Prek Ho is a Methodist church in Krong Svey village, Kandal province, about an hour from Phnom Penh. It was established by missionaries from Singapore in 2000 and has 25 “followers,” meaning regular attendees. At weekends the followers run activities for children – mostly the children of church members, but all children from the village – in classical Cambodian dance, break-dancing, modelling, and in English, Korean and other desirable languages. The church is in three hall-like buildings beside the highway, in an area still rural but touched by the city and its fringe of garment factories. It even has a possibly optimistic gated community for the new Cambodian middle class. In short, Krong Svey is a piece of traditional Cambodia undergoing rapid change.
I arrived with my interpreter when the morning religious service had finished and the children’s activities were about to start. There were lots of boisterous but well-behaved children being loosely supervised by a handful of friendly young adults, keen to ask if the foreigner was a Christian like them, as they don’t get to see many Western Christians. They do get to see the Singaporeans often, as they founders still do a lot of work to support the Cambodian church, including providing a free mobile clinic and scholarships for followers.
I’d been introduced to the church by Bon, whom I’d met the year before. Bon is from the village but now he works in a hotel in Phnom Penh, and spends his one day off a week helping in the village. At the church we collected a girl called Sokheng he wanted to take with us to another nearby village for community activities. These were the most unusual such activities I’ve come across: cutting the fingernails and shampooing the hair of village children. I can’t see that either is really necessary – Cambodian villagers have existed for centuries with their own ways of handling hair and fingernails, and I can’t see that they need help – but the kids, aged between 4 or 5 and 13, obviously enjoyed the experience. Nor was the afternoon pointless, as it had put them in touch with the wider world – the world of the city – and, just possibly, a way out of a trap that was going to close around them in a few years.
Afterwards the children played games, sang some Christian songs, and then went home. And on the way back to Phnom Penh I asked Bon and Sokheng why they had left Buddhism for Christianity, and what it had meant to their lives.
Sokheng is 19 and has been a Christian for five years. Pretty and open-faced, she was born in Phnom Penh but has lived in Prek Ho since she was a child, as her father owns a crocodile farm in the village. She was brought up as a Buddhist, but when she was about 14 a friend persuaded her to come to the Khmer classical dance classes at the church, which is a few minutes walk from her home.
She’d been suspicious of Christianity, as she’d heard that Christians don’t respect their parents, but she came to the dance classes with her friend over several weekends and enjoyed them. She also heard talks about Christianity, read some literature and some of the Bible, and learned to her surprise that Christianity actually teaches respect for parents. Eventually she told her parents that she was no longer a Buddhist but a Christian.
Their reaction was to forbid her attending the church, but a teacher from the church visited her home and explained matters, and after many such visits they agreed to let her attend, but she had to cut down the amount of time she was spending there. She used to spend several days a week at the church but now it’s just one day a week, and she’s not allowed to come home late. She still lives at home and her relations with her family are now good. She’s still the only member of her family to have become a follower of Christ.
When she became a Christian her friends accused her of betraying her religion; becoming a Christian, they said, meant betraying your own people, because Christianity was not a Cambodian religion. She told them, “Buddhism is not a Cambodian religion, it was Indian, and was imported by missionaries just like Christianity,” but this answer didn’t stop the criticism. She used to get angry, but she remembers what Jesus said: “you can be angry, but don’t commit sin.” It was hard for a long time, but now days her friends accept her for who she is, because she treats them fairly.
She’s now doing degrees at two different universities in Phnom Penh, in banking and in English literature. This means she’s busy all day, leaving home early and coming home back after dark. She spends her weekends at church helping community children, teaching English and Khmer dance and doing hair-washing with the children. When she compares her present self with the past she sees a big difference. Before she was a Christian she was quiet and self-centred, but now she goes to church and takes part in social activities and is talkative and likes sharing. Her studies are being sponsored by the Singaporean mother-church, so she believes she has to help the others in the same way.
