Saturday, June 29, 2013

Our Plans, His Provision!

Ever have one of those days when you plan to do certain things but they just don't happen. Those days happen a lot here in Cambodia for me! :-) It gives a whole new meaning to being flexible! I like Saturdays as its usually the day I get to sleep in barring any construction noises, dogs barking or other external noises. One of the things I managed to do was get my haircut...I love going to the hair salon here because one doesn't just get a shampoo but you receive an extended head, shoulder and back massage as well. Of course, if you keep complimenting the person that is giving you the massage, the person will continue to do it. :-) God has a wonderful way of providing even the little things for us:-)

After that I decided to head up to Svay Pak. Its been months since I have had time to go and visit Pastor Chantha and Bunthan and over the past two weeks, I had gotten a text message and phone call from both of them wondering if I had forgotten about them:-). The reality is that we are all so busy but yet in previous conversations we have had together, we all discovered that one of our main love languages is ''spending time with friends.'' So off I went on my drive to Svay Pak to catch up with them,  but about 15 minutes into the journey, the Ratanak car suddenly stopped, red lights flashing in the car and I could see a small puff of smoke coming from the front hood. Not a good sign.  Of course the car is now stopped dead in its tracks on National Highway Road Number 5 and the traffic is starting to back up despite the fact that I put my flash lights on ---that would be a signal for people to drive around me and keep on their journey. But Cambodians are very patient people. They just wait behind you! No one is even honking at me as I come out of the car, putting it in neutral and attempting to push it to the side of the road. Thankfully, God has a way of watching over us in such situations. People here are very observant but also can be very quick to help...perhaps its because they saw I was female and a foreigner at that. After all, its not exactly a common sight to see females pushing cars :-). Of course, it pays to have the Ratanak logo on the car and those blue NGO license plates. In a few minutes, several men came forward and started to push the car for me while motioning me to get in and steer the car. It turned out that the car died in front of the Cambodian National TV Network office and as I made a phone call to ask our Ratanak driver to come and help, one young man came over and told the security guards to open the gates of the TV station so I could park the car inside. He said ''its not safe for you and the car to be out here''----I can't help but see him as an angel that God sent to me at that time. Anyway, with the car safely in the parking lot, this young man gave me his business card and said ''call me if you need any further help.'' It turned out he was a TV Producer at the Network.

Sadly I called Chantha and Bunthan to say I would not be able to make it to Svay Pak and as typical of their heart and character, they both said, ''call us back if you need anything. We can come and bring our car and help you or take you home.''

Such experiences like this remind me that the Lord is always so near us. Watching over us, protecting us and caring for us as needs arise. He sends people who have kind and caring hearts---ordinary Cambodians who were quick and eager to help out and /or friends who are busy people, who will drop at a heart beat to help. So while I did not get to do what I planned, I saw God's plan in action, providing for me and making a way out. Its little things like this that remind me to be thankful in the midst of a frustrating situation. Our Ratanak driver arrived, called the mechanic who said he would come out to check out the car. In the mean time, I got to drive our new 4x4 pick up truck---yeah small me in that big car---no problems. I got home without a scratch. As for our little Ratanak Toyota RAV4, it is getting fixed for a broken fan belt and I should hopefully be able to use it tomorrow! God's mercies are new each day and so is His faithfulness! Today, I'm grateful for His timely provision!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Brevity of Life!

IN 2000 on my first trip to Cambodia, the roads had very little traffic. In fact, there were few motor vehicles around. Having a pick up truck was more the exception than the norm. Around the city of Phnom Penh, cyclos, bicycles and motos were the more common forms of transportation but there were hardly any traffic jams. The roads seem so big, wide and empty.. Tuk Tuks where no where to be seen. Fast forward 13 years later and Phnom Penh roads are filled with endless SUVs and 4x4 pick up trucks and cars. Cyclos are more used to take tourists around but are hardly visible. Bicycles are still used by students but more and more there are tons of motorcycles and tuk tuks can be found everywhere. All of these modes of transportation have led to serious traffic bottlenecks but perhaps the more serious issue has been the rise in traffic accidents and fatalities. I read recently in one of the newspapers that traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of death in Cambodia. Speeding and drunk driving are the main causes, and motorbikes are the most common vehicle involved in traffic accidents. The traffic laws in Cambodia are not regularly enforced, and if there is an accident, those involved usually settle payment with each other on the spot. 

