I came back from my Cambodia trip almost 2 weeks ago. I’ve been wanting write a post to share the experience with everyone, but I wasn’t sure how to explain everything in one piece that doesn’t turn into the great American novel. In truth, I also have been struggling since I came home to make sense of it all and figure out how to take what I learned and saw and did in Cambodia and change the way I live my life here.
The sound bite recap of the trip was that it was hard. Really hard. I didn’t expect it to be a vacation, but I did not expect to struggle so much.
I was not in a great place spiritually before I left. I had some areas in my life where I was being disobedient and following my own desires instead of God’s will for me. At a time when I should have been even more dedicated to prayer and being in the Word and pursuing righteousness in order to prepare for the mission, I did the opposite. Furthermore, throughout the trip, I had a hard time connecting with people. We had a large team of almost 40 people, not including our translators. Despite being a social person, I have always struggled with finding my place and connecting people when I am around a lot of people I don’t know. In addition, because I was one of the few non-medical people on the trip, I found myself with nothing to say in many of the conversations because I don’t have a medical background or education. Although I’m typically a very outgoing introvert, I found myself being unusually quiet and feeling like an outsider even among my U.S. team members.
When we went out to the villages for 4 days, I found myself feeling even more disconnected. We worked in 4 different villages, and each day, we would have a medical clinic in one, do community health in another, and then share the Gospel and do human trafficking education in the other two villages, then rotate each day. Both the medical clinic group and the community health group were pretty large, but the human trafficking/Gospel groups were much smaller, with only 3 U.S. team members per village. Because of my interest and work with human trafficking groups here in Chicago, I was in one of the smaller teams. When we arrived, the other two paired up and I was asked to go on my own. So, with a couple of translators and a handful of Cambodian Christians who didn’t speak English, I went home to home using the Priceless Cube to talk with the villagers about human trafficking, share my personal testimony with them, and share the Gospel with them using the E-Cube. Then, we would pray with those who would let us. I was about as far out of my comfort zone as I have ever been! To think that a couple of years ago, I was an atheist, and now here I was in a village in Cambodia praying over people and telling them about Jesus, well – it was pretty astounding! However, at the end of the day, I was exhausted and drained. I remember thinking to myself at the end of the first village day, “Lord, I just don’t see how I can do this again tomorrow.”
However, the Lord is faithful and sustained me to fulfill my work each day. After the 3rd day of being with the small team in the villages, I did talk to one of the trip leaders about the toll it was taking on me and asked her if I could be switched to the medical clinic group for the final village day, which she agreed to. The clinic day seemed much easier at first – I was handing out reading glasses. I got rotated to the registration table after a couple of hours, which was pretty much just taking people’s numbers and putting stickers on registration sheets. The clinic day was humbling for me. Because I had no special skills or knowledge to leverage in the clinic, I found myself completely stripped of the many labels I usually cloak myself in until literally all I had to offer was a willing spirit to do what I was asked. What I learned through that experience is that God can ALWAYS use you, although it may not always be in glamorous ways.
I felt less disconnected in the medical clinic group. However, we had to shut down the clinic a bit earlier than normal that day because we had to make the 3 hour drive back to Phnom Penh. It became apparent pretty quickly that we weren’t going to be able to see everyone. I was told that when I handed out the 125th registration sheet, we needed to shut down registration and tell everyone we would not be able to see any more people in the clinic. That was heartbreaking. There were people who had literally been waiting all day to be seen who we had to turn away. We ended up ensuring that everyone who needed reading glasses would still get some, and passed out vitamins to as many people as we could before we ran out. Although I struggled less in some ways on the clinic day than I had with the small group, it was still so disheartening to see so many sick people and to know that we hadn’t been able to provide medical care and medicine to everyone who needed it.
I went into this mission trip with the mindset that this was about serving others. And of course, we did that. We saw 534 patients at the clinics, shared the Gospel with 795 people, and 172 people accepted Christ. But what ended up happening is that God used this trip and the many ways in which I struggled to open my eyes. I saw how not spending time with God in prayer and in scripture had weakened me before the trip. I saw how much I rely on other people and worldly things to affirm to me that I have value instead of looking to God. I saw how stepping out in faith and trusting in God always got me through whatever was set before me each day, even when it felt it was impossible. I saw how insecure and broken a person I still am, and how I need Christ perhaps more now than I ever have. I saw a glimpse of what it will be like when one day all nations are united in Christ when our U.S. team, the Cambodian team, and the Vietnamese team all had church together. I saw a glimpse of Christianity’s origins, in seeing followers of Christ going door to door to share the good news of Jesus and to disciple new followers in small groups in people’s homes. I heard the testimonies of many people about the faithfulness of God and works of grace He had performed in their lives, and had the opportunity to share my own with many people as well.
The Cambodian people have had to endure significant trials and immense suffering. Our visit to the villages, as well as to the Killing Fields on our tourism day made that clear. And it broke my heart to see that. But, I found myself heartbroken for us too. The contrast between the simplicity of the lives the Cambodians lead and their passion and love for Jesus and for each other stood starkly against the American brand of Christianity that is often marked by anything but simplicity and love for others.
As Christ followers, we are charged not to conform to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed and able to test and approve God’s good and perfect will. In Cambodia, it seems the influence of worldly things is less present in some ways because the people have so little. And because of that, I find that it seems like the truth is easier to come by in the absence of the many distractions that bombard the middle class urbanite Christian. I think I underestimated just how much the world influences my attitudes, choices, thoughts, and priorities. Now that I am back home in Chicago, I think my next step is to identify the areas of my life where there is waste or no value in God’s eyes. I don’t claim to wish to live the lives of the people I served in Cambodia, but I do want to pursue a streamlined and simplified version of my life that will allow me to focus on the things that truly matter.