Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Different Kind of New Year's Eve

Today of all days most people would be getting ready to ring in the New Year with friends and family. Perhaps back home we would be hosting a New Year's Eve party or going to one. We would all be getting dressed up and heading out maybe to a more expensive restaurant than normal and indulging in frivolities of all sorts. Here in Cambodia, the neon lights are on, the streets are busy and indeed in the expat community one will certainly find the kind of night life that would be some what similar in the west.  But today, I opted to experience a different kind of New Year's Eve.

Last weekend one of the teachers Thida at the Newsong centre  invited me to go and visit a slum area today and asked if I would tell the Christmas story to the kids in the community. Now I'm all for being stretched out of my comfort zone and while my Khmer language skills are improving, its not good enough to tell the reason for Christmas in Khmer to kids so I asked Pastor Chantha if he could provide some help. He quickly enlisted 7 of his disciples which was perfect since they not only speak Khmer but are way more gifted in ministering to kids in these kind of communities than I will ever be. So today came and off we went this afternoon to a particular place that is not too far from my home but yet is known as being much worse than Svay Pak in terms of gangsters, kids being sold etc.

I asked Thida how many kids would attend and she estimated about 100 children so we went to buy some bread to give out as a gift. For 100 loaves, we paid $16.25----that's about $0.16 per loaf. I couldn't help but think of the symbolism behind those loaves. Jesus said He is the Bread of Life and while we were giving them physical bread, our desire is that they would know the One who wants to give them spiritual food that will satisfy their souls.

Thida carrying the bread
Pastor Chantha's disciples heading into the slum area
We headed down towards the water and were warned to keep our eyes on the path as we could step on human feces or smell urine. Well the urine smells were every where although I didn't see any human poo as I was too busy snapping pictures. Pastor Chantha was right, this place is worse than Svay Pak. You think you've seen poverty, then you come here and you see another level of poverty. There are so many narrow alley ways which are all like a maze yet what struck me as we walked into the heart of this slum community was how friendly people were. Every where we turned, people looked up and smiled. This is so different than in Svay Pak where people tend to be more suspicious. Here there is a curious look on their face as we walk by.
One of the many alley ways in the slum
People playing ''bingo''

We finally came to our destination and there before us was a little shack---I think it is the outreach centre. Standing outside were several kids dressed up in their school uniforms and as we entered into the building they greeted us with the biggest smiles and the traditional Khmer Sampea. It never ceases to amaze me in the most poorest areas of this country, how polite the Khmer people can be and how respectful the children are. 

You would think living in such squalor conditions, people would not want to smile at any thing nor any one and yet here in Cambodia, in these most poorest of poor communities, Christ is entering in. Mother Teresa once said, let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love. Today, I felt showered with love as each person I saw offered a welcoming smile to us.

Those who are doing the outreach are local Cambodians, there are no foreigners here, just Khmer Christians who want to share the gospel with their own people and who want to bring His light into this dark area. Thida has been volunteering here with her husband and her brother for the past 2 years. She tells me she has seen no fruit as yet and while it is so easy to be discouraged, she loves being here and helping out with what little she has. Today I got a glimpse of why its a privilege to serve in such a community.

I am so thankful for Pastor Chantha's disciples. They are so used to doing these kind of outreaches to the brick factories near Svay Pak and it was such a joy to see them once again in action as they tried to organize the kids and prepare them for the Christmas story they were going to share. In many ways, as I sat watching them, my mind wondered back to the summer of 2008 when I first went to Svay Pak. The kids there were wild and crazy and were not really listening at the beginning but when we enlisted helpers from CEF (Child Evangelism Fellowship) they brought order to the chaos. So it was with amusement and yet appreciation that I watched Pastor Chantha's disciples do exactly what the CEF workers did back in 2008. It is not surprising after all, the disciples have also been trained through CEF. It is a beautiful sight to see these young people who themselves were once broken and filled with hopelessness but as Christ has entered into their lives, they are now reflecting His light and taking His light into other broken communities and planting seeds of hope and love into the next generation.
Chantha's disciples asking the kids to pray
As the disciples began to share different stories with the kids, the crowds began to gather as the older people heard the songs, they came by and sat watching. A woman brought her daughter towards the section where the other kids were and I noticed that the little girl had some kind of disability. I helped her as she made her way limping into the crowd of kids towards her big sister who could not be more than 10 years old, who sat with open arms as this little one just threw herself into her lap. It was such a delightful picture to see and I could feel the tears coming towards my eyes. Jesus's love is in this place.

