Embracing My Purpose

The Moments

“We don’t remember days, we remember moments.”

Me and Chay Ly

His sweet face will be etched into my memory until the day I can’t recall my own name. Even then, I think I’ll remember his. Chay Ly’s first year at the hope center in Kampong Cham is vivid as yesterday…

They decided to do the birthday party differently this time. We usually just positioned ourselves at one station or another (From make-up to coloring they range). I liked to be at the Play-Doh station…name an animal, I could mold it for you. But this year everybody was to choose a child and follow him/her to whichever station chosen. It was so we could build one-on-one relationships. Sounded like a good idea!

I picked a shy 8 year-old boy (same age as my nephew at the time) who was new to the center and set to follow him around and play. He then spent the next 2 hours trying to ditch me at every turn. He would go to the painting station, see if I was still behind him, then quickly turn and go to the sticker station. He lost me when he sprinted outside to tie-dye a t-shirt. I had all but given up. This kid didn’t like or want anything to do with me! After the games we handed out the presents. We were to give “our” kids their gifts. He was thankful, let me sit next to him as he opened it, and I figured that was the last time he’d do that.

Was I wrong.

When we pulled up the next year, he was the first to find and hug me. He had grown up so fast! When they sang songs, he stood in the front and sang the loudest. His hand gestures were the grandest. He tried to lead those who couldn’t remember them. He dragged me around the hope center to play games with him and the other kids when I was supposed to be sanding and painting. He was my dance partner at the birthday party. He sat as close to me as possible during the Bible lesson. He clung to me. Chay Ly and IHe had opened up in such a big way. It was then I realized the importance of cultivating relationships. I also saw how much good our hope centers were really doing for these kids.

Last year, he ran down the steps and jumped from them into a bear hug. If the trip had been going badly, that moment would have saved it. That one hug made travelling 8818 miles paramount. It made every frustration with fundraising, travel, and illness experienced worth going through to get to that moment.

The phrase “blessed to be a blessing” is thrown around a lot when it comes to mission work. To make it more practical, I think God allows me to be the person I am here so I can to do the same Cambodia. I think I am sister, aunt, and friend here so I can be one there too. There are times when I feel lost in my existence. I know writing is a part of it, but it’s not all there is to it. What’s beautiful to me is that in that instant, I know my purpose is to love on that kid as if he were my own family. Chay Ly and I dancing

Wading Through Worms

Experiencing Their Reality

The doctor came in with the results of my blood work…elevated eosinophils in combination with recent travel to a third world country= parasites.

We were told we wouldn’t be going to the slum at the dump that day. It had rained too much. Now, rain in Cambodia during rainy season is as common as travelling in professional basketball. However, this slum is located at the bottom of this enormous mountain of trash, waste, and filth. Dump_S;un_2012The rainwater that ran down the mountain had flooded the slum. We were going to be doing this ministry with a group called Joy Club from New Life Fellowship (NLF) Church in Phnom Penh. Joy Club is made up of the volunteers that are over the children’s and slum ministries. They made a decision to go. There are kids who call that trash heap home. We could risk it to bring food, shoes, and share Jesus.

At the street, we are loaded up on an flat bed truck so as to not walk through the murky brown water. We get off at the mostly dry entrance. Then an Australian woman from NLF told us to stay out of the water because it was filled with microscopic worms that bore through the skin. She said if we got near it to scrub our feet, and whatever else the water may have touched, when we returned. Seemed simple enough. Then our team got split up into two groups. One stayed put with the older kids and the other had to walk down the block to the other location for the younger kids. Guess which group I was in… That’s right: the second.

I’m not a particularly tall woman (5′ 1.5″) and the water we literally waded through was up to my calves in parts. dump_slum_water 3We were being lead by a fellow from the Joy Club who wasn’t saying much. He got to the deepest parts first. We were trying to be brave and keep straight faces. I ended up giggling. That’s my response to uncomfortable situations.

