I met Sam Om (real name Om Sam-El) in 1991. We were both starting new churches in Charlotte and we decided to partner together. Every so often our churches would get together and share a meal. His folks would bring delicious home-cooked Cambodian dishes, and we would bring our store-bought American stuff, and we would eat together and share the joy of cross-cultural Christian fellowship.
If you've seen the movie "The Killing Fields," you've seen Sam's story. He escaped the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and spent several months living in a squalid refugee camp on the Thai border. He was filled with anger and hate towards his people and his home country. One day he heard that if you become a Christian you stand a better chance of becoming a UN refugee and being relocated to the United States. So he told his mother and sister to go to the missionaries and become Christians. He wanted nothing to do with it, but he did want to get out of Southeast Asia.
Sam's mother and sister came back to their hut with a Bible. Sam took the Bible and used the pages to roll cigarettes. He smoked about half the Bible until one day he read a verse that stopped him cold. Sam would say later that when the hate in his heart met the love in this verse it was like an explosion.
The verse? "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but receive everlasting life."
One thing led to another and Sam became a Christian (for real, not by convenience), and he made it to the US. But he still wanted nothing to do with Cambodia. And yet he kept hearing a voice that said, "But what about your people?" Eventually his heart was changed and he became a pastor to reach Cambodians with the gospel of Christ.
Sam was ordained in the Christian Missionary Alliance (CMA). When I met him in '91 he was "on loan" to First UMC in Charlotte where he started the Cambodian Mission Church. We became fast friends. And by the end of the decade, he had taken me on a mission trip to Cambodia. That's where I got the teaching-pastors-overseas bug.
Sam's ultimate goal from the day I met him was to return to his home country as a missionary. He became convinced that the best way to do that was through the General Board of Missions (GBGM) of the Untied Methodist Church. Thus began an arduous journey--earning a Masters degree, passing the UM Board of Ministry exams, becoming an ordained elder ... and then the long candidacy process of the GBGM. In the midst of all that, Sam had serious heart surgery that might have derailed his dream.
But earlier this year I got an email with the good news: Sam, his wife Syvanny, and their daughter Caroline, are going to Cambodia!
Sam's official title is Director of Educational Resource Development for the Methodist Mission in Cambodia. That's a fancy title, and I'm not sure what all it means, but the bottom line is this: Yesterday at Annual Conference, Sam was officially commissioned.
A 23-year dream is coming true.
Sam is going to Cambodia!