Minister brings home haunting memories of the killing fields

September 29, 1999

Rev. Alan ClinganBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: Alan Clingan

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - A Greencastle minister knew when he went to Cambodia that a visit to the "killing fields" was mandatory if he wanted to come away with any real sense of the Southeast Asian country.

The Rev. Alan Clingan, 56, pastor of the Conococheague Grace Church of the Brethren, returned Saturday from a three-week mission to Cambodia, a tour that took him from Phnom Penh, the country's teeming capital, to Battambang, a city of 30,000 about 100 miles away near the Thai border.

He walked through what today is known as a killing field, places where more than 1 million Cambodians, mostly the educated and business classes, were killed by the regime of Communist Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot between 1975 and 1978.


"When Pol Pot came to power his first command was to order the people in the cities to leave within 15 minutes or be killed," Clingan said. "He burned their pagodas to destroy their culture and religion. He eliminated the upper classes. He wanted the country to return to a pure agrarian, communal society."

Clingan brought back a plastic bag with three small objects - all of which signify the horror of the Pol Pot regime. Inside were a child's tooth and two human bone fragments. He said they were mixed into the soil of the killing field he visited.

"The ground was filled with bone fragments and teeth. They were everywhere," he said. "After a while the Khmer Rouge were killing so many people that it was getting too expensive to shoot them so they bludgeoned them to death.

"You have to go through the killing fields to understand what happened, to understand the trauma these people went through. It was something to see."

Clingan's 48-member church congregation paid his way to Cambodia. His traveling companions were a pastor and layperson from a Grace Brethren church near Columbus, Ohio. The trips are called short-term missions by the national Conference of Grace Brethren Churches which sponsor them, he said.

Clingan said his duty on the mission was to teach Cambodian missionaries how to spread the Bible's messages among the people in the villages. "The Cambodian missionaries are young and inexperienced. There are no Bible schools there. We taught them how to teach the Bible," he said.

While Cambodia remains nearly 90 percent Buddhist, there is movement toward Christianity, Clingan said.

Pol Pot caused the Cambodian people to abandon their traditional religion, he said. It's been 20 years since Vietnam invaded Cambodia and forced Pol Pot to flee. While many Cambodians are still in shock, they are starting to come out of it, Clingan said. They are rebuilding their pagodas, their traditional places of worship, but they are also looking for something else.

"They're open to new ideas and are turning to the Bible," he said.

Clingan said Southern Baptists and other Christian denominations are sending missionaries to Cambodia.

While there he learned that the Cambodian people are warm and loving, that most live in extreme poverty, that the cities are crowded and that villages often consist of shacks. Many are learning English, he said.

He said the trip changed his life in that he returned with a better appreciation of the United States and he has a new understanding of what Third World poverty is.

Also, he learned that "people are people everywhere and will accept you."

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