When Steve Marshall anticipated taking his first mission trip, he imagined sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ among the physically and spiritually impoverished living in village huts.
The North Carolina man never dreamed God would give him opportunity to witness to Cambodia's elite Buddhist monks as well.
Yet, during his first afternoon in Battambang, Marshall, 27, found himself spontaneously standing before an English class that included several robed monks. He and his wife, Stacey, had gone for a stroll to explore the city and stumbled upon the class. The teacher, a Cambodian, asked the American to read aloud from the students' lesson book. Marshall gladly obliged.
Then another mission team member handed Marshall a Bible. Marshall hesitated and quietly asked, "Are you sure it's OK to read this with the m-o-n-k-s here?"
As soon as he began to read the creation account from Genesis 1, Marshall knew that reading the word of God before the Buddhist monks was not only OK but in fact was ordained by God.
One of the monks interrupted Marshall's reading. "Why?" the monk asked with all sincerity.
Why God would create a world and men to walk upon it was an unchartered concept for this monk and his colleagues. To these Buddhists, the world simply came into being by accident when the elements of earth, wind, and fire collided. They can offer no explanation for the source of those elements.
The Marshalls extended an invitation to the class members to come to their hotel in the evenings, beginning the following night, to practice speaking English.
That very night, a knock came unexpectedly at the Marshalls' door. Steve Marshall asked several times for the person to identify himself, but he finally gave up on a satisfactory response and opened the door when all the person could manage to say with limited English was, "It's me; it's me." To their amazement, the Marshalls greeted a group of Buddhist monks.
"When I opened the door there wasn't one of them. There were five," Steve Marshall said. "There was this wave of orange."
The monks from Domrey Sor Monastery had come to hear more. They had come in search of truth.
"The people really are looking for a savior because they know that Buddha has failed them," said Marshall, youth pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, N.C.
The monks often are sick with fever or other ailments. They live in crowded dormitories, sleeping shoulder to shoulder, passing around their illnesses. During the days, they walk long distances to attend and teach classes. They strive to practice good actions. They carry large containers in which people can place alms to earn religious favor. They are poor physically, financially, and spiritually.
"They know that Buddha can't see them. They know that Buddha doesn't hear them. They know that Buddha's dead," Stacey Marshall, 26, said. "They know that malaria, the fever, and so many other things can kill them. They can't get medicine, and then Buddha gives them no hope."
The more the Marshalls shared about Jesus Christ and His uniqueness as the Living God, the more the monks longed to hear. Night after night they came to the Marshalls' hotel. The conversations were comical, as the monks tried to make out the meaning of the English words, and convicting, as the Marshalls realized the opportunity the Lord had set before them.
"The difference between your god and my God is if I do a bad action, He will forgive me. I have to ask," Steve Marshall tried to explain in terms the Khmers could understand. "I'll say, `Lord, please forgive me of my bad action.' And He'll say, `No problem.'"
One of the monks, Yaun Seng Yeath, seemed astonished [Yaun is the family name].
"Your God forgives you," Yaun repeated. "Oh … The Buddha say, `The Buddha cannot forgive,' to his people. If we do the bad action, we will get the bad result.
"No, the Buddha not forgive. Buddha still right, yes?" Yaun asked, seeking reassurance.
The final night the Marshalls were in Battambang, a Khmer Christian, Ek Bunly, was visiting with the Marshalls when the monks arrived. Most Christians would never think to bother to witness to a Buddhist monk, but Ek took the lead from the Marshalls, and, for the first time, the monks heard the gospel in their own language.
"Bunly just told me he looked into many religions, including Buddhism, before he read the Bible and met the true God," Stacey Marshall said. "I told him God was using that to prepare him to minister."
Ek, a church planter with the Khmer Baptist Convention, was excited as he later related what he said to the monks in the Khmer language. "I ask them, 'Do you have hope now? Where is hope? Your hope is in the world? No.'"
Ek challenged the monks with questions, such as, "Who made men? What is the meaning of life, the purpose of people? Why do people have sin? Where do we go when the die?" He also shared John 3:16 and other Scriptures with them.
"They want clear. I make clear to them," Ek said. "They speak on ideas. They speak nothing of the future. I tell them about [how] God came back again."
During the evangelistic trip, hosted by the Khmer Baptist Convention, the Marshalls took part in leading 136 Cambodians to Christ in the villages outside Battambang. To their knowledge, none of the monks made decisions to accept Jesus. Seeds were planted, however, and the monks finally understood that the Bibles the Marshalls had given them were gifts for them to keep.
"OK, if you give me this book for study in English, very OK," Sok Mony Reoun said.
Then Sok stamped a final statement on the hearts of the Marshalls. "OK, when you come here and study Buddhists again, I must speak to you about the God."
Ek promised to follow up with the monks, and, with all confidence in God, he said, "I know one day God [will] separate them from the [other] monks. I know that in my heart."
Buddhist Monk Searches For Hope
Sok Mony Reoun is a soft-spoken 21-year-old Cambodian man with a small, gentle build. He lives in a Buddhist monastery with 80 other monks. He dresses in the monks' saffron robe. He teaches Cambodian children the teachings of Buddhism.
Everything about Sok Mony Reoun is Buddhist, except his heart. Sok [Sok is the family name] longs for truth. He longs for peace. He longs for hope.
Sok wants to understand why there is no peace in the world. "The Khmer Rouge and Cambodians [are] the same. Why [are] the Khmers fighting each other?"
The Khmer Rouge are the followers of dictator Pol Pot, who overthrew Cambodia's capital city of Phnom Penh in April 1975 and systematically slaughtered anyone who was educated, anyone who was talented, anyone who was known as religious. While the Pol Pot regime has long been expelled from Cambodia, Khmer Rouge rebels continue to fight Cambodian soldiers outside Battambang near the Thai border.
Sok also wants to understand why he has no hope in his own heart.
On June 14, 1996, Sok handed volunteer missionary Steve Marshall an unaddressed letter. He asked, in a voice low enough that his colleagues could not overhear, if Marshall would deliver the letter to any Cambodian-American. The letter is addressed, "Dear parents."
Like many of the 80 monks who live at Domrey Sor Monastery, Sok is young, has been at the crowded monastery for several years, and has no contact with his family.
Sok's open letter asks for help from foster parents. He explains that he is having a difficult time studying Pali, the dialect of the Buddhist Scriptures. He explains that he has given up hope.
"I hopeless in myself," Sok wrote. "I hope only in you."
Marshall and his wife, Stacey, had several opportunities to share the gospel with Sok. These conversations may have been a catalyst for revealing the emptiness of Buddhism to Sok.
"I really care about you," Marshall, 27, said. "I'll miss you very much. I want you to have a good life, and the only way that you can have a good life is to experience the love that my God can give, OK?"
Sok asked whether this love God offers is for "all the people in the country of Cambodia." Marshall responded that it indeed was for everybody.
The Marshalls gave Sok a Bible in the English language so he could continue to study about God's love and the hope that Christianity offers.
"OK, I want to know about what is Christ, the Good News for Cambodia men, right?" Sok asked as he accepted the Bible.
Sok and his fellow monks also were given tracts and other Christian books in the Khmer language, which the Khmer Baptist Convention had provided the Marshalls.
"I pray every day that Sok and his friends find hope in Jesus," Marshall said. "I really miss them."
Southern Baptists may write to Sok at Domrey Sor Monastery, Svay Por District, Battambang Province Town, House Number 12, Battambang, Cambodia.