As I was doing this, I couldn’t help but think that the little ones who live here, do this every single day. I stopped instantly. Until I saw it. A ray of hope in what feels like a futile situation. A little girl is walking by me carrying who I assumed was her little sister on her back. It’s no rarity to see kids taking care of kids whether related or not. As this girl is walking beside me, I notice her grin. I have no idea if she was humored by the goofy foreigners trying to tip toe or if she was just excited about going to church. Whatever it was, it was the most joyful smile I had ever seen. In the midst of her situation, she was glowing like the sun peaking through dense clouds. It was disturbingly beautiful.

When I’m in Cambodia, I sometimes get discouraged. It feels like we are just not making an impact. What can I do to keep her from contracting parasites? From living in the pile of garbage? It doesn’t feel like enough. God used her sweet smile to remind me that sometimes, just being there makes an impact. Caring makes an impact. It’s not an instant or seemingly practical one, but it’s an impact all the same. If that little girl can smile and be excited to learn about Jesus while walking barefoot through worm-infested water, then there IS hope for that country.

In the doctor’s office…

I had gotten parasites that day. It took 3 months for a doctor to figure out what was wrong. I have never experienced pain like that in my life. I feel like I have been given just a glimpse of what far too many people, especially children, face in countries like Cambodia. Many succumb to it. It fills them and they waste away painfully unable to eat anything without being in incredible pain. I was able to get medicine to rid my body of these harmful creatures. How many of them do? We have to do more.

That’s Malarious!

Take 1: Fight or Flight

“When you turn the lights off, do things come out? Because I sleep with my mouth open.”

It was the end of the trip and that meant one thing: the Phnom Penh Hotel. The fancy hotel in the capital where we can actually use the water. It was our one night of near normalcy and comfort before making the very long trip back to the states. My sister and I begin the arduous task of unpacking to repack. How is it that dirty clothes always seems to expand and multiply?

I decide to take a break and brush my teeth. I’m in the bathroom when I hear a scream; never a good sign. I rush out, mouth foaming with toothpaste, as Autumn is yelling, “There’s a giant roach in my suitcase!” A stowaway from the village, no doubt. I didn’t see it until she makes one false, amazingly awkward move and manages to fling the massive cockroach onto her chest. Then it’s on: that wild, womanly dance of fear and shamelessness; when it’s female versus insect and the rest of the world, along with all dignity, fades. She’s jumping around and, before I know it, she’s on the bed; fight or flight combined into one hysterical, blonde mess. Funny how higher ground always seems safest no matter the circumstance.

Finally, the cockroach decides to save itself, loses his grasp of her now wrinkled and sweaty red shirt, and falls to the floor. We have no idea where he landed. We never saw him again. Although, I did find his much smaller but equally disgusting (thankfully deceased) cousin in the bottom of my bag when I got home…

Yes, Virginia, things do come out when the lights go out. Keep your mouth closed.

The “S” Word

Expanding Vocabularies

Feeding Center little girl 09If you choose to use this language in my presence and I know you at all, I’ll probably say something about it. Never out of anger or judgment, just perspective. I know many people don’t realize the gravity of their word choice. With friends, it usually just takes a look: raised eyebrows, eye contact, a slight smirk. Then they roll their eyes and choose a different term. There are times I wish I didn’t notice; that my mind would just block out the profanity and move on. More often than not, my heart refuses to let this happen. I try to contain myself when I hear it, but most times I can’t stop myself from saying, “Are you really Starving?”

The Devastating Definition

The Feeding CenterIn a small village in the Kampong Thom province of Cambodia, 75 children gather in front of a small church building. Those with shoes remove them before stepping inside. They take seats in the blue plastic chairs that fill the room. With legs dangling, they wait for what’s next. The pastor’s wife speaks to them, someone else puts on a Bible-based skit, they sing songs with us, and they wait. The chairs are cleared from the room and those who want to learn a new game (I picked Freeze Tag) follow a few of us outside, the rest stay inside for dance lessons and duck duck goose…and they wait. We play until everyone’s exhausted and we’re told it’s time.

