By Mark Ellis
Raised in a nominally Buddhist family in Cambodia with eight siblings, Sam Prum had only minimal exposure to Christianity through a young missionary who planted seeds in his hometown in 1963.
After the Cambodian civil war broke out in 1970, he joined the navy and was one of only four men sent to the U.S. for training. But during his time in America the notorious Khmer Rouge toppled his government. Led by Pol Pot, they began to model their governing style after Mao’s China.
The Khmer Rouge forced people out of the cities, and sent them on forced marches to rural work camps for “re-education.” They demanded the entire population of 2.3 million vacate the capital of Phnom Penh within three days, including the elderly, children, monks, doctors and nurses, hospital patients, wounded and sick people, even mothers who had just given birth.
They said they would be leaving for a few days, but the evacuation turned into a three-year nightmare. Nearly everyone was either executed, faced starvation, or was worked to death. During their violent rule, 2.5 million perished — almost a third of the population — in what became known as the Cambodian genocide.
The horrific ordeal was memorialized in the award-winning Hollywood film “The Killing Fields.”
A navy without a country
In April 1975, while Sam was stationed in San Diego, his American commander called him in unexpectedly. “You are a navy without a country,” he announced, to Sam’s shock and surprise.
With Cambodia in chaos, Sam was given 24 hours to make a fateful decision: return to his country or stay in America.
Sam chose to stay in the U.S., even though he had lost contact with his family and knew that he might not see them again. It was a lonely time, and he battled his emotions as he sought direction.
He didn’t know that behind the scenes, the wife of the commander began to pray in her women’s Bible study for the four displaced Cambodians – that they would find a good Christian home.
Improbably, Tom and Joan Monck heard the prayer request and decided to take all four Cambodian men into their home on Balboa Island in Orange County.
A new home
“They asked their two children to sleep in the living room and we slept in their bedrooms,” Sam recalls. “Joan cooked for us and fed us.”
Tom, who worked as general manager at Hollywood Sporting Goods, arranged for the four Cambodians to work at the company’s warehouse in Pasadena.
“Every morning Tom drove us to work in Pasadena, then he drove to his office in Hollywood, then back to Balboa Island at the end of the day.” The daily commute was 125 miles.
On Sunday mornings, Tom and Joan took the four Cambodians to Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, led by Pastor Chuck Smith.
After several months, Tom and Joan found a two-bedroom apartment for the men in Pasadena, paid for their first month’s rent and security deposit, then stocked the kitchen, refrigerator and freezer with food.
When Sam walked into their new apartment and saw what they had done, he was overwhelmed. “Whoa, this is something else!” he exclaimed.
He suddenly realized, This great love they showed us is something we can never pay back.
A few months later Sam met his future wife, Kim. They married in 1976 and eventually moved to Anaheim.
One day Kim came to him and told him about a new Cambodian church starting in Garden Grove. Kim went to visit and discovered that many of their friends and neighbors were attending. She asked Sam to go, but he seemed disinterested.
“I wasn’t looking for God or a church,” Sam admits. Reluctantly, he agreed to attend with her because he wanted to “recruit soldiers to go back to Cambodia and fight for freedom and democracy.”
A reluctant church visit
As Sam sat in the pews, something remarkable happened that he considers a miracle. He suddenly realized the interim pastor of the church looked very familiar to him. It was the same missionary who visited his village in Cambodia 32 years earlier!
Eugene Hall, affiliated with Christian and Missionary Alliance, began to preach from John 3:16, then he moved to Romans 3:23; 5:8, and Acts 4:12.
The Word of God penetrated Sam’s heart. He considered how improbable it was to hear this sermon from a man connected to his distant past.
Then the Spirit of the Living God fell on Sam and tears began to fall. “I realized I didn’t know God and I was against God, that I am a sinner,” he recalls.
He recognized how much God loved him and had demonstrated His love in powerful ways, but Sam had been blind to God’s love. “I was really a sinful man. I asked God to forgive me for what I had done.
Now I know that You sent me to Tom and Joan and showed me Your great love. You planned that season and loved me before I knew You, he thought.
God opened Sam’s heart to believe and he was born again. “Thank you for who You are and for saving me!” he exclaimed. His wife Kim also came to faith at the same time.
A year later, Sam located his family in a refugee camp in Thailand and was able to bring his mother, three brothers, and one sister to the United States. “I became an elder in the church in Garden Grove and one-by-one my family came to Christ,” he says.
In 1995 Sam made his first trip back to Cambodia with a Korean friend. When he saw the hunger among the people for God, he wept. “We need to come back,” he told his friend.
They returned two years later to put on a three-day evangelistic crusade. While it is not easy to get a government permit for such an event, friendship with the lieutenant governor — his former classmate – helped mightily.
More than 5,000 showed up for the outreach. “Only God knows how many thousands turned to Christ,” he says. Since then Sam has organized more than a dozen crusades in different parts of Cambodia.
Looking back, he marvels at the way God preserved his life from the ‘Killing Fields’ and revealed His great love — in so many powerful ways.
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