BY PR. HANG DARA, AS TOLD TO JULIA O'CAREY
Life was too hard in Cambodia; between Sokhom and me, we lost a total of 25 close family members in the war. It was 1981. Two months after our wedding day, my new bride and I set out on a dangerous journey to create a new life together. Destination? Norng Samet Refugee Camp, Thailand. I had heard they offered free medical training there, and becoming a doctor was my lifelong dream. There was no such opportunity amidst the chaos of my war-torn country.
It was through my quest to study nursing that I first met Mother Judy. She was part of the SAWS (Seventh-day Adventist World Service) group who came to recruit young people like me. I’ll never forget her sweet smile and words of encouragement: “You can do it, Dara, I know you can! Jesus will help you.” And I was one of the few who passed the entrance exam! But even more amazing than that was the Jesus who helped me.
The only god I knew was Buddha, but he hadn’t helped me or my family. I discovered personally that Jesus was not only powerful enough to help with my exam, but He was the Savior and Creator of the world. Jesus made my life bearable. He loved me and healed my heart. He gave me hope. I studied hard and became a physician’s assistant, but my real job was as a volunteer lay pastor for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Lord sent me to four different camps during my time as a refugee. I led church planting efforts in Bang Pho Camp (270 church members), Site II Camp (200 church members), Ban Thad Camp (150 church members) and Kao I Dang Camp (250 church members). Nothing gave me more joy and satisfaction than preaching the Word of God to my people.
In June 1992, we were suddenly told to board buses headed back to Cambodia. We experienced a mixture of fear, traumatic memories, anticipation, and disappointment that we did not get the chance, after 11 years of waiting, to repatriate to a safe, new country. We went back to Kampong Cham, and I felt blessed to secure a well-paying job as a human rights officer for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). One evening after work, I was heading home when I saw two slender American ladies standing on the side of the road. I did a double take. Those ladies look a lot like Mother Judy and Mary Ann McNeilus, but it can’t be! I thought. Maybe I’m just missing them. But a strong impression compelled me to turn around and go back to them. I can’t explain how unexpected and joyful our reunion was!
“What are you doing here?” I asked Mother Judy incredulously. “We are here to find you,” she simply said. “How did you know I was here?” I asked, stunned. “We didn’t! We just prayed and God led us to you,” Mother Judy responded with a smile. I immediately invited them home and praised the Lord for their safety. Even locals wouldn’t travel the route from Phnom Penh after 2:00 PM because of the Khmer Rouge and the many dangers along the way. It touched my heart that they would risk their lives to come find me. “But why?” I wondered. I found out soon enough.
Mother Judy earnestly looked me in the eyes and said, “Dara, do you remember your promise to God before you left the refugee camp?” “Yes,” I said sheepishly. “But I have a contract with UNTAC. I can’t work for God right now.” “Is your contract with humans more important than your contract with God?” Mother Judy gently prodded. I decided at that moment to return to serving the Lord with all my heart, and I never looked back. I became a field secretary, assisting the Mission President with church planting and searching for believers who had left the church; after that, I worked as a pastor, and now I serve as the Secretary of Cambodia Adventist Mission.
In 2005, as the district pastor in Phnom Penh West, I carried a heavy burden in my heart for the children living in the slums next to the garbage dump. It broke my heart to see them digging through the garbage instead of attending school. I shared this burden with Mother Judy and Julia and brought them to the slums to see the situation for themselves. I asked if ASAP could start a school where these children could receive a Christian education. ASAP hadn’t done anything like this before, but they liked the idea.
We started with a small group of children on the bamboo porch of a church member’s home. Unfortunately, they did not come for long. Soon we found out why: their parents needed them to find garbage to recycle or they wouldn’t have enough food to survive each day. We started feeding them a meal each day, and that solved the problem. Today, many children and their parents have been baptized and a church has been planted nearby.
To this day I have never regretted my decision to serve the Lord, and I am eternally grateful to Mother Judy for letting God use her to bring me back to ministry, and to guide and support me both before and after that time. When I hear the name ASAP Ministries, I think of Mother Judy, because she cared not only for me, but also the children in the slums and many others. I praise the Lord that this legacy of love for the least in Cambodia continues today through the many church plants and schools supported by ASAP and its donors.