Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Where to start?

It's been a long, but good day. As I drove up from Phnom Penh, I saw so many things I thought I'd write about. I saw motorcycles stacked high with piglets for sale, I saw martian landscapes sporting lollipop palm trees and wedding cake temples, I saw horses and cows and goats and birds and boars and buffalo, I saw teams of workers clearing landmines from rice paddies -- I saw it all.

But most of those things, so vibrant and interesting a few hours ago have faded, and all I can think about are the children.

As we turned off the main road onto the dusty path that follows the muddy river down into the heart of 'deep 'Bodia,' I hardly noticed the chuckholes and the chickens and all of the other notable roadside attractions -- I wanted to see Borey. And Chanthea, and Pisey and Uddam and Veasna and Chhem and Samneang and all of the others. I wanted to see my kids.

As we passed over the railroad tracks, I my heart began to beat faster; I knew we were close to the Asia's Hope New Life Orphanage. I watched carefully to see if the concrete tubes I had always used to mark my turn were still there -- thankfully, they were. As we approached the blue wooden gate, we didn't see any kids at all. Where were they? Ah -- it was 4:30, and they were still at school. The gate was half closed, so Tim jumped out to open it, and That Sey Nou, the orphanage director ran up to greet us. By the time we had pulled our truck into the parking space, a dozen little kids, too young for school, had emerged from the house and surrounded our vehicle.

"Chum reab soor! Chum reab soor!" They squealed, their hands clasped together in the traditional sign of respect. I recognized only three or four of them; the rest were new to the orphanage since my last visit. "Knyum chmua John," I introduced myself. "Niak chmua aye?" I asked each of them. After exchanging pleasantries with the kids, I went over to the thatched shelter to greet the staff and Chhem, one of the older girls, who was off school for some reason I still don't understand. We spoke briefly, using up most of their halting English and nearly all of my excreble Khmer. Thankfully, a man arrived with a decent command of the English language to help with the translation.

But before long, I grew tired of the adult interaction and said, "Please tell the children I'd like to play a game." The kids jumped up and down and clapped their hands in delight and rushed to follow me onto the front lawn. I said, "Do you know duck-duck-goose?" A few nodded. Chhem reminded those who were old enough to understand the rules, and we all sat down in a circle. I began to walk around and slowly, but dramatically tapping each kid on the shoulder. "Tiet, tiet, tiet," I said. By the time I reached Ratha, the little girl with the little mouth and big eyes, I had forgotten the Khmer word for goose, and I shouted, "Goose!" She looked up at me, and the rest of the kids shouted it in Khmer. She jumped up and ran to catch me. I pretended to run as fast as I can. When she caught me I picked her up and began to tickle her, shouting "Chakali, chakali!" The kids thought it was hysterical. I thought it was pretty funny, too.

After a few minutes of duck-duck-goose, I heard the sound of laughter on the road and looked to see a long convoy of bicycles coming toward the gate. I jumped up and shouted, "Soksapby, Uddam! Soksapby Veasna!" The older kids were back from school. I rushed over to where they were parking their bikes and swung my arms wide open. Each of the kids pressed their palms together respectfully, and then ran to embrace me. Even the ones I'd never met before were eager to get a hug.

For the next hour or so -- I lost track of time -- I played soccer, jumped rope, chased, tickled, lifted and spun and laughed and wrestled until I was so hot and so sweaty, I thought I couldn't take another step. Thankfully, it was just about time for the kids to eat dinner, and time for me to take a rest.

The big kids ran over to the dining pavilion and began to wash up. As in the Phnom Penh orphanage, the older kids help out with the chores and help serve the younger kids. After a few minutes, the other kids joined them, lining up by size, the smallest to the tallest. The toddlers took their food first, and sat down at the table. After everyone had been served, they all bowed their heads and prayed a memorized blessing in unison. Then, each child chattered quietly to God. Somehow, they all knew to say "Amen" at about the same time, and they began to eat.

We decided that our team should leave and get some food for ourselves, and we said "goodbye" and promised to return tomorrow. One of the adults translated, and I told the kids, "We all love you very much. We pray for you every day. I show my pictures of you to everyone I meet, and there are many Christians praying that you will be happy and healthy, and that you will do well in school and follow God's plan for your life." I also explained that I would like to meet with them one-on-one with a translator to hear more about their lives, their personal histories and their plans for the future.

As we pulled out of the driveway, someone made the comment, "This is what the kingdom of God is like. What a beautiful picture of the body of Christ." How very true. I've been to a few orphanages in my travels to Asia. None are as beautiful, as peaceful or as joyful as our orphanages. Every time I visit, I remember why I have a job, and what my money is for. My family in America has enough. How blessed we are to be able to play some sort of a role in the life of these kids.

The city of Phnom Penh is an amazing place, but it's a perilous destination for anyone prone to sensory overload. There's so much suffering, such abject poverty. It's very easy to become depressed and discouraged in the capitol city. I look forward to a few days of refreshment in Battambang. I look forward to enjoying the fruits of our labors and God's grace as I spend time with these wonderful kids. Praise God for His goodness!


Dylan said...

Beautiful account, John. Great way to start my day with your perspective and images of the kids in mind.

Praying for you and them as I head out for a long run here in Florida...

brian estabrook said...

Awesome! Simply Awesome!