Interviewed by Brian M. Maher
I was born in 1974 into a Buddhist family in Kompong Cham Province of Cambodia and I grew up living in and around the Pagoda because my grandfather was the Buddhist Patriarch of the Pagoda. The Pagoda was my second home until I graduated from high school. My youth had been highly influenced by Buddhism as I was expected to study Buddhism regularly. After I finished high school in I went to Phnom Penh to study at the Phnom Penh University in 1992 where I studied the philosophy of Education. It was there that I had heard the good the news of Jesus Christ for the first time in 1995, but I took no interest in Christianity, and as matter of fact, hearing it angered me and turned me off to Christians. A friend of mine invited me to join in his church’s Christmas program and he gave me a special gift. I thought the gift was a shirt, money or something special until I got home and opened it. It was simply a bible which I threw in the river on my way to Kompong Cham for a school break. I had no interest in Jesus until I finished at the university.
When I finished my Bachelor’s degree in 1997, I became an official in the ministry of Education. Shortly after, I went through training in order to evaluate the education levels in government schools. Therefore, I was enjoying my work and it was great but the salary was extremely low but those around me were getting rich because of corruption. As for me, I did not appreciate corruption and often confronted those involved. My life was difficult because of the low salary so I had to find some additional work to make ends meet. I contacted a lumber company from Hong Kong who bought timber from Cambodia and after some training I became their manager which provided a great salary. I saved up my money, quit my two jobs and opened my own lumber company of which I partnered with the Hong Kong Lumber company for a short time before they closed up. I produced lumber at my saw mill and began to partner with a Thai family which made me quite wealthy. This was in Koh Kong province which was like the American Wild West, and had no rule of the law and there were many poor people living close to my mill. We had a gang who ruled the area and fleeced the poor through violence and intimidation. When I saw this take place, I began to help the poor who were being ripped off by the gang. I created my own gang and we had automatic weapons to fight the bandits as I had become a soldier as well during that time. It was now 1998. I ended up killing the leader of the bandits and gang dispersed and ceased to oppress the people. I am the only one left alive from our original group of modern day Robin Hoods, because, as I thought at the time, my good luck came from the magical powers of a Khmer Witch doctor bestowed upon me.
Business was going well, too, but soon my partner ripped me off in Thailand and I lost everything but the shirt on my back, including my fiancé which broke my heart. I had to sell my mill to pay my creditors.
My life by then was a big mess, and full of problems. My mother really worried about me and called me to meet with a Khmer fortune teller who told me I would never have a wife or children. This often made me hopeless and I often remembered that friend who encouraged me back in 1995 with the words of Jesus. I took a break from life and stayed with my sister in Phnom Penh and went to Campus Crusade for Christ to ask them about Jesus and they explained quite a bit of the gospel to me. They gave me a New Testament and I took it home to read. When I was free, I read it. It was two months before I finished it, after that a particular verse really interested me. It is found in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life…..” I remember that Buddha said, I will show you the way, but that Jesus was saying I am the way. During this time I was considering the difference between Buddhism and Christianity but I did not believe just yet. The book of Romans talked a lot about salvation and that we cannot save our selves, only Jesus can. The teaching in the Pagoda told me we could receive salvation by doing good deeds. If we did good things, good things would happen to us. But for me, I wondered why when I did good things, bad things happened to me. Romans said we are not always able to do good because we are sinners and this made a lot of sense to me. It gave me a clear answer. Romans said that Jesus is the only one who can forgive ours sins and give us salvation. Again, it was a clearer explanation than Buddhism, one which I was looking for. I also sought Christians to answer the questions I had until I was invited to attend a Sunday worship service and when I went, they sung a lot of songs, one of which made me cry. It was “Jesus, the Rock of Salvation.” When they sung that song, I got goose bumps. It was the singing of hymns that brought tears to my eyes and I wondered why this never happened when I studied Buddhism with my father. I had the feeling of excitement in my heart. Because of that, I decided to follow Jesus that day which was August 15, 1999 (my spiritual birthday) and I wanted to transform Cambodia and rid my country of crime and corruption. I wanted to join a political party that was against crime and corruption but my family told me I would be dead in two years if rose within the party. How could I change Cambodia quickly? My parents and friends asked me to consider my plans so I prayed to the Lord to ask him. I prayed and fasted many times and God told me the answer was in sharing the gospel with the Cambodian people so I wrote out a covenant that told God I would give my life to spreading the gospel in Cambodia whether it meant life or death.
