Monday, December 9, 2013

God's Grace is Disruptive!

Last night was such a fun night at the Christmas Outreach in the brothel district as I had the opportunity to re-connect with so many young Khmer Christian friends  whom I have had the privilege of knowing for a few years. One of them ''P'' has had a detour in her walk with the Lord but is slowly on a journey of restoration. She introduced me to her mother and father  and I couldn't help but reflect on the grace and mercy of God. Her mother often pressures her and her sisters and in many ways contributed to her being sold in the recent past. Her father was arrested in 2010  for trafficking other girls and was a security guard of one of the very buildings in this community in which his own daughter was held captive. He was recently released from prison. (He also had sold his own daughters years ago). Yet here in this Christmas outreach, light and darkness clashed but the light was shining forth as her parents came to attend the outreach. At such events, it is a quote from Jill Carrintini of RZIM that comes to mind: God's grace is lavish. It is extravagant and poured out on those who  neither expect it, nor deserve it. The Father's grace is jarring and disruptive. The Father's call to forgive the one whose sincerity is questionable is often agonizing; His command to love the habitual prodigals in our midst is both costly and exhausting. God's grace disrupts our sense of righteousness and summons us to respond in a similar kind. His unfathomable grace and mercy shatters our sense of who is worthy to enjoy the benefits of God's kingdom, inviting us to the celebration (for the Prodigal son) regardless of where we stand.''

Here in this brothel district, God's grace is constantly disrupting our lives in ways that we do not expect nor anticipate. Yet as we ourselves embrace that grace and extend it to others, we see the love of Christ bringing hope and shining light in the darkness. Some who attended this event themselves have been victims of sexual exploitation, but as they enter into their journey of healing, their presence last night in an area that has often been a place of hell for them because of the tragic memories, was a place of joy as they celebrated the birth of their Savior! Once again the grace of God shines forth redeeming lives that so many would easily discard.

Shortly after leaving the outreach event, I was driving up the main street and stopped to chat with one of our reintegrated young women who was living nearby. As I got out of the car, I heard a another voice calling my name. It was ''S''....a young 12 year old whom several of us have been praying for in the recent months. A while back I had ran into her at the riverfront with full make up and during this time, our partner's staff would see her in the village and she would be all dressed up and with full make up. Last night, we had a little chat as I have heard she is still attending some of the classes at the school and even comes out to the youth group meetings. A few minutes later, I was surrounded by other ''little people'' asking me all sorts of questions. Some could understand my Khmer, others were translating the Khmer into Vietnamese. It was a cute scene and one that I enjoyed! In all of this, I thought of ''S'' and the grace that is needed in her life to keep her from growing bitter and hardened by what she experiences when she is abused on a regular basis. She represents so many little ones in this community that need the grace of God to disrupt and intervene in their young lives.

But this community is not just about the lives but also about the buildings. Each building seems to have a story to tell. Stories that are not pleasant to the ear but stories of lives broken and devalued. Yet just as the Lord wants to start a new chapter in a young life, so too His plan is to use the ruins in the community to start a new story. A story of hope, a story of redemption and ultimately a story of grace! A few weeks ago, we had the privilege of buying another building in this area that is notorious for its use by well known Canadian pedophiles and other foreign pedophiles. This building like many in this area was used to destroy the sacred and the vulnerable. Yet the Lord can take such buildings and like the people He created, He begins to rebuild, restore and redeem. Only He can take what was derelict and make it sacred and holy ground. The very places where lives were shattered, will become places were lives experience the grace of God as He breathes new life in them. This very building where little boys were abused will become a dorm for young boys in the community cared for by a young couple.

Indeed as I continue to reflect on all that is happening in this little community, I keep returning to one word ''grace''!. Where sin increases, grace increases more! God's grace continues to disrupt this community in various forms and shapes,  whether it is a young life or an old discarded building, each of these are trophies of God's grace as He takes the old and makes it new, the broken and makes it whole and the dead places become life giving places.

This Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we see the ultimate of how Grace disrupted our lives and how Grace came into our lives. John 1:14 says 'The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full or grace and truth. As light continues to shine in this dark community, so too may the One who is full of grace and truth cover this little village that with each passing day, each passing year, the testimony of those who live there will echo the very words of John 1:14 ---The Word became flesh and dwelled among us and we have seen His glory! We have seen His glory!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 2013 - Young women and Staff Retreat in Koh Kong

WARNING: This is a long blog so get a cup of coffee and sit back, relax and read! Hopefully you don't fall asleep in the process! :-)