But that scene set the tone for more tears as I looked over to another area towards a boy I saw sitting in a wheel chair who was severely handicapped with some form of mild brain damage. In Cambodia, I have not seen too many disabled children living with families. So often such children are hidden or worst yet disposed off because in a Buddhist culture such as Cambodia, handicapped or disabled children reflect bad karma. The prevailing belief is that the disability was caused by bad actions in a previous life which in turn can lead to discrimination against those with such handicaps.  Most people would want to avoid being close to such kids or even keeping such kids because it would be too costly to care for them. Moreover, children in these communities help their parents out with household chores from very young ages but a disabled child, so often is a disposable child.  But as I saw this young boy, I also saw his mother who was seeking to place him close enough to all the action so that he could see what was going on. At one point, when all the kids were standing up, the mother took her son out of the wheel chair and held him up so that he could continue to see. It was a beautiful picture of a mother's tender love towards her son. This is not a common sight but here in this poorest of poor areas, God's love and tenderness was displayed. In a country where I am so used to hearing about children being abused, it is a refreshing sight to see such simple acts of love.  Everyone has a seat at Christ's banquet table. No one is forgotten, all are welcomed!

I was invited up to the small little shack which was jammed with probably 40 people sitting listening to the Gospel message. The person speaking asked the crowd ''do you want to be saved by God''----amazingly everyone put their hands up. No wonder Jesus said in Matthew 5:3 God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for himfor the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. Truly it is in these slum areas, we see a hunger and thirst for Christ that I so often do not see any where else. It is here that I see the words of the bible coming alive in ways, that I do not experience else where. It is here, that I am constantly reminded that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Christ. Many years ago a missionary friend once said, that there are no God forsaken places, only church forsaken places. It is so true, God is here, Christ is visiting this neighborhood, He has not forsaken even the most poorest and broken communities. In the midst of the slime, the dirt, the flies, He is working, He is stirring hearts, He is opening spiritual eyes, He is touching lives and drawing young and old to Himself as they come and see Him, as they come as they are!

Orphans doing a Christmas drama
The day ended with a drama of the Christmas story performed by orphans from another place who came to share about Christ. Both old and young gathered around to watch the Christmas pageant. Jesus said 'welcome the little children.' Here it was, orphans ministering to those in this community. These young kids are the future of Cambodia and yet here in this slum, I came away filled with hope, not despair. I came away once again reminded that Christ is at work even in the most forsaken places. I came away thankful for folks like Thida and her friends who God has raised up to serve the people in this community.

Mother Teresa once said: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” Today I saw some ripples being casted in this community through Thida, her friends and through Pastor Chantha's disciples. I hope I will have the opportunity to return here to create some ripples. There is much work to be done, but the work has been started and He who began a good work in this place will complete it! I do not believe God just brought me to this community to visit. There is a purpose which perhaps He will reveal at some later date but for now my mind and heart is stirred. I can't help but think, could this be a place of outreach for us at Ratanak?

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Fun Christmas Day!

Yesterday on Christmas day, the temperature was nice and cool at 24 degrees celsius. In the morning I had the wonderful opportunity and privilege to visit my two little friends in the brothel district as I had gotten them both some sporty outfits. Their grandmother is now back in the village and they are staying with her instead of their parents who are living about 1 km away. SN and C's grandmother is a believer and yesterday morning, the two girls were able to attend Sunday school for the first time since their return to the village. It was a great joy to hang out with them and I felt a bit overwhelmed with them clinging to not the most touchy feel person but it was just fun to be with them as they sat next to me in their grand mother's home and where ever we went they just wanted to hold hands.

Visiting SN and C's home

Anyway, we went with Pastor Chantha's disciple Siny to the local convenience store to buy some ice cream for them.  To hear them giggling at the back of the car was a real treat as they sat eating their ice cream cones. I don't think they had ever had an opportunity to be driven in a car so it was quite a novelty. Some thing as simple as this, seem to give them such pleasure. But then again, this is how normal kids should react.  They asked if I would go and visit their parents which I was happy to do but when we got to their parents home, no one was there. Apparently the mother had gone to the market and their father had gone to work but we are not exactly sure what work he is doing.

