Month: November 2014

Ten Lonely Years

Having just stepped off the bus in Phnom Penh, I retrieved my pack from the pile of them being unloaded and stacked on the dusty sidewalk. Joining my friends across the street to wait for further directions to our hotel for the night, I was immediately greeted by what would soon become a familiar sight – half-naked street children flocking to us, begging for food. With my team’s permission, I distributed the leftover bananas we’d brought for our ride from Vietnam. The youngest boy in the group wasn’t even old enough to peel his own banana, and as I assisted him, I watched as the others quickly devoured theirs. Like everything we saw in this city, the children were covered from head to toe in dirt. There were no parents in sight, if they even had them, and no telling when they’d last been bathed.

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As was the case with every previous ministry assignment, we had no idea what to expect. Where we would be living, what kind of work we’d be doing and even where we’d lay our heads at night was all a mystery to us. All we knew was that our host was an American woman in her eighties who had spent the last ten years of her life building an English school for Cambodian children. The following day, nine of us crammed into the back of several tuktuks with all our belongings and set off for some unknown corner of the city.

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Our ride took us first through the heart of Phnom Penh and then to a quieter neighborhood on the outskirts. As we rode over innumerable potholes, the traffic stirred up a cloud of dust through which we caught glimpses of cows roaming the streets, people shopping in giant outdoor markets, and children bravely venturing into swampland to retrieve the giant lotus flowers that grew in the muck.

Finally, we arrived at the English school. We were greeted with an elaborate meal and introduced to Doris and her staff of five, all native Khmer people. It became immediately apparent to us that there was something crucial missing from this place. As soon as I’d entered the front doors, I sensed an atmosphere that was heavy with tension. It seemed everyone working there had been robbed of their joy. Each time I introduced myself to one of them, extending a hand and a smile, I found timidity, surprise and only the most brief eye-contact. As we ate, the staff sat in silence as Doris lectured us in her deep southern drawl about the shortcomings of the Khmer people and the ways in which the country’s violent past had left them handicapped. A crowd of children began to grow at the entryway, clearly eyeing our food with hunger. Rather than offer them any, Doris snapped at them to leave us alone.

Finishing our meal in silence, stunned by the demeaning way she spoke of her staff, we were then ushered into a meeting with Doris to learn more about the history of the school and to discuss what we could do to help them. As we assured her that we were perfectly fine with sitting on the floor, she waved away our offer while yelling to her staff to bring us chairs. My team and I exchanged uncomfortable glances, unsure of how to proceed.

While she originally assigned us to help develop her staff, all of whom she perceived to be incompetent, we realized that this really was not why God had us there. We knew from that very first day that our goal was to see improved communication and a mutual respect between Doris and her staff members. And we knew that it was not for no reason that Doris acted this way.

In our meeting and as the month went on, we probed deeper into Doris’ heart to find the root of the anger and hostility she was imposing on her staff. She informed us that she had spent the last ten years in Cambodia, following the death of her abusive husband. Since moving there all by herself, she had interacted almost exclusively with native Khmer people who spoke only fragmented English. Doris still hadn’t learned to speak any Khmer, despite her extended stay. We also learned that she had strained relationships with her children and grandchildren, that they rarely spoke or even visited when she was able to go back to the United States.

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Before I met Doris, I imagined a sweet old lady who had bravely rejected relaxing into a comfortable retirement in favor of fulfilling the great commission. Essentially, I expected a female version of Mister Rogers, purposefully living a meager life in a foreign country for the sake of the gospel, and probably baking cookies for the starving street children, wiping the dirt from their faces. And this truly may have been the case when she first arrived. I really believe that her intentions for moving to the other side of the world, rejecting the familiar comforts of America (including Cracker Barrel, her favorite restaurant) and singlehandedly starting her English school were pure. But somewhere in those ten years of isolation, having no one else around who could truly know her and speak into her life, that sweet old lady got lost.

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One of the greatest gifts we could give Doris during our stay with her was just to listen to her. Given the opportunity to talk, she did not hesitate to share that she felt lonely, unappreciated, and misunderstood. I managed to find much more sympathy for Doris that month, despite how painful it was to watch her put down her staff and blame them for things outside of their control. But my heart broke for her because I could see myself in her. Left virtually alone in a foreign city, separated from all my loved ones who really didn’t make an effort to keep in touch, and reeling from a lifetime spent in an abusive relationship, I could easily be a Doris. Without the refining that only occurs within genuine, transparent community, anyone could be a Doris.

