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?

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