Its too bad really as I was hoping to pray over the parents. I have had a sense that now that they are in the brothel area they are being hemmed in by God and so the need to pray for their salvation is more in the fore front of my mind. After all, this is the ultimate desire for this community to be transformed from the inside out. Unless the hearts of the people are transformed, they will continue to see their children as product and not made in the image of God.

When we were driving back from the parents home, one of the girls remarked that she was glad that she did not see her mother. I couldn't help but wonder if is because they are fearful of their mother. I would not be surprised as its typically the mothers who force their children to be sold. Yet, in talking to Pastor Chantha about this, he said that even though the girls know their parents do bad things, they still want to protect them. Again, we see the inherent stronghold of family honor and obligation that is so endemic within these families. This is something that we will be constantly dealing with as we seek to help in the reintegration process of the older girls. It is one of the most difficult challenges to navigate because family obligation taken to the extreme, distorts the sense of right and wrong when it comes to moral values.

Anne, Lois, Natalie and Judy
Later that afternoon I went for a late lunch at the home of one of my missionary friends Lois. We had a small gathering with all the Christmas trimmings of turkey, stuffing, mash potatoes, salad, cranberry sauce and home made whole wheat honey rolls. I think I just added a few more pounds from all that eating.  I met up again with Judy who used to live as a missionary kid here in Cambodia. Her parents were one of the first C&MA (Christian & Missionary Alliance) missionaries way back in the early 1930s. She is now working with an NGO here who ministers to boys who are being sexually abused. Natalie is a short termer and a prayer warrior type from Texas who is hoping to move here on a more permanent basis. She is currently working with Lois at Daughters Cambodia, one of our Ratanak partners and my friend Anne is now finishing off her term at Place of Rescue and will be moving to Kampong Speu to oversee the medical needs at her church's new orphanage.

All in all, it was a fun filled and relaxing day, hanging out with both my spiritual children and good friends as we celebrated the birth of our Lord. Whether in Cambodia or in another country, the joy and hope that Christ's birth represents never changes. It is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Jesus is the Hope of the nations, He is our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. May each of us this Christmas season and in the new year have the ongoing privilege of experiencing all these attributes of His character as He continues to direct our steps. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve - Khmer Style

Despite the fact that I am miles away from Toronto the place that has been my home for years, it is here in Cambodia that I am enjoying many firsts. Tonight was my first Christmas Eve in Cambodia and what a joy it was to be part of a Khmer family who is celebrating Christmas. A few weeks ago an old and dear friend named Jaya invited me to join her family for their Christmas Eve celebrations. I couldn't resist another opportunity to learn about Khmer culture. Currently many in the expat community have gone away for Christmas but I think it is such a privilege to be here and to experience Christmas in a somewhat less commercialized form.

Ironically one of the local newspaper's was commenting about the fact that Christmas is a fun and exciting time, a chance to exchange gifts and hang out with friends but there is a need to be careful not to let consumerism and advertisements affect the way one thinks about what it means to be Cambodian. There is a concern that younger Cambodians are becoming too carried away with a festival that has nothing to do with their identity, but is only about buying new things. One perhaps could argue the same point in the West where focus is so much on the gifts and parties, that today's young generation have no idea of what the true meaning of Christmas is all about.

So tonight as I went to Jaya's place, I was curious to learn how Christmas is done here in a middle to upper class family. As soon as I entered the home, I noticed a big Christmas tree---just like we would have at home.

Jaya is young in her faith but none of her children are believers. Nonetheless, it was interesting to observe that as we were waiting for all the guests to arrive, one of the first songs to be played on the family Karoke video was 'Silent Night, Holy Night.'' This was interspersed with other family Christmas carols and songs that we would know in the west.

Jaya had invited one of her old pals, a man who is around 78 years old ---a widow just like herself, to come for dinner. I don't know his name but it doesn't matter as in Cambodian culture, you just call an older man ''Pou'' (pronounced " Poo'') which means ''uncle.'' Its fascinating to see that when an older person arrives, all the young people in the home get up and go towards him, placing their hands together in a prayer like fashion in a traditional Cambodian sampeah. It is a way of showing respect but that applies even to one like me who is a guest---the young people come up and politely greet you with the Sampeah. I can't help but think how North American kids have a lot to learn from Cambodian kids in terms of showing respect for elders. Unlike Western culture which often shows disregard to older people, here in Cambodian, the older you are the more revered you are---this is good to know considering that on this side of the pond, I am considered old although tonight Jaya's family thought I was in my 30s.
Jaya in the red top, with her family and ''Pou"' on the right hand side
So while we waited for the rest of Jaya's family members to arrive, the food started coming out. It was an interesting mix of Western and Asian foods---Jaya enjoys eating spaghetti and so that was on the menu tonight along side, Khmer curry beef, grilled chicken wings, BBQ crab and fish.

