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

Cambodia Sharing

(Published in the November issue of my church’s newsletter. This was originally the transcript for my sharing about Cambodia to the church’s congregation, with minor alterations made to ease accessibility to readers.)


Cambodia is a land of wonder. At one point in history it was one of the world’s richest civilizations. Today it is one of the poorest countries in the world, where most people live on less than 2$ a day. Food is extremely scarce, and malnutrition is a constant problem. Disease runs rampant, since most people cannot get adequate medical treatment.

During the 1960’s Cambodia was heavily damaged by the effects of the Vietnam War, which in turn helped fuel their own civil war, which laid waste to the country. During that time, the country also experienced a terrible famine, and for years, many people died of the fighting, disease, or starvation. In 1975 Khmer Rouge soldiers entered the capital of Phnom Penh, and the people cheered, thinking that their suffering had finally come to an end. They had no idea that the worst had yet to even begin.

The Khmer Rouge implemented dramatic reform, doing their best to transform modern Cambodia back into the Feudal Age. They forced the cities to be abandoned and turned the entire population into forced laborers working on rice fields. Schools, libraries, and anything modern was destroyed, as they did their best to wipe out technology and culture. Teachers, artists, doctors, and anyone they considered “smart” were killed. People too old to work, people with disabilities, and people who wore glasses (who were thought of as “smart”) were also killed. People who couldn’t handle the labor, who were too malnourished, were killed, people whose clothes were too clean or hands too soft were killed (as this was a sign of not working hard enough), and some people were killed at random, for no apparent reason. Even though everyone was forced to work on rice fields, food was scarce, and many people starved. 

Children were reeducated, brainwashed, and turned into killing machines for the Khmer Rouge. Mothers were forced to watch as their babies were taken and brutally murdered. It was common for soldiers to grab kids by their legs and swing them against a tree like an ax, smashing their heads against the trunk.

If, for whatever reason, someone was accused of being a spy or rebel, they were thrown in jail, tortured until they confessed to doing something they never did, and then executed. The Khmer Rouge did this to even their own members.

This was one of the trees that Khmer Rouge soldiers used to execute babies and children on. It now stands as a memorial.

In just 5 years, anywhere between 1 and 3 million people died as a result of the Khmer Rouge. The entire population of Cambodia at the time was only 8 million.

Our mission going to Cambodia was to build a house for a family Aunty Adele has been working with, deliver supplies for her to distribute at her discretion, do Bible school for the kids, build relationships with the people there, and spread the love of Christ. Here you can see the house they were living in previously.

Cambodia is a heartbroken country. The Khmer Rouge is gone now, but their devastating effects remain. Everywhere you look, you can see the scars that still linger.There remain over 4 million undiscovered landmines throughout the country. Poverty, and everything that comes with it, is a part of daily life. I think the rest of the world has largely turned a blind eye to the devastation that took place so recently in Cambodia, which is why I felt it necessary to share a bit about the history with you today.

Corruption runs rampant in Cambodia. Everyone from the government, to the police, to the kids and teachers at schools, are expected and encouraged to cheat and bribe their way through daily life. With cheating such a regular part of life, the people just know no other way of living.

In Cambodia, people with disabilities are ostracized. The Buddhist culture there dictates that people with deformities are cursed, and that they must have done something bad in a past life to deserve their punishment. People don’t want to be associated with “cursed people,” so the handicapped are often rejected by everyone, including their own families.

We became friends with many people who have been through so much more than what we could imagine here in America. People like Hia, a boy we became good friends with, who was sold by his mom, and is forced to work at a crocodile farm, where he takes care of hundreds and hundreds of crocodiles by himself. Or this girl in the wheelchair, Gemaryan, who was born missing both her legs, her left arm, and with only 3 fingers on her right hand, and because of her disabilities, was beaten by her family. Or Kaiyi, another boy we befriended, who suffers from severe malnutrition, an enlarged spleen, and many other diseases, and was also beaten and rejected by his family.

These people have been through so much suffering, and lived in fear. But it’s amazing to see Christ at work in their lives, as they are transformed into new, stronger people. Like, Visnae and Pisae, two girls we met who have become leaders in their communities, and recently started attending medical school in Phnom Penh.

We did a lot of VBS’s for the kids. They were a lot of fun to work with, and seemed to really enjoy the Bible stories, crafts, games, and just hanging out.

One of the most memorable faces in my mind was not someone I met in person. While at her house, Aunty Adele handed me a photo album to look through. In it were pages and pages of pictures of people she’s met over the years, many of whom were suffering from giant tumors the size of softballs sticking out of their neck, forehead, and other odd places, many were missing limbs, and many had other terrible diseases and deformities.

Then I saw a picture of a girl who was about my age. Acid had been poured all over her body. Her face is horribly scarred, with the skin permanently removed, and her facial features missing, out of place, or otherwise hanging in odd positions. I cannot describe to you how terrible it is. It is easily the worst deformity I’ve ever seen. I can’t get her face out of my mind.

This was the house the family had previously been living in. (Family of 7.) It's a typical house for a Cambodian family.

The world might call these people ugly. Their country may be ashamed of them, and their culture, and even their own families, may have rejected them. People tend to look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. God only makes beautiful things. These are exactly the kinds of beautiful people I find so much joy working with.

The finished house. It’s not much by American standards, but for them it’s their dream home. For a family as poor and desperate as they are, where getting enough food to eat is considered a good day for them, a house like this seemed impossible, nothing but a pipe dream. But for God, all things are possible. This house was built entirely by Him. It was such a huge blessing to get to work on that house, and I thank God for giving me that opportunity.

People live in little house boats on Tonle Sap, a very polluted lake.

Our tour guide and interpreter for the trip was a man named Viloth.  He’s a pastor, but he doesn’t get paid at all for his ministry work, and instead supports his family by working as a tuk-tuk driver.  He works hard to serve the Lord, and God has blessed him. Whereas most people in Cambodia are undernourished, somehow Viloth is able to provide enough food for his family, and they are all at healthy weights. Their nine-month old baby, Elijah, was born with down syndrome. Normally kids with disabilities are rejected by their families, but it’s clear that Elijah will always be loved.

If you’ve never been on mission to a third-world country, I encourage you to go. It is a great opportunity to see God at work in so many different ways. But you don’t need to leave home in order to be a blessing. You don’t need special skills or a lot of money, just a willing heart. There are so many people right here in our neighborhoods who need help. All we have to do is be willing to obey when God calls us to act.

Picture of a Cambodian Boy

I find this picture disturbing, gross, and sad all at the same time. This shows you the desperation of the people of Cambodia.

This clipping is from a Singapore newspaper. This boy lives in a village near Siem Reap, which is the same district where we worked and stayed. The caption reads,

Getting his milk by udder means –

Eighteen-month-old Tha Sophat suclking milk from a cow in Nokor Pheas village, Nokor Chum district, in Siem Reap on Sunday. The Cambodian boy has been feeding himself by sucking directly from a cow as part of his daily meals since his parents left to work in Thailand, the child’s grandfather told Reuters. Mr. Um Oeung, 46, said his grandson has been doing this for a month now after the family’s home was swept away in a storm last year, leaving behind a total debt of $1,000.

Unfortunately, strange and disturbing stories like this are commonplace in Cambodia. So many people, children especially, find themselves in desperate situations like this.  A debt of $1,000 may not seem like too much here in America, but to most Cambodians, it’s a fortune. Many Cambodians, for one reason or another, find themselves deep in debt, with no way to get out. That’s why so many children are sold into slavery/indentured servitude.