Bankrupt, but they lived in a former Prime Minister’s house: How God provided for the founders of Siem Reap Prayer House
by Janice Tai // September 23, 2021, 4:18 pm
Denis, Charlene with their two sons, Etienne and Elliot, and Rachel, their Cambodian daughter whom they adopted, at the Siem Reap Prayer House which they founded.
In an obscure village in Siem Reap, Cambodia, lies a prayer house started by a former Singapore Girl and her French husband. Lush mango, papaya and jackfruit trees surround the four houses in the sprawling two-hectare compound.
For almost a decade, the couple have been taking in people in need – widows, orphans, the poor, the mentally and physically ill – and caring for them. They can stay as long as they wish; some live there for one month, while others remain there for years.
While they are fed physically and spiritually during their stay, they are also encouraged to live out a lifestyle of prayer and intercession for others.
In the morning, prayer and worship fill the house. The community of 20 to 30 people pray for anything that God prompts them to. For three months this year, for instance, they have been praying for half an hour every day for Singapore.
In the prayer house, the presence of God is strong. Deliverance and miracles of healing are commonplace. They also have Bible study sessions three times a week.
“They have lots of free time. I don’t believe in doing, doing, doing,” said Denis Kugler, 68, founder of Siem Reap Prayer House. The children and adults there call him “Lok Tah”, or grandfather in the Khmer language.
“If we try to impose discipleship on them, they will lose the fire over time. They need to experience the love of God through us and feel loved and accepted. That is more important than any teaching that we can do. Once they understand the love of God, then we can make disciples. It’s not the other way around,” said Denis.
Indeed, Denis and his Singaporean wife, Charlene Wong, 57, have themselves experienced the radical love of God, and that enabled them to trust their heavenly Father to sustain their missionary work over the years.
It was during their first run of discipleship school, just 20 months after they leased the place, that Denis found that he could not afford to pay the monthly rental of USD1,000 (SGD1,340).
He emailed his landlady who lived in France, telling her that he was having some difficulties and would have to delay paying the rent. Hours later, the landlady replied and said her daughter from America was in Siem Reap and would come to visit them the next day.
Denis’s heart sank. He did not know if having a visit was a good idea, given that some 30 people were living there and attending their school.
The next day, the daughter came while he was teaching. She asked for a private moment with him and handed him a thick envelope. He opened it and could not believe what he was seeing: $10,000.
He had delayed paying the rent and yet here was the owner’s daughter herself coming down to hand him in cash the equivalent of 10 months’ rent.
He later found out that she blessed them because she had come to hear about what he and his wife were doing on their property – bringing in the poor, the afflicted and teaching and preaching about Jesus – and was moved. She was not a believer.
After staying there for three years, the landlady decided to lower the rent by $200 a month to $800. A few months after that, the daughter visited again and decided that, from then on, they could stay there rent-free for as long as they wished, as long as they continued to do the work the Lord asked them to do. It was their own people that the couple was serving, after all, said the daughter.
It’s been seven years now that they have been living rent-free on the compound. Their landlord is now also planning to build more houses on the compound so that the couple can serve more people.
“This is my firm conviction, that if you are chosen for one of His purposes, He will provide,” said Denis.
Prior to his work in Cambodia, this missionary family had spent seven years doing ministry work in Malaysia. When God first told Denis and his wife in 2001 to go to Malaysia, they were in dire financial straits.
Not only did they not have a house, savings or insurance, Charlene was declared a bankrupt due to the debts chalked up from Denis’ former business. They did not even have a bank account.
Yet similar to their experience in Siem Reap, God provided them with a magnificent house in Penang to open up to the needy, the sick, the drug addicts and people hungry for God.
The Father’s House
Shortly after they arrived in Penang, Malaysia, an Australian friend invited them to his house for coffee after church. It was a beautiful colonial house and Denis remarked that he had always dreamed of living in such a house. Unknown to him, his friend immediately made arrangements for him to visit the house next door as it was being put up for rent.
Knowing that he could never afford it, Denis found the idea absurd, but he visited it anyway, out of curiosity. It had 12 rooms, a big swimming pool and chandeliers everywhere. He later discovered that the house belonged to the family of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia who brought independence to Malaysia.
The Tunku’s daughter said she was happy for him to rent the house. Days later, both he and his wife were woken up at 3am, on different days, only to hear an audible voice saying: “This is My Father’s House, take it.”