BBQuing in Cambodia is quite interesting in and of itself, Khmer people are very practical and so a BBQ pit was set up outside in front of the house on the main street---it doesn't matter if vehicles are driving buy, they just drive around the BBQ pit.

One of the highlights of my visit tonight was to sit and have a conversation with Jaya's older sister. She is unmarried but became a Christian 4 years ago through her boss. She now attends New Life Church here in he city---a church that we have come to appreciate and value given their strong discipleship program. But Jaya's sister works for another organization that is involved in helping trafficking victims and so we had much to talk about. We got onto the subject of living in the Pol Pot era and how Khmers deal with pain. Typically, the older Khmer generation does not like talking about the Khmer Rouge era because the memories and pain is still very much raw. Much of that pain today continues to be buried deep in people's hearts. Yet as I chatted with Jaya's sister it was encouraging to hear her say that when she became a Christian, she was no longer scared to sleep by herself or talk about her experiences during the Khmer Rouge. God has cultivated in her a heart to pray and she is praying away her fears and praying away her pain as she has seen and experienced God's healing over her heart and mind. Now she feels free to talk about the difficulties she endured under the Khmer Rouge. But she attributes all of this to God's healing work in her life. How appropriate it is that God has now placed her in an environment to care and encourage young women who themselves have lived through atrocities where their bodies have been ripped apart in unimaginable ways. God has a wonderful way of redeeming peoples trauma and pain and using them to comfort others. 

I can't help but think that if God healed the Khmer people of all the trauma they have experienced during the era of the Khmer Rouge, how much more of a profound impact would they have on ministering to the thousands of girls who are being sold. How much more could they be a blessing to these young women and be a living testimony that no matter the trauma, God is deeper, bigger and greater to bring about healing and restoration and transformation.

As the evening continued, a bit of Christmas commercialism came in with Jaya's son dressed up as Santa Claus handing out bars of chocolate and candy 

So Christmas Eve in Cambodia in some ways is not that much different than in the West---there is a lots of food, lots of eating and lots of laughs as family and friends gather together.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Shopping at the Local Market

Today was one of those days I decided to continue my adventure of entering into a predominantly Khmer environment by visiting the local market known in Khmer as (psah twah madah). This morning I had talked to my language tutor about whether he thought I should drive to the local market or take a tuk tuk. His suggestion was to take a tuk tuk but I chose not to listen to him only because I wanted to go to two different markets and also now that I am borrowing my friend's car, I wanted to explore the city a bit more. So off I went, the driving in Phnom Penh while chaotic at times is actually quite a lot of fun. Its a bit of a puzzle driving through the roads but the advantage of driving a small SUV is that the motos and tuk tuks give way to you. I am discovering that the city is not that big and is like a grid so for the most part, one can't really get lost. The challenge at times is identifying what street you are on since the street numbers are not clearly marked. This probably explains why tuk tuk drivers or motodop drivers use landmarks. It makes sense to do this when you don't know the street numbers.
Psah Orissey
At any rate, my little adventure to Psah Orissey---this is the local market ---found me driving through some really neat streets surrounded with little stalls selling different type of fruits. It was total chaos but you feel like you are in the center of a beehive of activity and you are! Anyway, after getting lost initially, I found the market and the next challenge was to find a parking spot. In this part of Phnom Penh, you don't have regular parking spots and the place was crowded. Now I know why my language instructor said take a tuk tuk. The market is in the center and there is one large road that goes around the market. All the cars park in that vicinity and so I started to pray asking the Lord to open a spot for me....and He did. Over here, you have these young guys who direct the cars and tell them where to park and how to park...I don't know who they are working for but at times like this one is grateful for them as they at least attempt to stop the traffic if you are parking or leaving. Of course you have to tip them when you leave but its worth the 25 cents or 50 cents. You have to put your car in neutral and no hand brake as these 'parking attendants' will move your car forward and backward so that other cars can park.