This past weekend was Bun Om Touk (Water Festival) holiday. Normally, thousands of people come into Phnom Penh from the provinces to watch the boat races on the Tonle Sap river but over the past few 3 years, the boat races were cancelled. For us at Ratanak, we took the opportunity to go on a 3 day retreat/holiday with all of the young women at the RAP Community home as well as all our Khmer staff. We also invited a special guest and Ratanak partner Reaksa Himm (and his family) to be our keynote speaker as we didn't just want this to be a regular holiday but to have a time of connecting with the Lord on a corporate level together as one big family.
Reaksa Himm (author of Tears of My Soul) and his family

So this past Saturday at 5:15am, everyone met at the RAP home. I'm always amazed at our young women, how quickly they can be dressed and ready to go even ahead of the staff at such early hours in the morning. They remind me of typical teenagers who usually wake up late if they have to go to school or work but when its holiday time, their joy and excitement overflow and a new burst of energy appears. That day, they were busily helping each other with new hair styles and make up in the wee hours of the morning! :-)

Our home advisor Than holding baby Daniel who was fast asleep despite all the activities
Our destination was the southern province of Koh Kong close to the Thai border. It was quite a trek and the expected travel time would be around 7 to 8 hours depending on how well the roads were along the way. Our first pit stop was at 7am for some breakfast Khmer style ---we had a choice of rice and bbq pork, rice and grilled chicken or a noodle soup.
Program Manager Nary, Case Management Coordinator Malin and Home Adivsor Coordinator Reasmey waiting for their breakfast
During the bus time, we used that opportunity to spend some time worshipping the Lord as we had brought a long our worship books and some of the traditional hymms. It was quite a contest with different staff and young women all wanting to choose different songs all at the same time. Nonetheless, one of our young women Client ''TH'' is a very talented and gifted singer so we had her lead the worship time. These modern day buses have a flat screen TV and also a microphone so it was perfect for this captive audience.
Driving Through the pot holes along the road

No way to avoid this big pot hole

As we were getting close to our destination the roads deteriorated. Big pot holes covered the dusty red clay making it a bit treacherous at times to drive. Thankfully the tour company we went with had a very skillful driver who managed to navigate all sorts of pot holes. I enjoyed his creative driving!

Nonetheless after a rather tasty lunch of sweet and sour fish, fried chicken, fried vegetables and Tom Yum soup we quickly headed to our first destination on the outskirts of Koh Kong for our boat ride to a local waterfall called: Tatay Waterfall. The scenes reminded me of cottage country in Ontario and brought back wonderful memories of being back in Canada.
Some of our staff and Reaksa's family on the boat that will take us down the lake

a view of the fresh water lake from our boat
The Destination - a local waterfall called Tatay Waterfalls

Several of our staff and young women opted to go swimming and take photos at the waterfall. Unlike North America, where there are clear walk ways or planks to get to tourist places, here in Cambodia, its all natural---that means you have to find your own way through rocks and vegetation to the intended destination. Its not the most safest adventures as the rocks were somewhat slippery given that it probably may have rained the night before so yours truly opted to play it safe and hang out in the boat with other young women and staff who were happy to spare themselves from the intense early afternoon heat. Actually, one of the main reasons I opted out was the fact that fresh water lakes then to be breathing grounds for parasites so my paranoia kicked in and figured it was better to be safe than sorry later on! :-)This of course didn't stop a group of monks who happily were willing to trek through the thick vegetation to enjoy the cooling waters of the waterfall.

A minutes shortly after this photo was taken, our bus driver came hiking back to one of our boats asking if he could borrow our first aid kit and an elderly lady had slipped on the rocks and cracked her head. In the mean time, some of our other young women, spent the next hour baby sitting baby Daniel in the boat under the watching eye of one of our home advisors.
A Couple of the young women baby sitting Daniel while his mum is off swimming
Our RAP Program Manager spending time reading and resting on the boat
.After our waterfall activity, our next stop was to visit the Mangroves. This is one of the most beautiful spots in Cambodia as I'm told that Mangroves are spread along the coast from Kep to Koh Kong and they cover an area of over 50,000 hectares in Koh Kong. Mangroves are specialized tropical trees that live on the edge where rainforests meet oceans. 

This could be a picture of northern Ontario in Canada!