When I first believed, I met up with some heavy persecution from my family. My father wanted me to work with the government having a big title and a big salary but I was intent on serving the Lord. My father commanded me to stop following Jesus and join the government to become an official. I felt caught between a rock and a hard place. The tension between my written covenant with God and the demands of my father caused me so much angst that I sought God in times of silence and solitude, and the Bible showed me that my sacrifices for the Kingdom will bring much more blessings than that of what is “lost” in return, so I offered my life and everything I had to Jesus again, including the idea of working for the government of Cambodia. I decided to serve the Lord through Campus Crusade for Christ.
When my father heard this news he was livid. He said I was crazy to fall into the influence of a western religion such as Christianity and that I was now brainwashed. When I visited him, he had to get drunk in order to talk to me. He said I was the one of his children who destroyed his heart and he remembered when he used to brag that I was one child that brought him the most pride and honor. Through all of this, I still followed the will of God as I knew for my life with Campus Crusade for two years. Because Campus Crusade was not a church planting organization, I resigned because I had the vision to plant churches and so joined a Baptist Denomination. For three years I studied in their Bible school, learned a lot, and gained some experience in the process until I had some conflicts with some of the foreign missionaries running the denomination. I wanted to do holistic ministry even though I did not fully understand just what it was. The missionaries said God only cared about spiritual things like Bible reading, worship and evangelism, and the physical or social needs of people so I prayed about this for a long time and came to the conclusion that it would be best for me to leave and so I volunteered to serve at an independent church as an associate pastor.
After getting more experience with church problems and politics, and persecution from my family, I decided to add another name to my given name which is “Abraham,” because my character was akin to that of Abraham in the Bible. Like Abraham, who left his family in Ur to travel to the Promised Land, I left my parents to follows God’s call. Now I am called ‘Abraham’ Simting Hang, but my nick name is Abe. I had to go through a lot of red tape with the government to get all my identification documents changed but now even my father calls me Abraham.
In the church where I served, I noticed a young woman who had a servant’s heart in the youth group. I was very impressed and decided that I was going to marry this girl. After knowing her 7 months, I boldly asked her to marry me. She was shocked and said she would pray about it. Three weeks later she agreed and I had to go meet her father and he wanted to meet my parents to talk about the engagement. When my parents heard, they were angry with me again. They would not come to meet my future in laws. So I went by myself with another young person from my church. I apologized for the rudeness of my family but since Sophin’s family were Christians, they understood and said, “No problem.” The first time my parents met Sophin’s parents were at the wedding. When my family came to join the wedding they saw me crying because I was so excited about the wedding. When the service was over, we had the reception at noon. As I sat with my parents, my father asked me why I cried. “A man should not cry because it is not culturally appropriate.” I said to him, “I am crying out of joy because this wedding is where God brought Sophin and I together as one.” My father did not answer but his face showed how he felt. After two months, I told my wife I wanted a son but I remembered what the fortune teller said, and we prayed to God that God would bless us with a son who we would name “Purith,” which means in Khmer, “one who brings blessing to family in the way of good relationships.” God answered our prayers and gave us a son who ended up bringing my family together with my parents and extended family and until now, we have a great relationship and they are trying to understand what our faith is all about.
This is about the time when I became a student at EFC KEY’s Diamond Program in 2004. I was surprised by the uniqueness of the lessons, and especially the lesson that articulated what Holistic Ministry really was and this gave me more impetus to do holistic church planting.
In 2005, I left my church and started my own ministry in early 2006 and focused on holistic ministry. I prayed that God would help me fulfill the vision I had for holistic ministry. When I shared my vision for holistic ministry with many church leaders, they didn’t like the idea and said it was only good for community development, not for church planting. I was convinced otherwise so I continued to pray and an American missionary friend encouraged me to pursue God’s vision for me.
After that, I began to work with the poor because of Luke 4:18 and 19 and I wanted to follow Jesus’ model of ministry to the poor and oppressed. I found a whole bunch of IDPs living on the river bank that fled the war since 1979. They were squatters who were very poor and who were forcibly evicted from the riverside and thrown into a rice field north of Pochentong Airport with only tarps and rice bags for shelter. They had very little food and the field became a quagmire because during the rainy season. Their new location was called Andong Village. There was no infrastructure-sewage, drainage, electricity, clean water, health care, etc, so I moved my ministry from the riverside to Andong and spend my time just visiting among the former squatters. When they began to ask about me, I told them who was and that I was a Christian. Then some began to ask me about Jesus and I shared the good news with them and they became believers. Eight of us gathered for worship outside of a Korean Medical Clinic and after a while we began to grow numerically bit by bit. When we got big enough, I rented a small house with some land for worship but the house soon became too small so I built a simple thatch church building that could hold about 100 people.
