Thursday, January 29, 2009

Heaven and Hell

Yes. I know. It's 3am, a ridiculous time to be blogging. But I just woke up from a very intense and very disturbing dream, wherein an American friend was shot by a Cambodian police officer in a case of mistaken identity. So I'm a bit rattled anyway.

I'm not sure how to contextualize what I did yesterday, other than to say that I visited hell on earth. We were invited by a Cambodian friend to visit the type of place that none of us likes to imagine exists and meet the children the Cambodia has tried very hard to forget.

I've been a lot of bad places in my life, and I've seen a lot of bad things, but the Stung Meanchey garbage dump has to be one of the worst. This gigantic, festering landfill is filled with spoiled food, medical waste, tattered clothing and filthy paper, and is home to hundreds of kids, who eke out a living in an environment so fetid the dogs won't even visit.

Our tour of this modern-day Gehenna was facilitated by a French NGO that serves these destitute children in whichever way it can at its feeding center and school on the outskirts of the dump. There, early yesterday morning, we saw untold dozens of kids who, at first glance looked pretty much like every other Cambodian child, perhaps just a little squirrelier than average. The kids were relatively clean, having just bathed, and many were dressed in matching smocks or t-shirts.

Upon closer inspection, though, these kids were covered with cuts and scratches, bruises and bumps, and their eyes were either wild with fear, or deadened by misery. After a shower and hot breakfast, most of these kids would change back into their own clothes and head out to the dump, where they would scavenge for hours under the hot Khmer sun, looking for anything of value that could be sold to the junk merchants who set up shop around the dump.

Friends, Stung Meanchey dump is what the world looks like when Satan has his way, when the Devil himself is allowed to force God's image bearers to drink full strength the malevolent distillation of all of his contempt for the Creator. The NGO's compound -- founded and funded by a couple of French tourists who were shocked by what they saw -- is the front line in an epic battle between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Evil, between Heaven and Hell.

Inside the compound, I watched a pair of doctors examine and treat a couple dozen children, most of whom were no older than my daughter. Many of these kids had injuries for which I would hospitalize my child, horrid rashes and deep, open wounds which will almost certainly lead to permanent disfigurement -- or worse.

One little girl sobbed inconsolably as the doctor changed the bandages on a cut on one of her toes, a gash that appeared to me to extend to the bone. In fact, this poor child's toe was nearly severed. After her morning with the NGO, she will return -- barefoot -- to a noxious landfill that I wouldn't have entered without the tall rubber boots lent to me by the aid workers.

These kids' stories are so shocking that both Dave and I (who have pretty much heard some of the worst stuff there is to hear) were astonished. Nearly 100% of the children at the dump are severely abused by their parents on a daily basis. One girl reported having been stabbed by her father. Another's virginity -- and that of her three sisters -- was sold by her dad for 2,000 riel, less than fifty cents. Nearly every child had seen one of their friends killed by one of the dump's garbage trucks or bulldozers, and every one of them knew of a child who disappeared under the refuse, only to be found dead, bloated, dismembered days later.

Despite my years of studying theology and missiology, I can't summon a satisfying answer as to why God's kingdom seems to be so far away in places like Stung Meanchey, but as Elie Weisel said after witnessing the incineration of bodies in a mass grave at a Nazi concentration camp, "Whatever you say about God, you should be able to say standing over a pit of burning babies."

Standing ankle deep in filth, and in way over my head in human suffering, Jesus' words from the cross resonated more deeply than ever before, "My God. Why have you forsaken me?"

Yet in the midst of all of this evil and injustice, there is at least a glimmer of hope. The Holy Spirit is moving, and is calling people -- some of who are not yet believers in Him -- to do his work among the "least of these." The kingdom of God is encroaching upon this hell on earth, and is taking a little bit of ground.

The burning question I'm facing is, "What are we supposed to do about these kids?" Dave and John and Sherrod and I are praying about what role if any Asia's Hope should have in the lives of these children. The future is uncertain for the children of Stung Meanchey -- the government has announced that it will close the dump, and replace it with a modern, gated and guarded facility about 20 kilometers away. On one hand, I'm glad to hear that these kids will not be able to work in such deplorable conditions. On the other hand, I can't imagine what they will do to survive. Please join me in prayer.

Last night, I visited our Prek Eng 1 and Prek Eng 4 orphan homes. I played basketball, I ate dinner, I taught songs. I hugged the kids a little tighter than before, and I lingered a while longer before leaving.

I thank God for our kids and staff, and I thank God for all of you who make this ministry possible with your prayers and contributions. God bless you all.

I think I'm going to try to go to sleep.


kirsten said...

Hi John-- I wish I had something wise to say about your experience... but I don't. Just wanted to say hello and let you know that we're praying for your trip. May God be with you.

Anonymous said...

John, I can't even begin to understand how and why God chooses to bless some so much and others like these little ones suffer so.
I will pray with you and for each of us who hear that God will lead toward His direction. If not Asia's Hope some other NGO that also shares the love of Christ.

Anonymous said...

sorry I didi not sign my name, MOM

Karl said...


Andy T said...

I'm already praying we have some God-inspired brainstorm about what to do here. Hope is the promise of transformation.

Erica Foster said...

Oh John.

Thank you for engaging that suffering for us. God will show you what you are supposed to do for these kids. He will. I'll pray too.

Thank you.


Anonymous said...

thank you for carrying on the fight.

Anonymous said...


THANK YOU for taking time away from your comforts...your home, your family, your church to share Jesus and reach others in Asia.

Thank you for the ways you encourage the staff and children. Thank you for stepping boldly. I am in awe of the things you have witnessed and am praying for clarity and wisdom for you, Dave and Savorn and the Asian officials.

Holly V.