The dinner table was less crowded than usual tonight. Although we had 13 people for meals this weekend, most of them have left, and only 4 people are now staying in the house where I’m living. Three have been in Cambodia for less than 72 hours. One is here for two months, and we’ve been staying here together for the past few weeks. These are all interesting people, with great potential for stimulating dinner conversation. However, it was the Cambodian man we shared dinner with who provided the most compelling discourse.

Tul works with our Hope program, in the main office, and is doing some work interpreting for one of the aforementioned volunteers right now. He’s a funny guy, a “crazy” driver, and got lost while taking me on the short drive from the office to the house (where he’s been before). Though some would be embarrassed, Tul just laughed it off and managed to endure our good-natured teasing (and dish out some of his own). When we got lost, people along the side of the road stopped to stare as we passed by—our laughter at what had happened echoing behind us. Tul is fun.

Tul is the one being "stung" by the mosquito-- they were practicing for a day of Dengue Fever prevention.

However, like most Cambodians, he has a story to share. Growing up in a Buddhist family, his parents wanted him to be a monk. Tul didn’t want to shave his head, and ran away from the pagoda. He moved to Phnom Penh to supplement his family’s farm income. Yet, without many skills, Tul said he felt “heartbroken” over the state of his life. He enrolled in English classes at the local church, and as the body of Christ welcomed them into their family, and embraced him with open arms, Tul began to learn about Jesus and faith. Despite ridicule from his family, Tul became a Christian in 2005 and we visited his church a few weeks ago. He had to leave dinner in order to be on time to the Bible study he leads in the dorm where he lives. According to Tul, the biggest change in his life was that he felt hope. With a new beginning in Christ, he believed that God had a purpose for his life, a place for him to be, and work for him to do. Tul said he believed that he had a future.

Sitting across the table, those words hit me like a ton of bricks. Work is quite hectic right now, welcoming groups of volunteers, taking responsibility for their health, safety, and living conditions. In the midst of all of the trips to the airport, coordination of meals, transportation, materials, and budgeting, I started to wonder if I was in over my head. But then I sat and listened to the three volunteers who are here. They have different stories, but each has a desire to serve. Three unique individuals, here for only a few weeks, and a need to encounter something powerful in Cambodia.

Like Tul, God has a purpose for my life, a place for me to be, and work for me to do. Right now, that purpose is to get out of the way, as God moves in the lives of our staff and volunteers. The place is here, in Phnom Penh, at the dinner table, or on the other end of the phone, whenever our visitors need to be reassured, to find answers to their questions. The work is to arrange the details, to take care of the “life stuff” that so often impedes our ability to stop and experience the way that God works in the vicissitudes of daily activity.

I stopped this morning for a cup of coffee at a little café. As I watched the rain falling, the busyness and fatigue of the weekend culminated in a cry to God for help, for endurance. Sitting there, staring into the rainy day, and the responsibility ahead, only one thought came to me: “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” I began to feel hope again. No matter the frustrations that arise (and there have been a few), no matter the problems to be solved, and despite the poverty, the need, and the heartache, I am here, doing precisely what I should be. And so these verses read like a promise to me: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:1-5)

I am not sure how many people check in here, to read my thoughts and journey with me. I truly treasure your comments and thoughts about what I put here, and am thankful to share with you as we sojourn together. As Paul prayed for his friends in Rome, whom he longed to see, I will be praying for all of you: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13).



The house next door is blaring loud music in Khmer. It is Saturday, and this morning I visited the Russian Market with a former student (in town for the weekend), walked along the riverfront, and ate at a pretty Western café with a view of the water. A fairly typical weekend day, even by American standards. Shopping, lunch, and time with friends. Except for the part where street children begged the last of the uneaten fruit from our plates, and asked for the half a Coke that was left on the table. There was nothing typical about that.

I think about poverty a lot. It’s not a confession designed to elicit any response, it’s just a fact. I have to think about it. Every day, it’s right in front of my face. Across the street from where I’m living is a house under construction. This is no ordinary house. It’s a palace, by any standard of the word. Tall, ornate, modern, beautiful, it’s the kind of house fit for a king. Or, in this case, fit for a military higher-up who can afford to add on to his pre-existing palace. I’m not one to begrudge someone a home, even a nice, comfortable one, and certainly if you have the money and want to build a four-story monstrosity in a developing nation, I won’t stand in your way.

