Phnom Penh to Philadelphia

by Jake Becker April 6, 2014

Our Savior once commanded us, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them . . .” (Matthew 19:14).

Sophara moved to Philadelphia from Cambodia. Like nearly all Cambodians, Sophara was raised as a Buddhist. Just a few years ago, he was in Phnom Penh making daily sacrifices of food to Theravada monks and chanting prayers in Khmer, wondering if there was a God to hear them. Moving to Philadelphia, he found himself in a city bristling with countless cultures, customs, and points-of-view. He was eager to explore new ideas, but his mother was tentative, fearing their own cultural identity would be lost. She began seeking a school for Sophara and was heartbroken to discover the violence and deplorable academics that, tragically, characterize many Philadelphia schools. Despite being wary of losing her family’s Buddhist heritage, she began to investigate Christian schools, hoping, at least, that her shy, timid son would be safe among followers of Jesus.

When it came time to choose a high school, The City School was Sophara’s first choice. While Sophara and his family did not share our commitment to Jesus as Savior, they were drawn to our rigorous curriculum and our culture of grace. We welcomed him whole-heartedly. 

When Sophara enrolled, he gained more than excellent academics. He started to spend afternoons in the art room. There, he found a kindred spirit in Mr. Sinagra. It’s easy to see why Sophara was drawn to his art teacher—he’s creative, unique, and avant-garde. He’s the cool teacher a young man like Sophara can look to as both a mentor and a friend. He’s also a leader at Grace and Peace Community Church and a Christian whose life of service is a testament to God’s grace. Sophara would often stay after school and play chess with Mr. Sinagra. As they played, they would talk about life: about their families, about their dreams, and about God. This was a safe place for Sophara to hear the gospel, to ask questions, and to see the grace of Jesus in action. 

After coming to see Jesus’ love in Mr. Sinagra, Sophara became more interested in Christianity. When teachers would invite prayer requests before class, Sophara would shyly volunteer that he was seeking the truth about God. When friends invited him to lunchtime Bible study, he would listen attentively as students shared how God’s grace helped them face trials in their lives. Our Bible teacher laughs that Sophara began cornering him after class, asking him questions so challenging that only God could reply.

At some point during the three years he’s been with us, Sophara moved from curiosity to clinging to Jesus. He doesn’t know the exact moment. Day after day, he learned about the glory of God. He saw the love and grace of Jesus lived out by his friends and teachers. Over time, Jesus’ presence became palpable, Sophara’s mind and heart were renewed, and he gave himself to our Savior. To his great joy, his parents also became Christians, and are now active in their local church—often, Sophara tells me, wowing their congregation with traditional Cambodian fare.

As a junior, Sophara is beginning to research college prospects. He is interested in programming and computer technology. His best friends, Aaron and Jamie-Claire, have already received scholarships to Oberlin College and Brown University. Sophara came to The City School for our excellent academics, and we are excited to see him continue his lifelong pursuit of learning. 

The gospel was taught and modeled for Sophara every day, in and out of the classroom, but his education was never hostage to his spiritual beliefs. Sophara came to The City School as a Buddhist, and we were happy to receive him just the way he was. Next year he will graduate from The City School as a Christian, and we are even happier to send him into the world as a living testimony to the grace of Jesus. 

Sophara’s story is one of 276 beautiful testimonies to God’s faithfulness at The City School. If you would like to learn more about what God is doing in and through our school community, please join us (free of charge!) at our Annual Benefit Dinner on Friday, April 25, 7:00 PM, at the Sheraton Downtown. Come, meet Sophara, meet Mr. Sinagra, and meet the hundreds of other faithful people who make up our beautiful community. For more information about the benefit or to RSVP, email Anna Taylor at For admissions, please contact Lynda McClary


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