Shall we dance?

Heading back to the church

Melanie and the weaver

Okay, perhaps the mirror ball wasn’t strictly orthodox, and the jumping was a little crazy, and I guess the ululating was a little out there. But the Spirit of God was all over the worship at the New Life Church in Krangthmoung village. Though the songs were in Khmer, most of the melodies were recognizable. So our people sang along their people and with the Handong people. Our people also jumped along with the Khmer (a worship phenomenon a Handong professor attributed to the influence of Hillsong.)

Pastor Pros, who founded New Life in 2001, now has 12 satellite churches in neighboring villages. His goal is to see Cambodians transformed, “both  in the spirit and the flesh.” Seyha Song, his worship leader and main jumper (really, this guy is a pogo stick) shares Pastor Pros’ vision. “I want people in this village to live in Jesus, and I want Cambodian people to become Christian,” he said.

New Life serves as the village hub, with scores of children playing in its yard and dogs running around. “Typically a preah vihear is a house of prayer, and this is considered a preah vihear,”” said Rick Degraaf, a CRWRC country consultant. “”It’s a center where people care a lot about each other and about the community.”

We toured the community on foot right after worship. It was a long, dusty walk through Krangthmoung and adjacent Chroumg Sdoa. Both were tidy, fairly prosperous communities with lots of signature Cambodian white cows and colorful chickens (still resenting every rooster I see) and women weaving fine silk scarves at looms. The weaving project (and the fish ponds) are CRWRC-fostered enterprises.

After supper and more worship, the band broke out some Khmer karaoke tunes, and the locals taught those of us with willing hearts and restless feet to dance. A tip, in case you’re ever in the neighborhood of Krangthmoung and you want to cut a decent rug: You can get the hang of the feet, but the hands are beyond the skill of a beginner. And putting them together? That’s a good one. Still, many of our students distinguished themselves with some less-traditional moves. Indeed, Jacoba Bulthuis may have invented a whole new dance form (with possibly a culture to follow) with her funky style.



A few evenings ago, we had dinner with the students of Handong Global University and Handong International Law School. The featured guest was Theary Seng, author of Daughter of the Killing Fields. Ms. Seng grew up under the Khmer Rouge regime, when three million Cambodians were slaughtered by the revolutionary government. Two of the victims were her parents.

Ms’. Seng spoke about Cambodian history and politics. She also talked about the tribunal currently (30 years after the fact) prosecuting Kang Kek Iew, the governor of the Tuol Sleng prison–an infamous scene of torture–and other war criminals. Given its composition and powers, Seng said, the tribunal could only deliver partial justice at best. “There are many people with bloody hands, mixing in society with their victims,”and the line of demarcation is not clear,”she said. “Many of the perpetrators are themselves victims.” Seng, who now lives in Phnom Penh,  relocated with her family to Grand Rapids in the 1970s and attended Millbrook Christian School. She said that if the person who killed her mother would confess and apologize to her, it would mean more to her than any retribution delivered by a tribunal.

How we roll …

In Cambodia, the traffic is always coming at you, a constantly flowing stream of motorcycles, tuuk-tuuks, farm carts, trucks and automobiles. People–some of them,small children–ride three and even four to a motorcycle. In Siem Reap, the traffic put-putted along, and there were  lots of bicycles and plenty of chickens and dogs traveling in the mix. The horns in Siem Reap steadily give out a short bleat or a long hoooonk, and nobody even looks back to note the sound. In Phnom Penh, the traffic clips along faster and tougher, and the horns are like little barks.

In Cambodia,you learn quickly that the only way to cross the street is to veer directly into the flow of traffic. “I think we’ll just have to cross it,” someone will yell, and we’ll all head on a diagonal, and as if by incantation, the traffic slows to a stop. There is no swerving, no squeal of brakes. The motorcycles, tuuk-tuuks, farm carts and automobiles simply pause, then resume their speed.

