For Dr. Leonard Harms who has taken care of my arrangements while in Southeast Asia, it would have been crazy not to include a few days in Cambodia. Lutheran Church–Church–Canada has no official relationship with Lutherans here, except through Concordia Lutheran Mission Society, which supports theological education and the work of three deaconesses. Reporting in The Canadian Lutheran how the Lord is bringing about the formation of an indigenous Lutheran church body had piqued my curiosity, so it was an easy sell for me to go.
Phnom Penh is a city under construction. There is a lot of new development as offshore non-government organizations (NGOs) help the Cambodians find their way after nearly three decades of chaos. As for traffic, motorcycles outnumber cars ten to one..maybe more. Traffic rules are whatever works as long as you don’t hit anything or anyone—hard. It is internal combustion anarchy that plays out like a ballet.
We spent our first day, Monday, in the countyside about two hours northeast of Phnom Penh. We drove along increasingly narrow and dusty roads until we came to a place where about a dozen women were gathered under a tree and some 30 children involved in activities in another shady area. Each woman had a Bible and a Luther’s Small Catechism on the ground in front of her. Deaconess-in-training Lee Sim was conducting the study. Her daughter was leading the children. The Catechism is so popular with both believers and not-yet-believers that they need more. The initial run of 5000 is used up! Again and again we heard how much they appreciate the Catechism because it is a readable, simple explanation of the Bible and the Christian faith.
Afterward, as I interviewed Lee Sim, I learned how she had been threatened with death because of her faith. Cambodia is predominantly Buddhist and to renounce Buddhism is to turn your back on your country and culture.
Before we left, the pastor, Vanarith Chhim who works with Lutheran Heritage Foundation and Lutheran Instituted Southeast Asia, presented the women and children with a newly-translated book of Bible stories. Everyone was thrilled and quickly began turning the pages and reading the stories.
Tuesday we spent in Phnom Penh. It was both a troubling and inspiring day. Troubling because I visited the place where the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot tortured and executed thousands. Then I visited “The Killing Fields” where those who didn’t die during torture came for execution along with people from around the countryside. Estimates say almost 2 million people (26% of the population) were killed as Pol Pot tried to turn Cambodia back into an agrarian society. The genocide targeted anyone with an education, with any ties to the US or who was turned in by neighbours simply because they were ‘suspicious.’
As I saw the mass graves, instruments of torture, hundreds of photos of victims and saw the blood stains on the floors of torture chambers, I wondered how anyone can truthfully say that humankind is basically good. How soon we forget the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Darfur. It was a sobering morning.
Inspiration came Tuesday afternoon at the garbage dump of all places. Here Pastor Vanarith and another pastor have befriended children who spend their afternoons and evenings sifting through garbage to find reusable plastic sacks they can sell to recyclers. Smoke from the burning garbage filled the air. Dump trucks brought in fresh loads and front-end loaders continually moved it around. Three boys were having a great time swimming in a pool of questionable water nearby and when they saw the pastor yelled and waved. Often these children become involved with gangs and will be given glue to sniff to help them stay awake as they work nights in the dump.
Every Sunday, Pastor Vanarith sees 250 of these children in his Sunday school. There, they hear how God loves and cares for them.
A group of the children met us at a local church and they too received the Bible story books with the same enthusiasm we’d seen the day before. One boy began reading it out loud as soon as it was in his hands!
The Lord places so many opportunities before us to touch lives with His love. All we have to do is look around us. I wonder how many “garbage dumps” we would rather ignore?