Our day of sightseeing ended with another beautiful boat ride to watch the sunset. All during this time, our young women and staff were busily snapping photos of each other and their surrounding locations. For our staff and young women, they have never had the opportunity to visit some of the places in their own country and so it was a real joy to see their excitement as they admired God's creation in such serene and beautiful surroundings. It was such a far cry from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Despite all the social activity, we quickly checked into our hotel after a quick dinner and it was time to end the evening with a time of worship and also a time of sharing from Reaksa. In spite of it being a very long day, God used Reaksa's testimony to minister to all staff and the young women. Reaksa shared  how he survived and crawled out of one of the mass graves as a 13 year old boy after he had witnessed the killing of several of his family members and  how years later after studying in Canada at seminary and becoming a pyschologist, he came to know Christ and learned that true healing, true freedom in Christ comes from forgiving those who harmed us. Thus, his return to Cambodia led him to find the killers of his family and extend forgiveness  and grace to them.
Reaksa sharing his testimony as our staff and young women listen

 His testimony left an indelible impression on everyone and he encouraged everyone to write on a piece of paper anyone that they wanted to forgive.(We will take these papers and burn it as a symbol that they have been nailed to the cross.) Following that, he asked if anyone wanted to come to the front for prayer to experience more freedom in Christ as they chose to forgive those who had hurt them. Amazingly, all of our staff and young women came forward and one by one we prayed over each one of them some shed tears, as we anointed them with oil and asked the Lord to bless them with more freedom from past hurts, wounds and traumas inflicted on them by those who had wounded them. What a special moment that was seeing the Spirit of God move and touch the hearts of all who were there that night. Despite the late hour, the Lord was at work!

Day 2: Sunday November 17th and the Lord continued His work as I sat listening to two staff over breakfast sharing how they had held onto hurts for 5 years and because of Reaksa's testimony, felt God convicting them to choose to forgive those who had hurt them. Our morning began with a worship time and another timely message from Reaksa who was preaching from John 11: 38-44 about how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. In this message, we learned about walking out of darkness into the light and that the Tomb while being a place of darkness was not the end but rather the place that transformation begins. He reminded us that the ''smell'' in the tomb, is a reflection of our sinful nature and that it takes time to clean the smelly things in our lives, that transformation takes a life time to go through the process. And finally, the grave clothes, demonstrated that we all need others to help us unwrap these clothes. We need others to help us to transform from the darkness to light. Ultimately transformation is a journey moving towards the life we want, but the life that only Jesus can give! At this end of this message, Reaksa once again asked if there was anyone who wanted to surrender and submit their lives to Christ. Again, the Lord surprised us! We have two  staff who had not yet given their life to Christ, but were on a journey to discovering Him. But this morning, they encountered the Risen Lord and both came forward asking to receive Christ as their personal Savior.
One of our staff members repeating the sinner's prayer 

But that was not the end, the Lord used their initiative coupled with an encouraging message from our Program Manager Nary who shared that even though we may have all gone to church for a long time, we may not necessarily have a personal relationship with Christ. She shared from her own experience and those words, prompted two of our young women to come forward for Reaksa to lead them through the Sinner's prayer and pray over them to receive Jesus as their Personal Lord and Savior!

RAP Young women coming forward to say the sinners prayer and receive Christ as her Savior!

RAP Young woman coming forward to say the sinners prayer and receive Christ as her Savior!

As I reflect on these two sessions in which Reaksa shared, I am once again reminded that God never wastes our pains, sufferings and traumas. He will use them for our good and for His purposes to bring about His glory. Reaksa's life and story represents the life and story of many Khmer who deal with daily trauma and suffering. For Reaksa, when He discovered The TRUTH, He was set free but that journey of freedom took time, yet it was a journey well worth the time and the energy because it was a journey that led to a new life, a new hope and a new song in his heart! So too for our Khmer staff and young women at RAP who themselves have experienced their own personal traumas, we pray that the seeds planted this weekend, will fall on good soil, soil that will lead to transformation from brokenness to wholeness and from captivity to freedom as the Lord continues to work in each of their hearts!

After these spiritual encounters, the rest of our day was more light hearted as we went to visit Safari World---yes there is such a thing in Cambodia. 

We attended several different shows --- one involving orangatans in a boxing match, a bird show, a crocodile show which showed some impressive acts by the staff at Safari World and finally a Tiger show. Our young women were thrilled to have their photos taken in some of these shows with the animals!

A parrot riding a bicycle!

Day 2 ended with some personal down time, which was perfect as we each were able to retreat and continued to enjoy the beauty of God's creation at the place we stayed. 

Ratanak Cambodia - All our Khmer Staff from both the Operations Office and RAP Home
Today we are all back from our 3 day excursion, a time where we had many laughs and lots of fun times together. These opportunities to laugh and play together don't happen too often but we realize the importance of them for our soul care as they foster team unity,  bind us together in Christ and most of all gives us the opportunity to not only breathe life into all of our dry bones, but they provide us with a special time of encountering our Risen Lord, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. And so on behalf of our team here in Cambodia, we are thankful to many supporters and donors who give to our work in so many different ways, for as you do, you are being used to build the kingdom of God first in our hearts and ultimately, you are partnering with us build to His kingdom in this land!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Happy 1st Anniversary RAP Home!