The people were suffering and unorganized as the government paid them little attention. No NGO was able to have a voice or organize this group of high independent and unruly squatters but I decided to become an advocate for these squatters as many groups were out to steal their land. Soon I partnered with some churches in Seattle and a local organization called LICADHO to build new roofs for the people that were living in terrible makeshift dwellings. Some days, after putting in the poles for framing, we’d wake up in the morning to find them pulled out and torn down. I decided I needed to sleep out there in Andong in order to prevent this gang from doing it again. They were not happy with me. With funding from Seattle, we were able to rebuild houses for about 500 families. This helped my reputation with people and they began to seek me for counsel but a gang sponsored by someone with bad intentions for the Andong residents threatened to kill me many times. I told them, “You can only kill me if God wants me dead.” We built roofs which really helped, but the extreme poverty and health problems were taking a big toll on the people. But mainly, I noticed three things: 1) many of their problems stemmed from not having Jesus in their lives, 2) they had no education, 3) they had no confidence in themselves, and depended on others to sustain them. I wanted to change these three main obstacles in lives of the villagers. We already had a church, but this was for the believers. Most squatter children were not allowed to attend public school because they could not pay the fees and most of their parents were illiterate. I was concerned that the children would grow up to be illiterate like their parents. This gave me the idea to build a school for the children of the 1000 families at Andong. I shared this idea with many but they thought this was the job of an NGO or the government. So in the beginning, I built the school with money from my wife’s savings which was about $5,900, and she was in agreement. After the school was built, we had a problem finding funding for the teachers but I shared my ideas with the potential teachers who decided they would volunteer their time to teach so the school began to operate with three grades and 65 students. After that, the Seattle churches began to help fund school supplies and the school began to operate smoothly and funds came from Tasmania for teacher’s salaries. The process I began with a concept began to show fruit on the ground so I offered the fruit back to God. When I was invited by the Christian and Missionary Alliance in the US to travel to America, I had the opportunities to preach at their youth camps and in churches about holistic ministry. The offerings I received for my personal use totaled close to $10,000 which I invested back into the school and general development of the village.
When I came back from America, a group wanted to evict the IDPS once again as the land increased in value so I gathered the villagers together to urge them not to let anyone displace them again. After a few days, I was bringing my pregnant wife (2 months) to Phnom Penh on my dirt bike and suddenly I saw a motorcycle coming up behind me at a high speed. They shouted at me and kicked the bike. I called to God for his help as we were crashing and God answered. God protected my wife and our yet to be born child. My knee suffered damage and the bike has never been the same. In spite of these problems, I prayed with my wife and we compared our situation with that of the Apostles. We were happy to have the privilege to suffer for Jesus.
Shortly afterwards, I received encouragement from Australian, Mike Frost who shared from his book Exiles which really touched my heart. His teaching affirmed that what I was doing was God’s will. This gave me more impetus to continue along with seeing the fruit that God was giving me through Holistic Ministry despite outright persecution. I began to see my vision become clearer each day and this gave me joy.
We had a church and a school so I thought I would start an NGO in order to partner with other organizations and NGOs that were hesitant to trust churches. Through the quality of our work, I hoped we would be a testimony to the secular NGOS and this is happening now to a measurable degree.
Two years after we put new roofs on the house, they needed to be replaced. Many villagers came to see me, full of tears, as the rainy season was approaching. I told the people to pray and believe in Jesus and he will hear their prayers. I gathered 50 villagers to pray each night and two weeks later Medical Teams International and Imago Dei Church from Portland, Oregon responded with funding for corrugated tin roofs and water sanitation. Through them, we built 103 new houses and the people were amazed and praised God. I would like to continue with the new houses/roofs until all the villagers have good roofs, good health, and good infrastructure. These holistic efforts, done after Jesus’ model, have caused the villager to come to my office at the church to ask to become believers. They used to call the village a hopeless case but since transformation is happening, they now have much more hope than they had in the past. In addition, many onlookers from NGOs, neighboring villages, etc, are surprised to see such transformation in this squalid little village of 800 families. This is an example that we can use for community development in other villages in rural areas.
I recently preached in churches in Australia and they were surprised to see the model of ministry I was using and have recently sent interns to come learn with me. They are now changing their model of ministry to become more holistic and more akin to Jesus’ own model.
Just yesterday, there was a meeting of organizations and NGOs working in Andong Village which I was unable to attend. News reached me that these secular and Buddhist organizations who initially hostile to my work had voted me to represent this association. I was overjoyed that our testimony and work had impact on even Buddhist organizations.
My future plans are to plant churches and build a school in Oddar Meanchey Province (near the Thai border) among the former Khmer Rouge. I have been given seven hectares of land by a government official in order to this. Just this week, after traveling to Anlong Veng with MTI and Imago Dei church I was able to share the gospel with many former Khmer Rouge leaders as I slept in their village for two nights.
I look forward to what God will continue to do in the Kingdom of Cambodia through my NGO and our many partners.