It was Christmas Eve in Cambodia. The sun was shining with temperatures in the 80s and we were being greeted by everyone with “Happy Merry Christmas.” Our presents were wrapped and tucked under the artificial tree we found at a local bookstore, yes, bookstore, and the kids were super excited.
But it wasn’t their presents they were excited about. It was the ones we were getting ready to load onto the tuk tuk.
These little boys had spent a lot of time on these presents. We had to wander a strange and unusual land (aka - a new market) to search for items in bulk. We had some wonderful friends join us as the kids got picked up by strangers, pinched on the cheeks, and called "babies", which neither of them likes at all. But it was worth it.
Let me go back a little bit here.
Just as I’ve been writing about this month, our family felt led to give back this year to the people we have come to love in this nation. Where we’ve given to World Vision or IJM in the past for people in need, we decided to take the items ourselves and put them in the hands of those in need this year.
We knew we had the power to change a lot of lives with what God has given us. After all, He changed our lives by bringing us here, and He did it using the financial support of many friends, family members, and even strangers. He has truly blessed us, providing all we need and often a little extra to make life comfortable for us. The problem is, when it comes to wanting to help the helpless, it’s hard to know where to turn. Here in Cambodia there is a need on every street corner... literally. I pass by people every day that need help. How do you choose?
When we asked others for suggestions we were overwhelmed with ideas. Stephen and I really felt we wanted to reach the children of Phnom Penh, the future of this nation, and we prayed for God to direct us how and where to serve Him. It’s no secret to everyone who helped that Satan was trying to hinder us every step of the way, but just in the nick of time, we were able to serve Him through an organization called the Bong Paoun Project. It’s a big brother/sister program in the city that reaches out to children in the slums of Phnom Penh. The children in these slums live in a housing area that is next to the giant municipal dump and spend their days sorting trash to find something of value to feed their families. I’ll let the story from their website illustrate what the Bong Paoun Project does for them:
Jesus said: ‘Is there anyone here who, if a child or animal fell down a well, wouldn’t rush to pull him out immediately?’
Millions of children have come to cities like Phnom Penh, Bangkok or Manila looking for a better life. But as they come, they fall into a pit. The pit of child labour. Many of them as street working children. The pit is too deep to get out. They are damned to stay down there in the filth, for who knows how many years.
They will grow up and get married in the pit, give birth to more street working children and eventually die in the pit.
Most people, though moved by the plight of the children, are too busy to get involved in the pit.
Some, with good intentions, will ‘throw’ some help into the pit. But at the end of the day the children are still trapped down there. They are still collecting rubbish. They are still begging on the streets. They are still selling their bodies.
A Christian doctor reaching out to street children in Bolivia writes this: ‘ One baby from a wealthy country, stuck at the bottom of a well, generates more heartfelt anxiety than 100 million children trapped on the streets of the developing world ever will.’
But there is hope!
Near the pit, there’s a rope; long enough to reach the children. As long as there is someone holding the rope, the boys and girls down in the pit will eventually be able to climb out and be free.
I would love to encourage you to read more on their website, including stories from children in the projects and big brothers and sisters who help them. The stories are inspiring true accounts of children who were born into heartbreaking poverty and despair yet now live with hope of a better future for generations to come.
God was showing us that this would be a good place to share His love on Christmas.
So we showed up, not knowing what to expect and not at all seeing what we expected. There was trash everywhere. They were literally living in filth. As our tuk tuk slowed to a stop, loaded with gifts, children and adults alike gathered around us, eyes hopeful and bright. They were dirty and hungry and their homes were falling apart. We only saw the outside of their little community, where 10-12 people could live in one room together. Inside there were others with no roof or no walls or no place to call home.
Yes, poverty and despair would be good words to describe it, though if I could think of more powerful ones, I'd use them.
But, whether they knew it or not, it was Christmas Eve.
It felt like a good place to celebrate the birth of our Lord.
Jesus was born in a stable. They laid Him a manger where the animals ate. His surroundings looked like poverty and despair, yet He brought a hope to the world that no other before or after Him would ever be able to give.
We, along with another IJM family and 4 other friends, all part of our own "IJM family," climbed up in a Khmer house, which is a very basic wooden house up on stilts. Our kids thought it was a treehouse so that made the whole thing even more fun. Then, in a room that might have been 12ft by 15ft, 40 children between age 12 and 18, all little brothers and sisters in the Bong Paoun Project, climbed in with us.
They received new school uniforms, shoes, toothbruses, soaps, shampoo, and a fun Angry Birds pen and notebook that my boys joyfully handed to each child.
They were all extremely grateful.
Stephen was smiling and thankful for what we could do while I was in tears about all those in the community who we couldn’t help. I guess we balance each other well.
I assumed when we got in the tuk tuk to head home the first thing my kids would do would be to ask if we could open presents when we got home.
Instead, my five year old son looked up at me with a giant grin and a sparkle in his eyes and said, “Mom, that was SO fun. Can we do it again soon?”
Yes, honey. We can. And we don’t have to wait until next Christmas.
I pray God blesses all of our families – yours and mine - immensely in 2012 so we may then bless others around us who are in need.
Happy Merry Christmas from Cambodia.
Thank you to everyone who made it possible for us to support these children by supporting our family.