Yesterday was the 1 year anniversary when we welcomed several young women into the RAP Community home. It was fitting that a Ratanak team from Canada was visiting Cambodia during this time. The team is made up of both Ratanak staff from Canada and some of our volunteers who work in raising awareness through their fundraising activities our hosting events for us. So we were especially blessed by having them come and celebrate not only the 1 year anniversary but also the 1 month birthday of Ratanak Daniel!
Ratanak Canada team

The festivities began at around 3pm when the team arrived and as part of our warm up games, the young women at RAP and our staff had to guess who were Ratanak staff and who were Ratanak volunteers. That led to a few rounds of laughter as the young women assumed that the older ones were staff and the younger ones were volunteers. Then the tables were reversed and we mixed up the Khmer staff and young women and the Canadian team had to choose who was staff and who was living at the RAP home. One of the advantages that the Khmer have is they all look so ageless so it was a bit of a challenge for the Canadian team.
Musical chairs

Jessica and Joy our two Ratanak staff had prepared a few ice breaker games and brought prizes along for the winners. We have found this to be very valuable in helping the young women at RAP overcome their initial shyness as we rarely have guests or short term visitors to the RAP home as a way of not infringing on the young women's privacy given that it is their home. But as well, we are mindful that these young women are still on a journey of healing and learning about healthy attachments with their caregivers. So the need to limit visitors is of primary importance to support ongoing bonding with those who walk with them on a daily process.

We started with the all too familiar musical chairs game which left a few minor injuries as one of our heavier weighted staff promptly sat on the leg of one of our young women---she has recovered from the soreness of that event!:-)

3 legged race with Canadian and Khmer staff

''Papa Brian matching pictures with one of the young women''

Following that, several other games ie: 3 legged race outside and a matching picture game all led to more laughter. But one of my favorite games was one in which each person was giving a picture of an animal and they had to find others who had the same picture but this could only be done by making the sound of the animal. We figured this was a good cross cultural game since it only required animal sounds and no verbal language. However we all discovered that as people walked around trying to find others who had the same animal sound,  there was a translation adjustment. Did you know that a Cambodian pig goes ''ou, ou'' while a Canadian pig goes ''oink, oink'' or that a Canadian cow say ''moo, moo'' but a Cambodian cow says ''more more!'' You can only imagine how difficult it was trying to match these sounds in a room crowded with 30 plus people. Suffice to say the game was a huge success with peels of laughter and to top it all, there was even a cross cultural lesson discovered! As an aside,  I guess next time when I sing to Baby Daniel,  I will have to change the version of the kids tune ''the wheels on the bus go around and around and the cows on the bus go ''more more more'' :-)

From there, it was the young women's turn as they locked arms with some of the visitors and took them on a tour around the RAP home to see their rooms as well as some of the office rooms with some of our staff  When everyone returned to the main entrance, '' Papa Brian shared a small speech thanking the RAP young women for allowing the guests to come and visit their home and congratulated them for adjusting to many changes and challenges as they moved from a shelter to the RAP Community home. At the end, the Canadian team had prepared little gift bags for the young women and also our staff. So often everyone focuses on blessing the young women but it is equally as important to remember that without our staff, we could not provide the care and services to support the young women.
Bloom cake for the Young Women and a 1 month birthday cake for baby Daniel
 We ordered a wonderful cake from our favorite bakery Bloom for the young women in honor of their 1 year anniversary at the RAP home and also a little birthday cake to celebrate Baby Daniel's 1 month. In the midst of all the games and activities, baby Daniel was busily sleeping his life a way immune to all the laughter and noise!
Baby Daniel with Sokunthy our social worker

Our evening of celebration continued at the Pizza Company for all of our staff and young women. Some of whom slowly began to practice their English on their Canadian visitors. It was wonderful time for the Canadian team to spend time with their Khmer counterparts and the young women. After all, our staff in Canada and our volunteers so often work in jobs behind the scene and spend countless hours praying for our team and the young women on this end.

All in all it was a light hearted entertaining afternoon and evening. A time to join together as one big family in Christ. Epheisans 3:4-5 says: For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. As the team returns to Canada shortly, I am reminded that whether we are Canadian or Khmer, we are all one in Christ. We all have the same purpose. To see God glorified in the lives of the young women! It is our efforts together as a team, whether praying, whether fundraising, or those of us who work on the front lines ministering directly to the young women ---we are all on a journey together walking with them so that they too will encounter the one glorious hope that we all have in Christ. It is that glorious hope that enables all of us to continue to persevere in the midst of challenges and stresses knowing that as He binds us together, He is the One that unites us and He is the One that will sustain us because He is the One that is doing the work of redemption as we remain faithful to that which He has called each of us!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A New Addition to the RAP Community Home - a Divine Interruption

