Memories of Cambodia

By Jane Sutton-Redner

Carl Harris, former World Vision Cambodia director. (Paul Diederich/WV)

World Vision’s 60th anniversary has provided an opportunity to look back and take stock. For history-lovers like me, it’s deeply satisfying to retell the old stories and connect with people who helped shape the ministry through the years.

I want to tell you about one of those people. Carl Harris served with World Vision in Cambodia in 1973-75, as the country descended into chaos. Unbeknownst to many of us at headquarters, Carl lives right here in Seattle, on a boat on Lake Union. A few weeks ago, he and my boss, Milana McLead, crossed paths at a church neither of them usually attended. They struck up a conversation and quickly discovered their mutual connection to World Vision.

The timing was serendipitous. My colleague, Paul Diederich, was working on the 1970s chapter of the “60 Years of Vision” documentary. There was just enough time to get Carl’s story on tape.

Minh Tien Voan, deputy director for World Vision Cambodia in the 1970s. (Eric Mooneyham/WV)

An Episcopalian priest and former Marine, Carl was working for the U.S. State Department in Vietnam in the early 1970s when World Vision’s president at the time, Stan Mooneyham, pegged him to fill one of several open positions in Southeast Asia. Carl became the director of a brand-new office in Cambodia. Calling himself “more of an Indian than a chief,” Carl relied greatly on his second-in-command, Minh Tien Voan, a U.S.-educated former executive of Shell Oil, to oversee relief operations for the refugees flooding into Phnom Penh and the construction of the first-ever pediatric hospital in Cambodia.

A photo Carl treasures of the Khmer staff at World Vision's nutrition centers in Cambodia. Many of them died during Pol Pot's reign.

In January 1975, the Khmer Rouge’s offensive on Phnom Penh began. Carl and his team endured three months of constant shelling and rocket attacks. In April, just ahead of the city falling to Pol Pot, expatriates were evacuated, with Carl among the last to go. Voan sent his wife and children out, but he stayed behind, believing that his country needed Christians. Soon after, Voan was killed as he attempted to distribute Scriptures to terrified refugees.

All these years later, Voan’s loss is still a bruise on Carl’s heart. Recently he came to headquarters to attend chapel, arriving early to tour the Visitors Center. I found him rooted in front of the memorial fountain honoring World Vision’s fallen employees. He gazed at Minh Tien Voan’s name, right the top of the list. “Murdered by the Khmer Rouge, that’s true,” he murmured, blinking back tears. “I’ve never seen it in black and white.”

Carl made this particular piece of history real for me. He put flesh on a man who was once a name on a plaque, a figure in an old photo. His still-fresh grief gives necessary gravity to the fact that some who walked before us sacrificed everything for God.

See Carl Harris in “60 Years of Vision: Part Three.”

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