The thing is, the workers who have built this “house” live right outside the gate. They live on the sidewalk, in hastily constructed houses of sheet metal. Each is maybe 10’ x 10’, with a single door, and a window (but that’s only if the sheet metal doesn’t reach the roof). Families live in these structures, children emerge to yell “hello” as I walk by in the morning and the evening. They cook over fires lit in the street, and hang their laundry against the front door to dry. For the most part, the inside consists of a raised platform that goes halfway across the length of the structure, used for sleeping, sitting, and whatever else one can do in so small of a space. Every day, twice a day, I walk by these families, a total of maybe 40 people who live in these homes.

Yesterday, on the way home through flooded streets and a torrential downpour, I noticed another group of homes like these, a few blocks away. They had at least six inches of water in them. Only one was built up on stilts. There are no zoning laws in Cambodia. No way to ensure that those with the palaces and those with the shacks are kept apart. So every day when I lock the gate and turn toward the street, I see poverty leaning up against extreme wealth. Every day I wonder, How can this be?

It makes me think about selfish decisions in my life. Because 40 people living on a sidewalk could easily take up residence inside the mansion they are building. Yet the selfishness of one man’s desire for more space, more room, keeps them living on the street. I know it’s the wages he pays them that keeps a roof over their head at all. I understand the economics of the situation. But I still have to wonder… if he had donated the money, had them build a different facility, even rented out the building at affordable prices, would these 40 lives be different? Then I think, what decisions do I make every day that affect the lives of 40 other people?

We met a girl today selling bottles of water in front of the King’s Palace. She is 13 years old. She speaks English well. She does not go to school. At $20 a month for tuition, it’s simply too expensive. We fed a little boy leftover papaya and pineapple off our lunch plates. He shared it with his siblings, or friends waiting on the other side of the bushes. At 9 years old, he is begging for lunch. I’m not sure what kind of hope these kids have for a future. What kind of dreams can you have of being grown up without education, without a home, without lunch?

These circumstances are sad. They break my heart. But they touch something else, my sense of fairness, of justice. Because I’m not certain that it has to be this way, that this extreme disparity has to exist. I don’t know how to fix it, I don’t know where to start. In a few weeks, when this mansion is complete, these construction workers and their families will move on, to another small house somewhere else. I won’t smell their cooking fires as I eat my dinner. I won’t hear these kids as I walk to work. The sidewalk will be clear, and I will be free to forget that scarcity and wealth can coexist so… peacefully. In the meantime, I suppose I have to trust that at least two things ensure that in the eyes of God, my privilege and their poverty mean nothing. The first is that we are both in need of grace and mercy. The second is that we have all had to endure the same loud Khmer music all day long.

Vanessa and the little guy who is hopefully a little less hungry tonight.



Silly me. I thought that moving to the other side of the world, departing graduate school, and leaving my friends would open up a vast amount of free time, relaxation, and slow down the pace of life.
And then it became ESL season here.

Technically, it’s the rainy season. Which, I was informed today, is not the same as “summer.” My mistake. Must be the heat.

Despite an enforced weekend of rest, life has been moving pretty quickly here. There’s lots to tell about, lots to think about, but not lots of time to tell the full story. So you’ll get what I’m getting—snatches of reflection, little bites of Cambodia to process. Chew too much and you’ll miss the striking simplicity here. Chew too little and you’ll choke on the complexity of the problems and the lack of quick solutions.

In no order whatsoever, here are my most recent observations/reflections:

Language. I need to learn it. Desperately. I can give directions, ask “how much,” and count to 10. I can let people know that I like mangoes (does mangoes have an "e"?), tell them my name and age. I can say thank you. What I can’t do is call about a broken washing machine, or order cases of water for our ESL volunteers. Phone calls rely on more than hand gestures.

Dogs. I would not consider myself to be afraid of dogs. Well, I wouldn’t have considered myself to be afraid of dogs until I moved to Cambodia and met rabid, mangy, street dogs on every corner. I usually give them a wide berth (cross the road, walk around, etc.), but today one decided to follow me. Someone told me that the best thing to do was to act as though I was going to hit the animal, since they are afraid of that. I decided to risk it and made as if to strike the dog. At this point, I realized that the strategy, which sounded so wise at the dinner table, had one huge problem: the dog could potentially decide to be aggressive back and bite my arm. Hmm. Luckily, this particular dog just cowered in fear, and I kept walking. Kate—1, Dogs of Cambodia—0.