There are many things one learns living overseas and one of the lessons I continually experience here is that God's ways are not our ways. We learn to expect the unexpected and go with the flow. Flexibility is a must for anyone who wants to live cross culturally and adapting to new situations is a regular occurrence. These truths became more of a reality when one of our young women became pregnant. With her permission, I am able to share about the most recent addition to the RAP Community home.
Ratanak Daniel - 1 day old!
 Last Saturday, we had the privilege of welcoming little baby Ratanak Daniel into our ''RAP Family"' weighing in at 6lbs 1 ounces.  The names of this baby seems so significant--Ratanak means "'Precious Gem" in Khmer and Daniel of course was a man of integrity. How God gave these names to Daniel's mother seems so appropriate. Indeed he is a precious gem of God created for for such a time as this, to live in such a way that he will live out God's ways and truth wholeheartedly in spite of the societal pressures to water down the truth.  While the community home was not designed for such young infants, God obviously had other designs and plans.
Ratanak Daniel - 1 week old!
Through his birth, I am learning much about God's grace and redemptive power through the remarkable courage of his mother who is going against the cultural norms by having a baby as a single mother! In this culture, so often young pregnant unwed mothers have to deal with shame and the stigma associated with having a baby outside of marriage. For Srey Neth (not her real name), her incredible poise, and maturity during this time continues to amaze me despite her young age. During her pregnancy, she ate all the right food to ensure that her baby was getting the appropriate nutrients, she talked about her future with her son and shared about what she would like to do. This morning, one week after giving birth she said to some of our young women, staff and myself, I would like Daniel to go church this morning. I would like him to know God. She asked if she could join as well and of course we were delighted to have her go despite the fact she was feeling a bit weak and sore from the delivery.
Daniel laughing while at church!

Like a doting grandmother ---yes I am now being called ''Makyeah'' I have been happily taking photos, praying over him each day whenever I see him, cuddling him and singing the infamous Christian children's song ''Jesus Loves Me This I Know''. In just one week, he has recognized that song and it soothes him if he starts to cry. So much so, that I often get called upon to sing the song to him if he cries but I have shared with our young women that they need to sing the song in Khmer so that he will learn it in both languages. To say that he is getting a lot of attention is an understatement but it goes to show that the Lord has a way of providing a loving family environment with lots of ''Ombreys'' (aunts) to baby sit and play with him! Pray for wisdom for all of us that we do not spoil him for it is so easy to do! :-)

 I have also had the privilege of observing one of the precious values of this culture--- the benefits of community and the love that can emanates out of such a close knit community.  From Baby Daniel's arrival, we have witnessed the love of God manifested in a whole new way as our young women and staff seek to care for this little baby as well as his mum. Two of our young women along with one of our home advisors were with Srey Neath as the delivery was imminent. They stayed over night at the hospital praying for her and Daniel, so much so the doctor was so impressed that he said to them your God is good because Srey Neath's delivery was smooth and short (6 hours) from start to finish. Amazing considering this was her first child. These two helpers took turns helping her when she needed to go to the bathroom and happily enjoyed feeding and changing Daniel's diapers under the watchful eye of our home advisors.
Two of our home advisors and one young women with Daniel
One of our staff and two of our young women helping out at the hospital feeding Srey Neath
Both our staff and young women at the RAP home have also shown me afresh that ''divine interruptions'' usually  are a summons to servanthood--not convenience, not ease, not wealth or power, but a summons to servanthood. Because usually when God interrupts somebody s life he calls them to serve. The Lord has interrupted our lives with this beautiful bundle of joy. We see the servant heart of Christ coming out in some of our young women as they volunteer to wash Daniel's clothes as well as wash Srey Neth's clothes while she is still recovering from the delivery. We see them willingly volunteering to clean his diaper and take him for little walks around the RAP home so his mum can get a rest. Indeed, through this divine interruption, we see tenderness, nurturing, sacrifice, thoughtfulness and most of all His love coming from our young women. Consider their own life experiences, where they perhaps have not received such love and care, their actions show again that the Lord has built into each one of us the capacity to love and care despite whatever trauma or brokenness we may have experienced.

Of course one learns much as well about how Khmer care for babies. I am told that babies born in the province to poor families are often given water and sugar to eat if the mother can't produce milk. They simply have no money to buy the milk powder. We have had to do some training with our staff on how to sterilize the baby bottles, clean him and burp him as well as the importance of personal hygiene. All these little reminders and details make me realize how many odds are stacked against children born in a third world country and yet God has His own ways of taking care and keeping babies healthy in the midst of the most challenging environment.

