Hell and heaven

When Ek Muntha was 18 years old, she rose from the grave. For three days she had lain there among the hollow-eyed dead, stripped bare, awaiting burial, while the pit was dug. On the third day she opened her eyes, struggled to her feet and wobbled shakily from the tangled mound of corpses.

Up near her right shoulder there’s a deep depression the size of a 50-cent piece. ‘It was an infection’, she says matter-of-factly. ‘I got so sick, they thought I’d died.’

A few years later her husband narrowly escaped an early death too. Accused of disloyalty to the regime, he was tied to a tree by a band of Pol Pot’s thugs. They pulled a plastic bag over his head, tied it securely around his neck and he was left there to die slowly and miserably. But his deft fingers worked the ropes loose, and he escaped.

Most likely God doesn’t purposefully predestine people for a specific role in life—and therefore must preserve their life long enough to fulfill it. But you do suspect, in the case of Muntha at least, that God’s angels were protecting her, and her husband, all through those murderous Khmer Rouge years because he had a special job in mind for her.

Today Muntha is the mother of eight children, and a kind of surrogate mum for scores more. She’s the assistant cook at the Life Centre, the base for the fledgling Lutheran World Mission in Cambodia. The centre provides daily lunchtime meals for the village’s needy children and for elderly and disabled people too.

The children, and anybody else who’s capable of walking, come to the centre for their 11am meal, which is just before school for some and just after school for others (in Cambodia, because educational facilities are stretched to the max, children attend lessons in either a morning or an afternoon shift). The frail and elderly have their daily meal delivered to them via tuktuk, that cheery little three-wheeler ubiquitous in South-East Asia.

After serving the children’s meals, Muntha and the chief cook, Long Sol, load up the tuktuk with pots of soup and rice, and then she heads off into the village with Pastor Daniel Orn and the centre’s jack-of-all-trades Sothy Chea.

Here is where you see the gospel preached in word and deed in equal measure. It’s powerful stuff, and remarkably simple—and it makes you wonder why we in the West insist on making ‘mission’ so dreadfully complicated. In fact, you get the impression that the Lutheran staff here have perhaps never even heard of the word ‘mission’; all they are doing is replicating what Christ has done for them: offering loving kindness to those who need it most.

The smiling trio—Muntha, Pastor Daniel, Sothy—alight from the tuktuk, bearing food for the body and for the soul. The soup and rice safely delivered, there’s a little bit of time for a chat, and then to pray.

When you watch Muntha, Pastor Daniel and Sothy praying for these dear old people, who’ve survived unimaginable sorrow, you get the sense that God has arrived in this town. The Khmer Rouge tried its best to eradicate religion in Cambodia, and it succeeded by and large. So there’s a spiritual vacuum here. While the older people still tend to look to their Buddha images for protection, they are open to the possibility that this Christian God might be ‘the one’, especially when his followers turn up every day bringing love, hugs and smiles. Their faith is contagious.

The Life Centre is the only Christian organisation in Phum Krus, and it’s impossible to miss it. Its small handful of staff are all over the village, chatting, working, caring, serving. The centre opened in January 2010. Two years later there were 79 adult baptised members of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, which is based there. Average Sunday worship attendance is 45, including some of the old people who’ve come to know God through the meal-delivery service.

Staff at the centre teach children English and computer skills, the two most sought-after qualifications in Cambodia. So, at any time of the day the centre is alive with the laughter of children.

This is heaven on earth for Muntha. Which makes a nice change from hell on earth. This she experienced under the Pol Pot regime. Then, as a young woman, her job was to oversee the work of the children in the labour camps. They had to work twelve hours a day, on almost empty stomachs, even if they were weak or sick.

‘I had to persuade them to keep working’, Muntha says. ‘Or they would be punished. And so would I.’

‘A lot of children died under Pol Pot. My brother was one of them.’

‘But’, she adds with a hint of pride, ‘not even one of the children under my care died. I was able to save all of them.’

She feels sad when she thinks back to those days. ‘I can’t understand why they did that, why they killed their own people …’.

It was her son Chantrea who led her to Jesus about two years ago. As a teenager she’d heard about Jesus when a travelling evangelist had come to her village. But she ‘couldn’t understand any of it’. But when Chantrea started reading the Bible to her, it all started to make sense, especially when he explained the meaning of John 3:16 to her. It’s still her favourite text.

‘I was a Buddhist’, she says. ‘Buddhism doesn’t have a personal god. You are all on your own. There is no-one to call out to, to help you, or who loves you. You are all alone through the bad times.’

‘But the Bible says that God loves us and that Jesus came to earth to be our Saviour and to take us to heaven. Buddha never claimed to be God, and he can’t get you to heaven. Only Jesus can do that.’

She has the heart of an evangelist: ‘I am saved now, and I want everyone else to be saved too’.

But mostly Muntha wants to serve children, which she sees as God’s calling on her life, and a blessed reversal of the life she once had.

‘Under Pol Pot, children starved and were worked to death. I had to be cruel to them, in order to save their lives. But now God has given me a wonderful new life’, she beams. ‘Now I get to love and care for children, to give them good meals and to hear their laughter every day.

‘It’s like heaven.’

Click here to read the story of Muntha’s son Chantrea, who led her to Jesus.

Many of our partner churches are working in new territory for the kingdom of God; therefore, spiritual attack is their everyday reality. As a member of a congregation, school, or family, or a couple or individual, you are invited to commit to praying for our partners in mission. For regular prayer point updates, go to www.lca.org.au/international-mission/act-now/pray

Read more stories about our partner church in Cambodia at www.lcamission.org.au/category/stories/international-partners/cambodia/