Simon Still Carries the Cross,Part 1

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I asked Simon if I could tell his story to my friends who pray for his people, the Great River People. When I told him I would change his name to protect him, he asked to be named after Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross. This is Simon’s story, translated as literally as possible.

Simon tilted his head, squinted and stretched out some fingers for emphasis. “There are a lot of us,” he said. “Some of my siblings are dead, and some are still alive. There are three boys — no, four — and two girls. How many is that? We are all pure Great River People born in Palm Village, except for one sister who has a Khmer mom. My dad left my mom for her on one of his trips selling wood in Phnom Penh.

“Second grade was all the schooling I received. People thought knowing how to read was enough for a village boy. Why spend time in school pursuing empty dreams if you end up farming rice anyway? I did not have a bike to go to school like other kids. My family needed me to lead our cows out to graze.

“Before long, recruiters came to our village. They said my friends and I would get free tuition and allowance if we went to the Taffi Muslim school outside Phnom Penh. They told us that any student who memorized the Quran would go to heaven with their whole family. It sounded good to my mom to have one less mouth to feed. I really tried to memorize the Quran there, sometimes getting half a page a day. My friends who finished memorizing received great honors with feasting and celebration. I did not understand a word of it. I had no idea there was anything else beyond rice, cows and Arabic.

“After a few years, I quit school because nothing was sinking in anymore. My friends were finishing the whole Quran, and I had only finished a relatively small portion. My dad was so angry.
“I did odd jobs for a while, then went to work on a fishing boat in Thailand. I soon picked up enough Thai to get around. We would work on the deck from five in the evening until five in the morning, and our bosses pushed us past what we could handle. After several years, ten of us decided to break our contract and run away. That means we did not get our passports, which were kept in the office to prevent us from leaving. We smuggled ourselves into Malaysia in boxes and bags, choosing only roads without police. We were true refugees! None of us spoke a word of Malay, but a Khmer man we met at the border town helped us. He set us up with jobs that did not need a passport.

“I did every kind of job — mostly working in various factories. I did not learn any Malay because I lived and worked with Khmers. That is where I learned Khmer better than ever. (Great River People are a minority in Cambodia, having their own language. The uneducated ones often do not speak Khmer well.) I think I went to Malaysia in 2014 since that is the year Germany won the world cup. They beat Argentina by one shot.

“I returned home about the age my friends were graduating from High School. They had scholarships to study Islam in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Malaysia. I was not jealous of their opportunity to study Islam overseas. What I wanted was to finish Khmer high school. A few of my friends encouraged me to request admission. I never did it. I was already too old.

“I got married. We did not get along. My wife was a Muslim teacher, and her father was the village Unkim, the one who officiated weddings and divorces. I told him what was going on and asked him for a divorce. He did not even get mad at me. I still visit him sometimes.

“Christian wedding vows are until death. Islam does not have anything like that. There are only five laws in Islam. Together, they are called Rokon. These laws are prayer, almsgiving, the Hadj, fasting, and the shahada (professing that “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”).

“I was nervous before my wedding because I knew they would quiz me on the five laws of Islam to see if I was ready to be married. That is the only preparation in Islam. And the husband can divorce his wife easily; the wife can never divorce her husband. The husband even has the right to take up to four wives if he can afford it. If his existing wife approves, he will have them under one roof. If not, he will do it in secret.

“My nephew Moses is a Christian. He is a little older than me, but I am actually his uncle. He had a box full of Christian books he kept in my house. Maybe he was afraid to keep them where he lived with his Muslim in-laws. Every once in a while, I would take a book out and browse a little. I was the only one who touched them. It was interesting to read about Adam and Moses and Abraham — all names that a Muslim would know.

“I asked Moses why Christians say that Jesus is God when [according to Muslim belief] he is actually just a human, although a good one, and a prophet. He said, ‘We can call Jesus God because He is God.’”

“I thought my cousin Moses was terribly sinful. Yet, all the while, I was smoking, gambling, drinking, and singing karaoke. We sparred over religion all the time. I went with Moses to church, too. At church, I met a Khmer ASAP church planter named Sovanak, and started wanting to learn more.”

To be continued . . .

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