So off I went into the market to buy my Christmas paper and bags and some gifts from some of my Khmer friends. Because this is the local market, people usually only speak Khmer so one is forced to use the language. This is one of the reasons I went. One of the interesting things about the markets here is that you find the exact same product being sold by several buyers all in the same location. Here people don't quite understand that it is better to not be too close to your competitor. So if you are a shopper, it can be quite overwhelming trying to figure out which store to buy your item especially when 10 or 20 of them sell the exact same item in the same area. You basically dive in and start negotiating hoping that you get a good deal but even if you are not happy with your price, at least you don't have too far to go to bargain with someone else.

One of the advantages of shopping at a local market is things are so much cheaper because this is where the average Khmer shops. As well, one is not harassed as much ie: since I look like a foreigner, they all assume I only speak English and so the sellers are not always bugging you to buy something from them because they are not sure how to respond to you. Of course, one of the challenges for foreigners is that people in the local market tend to use more slang so that is a whole other language. Thankfully, today the Lord connected me with sellers who understand my Khmer.

Well it was noon time and I was getting a tad hungry and broke my cardinal rule of not buying food when I am hungry. I had just loaded all my goodies into the car and across the street my eyes caught the food stalls that sell crispy roast pork. I haven't had this since I've been here so took the opportunity to buy half a kilo.
The Food stall I bought my Crispy Roast Pork from

The photo above is quite interesting---depending on how ravenous you are you can have a piglet or you can have a much bigger size pig. All this to say, it was well worth the $4.00 I paid and I was happy to hear from Bunthan that I got a good deal as typically a full kilo is about $11.00! Next up, I also saw one of my favorite fruits. Over here in South East Asia it is known as the queen of the fruit---in English it is called Mangosteen but in Khmer it is known as Mankut. The king of the fruit is Durian---which smells like a dirty sock but taste creamy ---many missionaries like Durian but it is an acquired taste---a taste that I have not quite acquired :-)
Anyway, Mangosteens are one of the most exotic fruits. Their exterior is not exactly pretty but when you cut it open you encounter a pearl of white figs that has the most unusual but special taste. I'm always so amazed at the variety of fruits that God has created for us.

So my adventure to the local market turned out to be a whole lot of fun. While it took a couple hours to navigate in and out of the market, it is a place I hope to go to regularly as like any good Asian, I can't resist a good deal and look forward to the bargaining process.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

From Melanie's Weekly Devotional Group #2

Fast for Freedom
Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?
 ~ Isaiah 58:6

In March 2010, myself, and eleven others from my church embarked on a mission trip to the world’s most notorious brothel district: the village of Sway Pak in Cambodia. This area is renown for its sale of young girls, even as young as five years old. A few years ago, some Christian organizations began working in Sway Pak to prevent such atrocities. Since they literally moved into the darkness to fight for the lives of the helpless who have no voice, things have begun to change.
We had the privilege of painting a building that was originally being built as a pedophile hotel but was never completed. Ratanak, the organization we represented, bought the unfinished building and made it into a church, school, housing and medical centre. We also painted a mural inside a former brothel a few doors away. Two years earlier, a group had come and knocked down the walls of the rape cubicles of this particular brothel, as well as the back entrance -- a door that was cemented shut to prevent the girls from escaping. To that group, knocking down those walls must have seemed like a tangible way to do the fast spoken of in today’s verse. As the light came flooding in to those prison cells, it must have felt like those sore, blistered hands had claimed victory and, on some level, broken every yoke and let the oppressed go free!
This is just what Jesus did when He hung on the cross. He was the Son of God who died to save our lives. He was the light of the world who obliterated our darkness. He was the ransom that bought our freedom. He was the one who was broken to break the bonds of wickedness. He carried our sin load and broke the heavy yokes.
These verses in Isaiah give tangible ways to “fast” in a manner that is pleasing to God. They are not what we usually equate with typical fasting. It is a fast of a much different sort. We are to loose the bonds of wickedness and undo the heavy burdens. We are directed to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke. The verses that follow today’s verse (see vs. 7-10 of Isaiah 58) note that such things as: feeding the hungry, bringing the homeless into your home, and giving clothes to those who have none, are practical “fast” fundamentals.
You may never break down the cement walls of a brothel, but there are many other barriers you can break down, seen or unseen, to help gain another’s freedom. You may never risk your life to save an imprisoned girl, but you can visit her in her “prison”. You may never feed five thousand in one sitting, but you can feed five thousand a meal at a time. You may never die for someone, but you can point him to the One who did.
Be blessed to know that you are close to the heart of God when you care for the “least of these.”

