I was born in the city of Bristol, England, in 1950, the only son of a merchant seaman (who came ashore and became a builder and decorator when I arrived) and a nurse.
I enjoyed a happy childhood, loved and well cared for, but given firm discipline by my parents. At the completion of my primary school education in 1961 I passed the ‘eleven plus’ examination which gave me a free place at Bristol Grammar School, founded in 1532, one of the leading independent schools of the city.
During the exceptionally cold and long winter of 1962/3 my father’s health deteriorated and he took time off work.
One day during the Easter 1963 school holidays, a short while after my father had gone out for a walk, a neighbour came to the door to summon my mother. A few minutes later she returned to tell me that my father had collapsed at the end of the street and was dead. It was subsequently determined that he had suffered a myocardial infarction.
During the next few months my emotions ranged through shock, despair that I should never see my father again, resentment that this tragedy should have happened to me, and insecurity, fearing that if one parent could die suddenly, so could the other (my mother was then aged 53).
In the autumn of 1963 a school friend asked me if I would try out a Christian youth group that he belonged to. The group was for boys aged 8 to 18 and was part of Crusaders, now known as Urban Saints.
Although my mother had been a member of the Church of England in her youth, my father had had no belief in God and there had been no religious dimension to our family life. I had been taught Bible stories in school and I had unquestioningly accepted the existence of God. Indeed in my childish way I held God accountable for my father’s death and had pleaded with him to bring my dad back to life.
But in Crusaders I found something far removed from academic Sunday School instruction or meaningless religious rites. I discovered through what I was taught and by observing the lives of the adult leaders and some of the other boys in the group that it was possible to know God personally through Jesus Christ. I realised that God wanted to give me back more than what I had lost through the death of my father. He was offering me:
love, care and discipline of the same kind as, but even better than, that which my human father had given me;
the assurance that whatever else I might lose, including my surviving parent, I could never be separated from God’s love;
… from the emotional scars and resentment I had felt after my father’s death.
God was also offering me something else which I had not realised I needed:
… from the guilt, penalty and power of wrong in my life. I recognised that what the Bible said about the condition of all human beings was true: that even though I was a reasonably well-behaved young man, I fell short of God’s perfect standard and nothing I could do could make me acceptable to him. But I also understood that through the death of Jesus Christ all my wrong actions, thoughts and attitudes could be forgiven. By suffering the just penalty for my wrongdoing, Jesus had made it possible for me to be reconciled with God.
So I became a Christian: not through any rite or ceremony, not through attending church services, but simply by
- admitting to God that I needed his forgiveness and new life,
- putting my trust in Jesus as the giver of these things, and
- receiving Jesus into my life and letting him take charge of it from then on.
Having taken my ‘O’ level examinations after four years at grammar school and then ‘A’ levels after a further two years, I completed my secondary education soon after my seventeenth birthday.
I had been accepted by the South Western Electricity Board (SWEB, the electricity distribution activities of which later became Western Power Distribution) as a student electrical engineer, and my training involved studying for a BSc degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Bath.
Following a brief time as a supernumerary engineer after finishing the five-year training programme, I obtained a post in SWEB’s Engineering Computer Team. I held a number of posts in this team (and its successors following various reorganisations), until by 1989 I had attained the position of Client Liaison Consultant. I was comfortably well-off, I could afford a new car every few years and I had paid off my house mortgage.
End of a Chapter
In 1989 the British government finalised its plan to privatise the electricity supply industry, which had been in public ownership since 1948. One of the reasons I had joined SWEB was that I wanted to work in a service industry; I did not relish the change of culture that I foresaw would take place once the interests of shareholders had to be satisfied. I decided that I would adhere to this principle and leave SWEB before privatisation took place.
At the end of September 1989 I resigned, with no other job to go to and no knowledge of what to do in the next chapter of my life. A foolish decision? I thought not, believing that God had a plan for my life and would disclose to me at an appropriate time what steps to take next.