Crossing the street. On my list of dangerous daily activities, after dogs, is crossing the street. Seriously. All that, “look both ways, don’t walk in front of traffic” stuff that we tell kids in the States is completely pre-empted by Cambodian driving tactics. So, most days, the two busy streets that I cross require the use of the following strategy: stand in distress on the corner for 10 seconds; refuse 3 moto drivers who want to take me to work; wade into the oncoming stream of motos and bicycles, walk in front of a few SUVs and Toyota Camrys, and even a truck or two; skirt the remaining stream of motos and bicycles on the other side of the street; and, finally, breathe a sigh of relief upon reaching the opposite corner. Perhaps I will write a letter about the importance of crosswalks to the people of Cambodia.

Cell phones. Many of you will be happy to learn that the problem of driving too slowly (or too quickly) while talking on a cell phone is not a uniquely North American problem. Just a public service announcement.

Poverty. This doesn’t fit, really, in a post about dogs, crosswalks, and cell phones. But it’s an inescapable fact of life here, one that I encounter every morning and every evening. My average number of daily contemplations on the nature of poverty, the role of God and faith in tackling the problem, and the urgency of the solution has increased dramatically. Said contemplations are particularly relevant when poverty is juxtaposed with obscene wealth and privilege (and I’m not talking about myself, though I meet that description when I walk down the street). I have more to say on this, so much more, in fact, that I’ll probably write about it later.

Sex trade. On my trip through the provinces, we were told about the problem of the sex trade in Cambodia. We passed a place where someone announced, “That’s apparently the cheapest brothel in Cambodia.” This is not a reassuring statement, but time and distance have eased the shock I felt in that moment. Last night, driving in during the evening from another trip to the provinces, I saw with my own eyes the sex trade at work in Cambodia. Red lights. Women for sale. Five minutes later, we pulled up to the house where I’m living. There is no distance from these brothels. There is no time away from this.

No easy wrap-ups, no verses that spell out how I feel about all these things. My prayers are both pleas to God about life, and short questions… How? Why? This is not the way You made it. In some respects, I know this is culture shock, this inability to think beyond the surface. In other ways, it’s really me, grappling with who and what God made me to be in a place where I can’t make sense of the language, the traffic, the poverty, and the sin. Perhaps it will take me 2 years to figure that out.



I’ve been thinking about what it means to be fully alive. This has led me to think on what it means to be living at all, let alone “fully alive.” I don’t want to use the term in some sensational kind of way, like jumping out of planes or climbing Everest. I want to mean it. Merely breathing in and out, having a few meals and a few laughs each day—is that being alive? Is it working hard, making money, or being driven to success? I’m not sure.

The reason for these ruminations is sort of an internal check. I feel alive here, experiencing so many new things, so many different things. I still walk down the street and wrinkle my nose at a particularly unpleasant smell (and there are many). I still balk as people whiz by on their motorbikes. And I still smile and wave at the little kids (and adults) on the way to work who shout “Hello!” to me. Does this add up to being alive? Is this the life I’ve been promised?

I guess to fully know life, you’d have to experience death, and well… that’s one thing I don’t know. So I’m clinging to promises, words from God that illustrate what I should be feeling. Things like “streams of living water” or “life to the full.” I believe these things, I do. But I don’t know what streams of living water look like, and life to the full is certainly not life at its busiest.

Today I’ve been thinking on this verse: He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11). It comes as part of a section filled with “timing.” A time to plant and uproot, time to embrace and refrain, time to search and to give up. I feel those verses—the timing in my life is all off now. It’s not jet lag anymore, it’s transition. This is a time for… what exactly? Something between weeping and laughing, not quite mourning and not yet dancing. So then we get to this verse that says that God makes everything beautiful in its time. He puts eternity in our hearts. I like how the Amplified Bible translates it: He also has planted eternity in men's hearts and minds [a divinely implanted sense of a purpose working through the ages which nothing under the sun but God alone can satisfy], yet so that men cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

A sense of purpose, satisfied only by God. This has been “planted” in my heart. Is it possible that in the last few years, this purpose has truly taken root and is sprouting? Here in Cambodia, I feel this in a new way. Here I catch visions… of work that is possible, of ways this country can heal. I can see God working to make Himself known. I see need all around me, and this drives the purpose I feel. I have eternity set in my heart—I have a purpose, and what God will do here, with and through me, I can’t even fathom. This is exciting. This is hopeful. This is real. Maybe, just maybe, this is what life is. The purpose that drives us to something better, something different, away from the familiar and towards something we can’t understand.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not always “fully alive”— I’ve never jumped from a plane, and my sense of purpose occasionally wavers when I have to think about things like budget. Yet in the stirrings of my heart to care for this nation, to live for the Kingdom, and to draw closer to the Lord, I think I’m learning what it is to truly live.