“We were a bankrupt family. How were we to move into a Prime Minister’s house? It made little sense,” said Denis.
“We lived until almost the last dollar was gone, then God would start to supply our needs.”
Yet after God gave them more signs and confirmations, Denis, his wife and their two sons moved into the house. It was such a huge property that Denis once counted the number of light bulbs in the compound and they totalled up to 845 bulbs.
In those days, Denis still had his fledgling business of selling plastic bags, and God gave him enough favour for his business so that he could make the first rental payment on the house.
The house became known as “The Father’s House” and people were welcome to stay there for a few days or months to be ministered to, healed or set free.
The sounds of prayer and worship music always lingered in the air, as over 800 meetings with missionaries, pastors, traveling ministers and people in need took place in the house.
After serving in Malaysia, the couple felt led by God to head to Cambodia to do more outreach work. Though he eventually wound up his plastic bag business, Denis decided to be a tentmaker again.
The plan was for them to start a preschool for affluent families, which in turn would afford them the funds to support their ministry work. However, their preschool project failed as well and, from then on, the family had to rely on God to meet their needs.
“Jesus said not to worry about tomorrow. But if you stay in a foreign country with your wife and children, despite having faith, I guarantee you, doubts and fear would start to fill your mind,” Denis admitted.
One particular Sunday, Denis found that he did not even have enough money to pay for a tuk-tuk (taxi) to take his family to church. They decided to stay at home. Normally, he would not check his e-mails on a Sunday, but that morning he did as he had little else to do.
He realised that a French woman that he had never met had transferred him $350. They went to the bank to collect the money and so they had enough money to go to church that day.
“Many times, it was like that. We lived until almost the last dollar was gone, then God would start to supply our needs,” said Denis.
He personally does not send out newsletters or solicit funding.
This is because once, as he was writing his newsletter, he sensed the Lord asking him: “Why are you doing this newsletter?”
Denis could not answer Him.
“These are normal people, not rich people … Here they were forking out over $300,000 to get a place for us.”
“Of course, outwardly I do it to encourage people, to show them how God is moving in Cambodia. But my inner thoughts were different. I had hoped that some of the thousands of people whom I sent my newsletter to would be touched and send us love gifts,” said Denis.
Convicted by the Lord, he stopped sending his monthly newsletters out, except to a handful of his regular supporters.
Despite not soliciting funds, God has faithfully provided for his family, time and time again.
Earlier this year, Charlene was diagnosed with breast cancer. The family decided to return to Singapore temporarily for her cancer treatment.
They have no house here and are currently staying in their sister-in-law’s flat.
Friends of theirs felt burdened that the family should have their own home, so that their grown-up boys who are in their 20s can have their own space while their mother can comfortably rest and recover from her chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
So a Singaporean couple – their very first supporters who have been supporting their ministry work for a decade now – simply went ahead to buy them a three-room flat in Toa Payoh to live in.
“I was shocked. These are normal people, not rich people. They live in a three-room flat themselves. Here they were forking out over $300,000 to get a place for us,” said Denis.
Other friends of theirs also provided them with a car, a motorbike and two bicycles for the family to get around more easily.
“It is God’s favour upon our lives,” said Denis, who recalled a promise he once made with God: I will do all that You ask me to do, as long as there is enough food on my table for my family.
Unlikely candidates for a missionary life
Ask him if he ever envisioned himself living such a radical life of faith, and a cheeky smirk emerged.
“Not a chance, not in a million years,” came the swift reply.
He said he and his wife were highly unlikely candidates for a missionary life.
She was a former Singapore Airlines stewardess, model and deejay. He hailed from a well-to-do family in France and did not even need a job as he travelled the world for fun. He enjoyed wearing expensive clothes and driving his BMW, flitting from one party to another.
In 1990, both of them met at a popular bar at Hyatt hotel in Singapore. He was drunk but noticed a beautiful lady and promptly asked for her number. They got married in France in 1992.
After marriage, both of them set up a business to sell container loads of plastic bags, garbage bags, shopping bags and cling film to Europe and the United States.
It was a dishonest business but many agents in the industry operated similarly, he said. By cheating on the number of bags in a box, or on the sizes or thickness of bags, they could ensure a margin of profit.