The children scatter and then reassemble with bowls and spoons as they find a place to sit inside. They know what they’ve been anticipating has been worth the delay. Food.

Feeding Center GirlWe hand out water bottles and fruit while the ladies of the church finish preparing the main course. It’s the one hot meal these kids will get today. As we give them water, they receive -not take- it with an abundance of gratitude. This was one of our last days in Cambodia and that’s when what I’d seen the last 2 weeks finally set in. The weight of the injustice, my unbelievable selfishness, and previously hard heart came crashing down on me unexpectedly. I had to get out. Go outside. Breathe. They warned us in training that we would get overwhelmed and very emotional at some point. Since we were about to leave, I thought it had missed me. Until this. This is when I broke down. I took a few minutes and went back inside.

feeding centerNow the ladies were spooning out the rice and what looked like some sort of vegetable. Even though they’ve been waiting all day for this meal, not one bite is taken until all the kids have a full bowl. They sit still until everyone is ready. They wait until the prayer is said. Then they eat.

little girl with spoon at feeding center

The “vegetables” are the leaves that are available in the village. What pigs typically eat, I’m told. While it may not seem like much to us, this feeding program is able to give them one meal a day, five days a week…enough so their parents do not have to choose between feeding them and an education. The pastor explains to us that school at every level costs money in Cambodia. This program makes it possible for them to get both: eat and learn. An education is something that can help release these children from remaining in poverty. This is but one of the five village feeding centers funded by this amazing Cambodian pastor and his church. He explains to us how they are currently able to feed about 500 children per week. He had a vision, made it happen, and continues to grow it. And it’s changing lives.

So, are you really starving?

Over-Privileged

Post-New Outlook, Pre-Perfection

When the guilt hits, it strikes quickly and with little warning.

I just got to the doctor’s office for a post-operation appointment (ACL reconstruction-left knee, compliments of indoor soccer). I plop down on one of those deceiving uncomfortable chairs and grab a magazine. Inside front cover: something about Cambodia. It’s inescapable. I like to think it’s a destined sort of thing, when really it’s just that I’m finally noticing.

Time ticks by -30 minutes – that’s just how it seems to go to at these kinds of places. It’s a waiting game. To distract myself, I people watch. There is an elderly couple sleeping, parents on their phones, while their children watch the exotic fish swim in the massive tank. Oh, definitely just saw the yellow fish from Nemo-my bubbles – and now they’re keeping the fish alert by ignoring the “Do not tap on the glass” sign. -50 minutes – I’m starting to get frustrated…and a bit antsy. The room is practically empty now…what is taking so long?? My frustration is building, then a different emotion floods in: guilt.

My conscience is screaming, “YOU ARE PRIVILEGED TO BE HERE!” Oh goodness…..”THIS SURGERY WAS A LUXURY NOT A NECESSITY!” That’s when the lump forms in my throat, reminding me why it’s called “getting choked up.” My eyes are flooded with tears as the images do the same in my mind.

The little boy with mange:

photoAGE

The girl with the infected wound from a motorized scooter accident:moto photo

These are the ones who need a doctor they may never see. I will be patient.

Altered Approach

I can’t remember how it was before. I don’t recall what it felt like to be content with my self-centeredness. It seems my mind has erased all evidence of finding impatient entitlement an acceptable state of being. No, I’m not practically perfect now. I’ve just changed. Now, my impatience is always met with a gut-wrenching perceptive check. We’re told we shouldn’t feel guilty; “blessed to be a blessing” the saying goes. Despite the truth of the phrase, the matter remains that the disgrace felt is a must. Allowing self-importance after what I’ve seen is absurd and wastes the gift.

