Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | August 24, 2009

Barnabas of Cambodia

I recently traveled to Cambodia where I had the privilege of working with Barnabas Mam, the Ambassadors for Christ International Regional Director for Asia. Barnabas survived Pol Pot’s killing fields. However, his father and six siblings did not survive. Today, God is using Barnabas to sow seeds of life in Cambodia’s former killing fields. I hope you will take a moment to read this brief interview with Barnabas and that you will pray for Barnabas and those who labor to advance God’s purposes in Cambodia and Asia.

• • • • •

Barnabas MamOmar | Barnabas, you were the seventh of nine children born to a former Buddhist monk in Cambodia. What kind of man was your father and what do you remember most about him?

Barnabas | My father was a very disciplined, very hard working and very entrepreneurial man. He made sure that every evening I had finished my homework and had read a certain text he gave me to read before I said good night to everyone and went to bed. Every morning, he woke me up at 4:00 am to join him in chanting the Buddha’s dharma and then to go with him to the field to collect ripe palm fruit for my mother to make palm cakes so that we could make extra income in addition to the rice harvest. He grew a lot of fruit trees and herbal plants in our back yard. He taught me how to use herbs in traditional healing to help many people in the community.

Omar | As a young man in your twenties, you were a devout Communist indoctrinated to be anti-American and an atheist. How devoted were you to the Communist agenda in Cambodia?

Barnabas | At first I helped my communist mentor write the entire manuscript of his translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Khmer language. I also joined him in mobilizing students in Phnom Penh to protest or go on strike against the corrupted republican government. I also cautiously shared Marxist literature with some trusted friends in order to promote communist ideology among intellectuals.

Omar | How did a devout and active Communist like you become a follower of Jesus?

Barnabas | I was assigned by my communist mentor to spy on American Christians and Cambodian Christians who were organizing an evangelistic crusade at Chadomuk Convention Center in Phnom Penh in April 1972. I attended their crusade and heard Dr. Stanley Mooneyham of World Vision International preach on the story of “The Prodigal Son.”  It was my first time to realize that I was a lost sinner whom God loved and was longing to see me come back to God’s family. Irrespective of what I had done against God, in His grace and mercy God would not accept me as a servant but as a son. So I confessed my sin, repented and prayed to receive Christ as my personal Lord and Savior at the end of the crusade.

Omar | This news of your conversion to Christianity must have been a shock to your Buddhist parents. How did they respond to the news that you had become a Christian?

Barnabas | My Buddhist parents were not happy at the news of my conversion to Christianity. They thought that I would no longer honor them as my parents because they thought that only the Buddhist children would honor their parents. They came from the country to see me in Phnom Penh and asked whether I would still honor them. I told them I had heard a preacher say that all Christians are to honor their parents. My father who was a Buddhist scribe asked me to prove it from the Scriptures, not just to quote it from a preacher. He somehow did know something that saddened him in Luke 14:26,  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” I was then a six-week old believer and did not know a lot of Scriptures, but I knew one thing that I could do to find a verse to satisfy my father. I prayed that the Holy Spirit would help me find a verse that encouraged a Christian to honor his parents and I eventually found it in Ephesians 6:1-3, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” My mum looked at my dad and smiled saying, “As our son still honors us, I have nothing to say against his new faith. Let him be what he wants to be.” Then my dad looked into my eyes and said, “Son, be a good Christian, good son, good brother, good neighbour and good citizen.” 

Omar |You had served as a temple boy at the Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh until the time you became a Christian. How did you get connected with a Christian church in Cambodia?

Barnabas | Right after I gave my life to the Lord in prayer at the end of the crusade, the two ushers who helped me say my prayer asked me for my actual address and then they gave me the address of Bethany Church that was just about a 10-minute walk from the Buddhist temple where I lived. This was the place where I experienced God’s love and the brotherly love shared by Christians.

Omar | Who was the most influential person in your life as a young Christ-follower?

Barnabas | Major Chhirc Taing was the most influential person in my life as a young Christ-follower. Since I had attended my church I heard a lot of good comments and good reports given by missionaries and local believers on account of Chhirc’s life and ministry. Chhirc was a local church leader who had just got back from Scotland. I had never met him before, but I was longing to meet him so that I could build a personal relationship with him. I desired him to be my mentor.