Gil Suh, who serves in Cambodia through Christian Reformed World Missions compared the local traffic to bringing the gospel to the Khmer people. “These people are recovering from a trauma,” he said. “They are open to the gospel, but here it’s somewhat chaotic. I think the traffic is the metaphor here. You have to go with the flow because if you’re too stiff, you break.”

After their 2000 graduation from Calvin Theological Seminary, Gil and his wife Joyce served as missionaries to Nigeria for six years and pastored a church in San Jose for four. They resisted their first call to Cambodia (The children were too small) but accepted the assignment last year. “The mission fire was still there,” he said.

We met Gil at the headquarters of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee where we heard presentations for local NGOs. We also visited the headquarters of the International Justice Mission, a local orphanage, an organization that works with the urban poor and an NGO called Picosol, that deals with renewable energy.

Going to church …

Everywhere we go–even while crossing walking head-on into motorcycle traffic–this group is constantly  snapping pictures. We are, however, hesitant to train our cameras on a church service. There’s something a little weird about snapping away like tourists while people are communing with God. That’s why it was an odd moment, and a pretty funny one, when the pastor of the 30-member Boeung Tom Pun Meanchey Church, where we attended this morning, rose from his front-row seat and turned to snap a couple of photos of us. Other than that, it was a fairly standard service: songs, scripture readings and prayers, part in English, part in Khmer: Afterward, we mingled in the dirt yard, with dogs and children running around and ate the  teeny oranges  they passed out.

I spoke to Navy Sous, a 24-year old who led and translated much of the service. She became a Christian because of her curiosity. She wondered why people kept coming to the little building every Sunday to sing and pray. “One day I follow them and sing and listen … One day the pastor say, Am I going to believe in God? And I say, ‘Okay.'” Navy said God has opened a way for her to study in college and to help run a kid’s camp in Malaysia. “God is amazing,” she said more than once. Since becoming a Christian, Navy has faced persecution. “The neighbors, they don’t want to talk to us. My relative, they ignore us. Buddhism is our nation’s religion. It is not for people to become Christian,” she said.  Recently, Navy added, her family has become warmer to her because they can see the change in her life.

This evening at the International Christian Fellowhip, we heard scripture read with a Australian accent, greetings given in a Kenyan accent and a sermon preached in a South African accent. It was a lively and passionate sermon, and its basis was Philippians 2:1-13, the identical passage Bethany and I pledged  two months ago to read every day. (The first four verses of this passage are the theme of the interim.)  “Another ‘But God’ moment,” Leonard commented later. The preacher of the sermon, Richard Waddell, arrived four months ago from Dakkar. “I’m trying to keep my eyes open so I can see what God is doing?” he said. “The Cambodian people are very open to the things of God.”


Phnom Penh

The women were crowded 40 to a truck, and they rode standing up. They were garment factory workers who came from rural villages. They earn $55 a month, from which they must pay for food (a little rice and meat) transportation (the truck), and lodging: 20 of them crammed into an apartment. Many of them end up in nightclubs, which is a euphemism for brothels. “So many reasons why they go there,” said Navy Chann, who was with us, watching the trucks of standing women fly past the bus. The women moved to Phnom Penh, leaving their families behind, in hope of earning a little money. “Actually, they end up costing their families,” Navy said.

GET 10

“We come to share with you our hearts and our minds.We really love the Cambodian people,” said lawyer and professor emeritus S.K Lee at the awards ceremony and commencement ceremony for GET 10. The acronym stands for Global Entrepreneurship Training 2010, and Lee was representative of the many Korean faculty staff and students from Handong Global University who made GET 10 happen. The conference featured a week of training in entreprenurial skills for approximtely 80 Cambodian students from several of the country’s universities. “These are the up-and-comers,” commented David Dornbos.