It probably sounds less than desirable to live life constantly bettering your thought-process. I need it. My perspective has been changed indefinitely and to act any other way is not an option. I don’t use it as a license to judge, lecture, or criticize. It’s near impossible to explain the humbling process that takes place. I’ve noticed many people feel like it’s an entitling process for missionaries…for us to come back and treat those who have never been – and therefore may not understand the intensity of the depravity we’ve witnessed – as though they fall beneath our holiness. Give me a break. If anything, I feel far less obliged to comment on the choices of others; my outlook comes from a different place. It changes you for the better and for always.

slum

Jen Hatmaker, author and missionary, wrote about missions, “I can’t unknow what I know, and I can’t unsee what I’ve seen; it leaves me aching.” I know what she means, I have the same ache inside that will never diminish. It sounds miserable, but I find it to be a stunningly sober reminder that life exists beyond myself. It is in that sobriety I choose to perceive reality.

Highlighting the Humble

The Least of These

James 1_27_instagram editWe’ll probably never know if the little girl we met at the Killing Fields was parent-less. We didn’t have an interpreter with us to talk to her about her life. However, the likelihood is high. She was barefoot, out begging with a group of children in the middle of a school day, and selling all she had for money: her small body. Combine the context with the UNICEF fact that 153 million children in the world are orphans and you’ve got a tragic but safe bet. The children most likely to be sold into sex trafficking, child labor, and child sex tourism are those who live on the streets and those without parents to care for them: the orphans.

Not Without Hope

To combat the harsh reality, Global Reach has built 3 Hope Centers (orphanages) in Cambodia. These centers take in at-risk and orphaned children and get them off the streets. Here, they get to go to school, learn about God, and have some semblance of a family. We financially support them year-round. We go back and visit each year to see our kids growing up, begin whatever construction or upkeep needs to be done on the building (expanding usually!) and throw a massive birthday party to celebrate the kids. We pave pathways, KC_before and after_12move dirt, sand walls, remove mold, repaint, plant flowers, and paint fences. We play insanely long soccer games, paper-scissors-rock, dodgeball, chicken&hawk, and we catch tiny geckos. We strengthen our distant relationship as best we can. And then we cry as hard as the kids when we leave. We are there a few short days out of an entire year. The money, the building, support…that’s what we’ve given. What about the rest of the year? Who helps them get ready for school, cares for them, feeds them, guides them, offers comfort, shows love, and attempts to meet nearly every emotional, physical, and spiritual need that only a parent or similar figure can provide? These things are given by the pastor, his wife, and the aunties from the church.

I have witnessed a woman remember the names, ages, shoe sizes, clothing sizes, and favorite colors of over 30 children…KC_2010and she didn’t need a list. I’ve seen her thoughtfully and carefully sort through outfits and place each one with the right child. I’ve been greeted at the airport by a pastor who drives 4 hours just to see us when we arrive, then returns to the Hope Center to wait until we make our way to their small village. I’ve watched his eyes light up with genuine joy and glowing pride as the sweet kids sing Jesus songs and play games with us. They care for each child as they do their own. They run a church in the front of the building and have the Hope Center and their own room in the back. And I’ve watched this same couple humbly thank us for supporting them and the kids. These amazing people who provide life and give perpetual hope to children, who would otherwise be forgotten, thank us with tears in their eyes. As I said, we give a building and money. They give life. We don’t deserve such praise. They do. It is through them I have witnessed what the Bible describes. I have seen true religion lived out in a very real way. I have yet to see anything as beautiful.

Gaining Perspective

A New Reality

The Killing Fields…

No, this girl couldn’t have been more than 8-years-old. In that moment, all of my naive perceptions of the world shattered. And it was only day 2.

The bus pulls into the dirt parking lot and we watch a swarm of children head our direction and block our only exit. Tohn, our bus driver, opens the door and our senses are instantly overloaded: the sounds of begging and broken English; the blindingly bright sun; the conflicting smells of sweet fruit, sweat, and hot dirt; mouths dry from the sudden wave of unyielding humidity…and it was time to get off the bus. We push through the slew of children as gently and politely as possible. At this point, it has become the hottest day of my life and I’m sweating so profusely I do not want to brush against or be touched by anyone. “No, thank you,” “That’s nice, but no thanks,” and “Please get your fruit out of my face” are heard as we finally get to the entrance of Cambodia’s most infamous tourist trap: the Killing Fields.

