Cambodia remains

Cambodia remains
Victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia’s “killing fields.”

On top of my bookcase, where I almost can’t see it as I’m seated at my desk, is a piece of a human bone. A thick, three-inch fragment.

It shocks me when I catch a glimpse of it, even though I am the one who put it there.

For a while, it was on my desk, next to my keyboard. That seems flippant, but I didn’t mean it that way. Instead, I felt I was honoring the dead—for each time my eyes rested on that weather-worn bone, they filled with tears again.

But over time I “got used to” seeing it, and the effect wore off. So I put the piece away, almost out of sight. Not because I wanted to forget about it, but because I wanted to remember.

War and pieces

During the weeks leading up to my Cambodia trip, when I would tell people where I was going, the response was usually mild confusion, something along the lines of, “Cambodia? Really? Why?” My father asked, “It’s not exactly safe there, is it?” A co-worker half-jokingly labeled it “The Trip Nobody Else Wanted.” And a lady at my church hugged me goodbye, wished me a good trip, and cheerfully advised, “Don’t step on any landmines!”

I prepared for the assignment by watching “The Killing Fields,” which tells the story of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who was trapped in the country when Pol Pot came to power. I also read Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, a book by Dith Pran, who gathered the stories of fellow Cambodians who were children when the Khmer Rouge took over.

The Khmer Rouge murdered or banished the wealthier, educated professionals of Cambodian society. The remaining population were reduced to brutal slavery. Cities were bombed. A lush countryside was littered with the bodies of millions of victims.

This reign of terror lasted from 1975 to 1979, and the Cambodia I saw in 2000 was still scarred and crippled. Streets were unpaved and rutted. The marketplace vendors offered pieces of wartime artifacts as souvenirs. A lot of locals were missing limbs, victims of landmines that still dot the countryside.

Now, I don’t understand all the politics behind the war that spilled over into Cambodia, but my trip brought me face-to-face with the effects.


Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, is a compound of five buildings that had been an elementary school before the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Comrade Duch, a Khmer Rouge commander, turned the school into a prison where people were brutally tortured and killed. Each of the classrooms was turned into a cell. Some housed individual prisoners; others held large groups at a time.

Most of the rooms in Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, have been left almost exactly as they were found in 1979.

What makes this museum so powerful is its simplicity. Most of the rooms and artifacts have been left exactly as they were found in 1979 when Vietnamese troops forced the Khmer Rouge out of the city. The Vietnamese found in each room a body chained to an iron bed, left there to rot when the persecutors fled. The officers took a photo (please, click the link) before removing the body and burying it in a plot next to the building. Large, framed prints of those photos now hang on the walls of the rooms, making the space a sort of shrine to the victim who died there. A few signs have been added to explain what happened, but nothing is roped off or under glass. You can walk into each room and touch the shackles that held each prisoner; you can see the blood stains still on the floor; you can grip the barred windows and feel your heart pound.

Grave realization

Tuol Sleng was a place where city people—educated businessmen or government employees—were killed. After lunch we drove out to the countryside, where thousands of peasants had been slaughtered. This site too is haunting in its simplicity. Looking across the field, you see only grass and trees and paths around a series of large pits. It doesn’t look like much, and there are few signs or explanations. But slowly you realize that each pit was a mass grave for hundreds of victims. When you look closely along the worn paths, you find fragments of clothing, bones, and teeth.

The fields look serene and hardly significant, until you realize that each large pit was a mass grave filled with men, women, and children.

That’s where I found the bone that is now on my bookshelf. It was nestled in the grass along the edge of one of those pits. I hesitated to reach for it, not wanting to dishonor its owner any further. But it seemed less honorable to let it lie there, forgotten.

The bus ride back to town that evening was very quiet. The group had been stunned by the enormity of the genocide that decimated a once proud nation of quiet scholars. And the fact that we had been so absolutely unaware made us feel even more helpless and guilty.

Redeeming the remains

When people ask me how I can believe in a God who allows evil to happen, I think of Cambodia. I think of the one-legged children begging in the streets. I think of the social workers trying to rebuild a nation whose teachers, professionals, and elders have all been wiped out. I think of how heavy the hopelessness felt as I stood in the shadow of a tower of skulls.

I think of the human bone I hold in my hand.

But I also think of Vannary, a bookkeeper in the office that hosted my trip. Vannary lost her whole family to Pol Pot’s horror—father, mother, sisters, brother, all killed in front of her eyes. Vannary was with us while we toured Tuol Sleng, but she stayed on the bus. She didn’t want to alter our plans, but she was not able to face what she knew had happened inside those walls. Certainly not in the company of oblivious tourists.

