting every asset they have. They are servants of the Almighty God. Once again, Pastor Houn doesn’t need a certificate to demonstrate his skills, he pours out love to others and he is respected nationwide for his pastoral heart.
When my son and I crossed the border into Kompong Chhnang province I immediately was drawn to walk to Pastor Houn’s house. We walked and walked until we walked up to his church. There, my friend, stood ready to welcome two weary travelers and gave us a room to sleep at in his church. My legs were so weak I had to brace myself to climb each stair to the third floor of the church. Here is a room which Houn built for guests, not for himself, so he could minister to them. Pastor Houn and his wife are living in a storage room on the side of the church which is barely larger than a small bed. The room he gave to us sits some thirty feet higher than anything around. It is a high perch. In the corner of the roof area is a single chair. It is Pastor Houn’s chair. From here he sits, high above the town of Kompong Chhnang. He weeps for them. He intercedes for them. He sees their sorrows and he knows that Jesus is their answer.
Together Pastor Houn and his wife, much like my own wife Noit, have dedicated their lives to see Cambodia transformed by God’s love. It is because of God’s amazing grace, and lives so utterly transformed from the horrors of genocide that tens of thousands of lives, if not hundreds of thousands, are being lifted out of despair and hopelessness to a new life in Jesus.