Each week, as I have traveled along the roads in Phnom Pennh, I have seen at least one accident involving either cars or motos. Some of the uglier motocycle accidents have occurred because of young men who zip in and out of traffic with their motos. I have seen bodies scattered across a road and it looks like a scene right out of  a movie. Most often they are not wearing helmets, for hear in Cambodia, only the motor cycle driver is suppose to wear a helmet and most young people will often use side roads which allows them to avoid using helmets as well as being caught by the police. For those travelling to the province, many people take buses to the sea side cities of Sihnoukville and Kep but over the past year or so, there has been many fatalities and accidents with tourist buses.
Photo: Courtesy of Phnom Penh Post
This past week perhaps the road fatalities have been foremost in my mind as I heard about a Korean Missionary family who was serving here in Cambodia. Just a few days ago, they were heading to Siem Reap to set up a new ministry and I read in the paper that both parents and two of their four children died tragically in a car accident involving a bus. The oldest daughter and the youngest daughter have survived but are still critically injured. I have friends who know this family as they were part of a well established mission organization. I have never met them yet, a few days ago, I was eating at a local restaurant that many missionaries and NGO folks visit when I saw them. It was the night before they would travel to Siem Reap on that fatal trip.
Korean Missionary Family
As I read about their death, I couldn't help but wonder why? Like many of us who work here in Cambodia, no doubt they too have given up a life of comfort to serve the people of Cambodia, they chose to live a sacrificial life in order to bring the Good News to this land. Yet in one short instant, their lives are no more. Such deaths seem so senseless and yet we are reminded through Isaiah 55 that God's ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts! God is still sovereign over life and death.

Such deaths challenge us to live in such a way that we treasure and value what has been entrusted to us. Every minute counts for one never knows when their time is up. As I think of this family, it is the verses from John 12:24-25 that come to mind: 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Their kernel of wheat has fallen on this ground in a way that many who knew them and worked with them would not have expected. Yet, we are all left to reflect and ponder in faith that such deaths are not meaningless. That perhaps through their passing from the earthly to their heavenly home, that their deaths will lead to the production of many seeds in this land that would not have happened had they been alive. 

I think of the two surviving daughters who are in hospital and who will learn of the fate of the rest of their family members. I pray for them that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will walk with them through this valley of death and that through their grief and loss, they will encounter the arms of their heavenly Father ministering to their sorrow and His rod and staff comforting them in their time of need. Scripture says that the Lord is a Father to the Fatherless. How I pray that as the years pass by, they will encounter this truth through their relatives and others who have now been entrusted to care for them.

For those of us who follow Christ, we are left to ponder our own lives and the brevity of life and to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12). We are left with many questions but in the midst of such grief and loss, we remain thankful that the death of these brothers and sisters in Christ is not the end. They are now in glory with their Heavenly Father in their Heavenly Home,  a place where there is no more pain and suffering. It is this hope in the resurrected power and life of Christ that enables all of us to persevere and endure the trials and tribulations of the visible reality of this situation. Thank God, death does not have the last word, but Jesus has the last word over our lives and He is the source of Hope. He was their source of hope. We rest in His faithfulness and unfailing love that such deaths, while they seem untimely to us, are never wasted. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Building

