Early one morning three ubiquitous white vans full of smiling barang (the Khmer term for gringos) departs from Phnom Penh headed north on the only northern road out of town. From the back seat of the lead van, Bong Ta (aka Dennis Ledford) shouts above the enthusiastic conversations up to the front seat, “You awake up there Kyle?” Kyle, in fact, is oh so awake; he is just finding it difficult to smile and converse amidst the weight of the many memories rushing through his brain that he still cannot appropriately process nearly thirty years later. He apologizes for his occasional sense of being overwhelmed when he is back in his home country. How could he not be overwhelmed? We were headed north for a 6+ hour drive to the Cambodian province of Battambang, where nearly 30 years prior, the evil Khmer Rouge all but ensured that Kyle Y would become another statistic in the count of nearly three million people murdered by their own neighbors at the direction of Pol Pot, arguably the most psychopathic ruler in modern history. He told us that he simply could not stop the flashes of the blood splattering everywhere and the huge hole left in his uncle’s head after he was executed while 9 year old Kyle watched from his position tied to a nearby tree, shins bleeding from being beaten with bamboo sticks. “I can still smell the blood when I think about it,” Kyle told me when I asked him to describe his tragedy, “They killed everyone. There was blood everywhere, and they left me to die.” After the Khmer Rouge soldiers killed the rest of the group, they turned their bayonets on Kyle and cut open his chest. They then covered him with fire ants and left. But God had other plans for Kyle Y.
To meet Kyle and Amy Y today is to be immediately attracted to their warm and welcoming personalities. Amy, who also suffered immeasurable trauma at the hands of Pol Pot, is the vivacious and outgoing one. She has an infectious smile and is not afraid to take charge of the situation. She and Kyle have been married for twenty-seven years. Kyle —although the tail of his dragon tattoo peeking out from the sleeve of his muscle tight t-shirt might say otherwise— is shy and sensitive. It was not long ago, however, that anger raged just beneath the surface in Kyle’s heart. Having been in Fort Worth, Texas for almost thirty years, he is 100% Texan, from his TCU shirt all the way down to his cowboy boots. He had only one intention of ever setting foot in his home country again: He strongly desired to find the people who had destroyed his family and to exact a similar punishment upon them. He hated Cambodia and was not particularly fond of the many Cambodians who had settled here in North Texas. He had come to know Jesus as his Lord many years before, but Jesus had not yet saved him from his past.
Kyle quietly went to his job everyday, pursued the American Dream, and loved his family. The gym was his outlet where he was able to release some of the pent-up frustrations and gain some satisfaction in the results of his efforts there. One day while working out, one of the guys who was often there at the same time as Kyle asked him casually why he was always smiling. Ed Machel did not know how common it is for Khmer, regardless of what they are feeling inside, to naturally smile a beautiful warm smile that has captivated the world for centuries. This opened the door to a conversation ending with Ed’s inviting Kyle to an evening Bible study they had just moved into Fort Worth from Aledo. Kyle reluctantly agreed and soon found himself in a group of 6 men sharing their stories, worshipping Jesus and praying together. Kyle did not really fit in and was not sure why he kept coming, but he did. He just sat quietly and listened for the first several weeks. Eventually, Kyle shared his story. It was at that point that the group leader, Dennis Ledford, knew that Kyle would continue to return to these evening meetings.
Not long after Kyle began attending the Bible study, Amy traveled back to Cambodia to visit her uncle. It was the first time she had been back since she had left almost thirty years before. Amy had suffered a fate similar Kyle’s. She graphically recounts the stories of labor camps, her brother’s dying from starvation, children murdered simply because they were not working hard enough or because a child of the Pol Pot regime did not like them. When her family finally escaped to Thailand in 1979, she remembers running for weeks through the jungle, having to remain in a straight line to avoid land mines. She was riding on her father’s back because she was too weak to run on her own. She remembers seeing someone in front of them in the line step on a land mine. It was at that point that her father told her he did not think he could go on. She remembers night-time fire fights when her father crawled through the jungle with her attached. The tracers lit up the dark sky, and she could feel the whiz of the bullets near her head. They pressed on with strength beyond what they possessed. As she was preparing to go back to this land, though she was thankful for her life, she was not sure why God had allowed her to survive.
She wanted Kyle to come with her to their homeland, but he had absolutely no interest if revenge were not on the itinerary. Amy did not harbor the same animosity. She had forgiven her persecutors and wanted to see her home and the uncle she remembered fondly from her youth. Amy arrived in Phnom Penh during Bon Om Touk, the Cambodian Water Festival, when the Tonle Sap River reverses its flow. Millions of people flood into an already overflowing capitol city. Amy, her nephew and their driver went out one night to the evening festivities. The influx of visitors also brought with it an influx of beggars to a city where poverty is already rampant. While walking back to their hotel that night along a busy street where everyone was crammed together and moving in a herd, Amy nearly stepped on a little girl who was crying. She was lying against a dark wall stained with urine and she was trying to cover up with newspapers. Her mother was sitting next to her trying to get her to sleep in the midst of the chaos. Amy had taken several photos of the beggars she had seen, but she was immediately drawn to this little girl.
