The pastor and the monster

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Pastor Christopher LaPel in Ratnakiri – from his Facebook page.

Christopher LaPel’s father was a Brahman priest serving Cambodia’s king in his role as the earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu. Imagine the shock and horror, therefore, when one evening at dinner he saw a cross hanging around his son’s neck:

One day while our family had supper … I reached to pick up food and the ivory cross hanging around my neck fell forward. My dad, when he saw the cross, raised his voice and cursed at me. He pulled me and said, “You shouldn’t wear the cross. Remember we are a Buddhist family, we don’t want you to wear the cross.” I didn’t even know what it meant.

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The royal Brahmans at the Sacred Ploughing Ceremony, 2015

Then came 1975 and the Khmer Rouge. Christophe’s mother and father were worked to death, and his sister and brother were executed. Christopher himself narrowly escaped death:

I worked 14 to 16 hours a day without food, sunrise to sunset. I lost a lot of weight—70 pounds in that time. Two-thirds of my friends died of either execution, malnutrition, overwork, or disease. One time I was very ill, I had a high fever—I’m not sure if I had malaria or typhoid, but I had missed work for three or four days. During that time, missing work for a couple days meant you were useless to the Khmer Rouge, they didn’t want to keep you.

We knew, during this time, if someone calls you during the night you would die. One night they called me to meet the Khmer Rouge comrade to ask why I was missing work. I knelt down, shaking from fever, when one of them put his hand on my chest and my head. He opened my shirt and touched my ivory cross. At that moment I heard a voice, I’m not sure who, say, “This guy is really sick, we need to let him go take a rest.” I came back to my hut and thought: There’s something about my cross, it’s amazing!

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Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, Thailand, where Christopher LaPel found his vocation

Christopher escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he converted to Christianity. Later he relocated to Long Beach, California, became a Christian pastor, and embarked on a life of turning others to Christ – and, might I say, treading truly in Christ’s footsteps.

In late 1995 pastor LaPel was conducting baptisms and training sessions in western Cambodia when village mathematics teacher called Hang Pin came to one of the sessions. Hang Pin said he was not a Christian, but had come at the urging of a friend. Under LaPel’s teachings he was accepted Christ and was baptised. The previously withdrawn man was transformed. He became relaxed and outgoing, teasing others, dressing neatly, sitting in the front row and taking notes. Filled with enthusiasm, he told his pastor that he could hardly wait to get home so that he could spread the good word. Which is what he did, establishing and leading a village church with 14 families.

But there was something dark about this newest convert. Prior to his baptism he wondered aloud to LaPel whether his brothers and sisters in Christ could forgive the sins he had committed in his past. His only consolation was that God forgives everything – “Thank God that the Lord forgives me!” LaPel didn’t ask questions – his role is to lead sinners to God, not to judge them.

LaPel had no idea that the star convert named Hang Pin was actually Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, who as director of the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre known as S-21 (or Tuol Sleng)  was responsible for the torture and murder of 14,000 men, women and children.

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Enough has been written about Tuol Sleng. Far more interesting is Duch’s soul, and that of Pastor LaPel. Early in their relationship Duch told the LaPel that he had never felt love in his childhood or later. “When he turned to Christ, love filled his heart.” What he seems to have felt before he met LaPel was deep and consuming guilt, as he told Christophe Peschoux, country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights shortly before his arrest in 1999:

“[A]ll those who were sent to me [at S-21] had to be killed, whether man, woman or child, without distinction.”

Peschoux: “Even the children? Were they also considered as enemies?”

Duch: “Yes, even the children.” (Peschoux has a footnote: “Kaing Guek Eav averted his face, visibly affected, and plunged into his memories.”)

LaPel-with-Duch-rdg-Bible.jpgChristianity seems to have brought Duch a measure of peace in the prison where he serves a life sentence for crimes against humanity, the only KR commander to have accepted his guilt and expressed remorse.

I think he must be the loneliest man in the world.

Christopher LaPel testified at his trial. He didn’t ask for leniency (nor did Duch), but testified to the power of God to transform a sinner. To this day he visits Duch in his cell, where they read the Bible and break bread together.

 Sources

• Brad Dupray, Interview with Christopher LaPel, Christian Standard, 4 August, 2010.

• Caroline Gluck, The Killer and the Pastor, TIME magazine, July 12, 1999

• Christophe Peschoux and Haing Kheng Heng, Itinerary of an Ordinary Torturer: Interview with Duch, former Khmer Rouge commander of S-21 (to be published later in 2016).

