The killing fields of Cambodia saw hundreds of thousands perish due to disease, starvation, and execution. Christopher LaPel lost his family but found salvation in Christ through the terrible ordeal. He has returned to his native land many times to encourage and train local Christians, and through his work, more than 200 churches have been started. Christopher is senior pastor of the Golden West Christian Church in Los Angeles, California, where he has served for 20 years. Golden West conducts worship services in five languages each Sunday. He is a graduate of Hope International University and has been married to Vanna, whom he met in a Thai refugee camp, for 29 years.
Describe your young life.
When I was a teenager my dad was a Brahman priest who was working at the royal house with Prince Sihanouk. My dad would often take me to the palace and let me hang around with the royal kids.
Did you know anything about Christianity?
One day at the palace I went down to the basement and there was a master craftsman who did ivory inlay. I saw him carving ivory and I asked him to make me a cross. At that time I was not a Christian, and I didn”t know what the cross meant. I don”t know why I liked the cross, but when I put the cross on my neck I felt like I was safe. The ivory cross was like a “super power” to me. It represented power.
As a Buddhist priest, how did your Father react to that?
One day while our family had supper (a typical Cambodian family had lunch or dinner on a mat, with the food placed in the center of the family), I reached to pick up food and the ivory cross hanging around my neck fell forward. My dad, when he saw the cross, raised his voice and cursed at me. He pulled me and said, “You shouldn”t wear the cross. Remember we are a Buddhist family, we don”t want you to wear the cross.” I didn”t even know what it meant.
What happened to your family when the Khmer Rouge came to power?
When the Khmer Rouge came to power, on April 17, 1975, many civilians who lived in the cities moved to rural areas. My family and I moved from the capital, Phnom Penh, to northwest Cambodia, Battambang Province, to run away from the “killing fields.” The Khmer Rouge were taking people away at night and interrogating them: “Who are you? Where did you come from? What did you do in the past?” It was scary.
How did they determine whom to target?
Anyone who had been in the former government””dead. Anyone in broadcasting””dead. Anyone with education””dead. Our family was separated; we could not live together. I heard that my dad died because the Khmer Rouge worked him to death. He was an old man, so instead of killing him they let him work until death. My mom, the same thing. My sister, when they found out she was in broadcasting in Phnom Penh, they killed her. Then my brother, the fourth person in my family, they killed him two weeks before the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia.
How did you survive?
I had been to college for two years, but I acted like I had no education. I worked 14 to 16 hours a day without food, sunrise to sunset. I lost a lot of weight””70 pounds in that time. Two-thirds of my friends died of either execution, malnutrition, overwork, or disease. One time I was very ill, I had a high fever””I”m not sure if I had malaria or typhoid, but I had missed work for three or four days. During that time, missing work for a couple days meant you were useless to the Khmer Rouge, they didn”t want to keep you.
You were very close to death””either from sickness or by their hand.
We knew, during this time, if someone calls you during the night you would die. One night they called me to meet the Khmer Rouge comrade to ask why I was missing work. I knelt down, shaking from fever, when one of them put his hand on my chest and my head. He opened my shirt and touched my ivory cross. At that moment I heard a voice, I”m not sure who, say, “This guy is really sick, we need to let him go take a rest.” I came back to my hut and thought. there”s something about my cross, it”s amazing!
At what point did you muster the courage to flee?
I was terrified because of the killing fields. Every day I saw the Khmer Rouge killing people. I can still hear the voices of people begging for their lives or being tortured before they were killed. I thought, it”s better to die somewhere in the forest than to have somebody kill me. I ran to the border of Thailand; it was not too far from the place that I lived.
How did you avoid being caught?
I had to run at night, in the jungle, by moonlight””but not if the moon was too full. We could not move in the daytime; the soldiers would see us.
Where did you go once you crossed into Thailand?
I came to a refugee camp in early 1979. It was a place called Christian Outreach. They provided food supplements to orphans and widows. They could not help me because I was a man, so they asked me to volunteer, either translating or serving people.