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas at Svay Pak - Surprised!

Today we headed to Svay Pak at 7am on a cool and breezy day. The main street was taken over by a large 'canopy' like covering that is commonly used for any social events like weddings or funerals. Pastor Chantha and Bunthan expected 600 people to come and they were right. The birthday party for Jesus was about to begin with the Sunday morning service. Initially we sat behind the first row but were ushered up to the front close to the stage. The crowd had started to gather and get seated for the morning service while others were still piling into the tent.. The little kids who typically are at the Sunday service were standing along the side of the stage wanting to get a glimpse close up and personnel of all the festivities that were about to begin.

Seated in the front were some of the local officials --- two different chiefs from the Sangkhat (province) who were invited to the service. These are very important people as they have a lot of influence in their communities. If one is setting up a ministry or buying land in the local village of commune, the Sangkhat chiefs have to be consulted to get their approval.
Sangkhat Chiefs in beige

The service started with a familiar Khmer worship song led byPastor Chantha's 40 disciples who were all dressed in red golf -t-shirts that said Merry Christmas 2011.

Following that was one of my favorites--a traditional Khmer Apsara ballet type dance signifying an offering that was led by Phally and some of the other female disciples. Many of you know Phally's story and so seeing her here with the others all dressed up looking like a Khmer princess served as a reminder that Jesus is restoring beauty for ashes.


This dance is so beautiful to watch and speaks much to the Khmer classical dance as it requires much in the way of balance, elegance and precision. Whenever I see young Khmer girls or youth dressed up in such traditional Khmer attire, I can't help but think of how regal they look, reflecting in many ways their identity that in God's kingdom their are His princesses!

It was not too long after this dance finished that I was looking across the stage at the people walking by when two little girls caught my eyes. At first I was in a bit of a shock. They certainly did not look like the princesses dressed up in ragged clothes but it was them---it was Srey Neth (not her real name) and her sister Channa (nor her real name). Just over  a month ago on November 8th, I had blogged that these two sisters were taken by their father probably to Siem Reap since their parents owned a brothel in that area. We were all worried and concerned knowing that they were once again at risk of being sold. See link for more details of their story and history in Svay Pak.  About 20 minutes passed by when I got a tap on my shoulder, it was Siny one of pastor Chantha's disciples bringing Srey Neth and Channa over to me and telling me 'I thought you might want to see your two friends.'' I could barely contain my emotions as Srey Neth hugged and then held on to me and I to her and her little sister. The tears started flowing no matter how hard I tried to stay in control. It was no use. Once again, God had answered the prayers that many of us had been praying daily over this past month for these two. I just stood with them trying to regain composure and almost in a state of shock. God had given to me and to many of you, an early Christmas gift. He had once again shown His faithfulness to her and to us. It was then that a comment came to my mind that a dear intercessor had sent me  last month when I had first written about Srey Neth's unexpected disappearance from Svay Pak.

She wrote: My heart ached for you and with you as you wrote of Srey Neth's current situation...I am so glad you are in her are there as a spiritual watchmen over her even tho' right now she is temporarily beyond your view/sight...yet, she remains "in your vision"  and that is a preserving force around her right now.  Father, let her know that Your eye is upon Srey Neth even when her eyes cannot see her.  Let Lisa know that You attend her declaration that "hope cannot disappoint us".  You stand behind your Word to fulfill it! And, Father, let her know reassuringly that even tho' she is a sent one, yet You have actually asked her to come with walk at your side hearing the whispers of Your heart as You lead her into the fruitfulness you have coming...We are confident that the fruit is even now in the seeds of this season. These words have sustained me over this time not just as I have prayed for Srey Neth but as I think of so many whose names we do not know and yet who like Srey Neth, find themselves in the same predicament of being sold as sex slaves. They may not be in our visible sight but they remain in our vision because God has impressed upon our hearts to be spiritual watchmen over their lives, to pray unceasingly, not losing hope but holding onto His promises that Hope does not disappoint (Romans 5:5).

We are still trying to gather information on Srey Neth and her sister, but from the initial discussions it seems that her parents cannot go back to Siem Reap because the police want to arrest them so they may have no choice but to stay in Svay Pak and Srey Neth may live with her grandmother who maybe returning from Vietnam. God has an unusual way of answering prayers when we pray that He frustrates the plans of the wicked! His promises are so true!

