Day 2 – November 9th
In order to meet people where they are with the Gospel of Christ, you first have to figure out where exactly they are – culturally, spiritually, emotionally, physiologically, and so on. I say that to preface telling you about the day we spent visiting two of the three most common tourist sites in Cambodia, because at first glance, days like this tend to look a lot like sight-seeing tours. They’re not. Before we begin the work of being present, of lifting up our two local missionaries – George and Shary – to the locals outside of Siem Reap, and encouraging them to stay faithful to the God who called them to be His own, we too had to figure out where exactly these people are in their spiritual journeys.
We started with a great breakfast at our hotel, the Dragon Inn in Phnom Penh. Who knew the best ice coffee in the world was tucked away hidden in the recesses of Southeast Asia?
The morning began with a stop at the Mission Office to pick up something or other for George. Frankly, I just saw it as an excuse to wander up an intriguing alley where it turns out he and Shary both live and work. The Mission Office is humble, but effective. It reminds of a townhouse Melissa and I looked at when we first moved to Maryland – three floors, very few rooms on each floor, and a lot of stairs.
I’m not sure how many of us are really familiar with the mass genocide of the late 1970′s in Cambodia. I, for one, never studied it in any of my history classes, and really wasn’t that aware of Cambodia’s recent history until we started getting ready for this trip. On April 17th, 1975, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge took over the capitol city of Phnom Penh, and within three days all of its citizens had been expelled to various parts of the country. Over the next four years, 3 million of the kingdom’s 8 million citizens would be murdered or starved to death as Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid of anyone he thought would undermine his communist agenda. He rounded up anyone with any sort of education, people with soft hands, glasses, or who spoke a foreign language, and had them executed. Because of this, a full two thirds of Cambodia’s people are under the age of 35.
One of the most infamous prison camps used by the Khmer Rouge was a school called S-21. It’s now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The ghost of terrors past still haunt this place, along with an eerie sense of cultural silence on the history itself. They just don’t talk about it, and I get that. It takes generations to process that kind of depravity, and the affect it has on those who experience it lingers in the air everywhere you go in Cambodia. It’s written on their faces.
There’s a sanitized quality to S-21. The barbed wire’s been torn down, there’s neatly-mown grass and carefully-arranged trees everywhere, as if to whitewash the past just enough to make it accessible to those who visit here; both foreign and local alike.
Many of the prisoners from S-21 were taken to what’s commonly called the “Killing Fields.” Most of the buildings that once stood as monuments to the slain are now gone, torn down by history and those who lived it. Now it’s the Cheoung Ek Genocidal Center. While we were there, they played the soundtrack of 1970′s communist propoganda music over the loudspeaker, accompanied by a simulated diesel engine. These would have been the sounds heard in the field during the Khmer Rouge Genocides. We were all holding up great until the soundtrack began. The sound sort of completes the history, it tells the story in a real and accessible way, and is really very moving.
In 2011, the Cambodian government commissioned and completed the stupa that stands in the middle of the grounds. It houses the remains of the 20,000 bodies found in mass graves throughout the Killing Fields. From the outside, it looks a little bit like a typical Asian Temple, but as you move closer, you can see the bones housed within its walls. There’s a sense of reverence about this place that’s unmistakable, but also an uncanny sense that the events that happened here are from some grotesque storybook rather than the pages of human history.
As I write all of this down, I realize how incredibly horrible all of this must seem. Now might be a good time to mention again that none of this is meant to convey a sense of emotional poverty, or simply put, to make you sad or feel sorry for the people of Cambodia. It’s just their history. This is what makes them who they are, and from my point of view, this is the access point for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Only through Christ can we even begin to answer the question that lingers silently in the faces of all we’ve come in contact with: “Why?” “How could anyone treat human life with such abandon?” This is the need, and this is where we meet people with the Good News of the Gospel of Christ Jesus.
The Church is growing here. In a culture where 97% of the kingdom is Buddhist, people are coming to know Jesus. The church we’re going to tomorrow, the church that will serve as our home-base for our service projects, VBS’s and seminars, worships 450 a Sunday. Many of the folks, by the way, who will come to our sessions are from outside the church, and there we find another access point for the Gospel – curiosity. In short, there is ton of hope here. There’s a ton of opportunity here, and it’s going to be an uplifting and inspiring week.
So, before our (it turns out) seven hour bus trip to Siem Reap, the day ended where it began: with a surprisingly nice lunch at a local restaurant. You can tell a lot about a culture by the food they eat. Often enough, it’s a product of generations and centuries of hunger. At least it is when it’s good food. These pictures are mostly for my wife, Melissa, who is the only person in the world whose global culinary curiosity exceeds my own. I present to you Fish Amok, Fried Squid with Peppercorn, and Grilled Pork.
More tomorrow. Christ’s Peace, ~Pastor