Where the Sky Seems Lower

This was published in the April issue of The Pearl, the monthly newsletter for the First Baptist Church of Pearl City.  If you’ve already read the printed version, this online version has pictures that were not included. 

“Expect God to do something great today,” said Aunty Adele as she briefed us of the day’s activities over breakfast. “I don’t know why, I just feel it. This morning I got up and I felt God telling me something great is going to happen today.”

Building a house in Cambodia was a great experience, one that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. We were not only doing this to show goodwill toward a Cambodian family, but also to witness to the surrounding neighborhood. A bunch of Cambodian men would stop by to help work on the house. That’s what they do in Cambodia. When someone needs help with something, all their friends, neighbors, and relatives drop by to help out a little. The Cambodian men didn’t say much, they just quietly went about their work. But Adele reminded us that God was using us to sow seeds, so even though we didn’t talk much with them, being there and working with them was an important witness.

Building that house was some of the most intense work I’ve ever done. I’ve played competitive sports for a long time, so I thought I was in good shape and used to intense workouts. But shoveling dirt in the intense humidity of Cambodia was a workout like no other.

We took a break from working, and admired the scenery around us. “The sky seems lower here,” said one of my companions. Cambodia is mostly a very flat country. The area we were in had no no elevation to be seen anywhere. Every direction we looked we saw flat fields, tall coconut trees, small houses made out of wood and grass, but no hills or mountains, creating a surreal feeling, as if the sky were indeed somehow lower in this country than in the rest of the world.

A stupa stands at the site of one of the killing fields. The stupa is filled to the top with skulls of some of the field’s victims.

Cambodia is a beautiful place. Almost everywhere you look you can see green fields which seem to stretch on endlessly. It’s a tranquil scene. But the beauty takes on a new perspective when you think about it’s haunting past. These fields, which seem so serene today, were not that long ago fields filled with terror. So much killing, torturing, raping, and pillaging occurred in these very same fields. Here so many people experienced unimaginable horror, and had their lives changed forever. Babies were taken from their mothers, family members were turned against family members, and people saw their loved ones murdered in front of them.

Cambodians taken from their homes and forced to work in brutal conditions for the Khmer Rouge.

After taking a break, we continued work on the house. In Cambodia, when it rains, it pours. The weather can be extremely bipolar: it can be sunny one minute, pouring rain the next, and sunny again a moment later. But during monsoon season, rains typically come during the mid-afternoon, and continue throughout the evening.

It was about three in the afternoon when clouds rolled in. They were some of the darkest clouds I’ve ever seen, and they were heading straight for us. It almost looked like a tornado was going to form. We knew we’d have to work fast if we wanted to beat the storm.

We were on the ground shoveling dirt and moving bricks, but there were guys working on the roof of the house. They were using electric tools to weld the roof in place, so any rain would halt the project. Our schedule was tight, since we were only supposed to be in Cambodia for two weeks. Rain had already cut short some of our work days, and any further delays might keep us from being able to finish the house in time.

Racing against a storm while shoveling dirt out of Adele’s truck.

We worked as fast as we could, trying to get the day’s work done before the rain started. The clouds looked like they were ready to burst at any moment, but they somehow held up.

Finally, right as 5 o’clock hit, we finished with the day’s work. At that moment, seemingly as if God had been making the clouds wait just for us, the rain started to pour, and it poured all night.

“Adele did say to expect God to do something great today,” said one of my companions, reminding us of what we had talked about at breakfast.

In addition to working on the house, we did Vacation Bible Schools for the neighborhood kids. In doing this, we got to know some of the locals.

The Khmer Rouge took pictures of their victims before they exterminated them.

Rows upon rows of pictures are now on display at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

One of the people I became friends with was a boy named Kaiyi. If you saw him you might think he’s about 10 or 11 years old, but he’s actually 17. His growth has been severely stunted due to malnutrition. When I first met him he had a large bleeding wound on his ankle. Aunty Adele, who made me a medical assistant for the trip, had me treat it. As I bandaged it I noticed his entire leg was deeply scarred, running from his thigh all the way down to his foot. Adele told me that his family used to beat him, and finally his leg got so bad that a metal rod had to be placed in it. He has a weak immune system, which is why the wound on his leg reopened and started bleeding for no apparent reason. He also has an enlarged spleen. The doctor’s can’t remove it, since it’s already too big. If his spleen ruptures, he will die.

Another guy we became friends with was a 22-year-old named John. John was a neighbor of Kaiyi’s. When John found out about the way Kaiyi’s family was beating him, he had him come and live with him, and eventually adopted him. But one time Kaiyi missed his family and ran away to see them, and his family beat him again. This was when Adele had to explain to Kaiyi that he can’t ever go back.

John and Kaiyi.

We took the kids to Adele’s house and did a VBS in her yard. Kaiyi and I stood there listening to the women tell a Bible story. I put my hand on his shoulder. He looked up at me, smiled, grabbed my hand, and examined it, looking at how big it was compared to his. He swung my hand back and forth, and played with it the way little kids do. Then he simply held my hand, and didn’t let go until we had to leave.

The government of Cambodia does not persecute Christians. The persecution instead comes from the people themselves. Theravada Buddhism plays a huge role in the social structure of Cambodia. Almost everyone in the entire country is Buddhist, and if you’re Cambodian, that’s what’s expected of you. Everyone from your family, neighbors, friends, classmates, and coworkers practices Buddhism and expects you to do the same, for that is how it’s been ever since Buddhism first came to Cambodia some 2,000 years ago.

This is what makes it so difficult for Cambodians to accept Christ. Doing so isolates them from society as they know it. Their friends, peers, and coworkers will shun them for turning away from their long-held beliefs in favor of a foreign unseen deity. Men will have a tougher time finding jobs, since people don’t want to hire someone who turned from their traditions. Their own family will disown them, and in the case of women and children, they’ll probably be beaten.

This is something that we in America just can’t relate to. In some cases we might be criticized, made fun of, or looked down upon for being a Christian. But we won’t be entirely isolated from society the way Cambodian Christians are.

For Cambodians, to accept Christ is a giant leap of faith. It’s dangerous and lonesome, and can often seem to hinder one’s success in life. But Cambodia is a nation that desperately needs a Savior. There has been so much suffering and anguish, much more than I could describe to you in a few short articles. Cambodia is still haunted by it’s past. Recovery is slow and painful. But the Cambodians who have accepted Christ as Lord of their lives exhibit very different traits from their non-Christian counterparts. Their countenance and demeanor is different. They seem happy, and full of hope.

Cambodian Christians have so little, yet they’re satisfied. Here in America, we’re so often focused on our material things: our computers, iphones, cars, status, and money. Would we really be happy if we didn’t have those things? It seems as if because of our materialism, we do not always recognize this simple truth: that God alone is the real joy giver, and that apart from him, we are nothing.

In Cambodia, where the sky seems lower, it felt in a way as if I was closer to God. In America, with our wealth and materialism, it’s easy to be “lukewarm Christians” and get wrapped up in our own lives and forget that God is at the center of it all. But for two weeks while I was in Cambodia, the emphasis was on spreading the love of Christ to those around us, and it felt as if I was “working full-time for Him,” which is how it should always be, regardless of where we are.

When we let God work in our lives, great things happen every day. When we let go of our worldly ways and keep our eyes and hearts focused on his righteous ways, we let his light shine through us. Not only does this help others see him, but it also brings us joy like no other. It’s a joy that can never be taken from us, and it’s a joy that lasts for all eternity. o

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5: 3, 14-16

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