As I think of "'baby Daniel'', I can't help but reflect on a baby boy who too was born over 2000 years. The birth of Jesus ushered in a whole new dimension of love, of peace and of joy. His birth too was a Divine Interruption ---an interruption that change the course of history, change the life of his mother Mary and led to a whole new understanding of love and servanthood. His birth made a way for us all to receive salvation and eternal life. So as I think of the impact of Christ and the incredible interruption He was and continues to be in our lives, my hope is that Ratanak Daniel will also be a divine interruption where ever He goes, that he too will be used by the Lord to bless others in ways that they could never have imagined.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Baking at the RAP Home

At the RAP Community home we are always trying to ensure that the environment our young women live in is contextually Cambodian. However, the one area where we have a bit of ''Western influence'' is having a Western oven. This was deliberately done to encourage our young women who liked baking to gain different life skills and experience using an oven. Over time, our young women have made a variety of baked goods and our staff and the other young women have had the pleasure of taste testing!.
Lois encouraging one of our young women

Recently, Lois who is an international worker that volunteers at RAP normally helping us out on administrative functions, is also an avid baker in her spare time. As such, she has spent some time teaching some of our young women how to bake from scratch. This is a far cry from my lazy style baking which involves using Duncan Hines cake mixes. But the reality is, baking from scratch is more contextually appropriate and useful for the young women to learn all the ingredients and the quantities needed to make all the desserts. One of our young women SL has really excelled in this area on her own initiative and often in her spare time is now coming up with her own baking creations as she goes on the internet to research recipes and then experiments in the RAP kitchen. It has also been a great way for her to learn more English as she will chat with Lois on different ingredients and quantities. She now has her own recipe journal making notes of all the different recipes and has already making adjustments to existing recipes to perfect the taste! I think that's a sign of a good cook or baker!

Making muffins
Making Bread

To date, SL has made muffins, chocolate chip cookies, bread, pancakes, crepes and even donuts. On one occasion, SL and another young women contributed their own funds to make donuts for their friends at the shelter they previously stayed at. Such generosity using what little they have, speaks to the heart that God is cultivating in them as they seek to bless others.


Chocolate chip cookies anyone!

Making  Pancakes
With such baking enthusiasm, we are gaining weight tasting all these baking delicacies.:-) But its for a good cause! How can we resist? One's gotta do what one's gotta do!

More importantly, through these baking exercises, we see self confidence, initiative and creativity being released in SL as she enjoys this ''hobby.'' This is what we desire for each of the young women who stay at the RAP home, that as time goes by, they will each discover their own passions that reflects their individual personalities, talents and gifts that God has given to them. Our role is simply to facilitate and provide opportunities to support and nurture their individual giftings and achievements so that when they leave the RAP home, they leave with a deeper understanding of not only who they are in Christ but a deeper understanding of why He created them and a deeper realization that they can do immeasurably more than they could ever imagine!

Friday, September 27, 2013

University --- Here We Come!

In two weeks time university classes start up again after the Pchum Ben holidays and we are so excited that  some of our young women  are now preparing to attend their first year in university. This has been a long journey for each one of them as they have overcome much to get to this point. Having passed their grade 12 exams recently,  they are heading to the university of their choice. Over the past few weeks our social workers have been busy meeting with each of them and discussing their career opportunities and what they want to do as part of their Individual Achievement Plan (IAP). Can you imagine this? Young women who are discovering the joys of dreaming about their future and what they want to do. This is not an easy journey but part of helping them to transition well, is helping each of them to discover first of all that they have choice to make decisions about their life and secondly, our ongoing desire is to help them choose wisely and make responsible decisions in all facets of their lives so that they can truly live out their dreams and achieve their goals.

For us at Ratanak, we feel such a privilege and are indeed proud of their achievements thus far. Its one of the reasons we have called our community home the Ratanak Achievement Program Community Home. These young women have achieved much to get to this point in their lives. They have had to endure much pain, rejection and abandonment, go through years of counseling, work through ongoing issues related to self esteem, value and self worth and here they are now, living examples that  ''we are more than conquerors in Christ.''  In all of this, we are part of a team of organizations investing in their lives and are grateful for our partners organizations who first walked with these young women and have now passed the baton to us to continue facilitating their journey of transition into the real world.

As part of their preparation for university, we give each young women an initial ''education pack'' ie: a small sum of money to buy their school supplies and school uniforms. Any subsequent purchases, during the university year, they have to save up their weekly allowance and budget wisely in order to pay for their ongoing supplies. Some of them are also hoping to work part time so that they can earn extra income. We encourage this since this is how many young people here supplement their university costs.   This is all part of preparing them for independence and a move away from dependence on the NGO to provide for every single one of their needs. This is not easy, but it is a necessary step if these young women are really going to develop the necessary resilience and tools to live in the real world.  However,  like typical teenagers or young people, the money is never enough but as a team we  have evaluated what is a reasonable cost for a university student.  So today, some of our young women piled into the Ratanak truck  excited to go shopping for their school supplies and uniforms. A few hours later, they arrived back to display some of their purchases.

