Grace Amid Genocide
For much of its history, the Western church has been instructed by the lives of missionaries. Often risking their health, always forced by circumstances to innovate, missionaries set the pattern for adventurous faith on the frontier. Their biographies are not only inspiring; they, like the Book of Acts, also expand our vision beyond the predictable and comfortable precincts of home.
Today, Western missionaries may be less likely to tell such frontier tales, while a new set of role models—majority world Christians—has emerged. This new generation is highly visible at international conferences, doing for the global church what missionaries have long done for the Western church. Cambodian evangelist Barnabas Mam, author of Church Behind the Wire: A Story of Faith in the Killing Fields (Moody), makes a compelling example.
Raised as a Buddhist (as an adolescent he lived and worked in his uncle's Phnom Penh temple), Mam became a Communist in the turbulent early 1970s. His mentor sent him to spy on an evangelistic meeting led by World Vision president Stan Mooneyham. (Communists saw Christians as patently American, Mam writes, and thus as enemies of Cambodian nationalism.)
The spy, however, was caught by Mooneyham's preaching and led to Christ. It was joy and new life from the first day. Mam joined a church and spent three years absorbing his new faith.
Then, in 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge came to power. Phnom Penh was evacuated, ostensibly because American armed forces were about to bomb it. The Khmer Rouge left the cities vacant, attempting to eliminate all vestiges of modern life. Buddhist monks were slaughtered. So was anyone attached to the old regime, along with anybody educated. Merely wearing glasses or speaking a second language was grounds for execution. Professing Christ was a death sentence.
Mam describes the chaos he experienced in those years as he wandered from place to place and, while a prisoner, faced nightly interrogations. Many were executed; starvation was an unrelenting enemy. Millions of Cambodians lost their lives in the Killing Fields, but by the grace of God Mam survived. When the Vietnamese army liberated his country in 1979, he was able to find his wife, his mother, and two daughters. His father and all his siblings had been killed. His wife, whom he had married unofficially early in the chaos of Pol Pot's regime, soon left him.
Returning to Phnom Penh, Mam found only a handful of surviving Christians. Pro-Vietnamese authorities still forbade Christian gatherings, so churches met in secret. Mam became active in writing and performing indigenous worship music, a great shift from the Westernized music that had dominated the tiny Cambodian church. He remarried and had another daughter. In 1985 he was warned that he would shortly be arrested. Escaping the city, he hid his identity and eventually found his way over the border to Thailand. There, reunited with his wife and three daughters, he would spend eight years with half a million other Cambodians in refugee camps.