As I continue to drive around Phnom Penh, I tend to take familiar roads and over the past few months one of the streets I drive on, I noticed a large building being constructed. I kinda got excited thinking wow this is a new apartment or condominium or hotel being built. For here in Phnom Penh, there are several construction sites going on. In this part of town, it made sense that this new building was going up as it is near a cluster of residential areas. But as the weeks went by, my initial excitement began to wain as I began to observe the construction of the building. The words that would flash in my mind was ''KTV''---Karoke TV---there are many KTVs all over Phnom Penh and they are to me an eye sore for a city that continues to be restored into its former glory days prior to the Khmer Rouge Era. KTV's are the new form of adult entertainment establishments that I have blogged about before. This is the changing face of the sexual exploitation of young women here in Cambodia. The young women who work here often come from poor backgrounds, have limited education and are desperately looking at ways to support their families who may live in the province.At these establishments sex is not happening on site, and so the criminal link to exploitation cannot be as easily proven due to the age of consent being 15 in Cambodia. There are a variety of KTVs here, some of the more upscale ones allows you to choose the ones you want from a parade of ladies that is brought to you once you have been seated in your private karoke room. As one patron said,  Depending on the quality of the place, the room will likely be $5 an hour or more and the girls may or may not be free.  Beer and food is generally more expensive than in beer gardens.  Clients negotiate a price, pay a bar fine to take girls off the premises, and enjoy a few hours, or a night, with them. Asian customers like Vietnamese women, who dominate Phnom Penh’s sex scene, because of their preference for pale skin and fine features

So a few days ago as I took that familiar route, my initial suspicions were confirmed. The front of this tall high rise concrete building had no windows in the front of the building which is about 7 or 8 stories high. Yesterday, I saw a sign being assembled in the front advertising that it was a KTV establishment. Interestingly enough, the sign above the KTV comment was written in the Chinese language. Hmm...guess who is funding this building! No words written in Khmer. This is not just a KTV but it is also a hotel where several rooms are being constructed as I observed another side of the building, I could see several small balconies and windows. I think we would be naive to think that no sex is not going to happen here. Those rooms simply make it more convenient for patrons to close the deal.

Each day as I pass by this building my spirit gets quite irritated as I think of the many young women who will be working there because they have no other choice to earn income. I think of young lives who enter this place naively thinking that it is a good place to work but later discover that they are treated like a product or a piece of meat. I think of the young girls who have no way out of such establishments because they love their families and so believe that they have to endure the loss of human dignity and degradation in order to provide for those whom they love.

As I think of such young women and their frustrations and suffering, out comes my own frustrations and my holy discontent is being fueled. So the other day,  I had the opportunity to share about this building with one of my staff and quickly my irritation turn to excitement as we started to brain storm about all sorts of possibilities. A vision was being born as we talked about different ideas of helping young women who found themselves working in such places. Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willocreek Church once said that ''vision is a picture of the future that produces a passion in you.'' Indeed, passion gets released among like minded individuals who have a heart to see young women be free of sexual exploitation.  Now the real work begins, giving shape and form to this vision. Yet despite what appears to be endless obstacles, it is the Lord who will give shape and form to that which is formless. It is He who will  download and plant connections and possible partnerships even before we have started the real work. He's already giving us some ideas. We just need to keep our eyes fixed on Him and keep moving forward waiting, watching and being alert as He orchestrates events and people to join in this journey with us.  God always seems to make a way where there is no way, one step at a time. So for now, we pray, we pray for the young women who will be working there, we pray for the owners of this KTV and we are praying for the patrons who will go to such places and we wait,  for as the book of Habakkuk 2:3 reminds me: For the revelation awaits an appointed time; Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reflecting Back on God's Faithfulness

So often in our journeys it is easy to focus on the here and now and not reflect back on all that has happened. Like the Israelites in the wilderness it is easy to look at our present circumstances and whine and complain but today, I've been thinking of and reflecting on the faithfulness of God as I think of some of our Ratanak volunteers who today Toronto time will be involved in a 5km walkathon fundraiser for us. This family Walkathon  was the vision of one of our Ratanak volunteers Larry Dearlove. As I think of Larry he probably will be quite embarrassed to read this blog but he is an example of many volunteers that we have on the homeside who work so tirelessly to mobilize others to get involved in investing in the lives of survivors of sexual exploitation in Cambodia.

You see Larry is just a normal guy like any of us. But he like many of our other volunteers, have an extraordinary heart for the purposes of God. He has a 9 to 5 job so to speak, a family man with two young daughters and a beautiful wife. Seven years ago at my home church in Toronto, I had the privilege of sharing about the whole issue of sex trafficking for an extended period of time in one of our church services. Larry ''happen'' to be sitting in the service and was moved by what he heard that he decided to do something about it. That afternoon I got a phone call from him thanking me for sharing but then asking me for my home address as he had a letter to send me. Of course, I'm always paranoid about people asking for my home address---perhaps a stalker I thought, one never knows but he seemed sincere enough and so I gave him my address. A few days later a long hand written letter arrived in my mail box. It was from Larry sharing how broken he was by what he heard and wanting to know what he could do.

