By Stan Friedman
OAKLAND, CA (December 2, 2010) – Chamron Phal speaks gently as he recounts searching Cambodia to meet and offer forgiveness to the former Khmer Rouge prison guard who held him captive and tortured him during the time of the horrific Killing Fields.
Phal, associate pastor at First Covenant Church in Oakland, ministers to Cambodians who are members of the congregation, many of whom suffered under the violent regime of Pol Pot, one-time leader of the Cambodian communist movement. Phal also led the church’s work in planting up to more than 40 churches so far in his native country.
For years, Phal says, he prayed God would give him the “privilege and honor” of meeting the guard. Each time he returned to the country, he would ask villagers if they knew how he might find his former captor. “Not for revenge, not for harm or hurt, but for sharing the good news of Jesus to that former Khmer Rouge communist.
“I want him to know the past can be forgiven and healed if he gives his life to Jesus,” Phal adds. “He can start a new life with Jesus.”
Phal finally found the man in December 2006. “He did not recognize me, but I remember him so well,” Phal says. The guard later recognized Phal when he recounted his time as a prisoner.
That was all Phal shared of their history, however. “I don’t mention the past, I only tell him, ‘I miss you brother. I’m looking for you for a long time, but I am so glad I found you.’”
Phal’s offering of love and friendship is obviously genuine, coming from his heart and not out of a sense of obligation. He smiles as he tells of meeting his former guard.
Phal invited the guard to visit him at his hotel. The two met together, and Phal gave him gifts, money, and food. When Phal visited the country again in summer of 2007, he invited the guard to stay with him at the hotel. There, Phal again shared that Jesus could give the guard a new life.
The former guard replied, “Chamron, you know I appreciate your friendship, your love for me, your kindness, your generosity. But, I cannot accept your Jesus.” The man explained it was because he was one of the leaders in the Buddhist temple.
Phal replied, “Even though you can’t accept Jesus, it’s alright. But you and I still friends. Jesus still loves you and I still love you.”
Paul Wilson, First Covenant’s senior pastor, says he is humbled and educated by the associate pastor. “Chamron is filled with love and wonder and he tells the guard over and over I love you, because Chamron believes we get to love everybody and Jesus told him he never has to hate anyone.”
Hate would be an understandable emotion. Phal lived through hell.
From 1975 to 1978, the Khmer Rouge committed genocide in Cambodia, killing an estimated 1.5 million people – roughly one-fifth of the population. The Vietnamese finally overthrew Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader and his communist regime.
Phal grew up in an “extreme Catholic” home, was an altar boy and sang in the choir, but says he never was serious about his faith. Though he lived as he pleased as a young man, he recalls, “Fear gripped my heart. I fear death. I fear darkness. I fear people. I fear strange sounds. I fear cemeteries.”
He says now, “I thank God he prepared me to face the Killing Fields.”
Shortly after the Khmer Rouge came to power, Phal was arrested when he was wrongfully accused of stealing grain from a field. He would spend six months in the prison where scores of Phal’s countrymen died.
While imprisoned, he was severely beaten with rods. The scripture he learned as a child strengthened him. “I remembered Matthew 10:28: ‘Do not be afraid of man, who can kill only your body but cannot kill your soul. But fear God, who can destroy both your body and soul into hell.’ ”
He also found spiritual strength in Psalm 23, which his father had sung every day. Phal recites it quietly, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
The final evil the soldiers inflicted on Phal came six months after he first was taken captive. They tried to drown him in water that had flooded the area. “They forced me to walk a kilometer and I lost hope when I reached that place,” he says. “They beat me until I was black and blue and bleeding, and then threw me into the floodwaters.”
The soldiers then left. Phal swam back to the place where they had thrown him into the water because it was the only dry land – and he escaped from the area the next day.
He was nearly caught several times, but Phal says God answered his simple prayer – “Save me Jesus.”
After the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge, the United Nations opened its largest Cambodian refugee camp across the border in Thailand. Churches had sprung up throughout the camp. “God opened my heart to be transformed by the power of the good news I heard,” he says.
“One afternoon, while I was swinging in a hammock, whistling, a group of children started singing ‘At Calvary.’ It was the first time I had heard that song,” Phal says. “The words hit me: ‘Years I spent in vanity and pride, caring not my Lord was crucified; knowing it was for me he died at Calvary.’ I jumped out of my hammock to my knees, confessed all my sins to the Lord, and opened my heart to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior.’ Since that time my life has never been the same.”
Phal says God has redeemed his suffering. “Even though I have gone through hardship, suffering and death, it has been very good for my soul. If I had not gone through suffering, my life would have continued in wretchedness.”
He adds, “I now experience complete healing and wholeness by the power and precious blood of Jesus. This is the grace of Jesus.”
Phal eventually was able to make his way to the United States on March 9, 1982. He began his ministry to Cambodian people in Boston, Massachusetts, during his first days in the country and subsequently ministered in Connecticut for 12 years. He made his first trip back to Cambodia in 1991.
Phal felt called to start a church in Oakland, which is where he met Wilson. He was introduced through a mutual friend who had met Phal in the refugee camp. “We really believe God has called us to be partners,” says Wilson.
Phal had been ministering to a Cambodian congregation of 100 people. He led the congregation to become part of First Covenant in 2005. Each Sunday, Phal speaks to the Cambodian members in their native language. He also helps the Cambodians connect to the rest of the multi-ethnic congregation.
Additionally, Phal has led the congregation to connect with people in his homeland. He returns to Cambodia twice a year with mission teams from the Oakland church and other churches to assist the growing number of congregations he has helped plant, including one pastored by a former member of the Khmer Rouge.
Editor’s note: The accompanying photo shows Phal with his family. This is the first in a two-part series. Tomorrow: the growth of the churches in Cambodia.