University supplies, school uniforms
University students are all required to wear uniforms and our young women got a good deal buying their long skirts and blue shirts at the local market among their notebooks, pens, shoes and backpacks. One young women mentioned that she needed 6 notepads but only bought 3 because she ran out of money.  I showed one of our staff the notebooks the young women purchased and she mentioned, ''well she could have chosen a cheaper notebook and bought all 6 but she choose the most expensive ones.'' So the lessons on budgeting and saving begin!

So what will these 5 young women be studying? Well this is the fun part---one young women SL is planning to study Information technology. She is already gifted in this area and even teaches our home advisors when they have questions on different computer programs and has taught them how to set up their Facebook pages! Another of our young women C, is planning to study social work. She had a chance to chat with both our counselors and social workers asking them what's the difference between those two professions and through those conversations discovered that she doesn't want to be stuck in an office all day long listening to peoples problems but rather would be out on the field helping others. Our third young woman SN is hoping to become a social worker as well.. We think she will do well in this area as she has a very gentle presence and warmth that makes people especially little kids feel safe. Our fourth young woman TY wants to be an author/journalist. The other day I saw her trying to translate a very difficult English passage into Khmer. She perseveres and is diligent in making the effort to study despite the challenges before her. Then there is P, who received a scholarship for 50% of her tuition fees. She wants to pursue International Relations as one day she hopes she can become an ambassador!  Such is the dreams and hopes of these 5 young women who are entering university. Pray for each of them that this initial enthusiasm and excitement will continue as their studies begin and that they will persevere as they enter a new chapter in their life. After all, it is not how well we start, but how well we finish but God does promise that ''He who began a good work in them will complete it.''  Stay tune!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bitter Sweet Moments

Life is all about bitter and sweet moments and how we learn to respond to them. Here in Cambodia there is not a day that doesn't go by where we do not encounter one of these emotions. The sweet moments are so often infrequent that we barely have time to savor them and then we are hit with a bitter moment. Many times, it is the bitter moments that weigh on our spirit and if we are not careful, we can either let such moments take us down by discouraging us or we can embrace those moments in all their fullness knowing that There are blessings we can never have unless we are ready to pay the price of pain. There is no way to reach them save through suffering. —Dr. Miller.  Yesterday I experienced both the bitter and the sweet all in a short space of time.

One of the joys of this ministry is seeing young women overcome all the challenges of their past and live a ''normal'' life. So it was a joyous moment when I and our RAP Program Manager were met by one of our reintegrated young women V near her work place. She had heard we were coming to pick up one of the other young women at the RAP home from the same work place as we were going out on a ''date night.''  So when our reintegrated friend V heard we were coming she wanted to say hi. It was so good seeing her and seeing the little weight she had gained from over a month ago since our last visit. She is doing so well and in her second month on the job, performed her work function so well that she got an unexpected 25% bonus on her salary. We took the opportunity to visit the place she rented which is within walking distance of her work place. By North American standards, one would consider this a little shack, but by Cambodian standards, it is a huge place for one person. It could easily fit a family of 10 people. She proudly showed us around her simple surroundings and brought out a large fresh fish that she was given by her ''mother in law to be''. This was her dinner with some steam rice and being the ''mother'' that I am, I asked her if she wasn't going to have it with vegetables to which she replied ''Bong Lisa, Oun oth joel jet bonlai (ie: Young sister does not like vegetables)---oh yeah I forgot about that! Her bedroom is on the upper level and as I am getting a bit old, climbing up to this other level by way of a wooden ladder was a reminder that I need to go and get some exercise.:-). It is like a little attic but in this upper area one finds her bedroom, with some of the items we had purchased for her as part of her reintegration package. V is unusual in that she enjoys living on her own albeit her boyfriend's family is not too far from here. Nonetheless, she is relishing this opportunity to live independently and is currently working in order to save money for her future. We are thankful for our partners who work in this community as their staff also encourage V and keep an eye on her in case she needs any support.