During those early years as a Ratanak volunteer myself, we had a prayer meeting that would meet at my house to pray for our projects in Cambodia and especially our partners who were working directly with young women who were trafficking survivors. Larry joined that group and from time to time, he would write reflections that were inspired by God as he thought of the young girls being repeatedly abused. He is the only man I know that cries every time he shares. For him, this issue became personal as he reflected on the fact that he had two daughters about the same age of some of the young girls we had shared stories on. As time went by the prayer group expanded into an awareness group, a core group of individuals from different churches who had a heart for justice and who simply wanted to speak up and do something about the injustice they had heard in Cambodia! Many of them like Larry, have never been to Cambodia, have never seen up close the very children and young women they advocate for. They have been patient with us as we seek to develop a proper curriculum and a training program that engages short termers in these issues that does not negatively impact our programs here and yet inspires them to take action at home. Yet they are committed to fight for justice because they are committed to the things that are on the heart of God.

For Larry, just being part of this group was not enough. For him, he wanted to do more so he prayed and God began to speak to him about training to run a marathon. Now Larry is not some twenty something young guy, but his passion and commitment to being a voice and investing in the lives of these young women propelled him forward. He began to run several marathons and a two years ago qualified and ran in the Boston Marathon. As a forty something man, his time at the Boston Marathon was 3 hrs and 25 mins. Every year he has been running marathons and next year he will most likely run in the Boston marathon again. It is incredible to see what God can do with one person who has a willing heart and is willing to offer their lives for His purposes.

In another few hours, Larry and several others who volunteer for Ratanak will be hosting and coordinating the second annual 5km Family walkathon to raise funds for Ratanak. Last year $5,000 was raised as of the current numbers they have now raised over $10,000 for this year. But the issue here is not about the money raised but about God's faithfulness to each of us as we step up to the plate and no longer become spectators in God's Great Commission but we become active participants.   Larry has used his gifts and talents and has sacrificed physically for young women whom he has never seen, yet His heart and passion for them like many others, has never wavered. When I think of Larry and the many others who are volunteering their time and energy to make these events happen, I am encouraged by their faithfulness and God's faithfulness to them. Psalm 18:25, 28-29 says To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pureYou, Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.With your help I can advance against a troopwith my God I can scale a wall. He is the One that continually fuels the hearts of our volunteers even though they like Abraham have never been to the promised land. But they remain faithful and fully convinced that God will do as He has promised. 

They who volunteer back in Canada, U.S, U.K, Australia  are not doing it for their own glory, but they have found a bigger purpose in life, they like us who work on the frontlines, want to see God's name be glorified in the lives of the young women we are called to serve. They are not just passionate for passion alone is simply not sufficient; it must be consistently paired with wisdom. Zeal without knowledge can be a destructive force. A compassionate impulse may indeed be God's nudging, and certainly should not be ignored. But the hard work of education, preparation, and planning most always stands between us and a job well done. They have taken the time to learn and educate themselves about the issues in Cambodia, they have prayed endless hours for us and the young women at RAP and many of our other projects. They have fueled their passion through education, by reading and learning all about the issues we deal with. They have fueled their passion by actively using their gifts and talents for the good of the young women and the glory of God as they fundraise on our behalf. They have fueled their passion by the endless and tireless efforts to mobilize others to respond to God's heart for justice. 

And so this day as we are in the midst of the rainy season here in Cambodia, they are busy preparing for the 5km Walkathon. It is their hard work, their continual prayers, their words of encouragement,  their sacrificial efforts that encourages me. For they are running the race that has been set before them and so too, inspire me to run the race that God has set before me. Mother Teresa once said, ''all we do is a drop in the ocean but if we didn't do it there would be one drop less.'' Today I give thanks to the faithfulness of God and to the faithfulness of our Ratanak volunteers who are offering their one drops and as they do, the accumulated effort of their continuous obedience is paving the way for lives to be transformed in Cambodia as we step out in faith believing that the One Who calls us is faithful and He will do it (1 Thess 5:24)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Arrived -- After 7 Months!

