Peace is my journey
How do you become a peace builder? For Som Chanmony, the Executive Director of TEAR’s partner Peace Bridges in Cambodia, his work of peace building has emerged from a background of violence. His experiences of conflict within himself, his family, his faith, the church and the broader society have all played a part in his journey.
He spoke with TEAR’s Dominique Emery on a visit to Australia late last year, reflecting on his life, and how peace came to be at the core of his faith.
Tell us about your family
I grew up in a family that was not poor, but not middle class. We just had enough food on our plates. My father’s government salary was not enough to feed even himself, so my mother had to run a small business selling rice porridge, which she still does today. She supported eight people in the household, including my grandparents.
In my early life, I had trouble with violence. My mother was violent. She could not bear the stress in her life and exploded into violence in our home. At school, I was a violent person, part of a gang.
How did you find faith?
In 1994 there was a well-known Christian healer from the US who came to Cambodia with a healing mission. I was so excited, I told my grandfather I was going, but he rebuked me. I spoke back, saying this was a powerful God. This caused conflict between us.
I went to the event, but the healer was exposed as a fraud and stoned by the crowd – he had to be rushed out of the country by the police! I came home and my grandfather rebuked me again. I was silent. I became so hateful of Christians because this “healer” had cheated the sick and poor.
A few years later, I got a job as a language teacher teaching missionaries Khmer. I met a pastor who was very, very conservative. But he challenged me to follow Christ. And I was able to do intensive study of the bible with him for about two years.
How did your family respond?
When I formally accepted Christ I encountered a big problem with my family. They saw me as one who would betray my family. A traitor. My response was not great either. From my church teaching I began to see my family as evil. I had no respect for them.
Then I met my wife. We got married in 2001 and invited my pastor to my wedding. He said he would not come because it was going to be a traditional Cambodian wedding. He didn’t want to be made impure before God by attending. For me this was the end. I would not go to that church again.
I wanted to be on the journey to reconciliation – to my family, my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I left my church and at the same time I encountered Peace Bridges. I was translating their peacebuilding materials from English to Khmer. I found that I began applying the material in my own life. I set out to find the people who had created the resources and I asked them to let me know if they needed a permanent staff translator. It was going to be cheaper than hiring me as a contractor! I got the job. God had called me for this work.
I had been transformed by the materials. I was applying them into my life. This often happens – people change through the training. I have seen people who have been very violent find reconciliation in themselves. This is my same journey.
At this time, Jesus influenced my journey to justice. He had friends and people he related to who were sinners, his enemies, tax collectors and prostitutes. The Samaritan. Instead of isolating himself, he made himself close to them.
That’s how I learned to go back to people who are different to me, to restore relationships with people who are different to me, including my family.
My mother is now the mirror of my faith. She is Buddhist. Through her, I know how to love those who are different. In her life, she has dealt with her stress. She has become a loving and peaceful mother. She offers her soup to the poor when they come. Some days she will give it away to the poor. She doesn’t stop even one day – she knows her customers will look out for her.
Jesus related to people of other faiths, and to those who are voiceless. He needs us to voice their concerns. When he healed the bleeding woman who had been discriminated against, he not only healed her but put her back into the society. He relates to her in front of many people. The mission of Jesus comes for the sinner, for those who suffer from conflict, so that they may access salvation.
God’s desire for peace
Our God has been a God of peace and justice from the beginning. You can read through the first chapter of Genesis and realise how beautiful was the world he created, how just and peaceful. This is the character of our God. He is good. He is peaceful. Everything complements each other. The human and the rest of creation.
When He talked to Moses, he said: “I have heard my people cry! I have heard their injustice.” And He commissioned Moses to liberate the people. God didn’t just remind them of their faith, he took them from their oppression (Exodus 3: 7-10).
From the beginning, this is who our God is.
Tell us about Peace Bridges’ approach
Peace Bridges’ work started with church reconciliation – focused on conflict within the church. They created materials and workshops to enable churches to reconcile. Teaching Christians not to judge, to respect other perspectives. Then we realised that there was huge violence around us, and we decided to widen our work to the community and other faith groups.
Now we also address structural violence – human rights violation, forced evictions, forced land grabbing, conflict in deforestation and fishing. We equip people to start on the journey of personal transformation – to become peace makers and work towards a community goal.
Tell us about justpeace?
‘Justpeace’ is a word we use within the Peace Builders community. It’s when peace is seen as relational. It goes beyond a passive peace – when you just want no conflict. Justpeace is when you apply justice into the equation. You need to balance both together. Justice and the relationship together.