The Calvin students took a two-hour-plus bus ride to the Rawlings Institute and Conference Center to participate in the conference; they listened to the students present their business plans and cheering when the team named Sea Guide– whose vision was a floating restaurant featuring native Khmer cuisine and entertainment–took the top prize. Also present for the event was Lynn Kuipers Eggert ’86, who accompanied her husband Dave, a Handong International Law School  professor and one of the conference speakers. Lynn, whose father is Calvin College professor emeritus of mathematics Jack Kuipers, also had her three children in tow. The couple, who live in South Korea, was having their first look at Cambodia, and they were enthusiastic about the conference. “The whole premise of GET 10 is to empower the people to bring their dreams into reality,” Lynn said. “They have so many resources.”

Also enjoying the conference, both for the training and its setting, were the Cambodian students. “It’s such a beautiful environment,” said one student. “Just waking up in the morning here, you feel fresh. Rawlings was indeed a paradaisical place. The Calvin group slept in pink-sheeted bunks in two dormitories. The grounds were luxuriant with thick grass, palms and tropical flowers.  Even in this retreat, however, the students had to operate under a caution: They were not allowed to wander off the grounds. “Cambodia still has over a million unexploded land mines,” Dornbos explained.


“You buy somesing, Madame?” It was a gentle voice, and I looked down to see a beautiful little girl about 10 years old. Her long black hair was held back in barretts, and she was neatly dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. I had left the luggage store at the Central Market and wandered over to the booth across the aisle. Its shelves were stocked with t-shirts in plastic bags and hung with dresses, skirts and blouses in vivid colors. The little girl seemed to be the lone proprietor, and she was urgent in pushing her wares.  “Somesing for you? A scarf, Madame? T-shirt?”

I located a t-shirt with a silhouette of Angkor Wat and asked for a different size, then a different color. She scurried around the booth, flipping through piles of t-shirts and laying out the requested items. What was her name? “Fiyah,” she said. Can you spell it? She did. Did she go to school? She did, for Khmer and English. Do you like school? Yes, she did. She liked school. We went on talking. When I asked her something she didn’t understand, she’d drop her head, open mouthed with her jaw jutting out and her eyes half closed. It was as though a wave of stupefaction had hit her, and then she’d recover and smile.

How much for the shirt? “”Five dollars,”she said. It was easy to get t-shirts for two and three dollars in that market. Okay,” I said, paid and left, feeling unaccountably sad.

Two days later, Bethany and I were shopping the Central Market. She was trying to decide on tea pots and carved elephants. I was buying jewelry. As the evening away, and the heat was still heavy in the air, we wandered toward the market’s edges. Just as I looked up and saw the luggage store, I heard her voice, “Somsing for you, Madame?”  “It’s you!” I said. “Fiyah!” She giggled and said without missing a beat, “A scarf for you? T-shirt, Madame?” When I asked the price on this round, she eyed me shrewdly and said, “For you, four-fi-ty. “Okay,” I said. She scampered away to make change and returned with a renewed sales pitch. Somesing else? A scarf, madame. A dress? Skirt for you: Nice price. Somesing else? No, no. Not this time. “Don’t you need some more?” she asked. No, no more. I took her picture, and she giggled as I showed it to her. “Thank you, Madame,” she said. When I left, she was straightening the  t-shirt piles. There was something so sad about it.

Tonight we had dinner in Pnom Phen with Navy Chan, the director of the Genesis Community of Transformation. Navy, who fled the Kmer Rouge as a child, said the typical rural Cambodian girl is educated only through grade six. A girl like Fiyah, who lives an urban center, might be allowed to go to school through the 9th garde. What happens to the little girl then? “Marriage,” Navvy said.

Leonard and David have told me for months that the children of Cambodia will break my heart. I’ve seen swarms of children, many of them very cute and funny.  At Rainbow School, I liked a little girl with a short haircut named Nisa–mainly because she was a tough little scrapper, always looking to jump into a fight. None of them have broken my heart–until Fiyah. And I don’t know what it is about her that makes me wonder (and worry) about what will happen to her. The same night I snapped her picture, I lost it when I left my camera in a tuuk-tuuk.

Quotes to date:

“Now you can write an article about rubble.” Uncle Brian after touring Angkor Wat

“How can this be tiramisu? It’s green, and it’s in a cup.” Amanda looking at a menu

“Wasn’t that exciting? The most exciting thing aout it was that it was called crocodile.”  Amanda finishing a meal at the same restaurant.