Srey Neth has lost weight and does not look well. The smile and joy that was once visibly evident seems to have been smothered. But here again, we look to the Lord to do His healing work in her and her sister. He does not forget where He plants the seed and so often in our prayers for Srey Neth and for Channa, we have declared that Christ had the last word over them, not Satan, not their parents, but Jesus. And so, the Lord has brought His broken and bruised back to this little village that is notorious for destroying the sacred within these little ones. He has brought her back to a place which became her refuge, a place where she encountered Him as her Fortress, her Shield and her Deliverer. So yet again we are confident of this, that He will bind up her wounds, He will restore and rebuild the broken gates and walls within her, He will redeem her pain because He has the last word over her life!

Well after that encounter, you can imagine I was a bit distracted as the program continued with Youth Pastor Ratanak and several others performed a drama re-enacting the story of Jesus's birth.
The angel visiting Mary
Marty and Joseph with baby Jesus
The sheep being distracted with their food (popcorn)

Following the story of Jesus's birth, there were more performances, with songs led by the church group leaders and also a dance performed by some of the girls from Newsong. 

Svay Pak Church group leaders
While all this was happening, the little kids were crowding around the stage, trying to get a peak at all the activities and then the disciples returned with another drama performance once again highlighting how Christ rescued a person from sin and sets them free if they receive Him as their Lord and Savior.

Sin has been broken, this young man receives Christ into his life

The youth group came up also to do a dance performance. Once again, it was such a privilege and honor to see the next generation being raised up in Svay Pak. Pastor Chantha's disciples are ministering to these youth 

Svay Pak Youth Group

as they disciple them and mentor them. As I think of this, I once again stand in awe of the Lord. Just two years ago, Pastor Chantha was discipling his first group of young people and now here it is, a new youth group being formed that are now being discipled by those whom Pastor Chantha has trained up. 

God indeed is building His kingdom in Svay Pak. The transformation of this community some times seem slow because the pedophiles are still coming, the traffickers are still selling the kids and so often we sound like the prophet Habakkuk when he complained to the Lord: 2 How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. (Hab 1:2-4) But today, God showed me again through Srey Neth and through the young people in the Svay Pak church that God's plans ALWAYS prevail. His PROMISES are TRUE! His VISIONS speak of a time when all that He has spoken will come to pass. 3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it;  it will certainly come and will not delay.(Hab 2:3) 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas at Newsong

Today has been a very special day. A day that I have been looking forward to for some time. It was the annual Christmas party at the Newsong centre. I wish I could show you all the photos that I took because there is a saying that a picture tells a thousand words.It is my hope that what I share will give you a glimpse of the experience we had today. We (Beth, Stephen and I) arrived all dressed up in our Khmer outfits as we were advised by the staff at Newsong that since it was a special occasion all the staff would be wearing their traditional outfits.
Beth, Bunthan and I
We arrived at 1pm and as we entered into the drive way, the Christmas decorations were up and a Christmas tree was surrounded with many presents. The house mums are responsible for buying the gifts for the girls that are under their care and the Khmer staff along with the girls help with all the decorations. They did an incredible job. Of course when I saw Bunthan, I was teasing her that she had dressed like a ''barang'' (foreigner). She just giggled at me.

A Nativity Scene

Don & Bridget (Diretors of Newsong)
The festivities started at around 2pm and all the girls were dressed up. Some of the older ones were wearing Prom dresses that were donated by a young woman from Kansas city who managed to get old prom dresses from her friends and send 100 of them over. The young girls were all dressed up in costumes as they were part of a Christmas play that depicted the birth of Christ. Some of them dressed as angels, others as shepherds, the 3 wisemen and of course Mary and Joseph. One little girl wearing a red and white elf outfit with a matching hat, came up to me and give me the biggest hug and then led me to my seat as if she was the hostess for the event. I found out later she was little 'M' --- the five year old that was recently rescued by the staff in Svay Pak. Medical tests have shown that she too did not escape the abuse that is so prevalent of girls who come from Svay Pak. But here she was, full of smiles, happy and clearly adjusting well to her new home with all her new friends and family. Once again, I am amazed at how these little ones have the ability to give love so graciously in spite of all they have been through.