One day, while standing at the entrance of my church, I was greeted by a middle aged man of fair complexion, short stature and smiling face. He asked if I was a believer and I told him I was. He said to me, “Brother, you made the best and greatest decision ever in your life to follow Jesus. I guarantee you that you will never say sorry to this decision.” Since then we became so close in personal relationship.

Chhirc never tried to conceal his emotion when he missed his wife and daughter who were so far away from him in Scotland. Chhirc never spoke bad things of others and he taught me not to think and speak bad things of others as well. Chhirc gave me the opportunity to lead a Sunday school class at my church, then an English class and then the privilege to translate for guest speakers at the annual conference of the Khmer Evangelical Church. Chhirc wisely engaged me in any event where I could activate my Romans 12 ministry gifts.

Chhirch spent a lot of time with me praying for ourselves, our church, our nation and other nations. We spent the entire night of April 16, 1975 together praying for the future of Cambodia. And the next morning, the Khmer Rouge victoriously marched the streets of Phnom Penh and declared their Democratic Kampuchea regime. Chhirch kissed me good-bye and gave me his last instruction based on Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” I never saw Chhirc again since then.

Omar | You were in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge seized the city on April 17, 1975. What was that day like?

Barnabas | I was in my office when young and ferocious Khmer Rouge soldiers came in on April 17, 1975. It was a gloomy day that brought forth death, arrest, family separation and massive devastation. It was a day of contradiction. They drove us out of the city but they said they had liberated us. They wanted to get rid of us but they said that the US Army would bomb the city shortly. They told us to stay away from Phnom Penh for a short while but that short while lasted almost four years. They told us that the Angkar (the Khmer Rouge administration) would supply all our needs, but they banned all the schools, shops, banks, offices and hospitals and let the people die of untreated and uncured sicknesses and starvation. It was not a well-planned evacuation and the people were not well prepared for the very hard trial and forced labor that would follow.

Omar | When were you first arrested by the Khmer Rouge and where did they send you?

Barnabas | After having left Phnom Penh, I wandered around outside the city for many days with a little hope that I would find some of my relatives, but I found none of them. Some of my Christian friends that I had come across asked me to join their company but I said no thank you to all of them. Finally I met my girl friend and her family in a village about fifty miles east of Phnom Penh. I planned to live there with them, but a kind Khmer Rouge commander suggested that it would be safer for me to go farther to a place where no one would know my background and stay there as long as I could. I joined her family going upstream in a big boat for a few days and walked quite a distance to the Vietnam border. One day after I arrived in a village near the border, I was arrested and sent to a detention camp where I was forced to hard labor and brainwashing.

Omar | How long were you imprisoned and what dangers did you face?

Barnabas | I was in three Khmer Rouge prisons near the Vietnam border for almost two years. I was forced to hard labor in the fields from dawn to dusk. I needed to work as hard as the Khmer Rouge did. After dinner, I was interrogated twice a week to give good comments on the current situation and to give a self-assessment regarding my fidelity to the Angkar in thoughts , speech and deeds. I was not encouraged to speak any foreign language because it was believed that it belonged to the enemy of the revolution. I was not allowed to speak of my past life for fear of defaming the revolution. I was not allowed to read any books for fear of being indoctrinated by the enemy’s concept. I was not allowed to write any paper for fear of communicating the facts about the revolution with the CIA. I could take a bath in the stream only when the Khmer Rouge guards brought the prisoners there. I could go to the latrine (open restroom) only after I sought approval from the Khmer Rouge officer of the day. As there was no medicine available, I needed to take wild herbs and traditional therapy for the cure of all my diseases.

Omar | What did you do after your release?

Barnabas | I was first released from the Khmer Rouge prison in July 1977. As the Communist leaders in the Eastern Region stood against Pol Pot and many of them fled Cambodia and took refuge in Vietnam, the population of the region was also suspiciously doubted by the government regarding their fidelity. Together with many thousands of people and cadres from the East, I was re-evacuated by boat and by train to Svay Don Keo in northeastern Cambodia. I faced a more tragic life there. I saw a lot of people slaughtered and thrown into mass graves. Phnom Penh was liberated from the Khmer Rouge regime on January 7, 1979, but as for us, we were released a month later. My relationship with my girlfriend broke apart right after the killing fields. I met Boury, a widow with six children, in 1980. Her husband was killed by the Khmer Rouge during the killing fields. After we were married, we joined an underground church in Phnom Penh until 1985.   