A Complete Change of Direction
At first I enjoyed the unfamiliar sensation of not having to go to work each day, but as time went on I began to consider seriously where my life was heading. A good friend reminded me of something that had happened several years ago and a promise I had made at the time.
In the 1980s I was in the habit of conducting an annual review of my life during the period between Christmas and New Year. As I was doing this one year, recalling the film The Killing Fields triggered a tremendously strong and emotional concern for the people of Cambodia. The Killing Fields had reminded me of Cambodia’s recent history:
- a coup d’état, followed by five years of civil war;
- covert bombing of the Cambodian countryside by the USA;
- nearly four years under a brutal communist regime, during which time 1.7 million people died as a result of executions, starvation and disease;
- years of international isolation, denying Cambodia the opportunity of recovering from the destruction of its infrastructure and the decimation of its skilled labour force.
I felt that I had to do something to contribute to the reconstruction of the nation and the healing of its people. Not only did I want to help Cambodians rebuild their country and their lives after passing through such terrible suffering, but having found in Jesus Christ healing from my own personal tragedy and far more besides, I wanted to share this good news with them too. I went so far as to promise to God that I was wiling to go to Cambodia if he wanted me to.
My friend’s prompting caused me to take this commitment seriously, even though I had never left my home city for more than a month at a stretch and I had only been out of the United Kingdom a handful of times. I began to explore ways in which I might gain entry to a country which at that time was almost completely closed to westerners.
My first serious attempt met with a frustrating, endless wait for a visa. But this frustration led me to volunteer to help Southeast Asian Outreach (SAO, now Cambodia Action), a Christian mission and development organisation, at its headquarters in Britain. SAO was preparing to embark on two development projects in Cambodia and I was subsequently appointed as Administrator. This time my visa was granted in a few days.
So it was that on 15 July 1991 I walked out of my house in Bristol and set off for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I was to be the first SAO team member to enter the country and I was to be alone for two months. I knew just one expatriate family there through a few letters and a brief meeting in England the previous year. I understood hardly anything of the Khmer language and I had received no formal orientation. A foolish act? I thought not, believing that God had led me down this path, would supply all my needs and would overcome my weakness with his power.
Welcome to Cambodia
What did I encounter?
On one hand:
- year-round tropical heat and humidity, a six-month dry season (almost no rain) alternating with a six-month rainy season (rain nearly every day);
- dust, mud, floods, open sewers, mosquitoes, cockroaches, diarrhoea;
- power cuts (up to a week in duration), brownouts, a primitive telephone system, equipment breakdowns;
- bureaucracy, corruption, fraud, lawlessness, armed robbery;
- poverty, disease, suffering, reminders of genocide.
On the other hand:
- friendly, smiling people, generous hospitality, delightful children;
- two wonderful Cambodian office assistants, other helpful staff, good friends;
- successful setting up of SAO’s office and administration systems, contributing to three development projects that have improved people’s health, nutrition and standard of living;
- the opportunity to share God’s love in word and deed with Cambodian people.
Loss or Gain?
My period of residence and working in Cambodia was the most demanding, stretching and fulfilling time of my life so far.
- It forced me into a greater practical dependence on God than I had ever experienced before.
- It demonstrated more of the depth and breadth of God’s love for me than I had previously comprehended.
- It broadened my understanding of what it means to be a world citizen and a world Christian, and it gave me a new perspective with which to examine critically the culture of my native land.
- I learned to relate to, understand and love those of a totally different background and outlook to my own.
- I experienced emotions of anger, grief and compassion as I was confronted with poverty, suffering and injustice, but my faith in a loving, powerful God became deeper.
At the end of 1995 I returned to the United Kingdom, believing that it was important to care for my mother, by then suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. I served as administrator for my church, the Fellowship of the King, Bristol, for two years, provided my former employer, SWEB, and its successor, Western Power Distribution, with two periods of consultancy, and then retired from normal employment in 2001, while continuing to provide part-time administrative support to a friend’s business.
Maintaining the Cambodian Connection
My involvement in Cambodia continues through Cambodian Communities out of Crisis (CCC).