• KarstenRauPhotography.com (photo of child victims at Tuol Sleng)

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Nathan A. Thompson, poet

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Book launch 21 April, 7.30pm, MetaHouse. Available on Amazon.

MetaHouse, Phnom Penh, 7.30pm, 21 April 2016. Nathan A. Thompson humbly presents his first collection of poetry, 31 poems plucked from nearly 400 written over the last decade. They chronicle an early adulthood given over to drugs and furious pursuits, meditations on “the simple, spiritual things that promise salvation” (as writer, Shane Levene noted in his blurb) before resting in the groundless, ambivalent spaces of life. Nathan has been a committed writer since he was first published aged 14. He hopes this collection will be worthy of an appreciative audience.

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Nathan has written for the Guardian, Slate, Telegraph, Christian Science Monitor, Gawker, Vice, Independent, Salon and many more. He now lives in Phnom Penh, where he writes news, features and travel covering Asia. The range of his coverage is truly impressive (see the links below). I’m going to finish off with some quotes from an article he published in a magazine called The Fix, in which he stands in a Burmese poppy-field with a ball of raw opium in his hand and celebrates being three years drug-free:

I’m now three years clean from heroin. To the day. I didn’t mean to mark this event by smelling a ball of fresh dope like some screwy birthday cake. I doubt my old counselors would recommend this as a good place for a former junky to be. But I’m here to work. Not get high. Just a little bit? No… Definitely not to get high.

But I’d be lying if I wasn’t also fulfilling that old junky dream of walking through fields of bobbing poppies, watching fresh opium ooze from gashes in their bald heads. I’ve been fascinated with opium and heroin since childhood. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I was a stressed child and, when I learned that there were these things called drugs that could calm my raging head, I was captivated. Still, I didn’t try heroin for real until I was 24.

Back then I lived in a small town not far from London. Mike the squatter scored for me. He smelt of rotten grass and bonfire. Inside the deserted hospital where he lived with a small group of anarchists and ne’er-do-wells, the walls were camouflaged in soot from the open fire they burned to keep out the winter darkness. Sometimes there was a blackened pot of baked beans simmering in the embers.

I inhaled smoke from a mercurial blob of smack as it ran down the tin foil. At first, I felt stoned. Then I felt nice. Really, really nice. I stopped caring about the damp, filth and soot. I didn’t care about the job I hated. I didn’t care about the nameless fears that fermented in my guts. It was a beautiful release.

The ball of opium is still in my hands. I smell it a second time. Heroin smells like this. A little urge lands like a soft punch to the stomach. Why not just break off a little bit? For old time’s sake? I hand the ball back. It’s a familiar pattern of thought and, after three years, it has little power. I don’t know if I’ve grown strong or if it’s been weakened by abstinence. The opium farmer, an earnest Burmese man with a kind smile, returns the ball to the only other room in his rough, wooden house. I check my Dictaphone and press “stop.” The interview is done.

The last time the urge to get high proved irresistible, I was at a screening of a documentary about the poet, Amiri Baraka. I had just returned to London after a stint in the countryside where I had managed to claw three months clean. As the crease-faced poet bawled lines to the sound of a squalling saxophone, I felt my phone vibrate. I pulled it out and angled my eyes down, “Banging gear, 10/10 quality, delivery on orders over two,” it read. I knew my dealer didn’t really have “10/10” quality stuff, but it was enough to start an eruption in my amygdala.

I tried to force myself to focus on the documentary. But it was too hard. When I left the screening I was trembling in anticipation. If I could just make it to the Underground I could put some distance between myself and the dealer’s area… But the phone was already out of my pocket. I disassociated—watching someone else dial. It felt good to stop fighting. As if I had been clinging to a rock and was now weightless in the torrent. “Nath? Long time, bro!” said the dealer.

My fixer and I are leaving the opium-growing village. I’m on the back of his motorbike. The road is red and winds through the mountains. As we round a Precambrian cliff, I see miles of rice fields below, glowing green in the sunset. That final smack session after the documentary lasted three days. I’m passing through those dates like the sun might pass through the Zodiac sign of the smackhead.

Sources:

Nathan Thompson’s website: includes links to his journalism

The Fix: Turning three years clean in an opium field

Errant magazine: 3 poems