From Killing Fields to Mission Field
He was the most feared gang leader of the most powerful gang in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia . . . and he was barely a teenager!
When Sopheak Kheng was born in Cambodia in 1981, he was born into a world where fear and death were palpable. The Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's reign of genocidal terror, where anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million men, women, and children were brutally slaughtered (1975-1979) and buried in mass graves, had only been over a relatively short period of time.
"I grew up learning how to use a gun almost before I could walk," Kheng recalls. Knowing how to protect yourself had become nearly an instinct for Cambodians. Kheng says that he had few relatives survive the "killing fields" as 13 of his mother's brothers and sisters were killed, and he has no surviving grandparents, as they too were executed.
Kheng says that when he was born, the violence had not come to an end. Corruption was in full force and protection came by way of who you knew or what gang you belonged to. For Kheng, he was "fortunate" that his father was in a powerful position in the military, affording him protection and carte blanche to do whatever he pleased.
With bodyguards at his disposal, Kheng would start and become the leader of the most powerful gang in Phnom Penh at the age of 10. He led them for four years. "I was the smallest guy, but the big boss," Kheng says. "Everyone was afraid of me because I always had three or four body guards with me. And because of my father's position, the police left us [his gang] alone."
Kheng says his gang was involved in extortion and fought with other gangs for control of the city. "Although I never killed anyone, I've seen a lot of death and had members of my gang die in my arms," Kheng says.
However, just as Kheng entered his early teens and was preparing to flex his "muscle" as a feared leader, something unexpected took place.
Kheng's aunt had started taking English as a second language classes, and she invited him to attend. Unknown to Kheng at the time, the man giving the lessons was an AG world missionary. At first Kheng refused her invitations, but the more he thought about the value of learning English, the more the idea appealed to him.
"I went to the class, but the man wasn't teaching ABCs, he was telling this story about this guy named Jesus," Kheng recalls. "It was the craziest story because it would never end -- I kept having to go back. It went from one day to one week to one month to six months and the story never stopped!"
Without even realizing it, the time Kheng spent "learning English" had begun to take up more and more of his time. In fact, he spent so much time there, that his gang started looking for him, fearing something had happened to him.
Kheng explains that at this time, no one had cell phones, and since no one could find him or contact him, he slowly became detached from the majority of his gang and it moved on without him . . . except for those that he started inviting to come "learn English" with him.
In a relatively short time, Kheng was convinced by the message he was hearing and chose to give his life to Christ -- along with a few of his gang member friends! He would then invite his sister, brother, and mother to come to the classes, who would also give their lives to Christ.
"Our family was the first family to attend the first Cambodian Assembly of God church," Kheng says. "They all came to the English classes, they all learned about Jesus Christ, they all became part of the church as first generation Christians -- except for my dad."
Kheng says the family walked a fine line with his father, who was still a member of the Communist party and in the military. "When he found out that our family went to church, he was so mad, he came to the church and people were jumping out the windows and doors because they were afraid he was going to send them to prison."
But in 1993, things changed. A catastrophic storm struck Cambodia, with thousands killed. During the storm, Kheng's family prayed. "We prayed together and the Holy Spirit came upon us and we were speaking in tongues," he recalls. "We prayed specifically for our father -- and sure enough, he tells us the next day that he's quitting the army to stay at home."
Kheng's father started reading the Bible and God started to change his heart, and one day he went to the church and gave his life to Christ. He would go on to attend a newly established Bible school and become the minister of the very church he had wanted to destroy only a few years earlier.
As his father studied to become a minister, Kheng and the family studied along with him. Kheng would become the church's youth ministry leader and head up the worship team. He also assisted in planting several churches in and around Phnom Penh. God would later call Kheng to learn Chinese and plant a Chinese church in Cambodia.
When God called Kheng to go into the jungle along the Laotian border as a missionary, people thought he had gone crazy, as the danger to his life was all too real. He would spend more than two years there reaching out to the jungle villagers. "They didn't want to hear about the gospel or anything to do with the gospel," Kheng says. "Many villagers wanted to kill me, and I'm not talking just two or three. And they attempted to kill me many times, but I was ready to die for Christ."
When Kheng left, having felt God's call to the United States with his new wife, Amy, almost 50 percent of the village had become Christians and anywhere from 80 to 130 people attended Sunday worship services.
Amy explains that she had been serving overseas in Laos for two years and in Cambodia for three years. When she met Sopheak Kheng, she discovered a man who's heart and calling reflected her own.
Today, Sopheak is an AG minister and Amy is a U.S. missionary under AG U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries reaching out to the nearly 60,000 Cambodians who call the Long Beach, California, area their home.
"We discovered that for many Cambodian Christians, their theology is not pure as they mix Christianity with animism," Amy says. "So, by participating in local events, we do our best to demonstrate the love of Christ and teach them about Jesus -- even when they don't realize it."
Sopheak admits that at first, the efforts to reach Cambodians was extremely difficult, with doors figuratively and literally being closed in their faces, time after time. Discouraged to the point of quitting, God suddenly began to open doors of opportunity and although their ministry is still establishing its roots, Sopheak finds himself in a number of highly regarded positions within the Cambodian community, giving him recognition and the ability and permission to speak into people's lives.
Amy believes that she and Sopheak are on the cusp of an incredible work of God in the area, recognizing that through the power of the Holy Spirit, the hold Satan has on so many lives through animism, can be broken and lives transformed. "Our prayer is to help them [Cambodian Christians] have more trust in God, so the power of the Holy Spirit can fill them, transform them, and use them for His glory."
"Eight years ago, when God called us to the U.S., I asked, 'God, are You crazy'?" Sopheak says with a laugh. "I don't know the culture, the language, the food, or the people . . . , but now I'm working with the city council and government, we have four house churches, I'm a counselor, a pastor, I have my masters, and I'm working on a M.Div [Master of Divinity degree]. I think back and thank God for sending that missionary to Cambodia, for without him, my life would not have changed."
Pictured: Sopheak Kheng (right) prepares to baptize Viset, a former gang member