“I feel like a lamp.” Vanessa about wearing her new peaked hat.

“I can feel my heart beating in my face. Other than that, I’m fine.” Bethany after climbing a mountain and preparing to climb a temple.

“I think it would be less bumpy if we drove along the side of the road.” Allison de Rooy

“And remember, if you see a monkey, don’t touch it.” Leonard before getting out of the bus at Angkor Wat



My favorite element …

“I see you drink Coolly Fresh,” oberved Bethany a week ago. It was an arch comment on the brand of bottled water we bought in Thailand, a large bottle of which was then clutched in my fist. There are a lot of things I miss here: burgers, my cats, cheese (Oh my word: for a slice of Manchego on a water crackers… ). Most of all, however, I miss water.

Oh, we have water. If you turn on the taps, water comes running out, just like back home. And bottled water of many varieties (I’m currently drinking Angkor Fresh) is readily had for a dollar. (Only one dollah!) But we were warned severely when we came here not to drink the water and not to swallow the water while showering. We even have to avoid puddles. (On a previous  Cambodia interim, one of David’s students stepped in some groundwater, and a worm burrowed up into her foot. One month and a bunch of medication later, she was fine.)

I was a very serious scholar of this water wisdom, so much so, that at first I was even afraid of the puddles that accumulated in the bathroom. (There is no slope in the bathroom floor, just a drain, so the water pools up.) I was terrified lest I accidentally rinse my toothbrush from the tap instead of the bottle. Water became to me almost radioactive. And I’m a person who loves to bathe; every week I work out several times in the Calvin pool. When washing dishes, I overfill the sink and splash it around. I love water.

It’s not as though the water here is bad. It’s just that the bacteria in it aren’t “my” bacteria– just as the food here isn’t my food, the smells here are not my smells, the music isn’t my music and 90 percent of the people here practice a religion with which I am not  familiar. The other day I saw a Cambodian man, fully dressed, wading chest-deep in one of the muddy brown pools that the monsoon season left behind. He looked quite at home.

Nowadays, the Cambodian water isn’t such a terror for  me.  I can rinse off quite blithely with my hand-held shower, and though I’m still careful about puddles and toothbrushes, I can splash the water of the country on my face. But I never feel quite coolly fresh.

I long for a long, hot bath. It is my second biggest fantasy, right up there next to the one about falling into a deep, clear pool. I long for the water that understands me.

Bring on the kids …

Erin and friend whirling

Yesterday morning a group of our students waited at the Rainbow School, located at the headquarters of the New International Builders Community outside Siem Reap. They were watching the children arrive for kindergarten on  foot or on the backs of motorcycles. Our girls (all girls yesterday) were having a hard time holding themselves back, and when they got the word to enter the classroom, the scene went crazy. The kids ran at the girls. The girls ran at the kids, picked them up and started whirling them around and around. There was screaming and shouting and laughing. A little later, when the classroom had quieted down, the children were dancing to songs and yelling responses to the questions their teacher yelled at them. Suddenly the teacher, a native Cambodian, shouted a long string of Khmer that ended with the words “Hokey Pokey!”” And withing minutes the children were putting their right hips in and out, while the Calvin students Hokey Pokey’d enthusiastically behind them.  

Juwan Kim, the director of the NIBC, said that children in Cambodia typically attend school sporadically. The parents who send their children to the Rainbow School and the NIBC’s elementary and prep school don’t like it that their children are learning Bible stories. But they do recognize that the schools (whose staff is composed of Korean students from Handong Global University and Khmer teachers) educate their children well. And the children continue to come. The mission of the NIBC is to train the next generation of Khmer Christian leaders. Juwan Kim said the hope is that the next director of the NIBC will be Cambodian. 

 The group that didn’t teach yesterday painted at another NIBC Christian school. Then the groups flip-flopped. The group followed the same schedule today, and nobody seemed to get tired of the kids.