I was terrified when I heard the banging and loud voices outside our home. Our family had heard rumors they might be coming for my father, but we tried not to worry. He was a professor, after all, and the new regime wanted to rid our country of intellectuals, anyone who might question their authority or their methods of implementing the new rule.
It was 1975, and my family lived in a small town in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party of Cambodia, had taken control of the country, and the leader, Pol Pot, wanted to transform our culture and economy into a society based on farming. That sounded all well and good, but it was bad news for families like mine, whose dad made a living as a teacher and a scholar.
The pounding grew louder.
“Come out, now!” The voices cried.
My father burst into the room. “Silas! Get up! Let’s go!”
“Father, what is happening?”
“They have come for us,” my father said simply. As we hurried through the house with my mother and sister, my father whispered, “Whatever happens, remember to be brave and strong. They can control many things, but they can’t control our minds.”
Those were the last words he spoke to us. Once we ran out of the house, the soldiers grabbed my father, forced him to his knees, and blindfolded him. It was the last time I saw him. I was 8 years old.
Soon, our family was separated. My brother and I were taken to a re-education camp, where the Khmer Rouge taught us to be soldiers. I didn’t see my family for four years, until the Vietnamese liberated the country. When we were reunited, my father was missing. We knew he was most likely executed in the “killing fields,” the genocide that took the lives of more than 1 million Cambodians.
By the time I reunited with my family, I was 12 and hardened by what I had seen. We moved to a camp in Thailand, hoping for passage to the U.S. as refugees. There I learned the identity of the man who gave my father’s name to the Khmer Rouge. He was my father’s best friend.
For years, I nursed the anger and hatred toward the man who sealed the death warrant for my dad. Even after I became a Christian in the camp, I prayed that God would help me find a way to kill him and not get caught. I knew I could kill him, but I needed God’s help to not get caught.
But my prayers brought no peace. “Why do you want to kill him?” God seemed to ask. “What about his children? What about his family? Do you want his children to go through what you went through?”
I couldn’t answer those questions, so I stopped plotting the man’s death. I left his fate to God alone, trusting Him for revenge.
Time passed. My family moved to the United States. I finished high school, college, and seminary. I met the woman who would be my wife. Both of us felt called to share God’s love and forgiveness — the love and forgiveness we had experienced — with those who had never heard in hard-to-reach places around the world.
I told God I would go anywhere. Anywhere, except Cambodia. I did not want to go back to Cambodia.
But my wife convinced me otherwise. “You know Cambodia is where God wants us,” she said. “Why don’t you just surrender to Him?”
So I did. As much as I wanted to leave Cambodia in my past, I told God I would follow Him there for the sake of sharing His Good News.
Then, my mother called. She had learned that the man who betrayed my father had become a Christian and was living in California. She traveled there to meet him and found him in a church service.
My first thought on hearing the news was something of a prayer: “God! You were supposed to kill him,” I thought.
Instead, I asked my mother, “What happened?”
“I sat down next to him and introduced myself,” my mother said. “I told him I had forgiven him.”
“What did he do? What did he say?” I asked her still not believing this had taken place.
“He began to cry.”
At that moment, my heart broke. My mother’s call was confirmation to me that God wanted me to go back to Cambodia.
I had seen so much evil, so much hatred and felt so much anger. I had learned from a young age that we all have the power to end life. I saw it when the Khmer Rouge trained me as a soldier, and I felt it when I learned of my father’s death. We can kill with a weapon, and we can kill with a word.
But forgiveness is more powerful than evil. Forgiveness, I realized, provides us the power to restore life — to give back lives broken by evil and hate. That’s what my mother had done. By practicing the forgiveness she had experienced from God, she had restored this man’s life, and to some degree, mine as well.
As my mother’s words sunk in, I thanked God for preventing me from taking that man’s life all those years ago, so that he could experience the same love and forgiveness I had experienced and now hoped to share with others.
Only God can do that.
By Ann Lovell. Based on a true story.