Some of the staff at Newsong led us in a time of worship in Khmer. It was so good to hear Khmer Christmas songs and see the girls worshipping the Lord in their own language.
Staff at Newsong leading the worship time

There are over 100 people at the Christmas party with Khmer staff from other local partners such as International Justice Mission, Chab Dai, Aple and MOSAVY participating in the Christmas party. After the worship time, several of the young girls came on stage performing a traditional Cambodian dance wearing white tops and red balloon pants. Seeing them dance so gracefully and looking at their beautiful faces, I could feel the tears come to my eyes. Both Bridget and I just sat, wiping our eyes as we looked at these young women before us. These who have been through horrors that we cannot imagine and yet here they were, ever poised as they concentrated on their dance with smiles on their faces.  It is an incredible privilege to see the transforming power of the Gospel before my eyes. It is through the lives of the young girls, that inspire many of us to press on and persevere in prayer, persevere in raising funds and awareness and persevere in telling their stories because in and through them, we see the truths of the bible laid out before our eyes. We see what Hope in Christ can do, we see what love compelled by Christ can do, we see what joy in Christ can bring. They are a living testimony that God is in the business of doing the impossible and putting a new song in the hearts of those who for many years were only singing songs of lament.

Following the traditional Khmer dance, several of the young girls performed the Christmas story of Jesus's birth. It was so much fun watching them as they were totally immersed in their roles as they acted out the drama. Many of them laughing and smiling as they played their parts full of joy.

Next up were the teachers and house mums who did another Christmas song in Khmer. These are the unsung heroes who work tirelessly behind the scenes caring and walking with the these young ones through their journey from brokenness to wholeness. It is their efforts along with the social workers and counselors who work the long hours dealing with all sorts of unpredictable behaviors of these young girls, yet, they consistently demonstrate and pour out Christ love in such a tangible way that the girls feel loved no matter how they behave.

Next up were two girls reading the bible story from Matthews gospel in English and Khmer in preparation for the message that Don shared about the type of people that were looking for Christ and the type of people He is asking us to be as we serve and bless others.

Following Don's message a young 16 year old did a solo rendition of a praise song. Her desire is to be a singer and she certainly has potential. She has only been at Newsong for 6 months but here she was singing at the top of her lungs, praising the Lord she has come to know. Indeed she is well on her way to becoming a worshipper of the Lord Jesus.
It was dinner time sitting with some of the girls and Khmer staff. A five course meal made of up pork, chicken, seafood soup, rice and fish in addition to some noodles....this is a protein lover's delight---yeah for those of us who love meat! In this setting, the older ones are learning to serve the young ones. Everyone is part of a big family here and as we were eating the house mums would call out the names of the girls so they could come and receive their Christmas presents. There is nothing like being around young kids during Christmas as they share their joy and excitement running up to receive their presents and shrieking loudly when their name is called or when they open their gifts.

We were now 4 hours into the celebrations in a cool evening as the sun was setting and one young girl who I thought was about 14 years old but was really 18 years old came up to chat with me. It was another opportunity practice my Khmer although her English was excellent. She wanted to know if I was enjoying myself and what food I liked to eat and what were my favorite fruits. She disappeared for a few minutes and brought me some fruit as we continued our conversation. The music started and some of the girls were beginning to dance. So my young friend asked if I liked to dance. I told her, it was years since I danced (actually it was 2 years ago when I was on a short term team here that we used to dance with the girls at Daughters Cambodia). But here, with everyone all dressed up, we decided to join into the dancing festivities. My young friend offering to teach me a Khmer dance. Unfortunately, I found the steps too confusing for me but she tried for a good 15 minutes as everyone else was already up and dancing.

It was a night to remember. I don't think any of us wanted to leave. It was a night full of laughter, joy and love. It was a night that filled me with much hope as I reflected on the future of these young women. It was a night witnessing His presence in them, a night in which God gave us glimpses of how He restores dignity, value and worth into such precious lives. It was a night when I came home filled with praise and thank giving for the One who was born over 2000 years ago and who we now have the privilege of celebrating His birthday once again on December 25th. It is His birthday that we celebrated today at Newsong and in doing so, it is His birthday that has brought joy, love and hope anew in the lives of these young girls. They are being born anew in Him as they discover the gift of salvation that He is offering them.

Tomorrow its Christmas in Svay Pak---I can't wait to see the team there. I hear they have been practicing over the past few weeks and are expecting 600 people! Stay tuned!