One of the many lessons that anyone learns quite quickly in Cambodia if you live here is that things often take a long time to get done! This is just the way it is and if you let the process irritate you, you will certainly be stressed and frustrated. You always have a choice: accept that you are working in a different culture and do not try to impose your cultural expectations because you are not living in North America. This is the mindset we have to constantly remind ourselves when we live here.  Its easy to fall into this trap and compare and say ''well we do it this way in Canada or the USA, and why can't they do it this way.'' But that in many ways, shows what cultural antropologists would call ethnocentrism whereby we judge another culture solely by the values and standards of one's own culture. 

I share this because over the past 7 months we have been in the process of buying a new vehicle for the RAP community home. Perhaps some may ask, why buy a brand spanking new vehicle when you could get a second hand one for cheaper. Well, believe it or not, its cheaper to buy a brand new vehicle here than a used vehicle if you are an international NGO because we do not pay the custom duties and import tax. Several months ago when we went car hunting to buy a 4x4 vehicle, we discovered that the same vehicle that was 4 or 5 years old had a higher price than a brand new one. Now this almost defies logic given that cars are depreciable assets so how can that be? Well, most cars are imported by car dealers and as a result, they have to pay a heft import tax on the vehicle where we as an International NGO are given the benefit of purchasing a tax free vehicle. So to our surprise, we discovered we could buy a brand new Toyota Hilux 2013 model for either a cheaper price or the same price as one that was about 5 years old because we were getting it tax free. So it was a no brainer----a brand new vehicle, with a warranty from the dealer and cheaper than a used version----only in Cambodia can this be possible!

Now this all sounds good in principal but I must say, the process one has to go through to get such a deal is long, tardious and is not for the faint hearted. If you want to learn patience, this is one experience that will either teach you to become an expert in patience or at least close to being an expert! There were many documents to complete for different agencies that we work with and report to. I am thankful to our Finance Manager Sathya who did all the research and prepared all the documents. I told him this is like giving birth to a child. One has to do a lot of preparing and waiting. His patience and our patience to wait for the vehicle, finally paid off. Yesterday, he went to the Toyota Dealer to pick up the vehicle. One of the main reasons we purchased a 4 x 4 is many of the families of the young women at RAP live out in the rural areas so it is difficult to get to those places in a regular car or van.

RAP Vehicle - Toyota Hilux Vigo
Here in Cambodia, if you want people to know you have bought a new car you leave the original tape and paper on the door knobs and hood. However, for us, we were not concerned with letting others know that it was a new vehicle, rather we just wanted to clean the truck and so our drivers had fun washing it this afternoon.

Tomorrow we are hoping to have a drive in it but we are waiting for the insurance documents. Unlike North America (or at least in Canada) you have to show you have car insurance before you can take the car off the lot of the dealer. But here, that isn't necessary as car insurance is a new phenomena in Cambodia and is not required by law as yet although more and more people are beginning to buy it. Nonetheless, we were not exactly going to test that new phenomena. For anyone who has driven here, you know how congested the roads are with motos, bicycles, tuk tuks and cars and it is very easy to be hit or to hit others. I have had encounters with motocyclist and tuk tuks with our other small Toyota RAV4 so we made sure we had confirmed with the insurance company that we had coverage before we drove this vehicle to the RAP Home. Nonetheless, we still don't have any official documents so no driving will be allowed until we have copies in the car and we know who to contact in case an accident (God forbid) should happen.

For now, we are thankful that the vehicle has arrived safe and sound in its new home. Now the fun begins---driving in chaotic, Phnom Penh traffic. Pray for our driver Sambath that he will be alert at all times as he drives the car. As for our young women, well that's another set of fun to happen as with many teenagers they are concerned about the way they look and worried that their hair will be windblown if they sit at the back open area. Teenagers! I suspect they will be using the RAP tuk tuk to church instead since its rainy season, they will not want to get their hair wet! :-)