Cambodian Rice Farmer Takes Message of JESUS to Village

Hopeful for his neighbors, Abraham puts his faith into action

By Becky Hill   |  23 . July . 2009
rice-farmer-abraham-465x280-tm.jpg "I'm a rural boy," Abraham says, his olive skin tanned deep brown and leathered by years in the sweltering heat. Photo by Tom Mills

Abraham stands under the shade of the mango tree, his hands folded politely, feeling defeated again. Why won't they listen? he thinks. Can they not see how important this is?

He glances at his tape player, its wires jury-rigged to an old car battery for electricity. Then he looks back at his audience -- one woman spinning thread for a scarf, a few others sitting nonchalantly near the house. Children look on curiously at first, but soon wander away.

The voices from the tape yell out in Khmer, the language of most Cambodians, retelling Jesus' healing of the demon-possessed man.

Abraham loves this tape. He heard it for the first time 2 years ago, after he had become a Christian but before he really understood his faith. Reading is difficult for the rice farmer, but this audio recording of the JESUS film, based on the Gospel of Luke, has helped Abraham learn the Bible and given him a tool to convey the stories to others.

But this morning, as usual, the tape is no match for the neighborhood's distractions. Dogs nip and squabble for hierarchy, motorbikes roar by and chickens scamper underfoot -- the steady hum of village life is everywhere.

Hope for the Only Home He Knows

Hopeful, yet helpless, Abraham lets the tape play, not sure what to do differently. He knows this is a bigger battle than just noise. A 2,000-year history of Buddhism in Cambodia has intertwined religion and culture, and any knowledge people have of Christianity is often founded in myths.

Abraham's son-in-law, for example, feared all their pigs would die because his wife's father believed in Jesus. "I want them to know about the Lord like me," he explains. "They just don't understand."

After letting the tape play for more than 45 minutes, he thanks the woman and heads off down the dirt road to find someone else to play the tape for. This village, called Kontmart, has always been home to Abraham. He's never set foot in a city; he hasn't even seen the bridge over the Mekong River just 15 miles from his house.

"I'm a rural boy," he says, his olive skin tanned deep brown and leathered by years in the sweltering heat.

So in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge forced all city-dwellers into a communal countryside lifestyle, Abraham stayed in his village. The new government made him a village policeman, and he reported any dissenters; he was told they would be sent away for re-schooling.

It wasn't until 1979 that Abraham learned his neighbors had actually been taken outside of town, beat on the head with a shovel and pushed into mass graves -- the Killing Fields.

He lost at least 20 relatives and 40 friends at the hands of the communist regime. The Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.7 million people during the 3 years they controlled the country. In Abraham's village, they still talk about life during the Khmer Rouge, but the daily routine has varied little during his 57 years.

Hearing About Christ From Changed Family Members

Every morning, Abraham wakes at 3:00 to help his wife, Hai Hieng, make rice and seafood porridge to sell to their neighbors who are on their way to work. Then he works his rice fields and takes care of his water buffalo; Abraham says they plow the mud better than cows.

During the heat of the day, he rests in a hammock beneath his elevated house. Each day blends into the next, the years distinguished by the wet or dry seasons and the birth of children.

Things changed in the village the day Abraham became a Christian. For him and a small group of other believers, life has never been the same.

It started when his wife's sister, Hai Heap, became a Christian after seeking help from a Christian clinic for pain in her jaw. She began talking to her husband, Lun Phean, about her new faith. Their marriage had been troubled by Phean's adultery, and Heap used to cry at his feet while he slept.

After several months, Phean also became a Christian and renewed his faithfulness to his wife. They began telling others, including Abraham and his wife. It wasn't the first time Abraham had heard about Jesus.

Changed Life Draws Many Difficult Questions

Approximately 10 years earlier, Abraham had seen the JESUS film in his village, but he didn't understand it enough to make a commitment to Christ. Touch Borin, who leads Campus Crusade for Christ in Cambodia, acknowledges that there were many like Abraham who had only limited exposure to the gospel.

"God's Word was going out, so that's good, but there was not much after that," he says. In the sweep to give everyone in the country a chance to see the film, few mentored those who indicated decisions for Christ, let alone explained more to the confused.