She doesn’t believe that the spirits, the house protector spirit and the mrieng kong veal child-spirits and so on, are real. She doesn’t visit the village temple, although sometimes she goes with her parents at Pchum Ben just to please them, but she never goes inside. She wants to marry some day, but will only marry a Christian, because Christianity says that those who are married can never be divorced. For her future she wants to have her own business some day, so that she can continue to support the church and educate poor children so they can have a better life.
Bon was born in 1988 in a village next to the church. He lived here all his life until he moved to Phnom Penh four years ago to work in a hotel and do a degree in tourism and hospitality at Norton University, one of the more prestigious private universities in the city.
He was the ninth of twelve children, all now working as construction labourers (the boys) or in the garment factories (the girls). His parents were farmers. He didn’t like his father, who drank and gambled and was violent towards his mother and his brothers and sisters and himself. Bon went to school when he could, but had to collect wild vegetables from the village forest to sell in the market to make the tea-money for the teacher and to buy books. He often went home at the end of the day not knowing whether there would be food on the table that evening.
He left home when he was in his early teens and went to live in the village monastery as a temple boy, to escape his family life and because he wanted to study. (“Education is the only thing I wanted in life.”) He intended to stay in the monastery and become a monk, but quickly became disillusioned with the jealousy, materialism and corruption he saw in the monastery. “If a monk has a relative who is a senior monk, he’s invited to take part in ceremonies where he’ll be given cash, while the monk who has no relatives gets nothing.” After two years he left the monastery and went home.
Like Sokheng, he hated Christians before he knew any, and like her he thought Christians didn’t respect parents. Christians were also morally suspect: they believed they could get drunk and cheat and rob and commit any crimes they wanted and then ask God for forgiveness and go out and sin again. In Buddhism, sins cannot be forgiven, they’re added to karma. Even after quitting the monastery, he remained a Buddhist.
Some years later his father became bedridden, and the family sold their land and eventually even their house to raise money. Doctors and hospitals failed, and finally they took him to a kru khmer (traditional healer). The kru told them they had to give money and fruit for a special ceremony within ten days or their father would die.
By this time the family had sold everything and had no money for the kru. They were in despair, but by chance at this moment a free clinic of the Singaporean parent church visited the village. Thanks to the treatment provided by the clinic Bon’s father recovered and was able to work again. Bon began going to church every Sunday and saw the good acts the Christians were doing, their kindness, and this was enough to convince him to become a Christian. His father returned to his old ways and is not a follower, nor are any of his brothers and sisters.
The church supported Bon while he finished Senior High School (grades 11-12) and his university degree afterwards. He saw how those Christians who had jobs supported those who did not, and now, even though he doesn’t earn a very high salary, he contributes $10 each month to the church to pay for the village English classes.
When he first became a Christian the people in his village and his friends at school ostracised him, and he had several bad experiences while going round the village with other followers spreading the gospel. People would slam the door in their faces or set the dog on them, and once, when a woman allowed the church members into her house, her drunk husband chased them out and threatened to kill them. This was hard, but he always remembered that people could only curse Jesus Christ, not A Yisu (a complicated pun in Khmer, meaning that people who curse Christ do not curse those who spread his message). The hostility and opposition stopped since he graduated from university, as the villagers are impressed that the village boy they knew now has a higher education and a brilliant future.
He believes that ghosts and spirits exist. If invited to a funeral or festival he joins in and will try to help it be a success, not because he believes the rituals work but because he believes in being a good citizen. Sometimes he attends the village temple at New Year and Pchum Ben, because the monastery is just a building, but he prays to God while the others pray to Buddha. In his six years as a Christian he has persuaded four friends and a nephew to become followers. He still supports his parents.
Christians are not allowed to have sex before marriage, but if someone does it means they not a pure Christian (says Bonn). Mixed marriages between Christians and non-Christians are not forbidden, but in his experience they usually fail.