For some reason, their business became poor, to the point that they ran out of money and had to borrow. Slowly, their debts piled up. Lawyers’ letters came and the stress they faced almost led them to file for divorce.
Coming to faith after wife’s fast
That was when a friend led Charlene to Christ and she became a fervent believer. After a few months of following Jesus, she fasted for 10 days and prayed for her husband’s salvation.
Denis told her how stupid she was to fast in that manner, only drinking water. After a few days of her fast, he started feeling uneasy.
On the 9th day of her fast, somehow he became so convicted of his sins and his miserable life that he surrendered his life to God.
“I can’t explain it. I just felt very bad and knew that if God could forgive a bad guy like me, I’d better grab the chance to serve Him,” said Denis, who committed himself to follow Him in February 2001.
As the couple began to pray, fast and try to get to know more about God, they encountered Him in many ways.
One day, as Denis was reading God’s word and trying very hard to understand it, he asked the Lord if there was a simplified version for people like himself who were unfamiliar with Scripture.
“The churches in developing countries do not have air-conditioned, well-orchestrated services … but God heals and delivers there.”
After a while, he had a vision of a finger engraving with fire just four letters on the cover of his Bible: “LOVE”.
He smiled. Indeed, it was the best way to summarise over 1,000 pages of the Bible.
God spoke to the couple in their dreams and people began to be healed when the couple prayed for them.
In The Father’s House in Penang, they saw a heroin addict of 20 years get set free of his addiction, a woman in her 30s healed of colon cancer, and they witnessed how food miraculously appeared at their doorstep after they chose to give thanks for the food despite not having any at Sunday service.
In Cambodia, they continue to encounter miracle after miracle.
There was a time when God prompted Denis to preach to a gathering of 500 villagers. It was hard ground and people were mocking and laughing at him. Yet after he spoke for 10 minutes, 400 people accepted Jesus into their hearts.
Another time, a pastor told him to pray for a woman who had been using a walking stick for eight years because one of her legs was much shorter than the other. When he prayed, he sensed the Lord telling him to pull her leg. He did. A few days later, the woman’s son testified in a prayer meeting that his mother was walking without the aid of a walking stick.
There were also stories of dying people, with coffins prepared next to them, being healed and revived again.
“Most of the churches in developing countries do not have buildings. The churches do not have air-conditioned, well-orchestrated services with a great worship team, wonderful instruments and special effects. What amazes me is that God is there. What amazes me is that God heals and delivers there. His presence is more real there than in many other places,” observed Denis.
Despite the supernatural workings he has seen, Denis and his family have not been spared from the difficulties and sufferings of life.
The price they paid
His two sons, Etienne and Elliot, had to follow a homeschooling curriculum by themselves as their parents were often too busy ministering to others. They did not have it easy adjusting to each new country the family moved to and had difficulty making friends.
When Denis’ parents died, he could not be present with them. His father passed away when Charlene was in Indonesia doing missions for a month; Denis could not leave The Prayer House to visit his family as people at the house needed help and attention.
A few months later, his mother also passed away. This time, he did not have the money to go back home.
“I did not see my parents for a few years. To not to be able to see my mum after my dad’s passing and not be able to go back because of lack of money, I felt so terrible,” Denis said.
Yet, through it all, they persevered.
Denis estimates that they have given away about 500,000 meals to the poor and needy over the years. Each time they go to the hospital to pray for the sick, they also supply 20 to 40 meals each day for the destitute.
Every two to three months, they also distribute 20kg of rice to some 400 to 600 families in the villages in Siem Reap.
“The poor have a very important place in the Bible. God loves His creation so much, so we need to love and care for people even if they are not lovable,” said Denis.
“God called us to only one thing: To follow Him. But if we truly follow Him, we will do what He says.”
For now, Charlene will remain in Singapore to continue her treatment. Their sons are also studying here. Denis feels led by God to head back to Siem Reap next month. Currently, a small team of local leaders is helping him oversee The Prayer House.
“I know I have to go back, but I don’t know for what. I let Him take the wheel and I just follow,” said Denis.
“My biggest regret so far is not becoming a missionary much earlier, when I was 18 or 20 years old. But God knows best. It is not what we do for God that counts, but what we allow Him to do in our lives that matters.”
Join the Siem Reap Prayer House in their live worship sessions online: https://www.facebook.com/SiemReapPrayerHouse/