When Abraham became a Christian, his understanding of following Jesus was limited to what he learned from a small church in a neighboring village. A pastor from a nearby town had started the church, but rarely visited -- maybe twice a year. Although they attended weekly, Abraham and the other new believers didn't grow beyond a childlike understanding of faith.

Despite the lack of training, Abraham had an instant desire for his neighbors to meet Christ. Yet they soon asked questions beyond his comprehension.

"What country does Jesus come from?" one neighbor asked.

"He lives in every country," Abraham responded.

"So He has no home?" the neighbor countered.

Another asked, "If your God is a mighty god, then why are you still poor?"

"I always try to answer them, but I don't think it's a very satisfactory answer," Abraham says. "When they ask me a big question that I don't know the answer to, I feel ashamed." None of the other Christians had answers either.

Learning to Grow in Christ as a Family

Then in early 2007, Borin explained to the villagers that they could start their own house church and that the JESUS film team would train them weekly. Every Tuesday the film team trained them in their faith, not taking over as leaders, but teaching the villagers how to lead.

Phaen and Heap became the leaders of this new group, and hosted the first gathering, which was basically a family meeting -- Heap's brother, sister and their spouses, including Abraham.

Over the next few months, the fledgling group learned how to read the Bible, pray and be filled with the Holy Spirit. They were taught to rely on each other as a community of believers, to pass along the training and to solve problems on their own.

"We teach them from the beginning to be a blessing to others," says Borin, "to look to the Lord, not to us."

Rather than requesting funds from Borin and Campus Crusade, Abraham's group raised enough money for an evangelistic Christmas outreach in their village, and more than 100 people came.

They matured in faith together and developed their spiritual gifts. Heap discovered a gift of public speaking, often giving the sermons during the church service. Her husband turned into quite the evangelist.

"Wherever I go, whoever I meet, I just want to talk to them about Jesus, I can't stop," Phaen says. "My wife says not to do it so much, so I just talk about something else for awhile and then come back to it," he laughs.

He talked with Yem Soung, a 43-year-old veterinarian and mother of 3 when she came to look at his sick animals. She had been interested in Christianity, but was taught that to become a Christian meant to disgrace your parents. After Phaen explained that the Bible teaches to honor your parents, she prayed and invited Christ into her life.

Now she talks to people about Jesus in the 26 villages she visits to care for animals.

Combining Evangelism with Personal Growth

Their house church of 6 soon grew to 20, then 30, then 50, until there was hardly room to sit in Phaen and Heap's house. The JESUS film workers encouraged the group to split, so those that lived farther away began a new group.

As they grew, church members started calling him "Abraham." His real name is Hin Nint, but someone made the connection between the many descendants of the biblical role model and Abraham's 6 children and 12 grandchildren. The nickname stuck.

Abraham received the audio version of the JESUS film from one of the Campus Crusade staff members during a weekly training. At first he didn't have a tape player, but would visit neighbors and pay 2,000 riel of his own money to rent theirs and play his tape for them.

Though this cost twice as much as a haircut, it could explain the gospel clearly, and people listened. Two villagers began attending Abraham's church after hearing his audio tapes.

He now walks through the neighborhood with his own tape player at least 3 times a month, although his strategy consists of little more than pushing "play."

After leaving the woman weaving the scarf, Abraham talks with Borin, who is in the village for a visit.
Borin offers the rice farmer some welcome instruction on how to be more effective.

"Decide first which house to visit," he says, "and ask the people in advance whether you can come. Then gather the people, introducing the tape and explaining its importance."

Afterward, Borin instructs, Abraham can ask if people have questions, and if they ask one he can't answer, he can simply invite them to church on Sunday. Abraham nods in agreement.

That Sunday in Phaen and Heap's living room, the church members gather once again. For the first time, Abraham has been invited to pray for the offering, and he is nervous but prays sincerely.

A few minutes later, as Heap talks about 1 Corinthians, Abraham follows along in his Bible. The passage comes from a letter written to a church like Abraham's -- people wanting to grow, wanting to make a difference.

Abraham sits by the open doorway, the noon sunshine illuminating his face. He knows this is where he will continue to learn.