A Wounded Heart

When faith is stretched to the limit


Dr. David Thompson is the son of martyred missionaries Ed and Ruth Thompson and the son-in-law of kidnapped missionary Archie Mitchell (see alife, November 2008). His parents’ deaths galvanized his desire to become a missionary doctor in order to bring the gospel to the least-reached and hurting.

For 16 of the 17 years my parents ministered in Cambodia, we lived in the eastern provincial capital of Kratie. Cambodia was solidly Buddhist. After its independence from the French, the government paid lip service to religious freedom, but the new governor told my father he could no longer hold church services in the town. On a map of the province, he drew a circle inside of which my father could not preach the gospel. The nearest community outside of that circle was the tiny village of Kabal Chua, 12 kilometers away. That’s where my parents planted their first church.

Taking Root

After 10 years the church had grown to about 40 adult believers. Then, the Mnong people living in the mountains east of Kratie invited my parents to preach to them. The Cambodian Alliance Church assigned a pastor named Kru On to lead the church in Kabal Chua, freeing my parents to travel six months of the year in the lands of the Mnong.

My father was a foot taller than Kru On, and the two came from different worlds, but they became fast friends. Kru On married and then fathered five children, the youngest a shy little girl named Lydia. With my father’s help, the church built Kru On and his family a fine wooden house on 10-foot mahogany posts.

By 1964 the war between North and South Vietnam had escalated. Ho Chi Minh, the Communist ruler of North Vietnam, allied with China to pressure Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the ruler of Cambodia, to open his country for a network of roads from southern Laos to the Mekong delta area in South Vietnam. In the year that followed, an endless stream of trucks, tanks, arms and hundreds of thousands of soldiers flowed down the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” into Vietnam to fight American and South Vietnamese forces. When the U.S. Air Force bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1965, Prince Sihanouk demanded that all Americans leave the country.

Three weeks later, our family sadly said goodbye to the little group of Christians at Kabal Chua, including Pastor Kru On and his family. By then, Lydia was six or seven years old. None of us had the slightest inkling about the catastrophe that would engulf Cambodia.

Dark Days

Kru On was still the pastor 10 years later, when the Khmer Rouge took over the city and province of Kratie. After brutally “cleansing” Kratie of everyone who had more than a tenth grade education, the Khmer Rouge arrived in Kabal Chua and called a meeting. When the people had gathered, the Khmer Rouge assured them that if they did as they were told, they could farm, fish in the nearby Mekong and live the way they always had. The only exception was that the Buddhists and Christians could no longer hold meetings.

The Christians closed the doors of their church, but their meetings moved into their houses. Six months later, the Buddhists in the village complained to the Khmer Rouge; the soldiers rounded up the church elders and publicly shot them. Then they collected Bibles from the martyrs’ homes and publicly burned them. Kru On and his family were required to watch the executions and the burnings, and Kru On was told that unless he wanted the same fate, he could not teach the Bible.

The house meetings stopped, but Kru On did not. Secretly he went at night to the homes of the surviving Christians or preached to them in the fields from God’s Word. Eventually, a villager betrayed him. The Khmer Rouge returned one morning and marched Kru On into the rice field behind his house. As his wife and children screamed, a soldier put his gun to the pastor’s head and shot him. Later that week, the Khmer Rouge burned the church down and gave the property to a neighbor.

Worn by Struggle

A few years later, Kru On’s wife died. About that time, Vietnam swept the Khmer Rouge out of power. Except for Lydia, Kru On’s children left the village and returned to nominal Buddhism. She was the only vestige of Christianity in Kabal Chua, and her faith was a flickering candle. She had not heard or read God’s Word since the Khmer Rouge had murdered her father and destroyed the last of their Bibles. Lydia eventually married the son of one of the martyred elders. Over the next 25 years, the couple raised three children, all of whom followed Buddha.

As Cambodia began to rebuild, so did the Church of Jesus Christ. In the mid-1990s, Cambodian Christians began meeting in a home in Kratie. A few years later, an American missionary arrived and preached to large crowds. People began turning to faith in Christ. They built the first of two Christian churches that took root and eventually prospered. Then the Christians began traveling to the villages around them.