And this is where you found out what the cross truly meant.
The first day I walked in I heard one of the ladies share that Jesus Christ died on the cross. At that moment I gave my life to the Lord Jesus Christ and accepted him as my Lord, my Savior. I went to touch my cross and it was gone. I had lost the ivory cross, but I found Christ in my heart! I said, “Lord, you are the One that spared my life. I give my life to you and I will serve you no matter what, no matter where I go.”
After relocating in the U.S. as a refugee you returned to Cambodia as a missionary.
I had been doing mission work in Cambodia, planting churches there and preparing the mission field, because I knew all these Cambodian refugees who had been in camps in Thailand for 10 years-plus would someday return to Cambodia. In the refugee camps I taught them and baptized them.
How did you get a start establishing so many churches in Cambodia?
I got the names of over a hundred Christian families who had lived in Green Hill Refugee Camp for over 10 years on the Thai-Cambodian border. I said, “If you want to go back to Cambodia you need to go as a Christian group, because if you go as a group it”s easier to maintain your faith, your fellowship, your worship. You can practice your faith as a Christian group. You can get away from execution and persecution. The Cambodian people are Buddhist and it”s hard to maintain your faith with persecution by your family and friends. But if you go as a group it”s better.” So 150 Christian families returned to Battambang in 1991.
Do people still fear of the government? Does that affect how they respond to the gospel?
We don”t worry about that. From 150 Christian families, they spread to seven churches to 14, to 34, to 57. We prayed and equipped them, and after two weeks they said, “I have to go and share Christ with my family!” We do not fear about our ministry, but we wanted our Cambodian government to recognize us as a Christian group in Cambodia.
Has that happened?
I brought all the Christian churches in Cambodia to officially register with the government, so they would have a right to teach, preach, baptize, and plant churches. The government said, You cannot register. We cannot grant a permit. We said we don”t want to break the law. But when God leads your work, God will provide what you need. I had breakfast with my friends in Long Beach, California, where I live. We went to a Cambodian restaurant, and I heard the name “Mr. Chea Savoeun.” He is the minister of the Department of Religion in Cambodia and he is from Long Beach!
Were you able to connect with him?
When I went to Phnom Penh, I went to the Department of Religion and asked for Mr. Chea Savoeun and said I am his friend from Long Beach. I asked him to come to our Leadership Training Institute in Battambang to pass out certificates for us. After we prayed for two weeks he finally accepted my invitation. We had some former guerillas, some Khmer Rouge, and he heard the testimony of our leaders and how God changed their lives. He said, “I like your ministry. I would like to grant you a permit.” This permit was granted by the government so that we have a right to preach, to teach, to baptize, and plant churches.
How is the church in Cambodia different from the church in the U.S?
The church in Cambodia is a lot of different because the cultural geography is a lot different. In Cambodia life is hard; here it is much easier. In Cambodia, where life is hard, people depend on God more; here people depend on materialism. In Cambodia, when faced with problems, you need wisdom and help and you depend on God. The church there, they move rapidly because the excitement of when you find Christ, you can”t hide, you want to go tell your family and friends, you”re so excited. Here people don”t want to offend somebody. It”s a lot different.
With a recent history of civil war there must be some people you know who have had incredible life change.
I work with a lot of former Khmer Rouge fighters. We had a former Khmer Rouge division commander who led 15,000 Khmer Rouge soldiers who is now a pastor with us. I never ask them about their past, but they reveal themselves after they establish trust. My heart just wants to share God”s love with them. I don”t need to ask them about their background. My job is just to share Christ, teach them, and train them.
Which work do you love doing most””Cambodia or Los Angeles?
Both. When you lead someone to Christ or you baptize someone, it pays you back to see how people respond to the good news. I love my work both here and in Cambodia. This church (in Los Angeles) was very committed from day one, and now we have been doing ministry for 20 years.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund,Â Irvine, California.