People who live in Phnom Penh become hardened to the poverty that is in their faces at every turn and these dying people are a fixture of daily life. But Amy, seeing this little girl through the eyes of the Holy Spirit that night, knew she had to help. This little girl had sores all over her body. She was crying because she was in pain and no one seemed to care. In her Americanized naiveté, Amy asked the mother why she had not taken her daughter to the doctor. After visiting with them for a while and praying with them, Amy gave them some money to go to a clinic (a likely violation of the “When Helping Hurts” model to which I so adamantly subscribe), took their photo, and got as much information from them as she could. She was not sure what she planned to do, but she had to do something. On the long flight home, she could not stop thinking about this poor little girl who was not likely to survive without someone intervening. There were 2+ million people in that city on the other side of the world; why did she have to be that someone?
On the ride to a restaurant after Kyle picked her up from the airport back in Dallas, Amy handed him a photo of the little girl she had met. She continued to tell Kyle about her trip, but his mind was transfixed on the photo. When they got to the restaurant, Kyle told Amy to go ahead, and he would be in shortly. He climbed into the back of their Expedition and began to weep. It was at that moment that God began to gently tear away the anger, bitterness, hatred, and vengeance that had plagued Kyle for his entire life. Images of his lost childhood in Cambodia flashed through his mind. Why was God bringing this little girl to his comfortable doorstep here in Texas? He had successfully walled off this part of his life with the cold, hard, resilient stones of bitterness, and this little girl was tearing down those walls. Like Amy, he knew they had to do something, but what? He was not making much money at his job, he had never raised money for anything and he did not really know a lot of people with money. God began to direct his heart toward the guy who was leading that evening Bible study he was reluctantly and quietly attending. The problem was that Kyle did not really know Dennis Ledford very well, and, frankly, he was scared of him.
Dennis is a man’s man with a tough exterior. He is a bright and confident construction guy with a sharp country wit and he is always in charge of the situation, whatever it may be. Kyle, being shy and sensitive, was not quite sure how his request would be received. He knew Dennis loved the Lord, but why would he want to help this little girl on the other side of the world. Nevertheless, God and Amy continued to encourage him to ask Dennis for help. After several weeks, Kyle finally screwed his courage up tight enough to call Dennis and ask if he would be willing to meet. Dennis immediately agreed and Kyle drove the 30 minutes out to Dennis’ shop in Aledo.
Dennis says that Kyle came in stammering around with his head down. He was not really sure what Kyle wanted, but Dennis Ledford is always willing to meet with anyone at anytime to help them with their relationship with the Lord. Beneath his rough exterior is a heart in tune with the Holy Spirit. Dennis is so committed to the Lord that his answer is always “yes” to whatever he senses the Spirit leading him to do, regardless of how outrageous, embarrassing, or inconvenient.
I first learned about this story when I went to Dennis’ shop to visit with him about a real estate deal. Two hours later we had barely even scratched the surface on the real estate deal, but I had seen this tough, respectable businessman cry four times talking about what God had been doing through him and within people around him. It’s funny that I thought this guy was a staunch fundamentalist who believed that God only spoke through His Word. This guy knows and listens to the Holy Spirit like few people I have ever met.
Dennis said that Kyle continued to look down at the floor as he handed him this horrific photo of the little girl and reluctantly asked for twenty dollars. “Twenty Dollars. . .” Dennis whispered as he shook his head and began to tear up. “Can you believe he was just asking me for a mere twenty dollars to save this girl’s life? I gave him 100 dollars and told him to send whatever was needed” As Dennis also subscribes to the “When Helping Hurts” model of giving, he offered to give Kyle some work to help him raise some more money. He also began to ask Kyle more questions about his life and learned about the anger and hatred that Kyle had toward Cambodia and its people. Dennis felt like God was leading him to do much more than give this guy some money.
Kyle invited Dennis to come speak at his Cambodian church in Fort Worth. Dennis had no idea what he would talk about, but he was continuing to lean in to Kyle, so he agreed. He met the pastor of the Cambodian church and saw the sacrifice this church was making to support a few churches in Cambodia. Dennis felt like God wanted him to be involved, so he invited his own pastor to hear Kyle’s story.
Dennis’ church was hosting secret meetings to simulate the persecuted church. The pastor, Lee Brewer, had not decided on the topic of this week’s secret church until he heard Kyle’s story. He was immediately certain that God wanted Kyle to share his story with the secret church.
That Sunday, 100 people gathered on a cold night in Dennis’ barn to meet Kyle Vuthy and hear his incredible story. Little did anyone know, the best part of the story was yet to be written. That night, Dennis, Craig Nichols, Don Matthews, and Rick Casey committed to go to Cambodia. They were taking Kyle and they were going to find this girl’s family and help them. Kyle was blown away by their response, and, truth be told, while he wanted to help this girl, he did not want to go to Cambodia.
