We stepped into her 10-foot-by-10-foot scrap-wood shed on a hot Phnom Penh afternoon. “Bopha” lay dehydrated…
We stepped into her 10-foot-by-10-foot scrap-wood shed on a hot Phnom Penh afternoon. “Bopha” lay dehydrated and ashen, fading in and out of sleep on a bed of wood slats. Her baby, now 5 days old, lay sleeping next to her. This was child number seven. She had delivered her in the shanty on Tuesday, cutting the umbilical cord herself as she had no one to help. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see her husband, passed out on a hammock just two feet from me. Child number one was gone. She didn’t know where, probably one of the many street kids of Cambodia. Child number two was “stolen,” she said, which probably means she was sold into the sex industry, with or without her parents’ knowledge and consent. The third child was probably about 12, and he came in and out a couple of times during our visit. Numbers four and five played about us, and child number six sat naked next to his mother pulling at her for attention. She looked at him with irritation for a moment and plopped her head back down on the wooden bed. Once or twice, she vomited a little between the slats.
A young, Finnish YWAM missionary named Pia had been working in this community for four years now. She regularly visited the most desperate residents in order to bring some help and tell them the good news about Jesus’ Kingdom. This time, she had brought a few baby clothes for the newborn. We spent time praying for Bopha, who lived in a home no bigger than most suburban American garden sheds. We asked for the Kingdom of God to fall on that place, for God to bring His healing power to her. Then I laid my hands on her husband and prayed for power over the addictions to which he had succumbed, calling out for his fatherhood to rise up from within him.
Next to us, a woman dying of AIDS sat, speaking in Khmer to Pia through the herpes sore that distended her upper lip. “You must come and pray for me and my family, too,” she insisted. So after visiting and praying for about a half-hour in the dark shed, we went out into the bright sunlight where this woman, her husband and her child lay out under a tarp. They had not even a scrap-wood shed to shelter them, and when the police came through on raids to evict those squatting on the land, the family took shelter in the shanty of a friend.
The university students I visited were part of InterVarsity’s Global Urban Trek. They had taken up residence among the poor for the summer as they follow the example of Christ, who, though He was rich, for our sakes became poor. This was an opportunity for relatively wealthy, highly educated students to consider a career of loving and serving the poorest people on earth. Bopha, and those like her, will not send representatives to career fairs at Harvard or Berkeley. They will not give materials about their opportunities to the Placement Offices of the University of California-San Diego or to Stanford. This summer was a chance for a few college students to wrestle with the reality of poverty and the call of God to “… loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (Isaiah 58:6–7).
This informal community was being moved, family by family, to the outskirts of Phnom Penh, far from support services, family or job opportunities. I spoke with Chris, who works with a Christian order among the poor called InnerCHANGE. He said that developers were buying up great tracts of land around Phnom Penh with the future hope that this real estate might be worth something someday. It was sort of like a real-life Monopoly game, only one had to clear the squatters off your property before you could build hotels—no passing “GO” and no collecting $200. I asked if a few rich Christians might beat them to it, buying up the land and then working justly to help each family gain rightful ownership of the land.
“Sure,” he said, “as long as you’re willing to pay for the prostitutes to ‘service’ the government officials you need to get the land. If you are willing to work completely under-the-table in smoke-filled rooms with corrupt people, I suppose you could.” Corruption and greed always seem to win … even in Monopoly™©®!
Pia then led us to a woman named “Dara.” Dara was a shining star in the midst of the oppressive nightmare engineered by greedy developers and corrupt officials. She had fully embraced the teachings of Jesus as a result of spending time with Pia and attending the church with which Pia worked. Dara glowed with excitement when she talked. “My favorite song is ‘I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,’” she told me. “I love the part that says, ‘The cross before me, the world behind me, no turning back. No turning back.’” Dara had given up gambling, and her husband was beginning to come out of his alcohol addiction. She was knit into this community and knew everyone. Week by week, she and Pia served and labored together, helping people however they could and inviting them into a Kingdom that had no greedy developers or corrupt government officials.
Dara is good soil upon which a seed has fallen. Her faith in Christ is infectious, and I thoroughly believe that in the course of her life, there will be a 30-, 60- or 100-fold increase as a result of her decision to put the cross before her and the world behind her. Dara will change that community—without millions of dollars and without having to stoop to the levels of wickedness that have brought about the desperation there. She was utterly transformed by meeting Pia, as I am sure Pia has been transformed by walking next to Dara.
Four years ago, a young Finnish girl decided to relocate to Phnom Penh, not because a recruiter came to her school, but because she was on a quest to draw near to the authentic Christ, whom she believed was walking among the poorest of the poor in Cambodia. In sowing dozens and dozens of seeds, one of them has just taken root, and the balance of power has tipped in a community. The transformation may be 30 years off, but Bopha and the woman dying of AIDS have reason to hope. I have seen it happen. A community center springs up, women have other avenues to provide for their children besides prostitution, a new love enters people’s lives and they have power to overcome addiction. People band together, and modest legal structures get constructed. Quietly and unobtrusively, the rules to Monopoly get subverted, property by property.