So as I was walking around this familiar environment with my Khmer friends, I asked about another little friend S who I have known for 5 years. I first met S in 2008 when she joined in the kids club that I was involved with with our short term team from Canada and our Khmer friends. She was a spunky little kid with a bit of a tough attitude but that soon soften as she began to frequent the kids club held in this community. She joined the community school as well and from time to time, I would see her in this village whenever I visited. She has always remained very dear to me as I remember going to visit her one day in her home and her grandmother promptly asked if I would adopt S when the grandmother died. It was an unexpected question as this little girl looked at me. Navigating such questions is not easy but I managed to suggest that I would have to consult with the local pastor to see what the possibilities were. That seemed to pacify the grandmother at that time. That was 3 years ago. Fast forward a few months ago and I was out on one of my regular exercise walks near the waterfront in Phnom Penh when I heard a little voice calling my name. Surprisingly enough it was S standing there all dressed up with her little sister. I was so overjoyed to see them both and asked her a few questions in Khmer to which she quickly responded in English! She is so smart! She was just ''dahling'''---meaning visiting in the waterfront. Of course I had to ask who she was ''visiting'' with and she pointed to her older sister sitting on a motorcycle curb side who looked at me rather suspiciously as she talked on the phone. At that moment, I asked her if I could take a quick photo as she had now grown so big and was close to my shoulders. She quickly obliged with a big smile happy to pose and we chatted a bit more before I left. But my joy of seeing her quickly turn to concern as I walked away thinking of what I had just seen on her face and that of her little sister. They were both wearing makeup---my mind started to compute and that sinking feeling set in. She was not just ''visiting'' the waterfront, she was being prepped to be sold along with her little sister that very evening. S is now about 12 years old but her size is that of an 8 year old. As for her little sister, while she is the size of a 6 year old. As I walked back home, I prayed for her and her sister not knowing what would happen to them. So yesterday as I was catching up with some of my Khmer friends in this little village so notorious for the deadly abuse of so many young pre-pubescent girls, I asked how is S? To my dismay, I was told that S no longer goes to school nor the kids club but daily she is all dressed up and wearing lots of make up.  My worst fears for this little friend had now become a reality.

What does one do with such news? What can we do? I found myself last night and this morning literally crying to God for this little soul. She is one of many that is being sold but she is one whose name I know, more importantly she is one who is not forgotten by her heavenly Father. I don't know whether we will have the opportunity to walk with her through a journey of restoration and healing but I have to believe, that God has allowed our paths to cross for a purpose if only or at the mere least for us all to intercede for this young life. So as I write this, it is the song ''Blessed Be The Name of the Lord'' that rings in my head ''He gives and takes away but my heart will choose to say, Blessed be the name of the Lord.'' 

In these two stories of V and S, God has given but God has also taken away---at least for now. We rejoice and praise God for His redemptive work in V and cherish this sweet moment of seeing her becoming a responsible young adult. But as I think of S,  it is a bitter moment, yet, we are called to embrace the pain of loss as we grieve for S and what is being done to her daily all for the sake of money. As we grieve and sow our tears by praying we are sharing in the fellowship of Christ suffering. I long for the day when her suffering will end but even that I have to entrust into God's hands. He is sovereign over this young life, He is sovereign over her suffering, He is sovereign as we wait for her rescue and restoration. In his Sovereignty, I rest knowing that He is her Messiah, He is her Savior and He is her Redeemer! 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Celebrating a graduation!

One of the greatest privileges we have is seeing how God restores hope and value  in the lives of young women who have experience sexual exploitation. Last  night was such a night as we had the opportunity to witness the graduation of one of the young women at the RAP home For the past three months she has been training at one of our partner organizations training center learning skills in hospitality.  She successfully passed all the requirements and so it was with great joy to celebrate with her and the other graduates on this special night.  She was able to invite 8 guests and so she took the opportunity of inviting her fellow room mates at the RAP home as well as some of our staff.
RAP staff joining the graduation ceremonies
There are not many places here that provide employment opportunities for the young women we serve but we are grateful to our partner organizations who are seeking to make a difference in this area. Their training centers are more than employment centers but they too seek to provide holistic care and empowerment to survivors of trafficking by providing them not only meaningful employment to earn a sustainable living, but they seek to care for the ''whole person'' providing medical care, counseling support and spiritual support.
The founders of the cafe Ruth and Murray have assembled an amazing team that operate a cafe and training center here in Phnom Penh.

Ashley, Grace, Ruth & Murray
So last night as part of the graduation ceremonies, we had a time of worship with a team from the ICA (International Christian Assembly) church here in Phnom Penh.

Then it was time for the graduates to receive their internationally recognized certificates. Each young women wore a graduation gown and received not only words of encouragement from the management of the training cafe but they each received a silver bracelet, a photo album with a collection of photos of the activities they were trained in and of course the graduation certificate.
our RAP Young woman receiving her graduation awards
It was a great time of honoring these young women for their achievements and other graduates who now work at this training center came forward to sing  a Khmer Christian song in honor of their accomplishments.  Of course what would a graduation party be if we could not celebrate with some ''to die for'' cupcakes'' made by the young women who work at this training center.
Cupcake Heaven!
Tonight as I stood watching all the graduates of this program sing, I couldn't help but think of what they have experienced and now here they are on a new journey, singing a new song -- a song of hope! They are a picture to me of what redemption looks like. God can take the most broken lives and as He restores, binds up the wounds and heals, a life is free to sing, to dream, to hope and to live a life of dignity and value.