A few weeks later, Kyle and four larger-than-life Texans —he would later refer to as the Four Horsemen— landed in Phnom Penh. Using Amy’s contact information she had gathered, they were able to locate this little girl and her family, a miracle in and of itself. Kyle found them in deplorable conditions working as indentured servants for a brick maker. The entire family, including the children, were essentially slaves making clay bricks all day every day for little wages. As soon as Dennis and the 3 other Horsemen saw the conditions, they knew they had to extract them from their life of slavery. Dennis and his team negotiated with the slave owner and actually purchased freedom for the girl’s family and the families of her two uncles. The freedom of three families cost only $2500. They got medical help for the little girl and helped the families get on their feet. The entire group of families soon came to faith in Christ, and one of the uncles is now attending Bible school to become a pastor. The little girl is healed, is attending school, and is doing very well. Interestingly, her parents had a son and named him “Aledo” in honor of the generosity of their neighbors on the other side of the world.
On the first night in Phnom Penh, Kyle could not sleep; there were so many thoughts and memories flashing through his head. He still felt resentment, but he sensed that God was leading him out into the streets to talk to his people. He walked out of the hotel early in the dark hours of the morning and struck up a conversation with the first guy he saw, a tuk tuk driver in front of the hotel. After visiting with him for a couple of hours and telling him about Jesus, this driver was ready to join Kyle in following Christ. Kyle’s adrenaline was skyrocketing, as was his love for this guy. He could feel his resentment toward his people melting away as he acted out love for this one tuk tuk driver. However, once the driver told him he was ready to follow Jesus, Kyle did not know what to do. He had never led anyone to the Lord, so he asked the guy to come upstairs to meet the Four Horsemen. Kyle suppressed his fear of Dennis and banged on the door. As Dennis stumbled to the door, he told Kyle that it better be important. Obviously, it was, so Dennis woke up the other horsemen, and they all came into Dennis’ room to pray with this man and help Kyle lead his heart into a relationship with the Lord.
Afterward, Dennis placed his hand on Kyle’s shoulder and told him that he was a son of the most high God and that he had all the power that God had given to Jesus. He encouraged him not to be afraid or shy about sharing his faith and leading his people all the way to a saving knowledge of Christ. He told Kyle that he was created for this. Miraculously, these encouraging words ignited a fire within Kyle and he began going “fishing” on the streets of Phnom Penh nightly, leading people to Jesus every night they were there.
God soon began to introduce Kyle to various pastors around Cambodia and continued to build within him a solid Biblical knowledge and lion-hearted strength to evangelize and teach despite his perceived inadequacies. In Kyle’s humility, the Lord continues to raise him up today. There are fourteen churches around Cambodia now a part of an association led by Kyle and Amy and supported by Church at the Crossing in Aledo, Texas. These pastors meet together regularly and encourage one another. Kyle counsels them and trains them weekly via Skype and conference calls. There are other pastors who are taking notice and seeking to join the association. Each of these churches serve between forty and seventy children and their families, totaling well over a thousand people. These pastors are receiving solid Biblical teaching and encouragement, and they are pouring this out in their communities. As a result, these churches are bright lights, and people are coming to Christ.
In God’s divine plan, one of the pastors (pictured near the top of this article) was once a feared Khmer Rouge soldier. He killed many people and even ate their flesh. When sharing his story, he told of his practice of eating part of the heart of his enemies when he killed them. He represented the evil that Kyle desired to avenge his entire life. Today, Kyle prays with this man several times a month. This man loves his flock and exudes joy from his countenance. It is clear when you meet him that he is a man changed by the Holy Spirit.
God used the obedient generosity of one family to another to pour out His love upon well over a thousand people and counting over the course of five short years. Had Amy passed this little girl on the street and simply prayed “be well,” thinking that she could not truly do anything to help her; had Kyle looked at the photo and said to Amy, “Honey, this is really sad, but what can we do?”; had Dennis simply said “here is $100″ and not followed the Holy Spirit into the inconvenient, this story might have ended. Even if God had chosen to fulfill this story without Amy, Kyle, Ed, Dennis, Lee, Craig, Don, and Rick, so many people on the giving end would not have had the incredible opportunity to participate in this ongoing blessing. It was God’s working on the heart of each person involved and using him or her according to how He had gifted him or her that exacted this enormous blessing upon the givers and the receivers. None of them had any idea what was coming next. They just had compassion on the least of their neighbors, and they followed through.
Is there any “little” act of generosity that God has laid on your heart today that you are putting off until tomorrow? God’s plans will be fulfilled regardless of whether you choose to be a part of them. But in His grace, He invites us in to join Him in so many aspects of what He is doing daily all around us. I just pray that I recognize and accept the invitation as these guys did.