Choeung EkA chain link fence surrounds the area; keeping beggars out and tourists in. We compose ourselves and go inside. Our group goes to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields each year to learn an integral piece of Cambodia’s history that lends to understanding why it is in its current state. We pass a 200-foot tall stupa that houses the excavated remains of some 5,000 Khmer Rouge victims. We reads signs explaining the history of the field as we weave along paths strewn with clothes and bones coming up from the eroded ground. Empty pits mar the once whole earth like scars that won’t fade….

The Inevitable Questions

When I tell people that I go to Cambodia every summer, I am often met with the response, “What’s in Cambodia?” Despite my instant thought being “my heart,” I refrain. Those who ask such questions want real answers. This is not only limited to strangers who inquire offhandedly, but also those familiar with my going. They want to know what I did. They want stories, experiences, anecdotes, and adventures. And they want them as soon as my feet hit American soil.

My favorite question upon landing after 30+ hours of travel is…”How was it?” My irritable mind thinks “Ever had your heart dragged across a third world country?” This is far from tactful or Christ-like so I usually say something about the trip being SO awesome and that’s it. Through no fault of their own, people don’t really know what to ask. I wouldn’t if I was in their shoes. The most difficult part of sharing is knowing where to begin. When you’ve been in a country for 2 weeks doing something significant all day, every day, choosing a starting point feels impossible. So I safely go with the beginning and then run through the itinerary. I have watched the light of life fade from people’s eyes as I dryly recant a play-by-play of each day’s events. People want to hear moments, not the schedule.

I’m usually asked to tell my stories while my mind is still so fogged by jet lag the heart-warming tales of love and hope evade my memory. So instead of getting “Jesus moments,” people are told cliffhangers about an interaction between a sick American and a Cambodian doctor who felt his ungloved, unwashed finger would make an adequate tongue depressor (true story) or how sweet and sour kitten was the main dish served (not so true…probably). The point is, the trip is missed and moving narratives remain untold because it’s so dang hard to know where to embark on this journey with people…we don’t want them to miss a second of what has changed our lives forever.

Why Blog Now?

As this will be my fifth year to go, it’s time to share the stories I felt were only fit for my private journals. Along with others who have gone to Cambodia with Global Reach- both with and before me- I will give my account of what we have done and seen in Cambodia. I now realize how imperative it is we recount our testimonies of this trip. God sends us to be His messengers and witnesses…messengers are meant to report back what they’ve seen and how the message was received. We are to tell others all that has been done, how it has transformed our lives, and how God uses even the most ordinary of people to spread His love and hope to “all the ends of the earth.” Why not start here?

…Back to the Killing Fields

As we walk the fence line, we come across more children. These are not stupid kids; they beg through the fence that is far from the entrance. A group of 8 boys and a girl are singing to and following us. We bring candy (Dum Dum suckers and Smarties) to give them. As we are handing out treats, my sister asks the little girl if she would like a Dum Dum. Problem: Dum Dum is EXTREMELY close to a phrase those in the Cambodian sex trade use for oral sex (change the Ds to Ys). The child, apparently very familiar with these words, instantaneously transforms from little girl to woman in her body language, facial expression, and tone. “Hey beautiful, wanna go away?” she asks as she beckons my sister to follow her through the fence. Horrified by her mistake and the little girl’s misunderstanding, my sister tries to explain to the her that she didn’t mean that, how she doesn’t have to do that for anyone ever, how precious she is, and how much Jesus  loves her. My sister’s desperate attempt falls on unperceiving ears. The little girl continued to echo her offer in a melodious voice that will haunt me forever.

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  • "In this life we cannot always do great things. But we can do small things with great love." -Mother Teresa 4 years ago

Off to Cambodia!

July 28th, 2013
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