One day a team of Cambodian Christians held a public service in Kabal Chua. Several listeners decided to follow Christ and began meeting together in a house 50 yards from Lydia. Surprised and pleased, Lydia joined them.

Fifteen years after her last pregnancy, Lydia gave birth to another son, one that she was determined to raise as a Christian. She became so deeply attached to the child that her life began to revolve around him. Gradually, she drifted away from the small group of Christians down the road.

One summer day, her son complained of a headache. A fever developed, and although they knew he should see a doctor, she and her husband had no money. She prayed to God, and while the youth did not grow worse, he did not get better. The illness dragged on, and then the boy suddenly died.

Lydia was devastated. Her world had ended, and she felt betrayed. Overwhelmed with guilt and sorrow, she could not eat or sleep. Her husband’s grief turned into anger against her, especially after his Buddhist relatives and neighbors suggested that the boy had died because Lydia had refused to let her husband make annual sacrifices to the local spirits. For a week, Lydia’s friends and neighbors came to “comfort” her by urging her to give up her faith in Christ.

The small group of believers came to pray and encourage Lydia, too, but she felt that God had let her son die. Did He even exist? To the believers’ dismay, she agreed to a Buddhist funeral.

Front-Porch Reunion

One week later, my wife, Becki, and I arrived in Kratie with our daughter, Rachael. I had been away for 39 years and knew nothing of Lydia’s story. A missionary couple in town suggested we visit the village of Kabal Chua with Srung, a young evangelist who met weekly with the Christians there.

Srung directed us the next morning as we drove to the village. It was more crowded than I remembered, and the Mekong River had eroded nearly 100 yards of the town away. There was now a house where the church once stood. Kru On’s house looked the way I remembered it, standing next to the well that my father and the other Christians had dug by hand in 1958. As we walked toward the front porch, we saw a thin, middle-aged woman, slightly less than five feet tall. She looked at us in surprise, clearly frightened. Srung explained in Cambodian who we were and why we had come. Her hand flew to her mouth, and her eyes widened in surprise.

Srung told Rachael (the only one of us who spoke Cambodian well) that this was Lydia, Kru On’s youngest daughter. When Rachael translated for us, I was too overcome with emotion to offer anything but a greeting in Cambodian. Quickly regaining her composure, Lydia invited us onto her porch.

We sat on the porch floor, as is customary, and with the help of my daughter, for the next 45 minutes I answered Lydia’s quiet questions about my parents, my brothers and my sisters. She wiped away tears as she told us that she had cried for a long time when she heard my parents had been killed in Banmethuot in 1968. In answer to my questions about her family, she slowly explained all that had happened. Several times tears rolled down her cheeks and fell onto the polished floor boards.

A Shared Journey

When she stopped, Srung asked her if he could tell us about the death of her son. She stiffened and turned her head, but after a moment turned back to him and slowly nodded. As he told us the story, Lydia wiped her eyes repeatedly and her shoulders sagged. We expressed our sorrow and sympathy, but she said nothing, tears flowing from her eyes. I decided to tell her my story.

For the next hour, as Rachael translated, I shared what God had done for me and my siblings. I explained how initially I had been furious with God for failing to protect my parents. But then God had challenged me to trust Him without understanding what He was doing. I finally gave in, and God replaced my sorrow with joy. In the years that followed, God overwhelmed me with His love and kindness. Lydia listened, tears now streaming onto her lap. Still, she said nothing.

When I ran out of things to say, I stopped. I wished I could think of a way to help her, something that would break through her sorrow. Srung talked with her for another 10 minutes, urging Lydia to return to God. She listened quietly, nodding slightly, but remained silent.

I prayed for her in English, and Srung prayed for her in Cambodian. Then we took pictures of us together by the well, promised to send her copies and gave her a small gift.

That was four years ago. Someday soon I hope to find out the end of the story and give her those pictures. What I know for certain is that God brought me all the way from Central Africa at the moment of Lydia’s greatest pain to tell her about His great love.

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