Omar | In January 1985, you fled Cambodia to a refugee camp in Thailand. How did God use you there?

Barnabas | In 1985, Boury and I took three of our daughters with us to flee Cambodia to a refugee camp in Thailand. We were arrested in Thailand as illegal migrants and we were transferred to Site Two Camp via three holding centers. I was sick most of the time. Due to Boury’s background as a nurse, she did very well in looking after me. Even though I could not sit properly I managed to write many songs and translate many books for the Picture Bible by laying on my belly on the bed. A spiritual leader from YWAM joined my family in prayer every afternoon. We prayed as a family at 4:00 PM every afternoon to seek God’s guidance, provision and protection.  Every morning I prayed for the same things with young leaders I had discipled. The Lord gave me a new song every morning for three months. I wrote them all and taught them all to those young leaders. Then I joined Campus Crusade for Christ in 1989. My team and I were very much involved in prayer mobilization and preaching the Word. Then we experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon his Church in the camp. As a result, fifteen churches were planted all over the camp and an English school was built next to each church with funds granted by a Catholic humanitarian organization established in Thailand to help the refugees in relief, emergency, and education.

Omar | Planting churches and training leaders is a passion of yours. How are you involved in church planting initiatives today?

Barnabas | The fire stops existing when there is no burning. The church stops existing when there is no evangelism. The church stops growing when the focus on church planting is no longer there. I mean the Great Commission church not just any ordinary church. I joined Ambassadors for Christ International in 2001 after my having led a proven ministry as founding and senior pastor of Living Hope in Christ Church in Phnom Penh with 40 satellite churches nationwide. The why behind the what of what AFCI is doing is all about teams of nationals accelerating the spread of the gospel through the local churches worldwide. Since I joined this organization I developed my own materials on discipleship and church planting to train local church planters, disciple-makers and pastors. So far more than three hundred churches have been planted all over Cambodia and in Southern Vietnam among the Khmer speaking people. 

Omar | What are other ways in which you have helped support the work of ministry in Cambodia?

Barnabas | I have helped support the work of ministry in Cambodia through my governance gift and skill and song writing gift and skill. I served as vice-chairman of the board of Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia (1996-2006) to promote unity and synergy among the evangelical Christians. I have served as chairman of the board of the Bible Society in Cambodia (2001 to date) to promote the translation, the publication and the distribution of the Bible in Khmer Language and other major tribal languages.  I have served as member of the board of the Cambodia Community Bible Institute (2004 to date) to train Christian workers in the community by providing my recorded teaching on mega-voice and training manuals. I have served on the advisory council of World Vision Cambodia (2004 to date) to promote the rights and the protection of children at risk. I have served as chairman of the Strategy Committee of Mission Kampuchea 2021 to help the local church plant a church in every village in Cambodia by the year 2021. I have visited prisons to preach the gospel to and make disciples of the prisoners. I also have engaged my team in community development projects such as water-well drilling, water filter and livestock and education projects such as scholarship for poor children and poor young people to finish their education at good school.

Omar | What is your vision for the future of God’s work in Cambodia?

Barnabas | My vision for the future of God’s work in Cambodia is that God’s name will be glorified as His church is strong in unity and purpose to bring transformation to individual’s life, community, education, justice and economy through praying with God’s passion, the preaching of God’s grace, and the caring with God’s love.


Responses

  1. Thanks Omar, for interviewing Barnabas, sharing us his visions for Cambodia. This is very good to know that, how to pray and, pray for which person. I could pray for Barnabas, as he is spreading seeds of words of God, in own people!

    Mortuza
    Bangladesh

  2. Wow, what an amazing interview. This man’s life reflects so much hope and perseverance in spite of adversity.

    His faith is an inspiration.

  3. This man is a man of Faith and his story is such an inspiration for this generation. What an amazing interview. I hope and pray that God will give him the wisdom and power to serve his people.

    May God bless,
    Virakchit
    USA

  4. I love Pastor and my bro (Virakchit he is always there for me). Nica


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