You are worth loving.

I’ve been trying to put this into words for the last two weeks with much difficulty. The day I left Swaziland was the hardest day of my entire trip by far – harder than leaving my family for nearly a year, and harder than saying goodbye to my friends I’d lived and traveled with when we finally reached the end. And to be honest, I never really let myself revisit it until now. Later that same day we jumped right into ministry in Mozambique and other responsibilities became more pressing. But so many nights since I’ve returned, I have been kept awake for hours replaying my time spent in this beautiful country. Swaziland, more than any other place I visited, holds a special place in my heart. If you’d like to hear more, it would be my joy to share it with you face-to-face. Unfortunately, though, it’s proving especially difficult for me to put into writing.

I woke coated in a fine layer of dust. For the few hours I’d been able to sleep, the torrential rain knocked every bit of dirt from the tin roof onto me in the bunk below, while the furious winds blew even more in through the cracks. As soon as I regained consciousness, the heaviness of what was coming flooded back to me. At the foot of the bed, my pack stood leaning against the wall full of everything I had with me. I began this day the same way I had every day this month: wishing I could have more time there on top of the mountain. But my time had run out.

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Three days prior, sitting on a rock overlooking the entire valley below us, I felt my heart breaking. The thought of leaving El Shaddai, the orphanage we’d lived and worked at for our second month, hung over me like a shadow. The stories of the abuses and atrocities committed against each child before he or she was brought to the orphanage replayed through my mind. For weeks I had entertained the idea of refusing to leave, but I knew God would not let me stay. I never expected to learn a lesson in commitment while spending the entire year being shuffled from one country to another. But continuing on with the World Race at that point took all the self-control I could muster.

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I rushed to get out of bed and up to the gate to see the children one last time before they went to school. I walked the same path I had repeatedly taken that month, and recalled all the times I had suddenly felt a pair of soft brown hands covering my eyes from behind and a voice in my ear, “Guess who I am!” (It was always Nozipho.) As the children trickled out of the dormitories in their navy and red school uniforms, I waited outside for my girls, the ones I’d been loving and had been loved by all month. One by one, they emerged into the sunlight and wrapped their arms around me, sure it would be the last time.

What stung the most about these goodbyes was how unaffected the girls seemed to be. I didn’t need them to miss me in order to feel important, neither did I want them to be heartbroken over the inevitable. But it seemed as though each one of them had steeled her heart for this moment, refusing to show emotion or to let herself admit she’d truly miss me. Not a tear was shed that day by any of them, at least not in my presence. The hugs were genuine but quick, and then they were gone. I again recalled some of their stories, the ways in which those they’d loved had left them before. While it made sense why this farewell wasn’t earth-shattering to them, at the same time it wrecked me to witness the ways these beautiful children had already developed callouses on their hearts in subconscious acts of self-preservation.

Finally, out came my Lindo, notoriously on the late side. That month, we’d each been paired with a child to intentionally spend time with each afternoon, and God told me to partner with her. But all month, she’d been running from me, just to see if I was committed enough to chase her. The first time we sat and talked, she asked, “You’re my buddy? When are you leaving me?” She, more than any child I met that month, assumed that I wouldn’t bother to pursue her. Each afternoon in chapel, she refused to sit with me, despite my invitation. Each evening when I had to go eat dinner, she would lie to me, “I’m leaving this weekend. I’m going back with my family. I will not see you again.” She was already skilled in the art of manipulation, but I soon learned this was just a trick to get more of my time and attention. However, to her surprise, I would not abandon the chase, and each extra hour spent with Lindo was one in which I saw the walls she’d constructed fall down as she realized no act of rebellion or indifference could deter me. She held on a little longer than the others that morning, long enough for me to speak over her, “You are smart. You are beautiful. You are worth loving.”

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After reluctantly packing up our chapas to head down the mountain, we said the rest of our goodbyes and crowded inside. We pulled out of the gate and down the dirt road past the school. As we rounded the corner, all the children in the schoolyard began dancing and waving for us as we departed, lined up along the fence. In the back row of seats, I sat and wept more heavily than I ever had, hoping God would eventually bring me back.