I spent four days in a van this week, touring the provinces of Cambodia with a video crew and assorted World Relief staff. This prompted lots of fun, and lots of breathtaking views of Cambodia’s countryside. We also saw real problems, real people who are in need of grace and mercy, oppressed and in bondage to a fallen world.

Our week started out with a morning visit to the city dump. To be more specific, we started at the outskirts of the city dump, in the slums where people live. We walked through mud and trash to get to a cell church meeting. In this place, where people live within site of a garbage mound, we heard hymns and praises, witnessed a little hope. Kids played with my purse, and made faces at me. When we got to the actual dump, the smell was nauseating, and overwhelming. As rain blew in, we watched people sort through trash to find whatever they could refashion and sell at the market. We saw children waiting to help their parents. Children who should be in school.

These women called to me from where they were sitting. After telling me that I was beautiful, they asked me for my pants. Really. They wanted the pair I was wearing, or for me to go buy them some at the market. In that moment, surrounded by the stench, the kids, and the audacious demand for my clothes, I realized I have no idea what poverty means. I have no idea what hope is for that situation. I still don’t.

We headed out to the countryside, and met people with HIV/AIDS who have been cared for by the church in real ways. People brought them food when they couldn’t work. People braved a stigma which--(we learned later in the week) keeps HIV/AIDS children out of school and away from their peers--to show love and compassion for these individuals. On Tuesday, we saw another cell group, meeting on a farm, where chickens roamed through the service and dogs barked as we walked up the yard. As I conversed (via translator) with the members of this group, they told me that I was not following God’s commandments—I was not multiplying (i.e. having children)!! In Cambodia, marriage and family are a central part of life, and even at my age, it is odd not to have a spousal unit or children. I’ll have to settle for sinning, since I’m not planning on marrying anytime soon.

Perhaps our wildest experience was being invited to an engagement party. If being married is a big deal… imagine the celebrations! Out in this rural village, the party was in full swing as a man walked up to us, and in perfect English said, “I am SO DRUNK today!” It made me wonder about his ability to translate when sober. By virtue of our skin color, we were invited, and then dragged, to the party. We actually tried to dance (very little is involved in dancing, unlike American weddings) and were offered some foul-smelling liquor (we refused). After a few pictures, and much laughter, we headed out into the country again. At this point, I should clarify that I may or may not be engaged to any number of Cambodian men, all of whom were apparently being made to dance, if not with, at least near me! Some interesting talking was going on, and I’m not quite sure what I agreed to!

On Wednesday, we met some real hope. World Relief’s microfinance arm, CREDIT, was meeting with clients, and we tagged along to visit women who make bamboo baskets and sell them for less than fifty cents apiece. They are making enough money to pay back small loans, and to continue to take out more. We saw a family of potters, making clay into banks, vases, and jars to sell in the market. The father, mother, and their many daughters are all employed in this business. It was beautiful. It was here that I thought, “maybe we have a shot at helping people. Maybe they don’t have to end up picking up trash.”

By Thursday, I wasn’t sure I could process any more ministry. Yet, this was the day we encountered Hope for Cambodia’s Children, or the Hope Project. Every day, in villages throughout several provinces, our staff and volunteers sing songs, play games, put on puppet shows and dramas that teach kids about healthy living and following Christ. We watched over 100 kids scream “Hallelujah” under a bright Cambodian sun. Amazing.

When I started to write this, I wanted to convey some of the heartbreak I feel when I look around Cambodia. This is a beautiful, awful place. People are starving. Children beg in the streets. But there is joy, and there is hope. I have witnessed that this week as well. I met a group of girls who had so much fun with me, making silly faces that they followed us to our van and chased us down the road. I saw people learning, encouraged, and praising God for the ways He has worked in their lives. I met staff who love what they do, and see the impact that it has. Maybe I am too cynical, to keep seeing problems. Instead, I want to focus on solutions, on the ways needs are met, hope is restored, and lives are saved. I have seen despair and destitution this week, but also faith and life. My travels have taken me farther than just Kampong Thom province; they have changed my mindset, my thoughts, and my prayers.