After supper that evening we gathered in the hotel conference room and sang an old song together:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future—
and life is worth the living just because He lives.

Vannary was singing too. In spite of the horror she has lived through, she sings. In spite of the fear that still threatens her, she sings. In spite of the death all around her, Vannary sings. She courageously believes life is worth living because her God lives, and He has conquered death.

Illogical and undeniable

Why do I believe in a God who allows suffering? Because He is also the God who overcomes it. His answer is not always to protect us from it. But He does promise to walk with us through it.

Much like Vannary, Cambodia remains broken, fearful, scarred. But the tears I saw glistening in Vannary’s eyes reflect her hope in His resurrection power.

I need that glistening hope.

I need a hope that shines through tears. I need a hope that makes no sense, that can’t be justified or explained. A hope that just is. In spite of all the evidence against it.

I know that hope is real. I saw it in Cambodia.

And I can feel it in my bones.


Related: Nonprofit writing

Common Ground: a little history

Common Ground

Common GroundThis past February, 78 people signed up for a year-long cross-cultural relationship-building program called Common Ground. We started the program with a Common Ground Kick-off that all participants were invited to. That meeting was informational but also energizing, a good way to start what can be a difficult commitment.

We are now in Month 4 of the program, and we’re ready for another injection of inspiration. This Saturday, Common Ground participants have been invited to a Common Ground Caucus. We’ll share with each other how things are going—celebrating successes and discussing difficulties. I’ve noticed differences in the program this year from the last time we offered it (five years ago). It will be interesting to talk about those differences.

Many of this year’s participants are new to Common Ground, so I thought it might be helpful to look back and see where we’ve come from. Below is a rerun of a post from five years ago, when we changed the name of the program….

A new name for “Breakfast Club”

originally published April 18, 2010

The Building Bridges ministry at Living Springs has a lot of good materials, programs, and events. But I think “Breakfast Club” is my favorite.

Getting personal

It’s a program that pairs two people of different cultures and equips them to meet monthly for at least one year to share a meal and meaningful conversation. What I like about it is the fact that it recognizes that true bridge-building happens on a personal level, when people are willing to share with each other, learn from each other, forgive each other, and grow. The conversations are guided by a monthly list of discussion questions that focus on matters of faith, race, family traditions, and personal life journeys.

We first learned about the program from Earl James, the Coordinator of Multiracial Initiatives and Social Justice for the Reformed Church in America. He put us in touch with CURE (Chicago Urban Reconciliation Enterprise). “Breakfast Club” is their program, and they helped us get it started at Living Springs.

Growth and change

But over the past two years that we’ve been using the program, we’ve made some changes and enhancements. So now we think it’s time to give our version of the program its own name.

We had some fun discussing a few ideas at the Breakfast Club gathering we had this past Saturday. Here are some of the possible names we came up with:

  • Living Bridges
  • Connection Club
  • Culture Club
  • Living Rainbows
  • Living Connections
  • Grow Group
  • Koinonia Club

The important thing to remember about choosing a new name is this: Nothing will sound “right” the first time you hear it. “Breakfast Club” sounded a little confusing at first, but we got used to it, and now it sounds normal. The same thing will happen with whatever new name we choose.

I hope you’ll leave a comment explaining which name you prefer, and why. Even if you’ve never been involved in Breakfast Club, you are welcome to express an opinion. We’re looking for as many perspectives as possible!

Update: We did narrow things down to two options—neither of which was in the list above! Visit “We’re Getting Close!” to find out more! 

Maundy Thursday thoughts

Maundy ThursdayMaundy Thursday this year falls only a few weeks after the launch of Common Ground, a cross-cultural relationship-building program my church family organizes and hosts. Common Ground gives people of different cultures monthly opportunities to have thoughtful, sensitive, friendly conversations about race and reconciliation.

People have participated in Common Ground for several years, and I have heard more than once that it is better than any “diversity training” offered by schools and workplaces. Why? Because Common Ground recognizes that reconciliation is a spiritual process, not a political or social one.

There is no greater reconciliation than the one between God and people. In fact, that reconciliation is what makes any other reconciliation possible. The sacrifice Christ demonstrated by moving into our neighborhood, the lengths God is willing to go to in order to get our attention, the sincere and selfless hope He has that we will respond—these are models for me in all my relationships, particularly the most difficult ones.

At Living Springs Community Church, we mark Maundy Thursday with a foot-washing ceremony. For some people (including me), this can be uncomfortable—it’s very personal, and unusual, and a little awkward.

But maybe that discomfort is necessary. After all, it was uncomfortable—scandalous, even—for the first disciples when their Rabbi knelt before them like a servant. Maybe that discomfort kept them from getting the point right away, but I’m guessing the image was burned into their memories and gradually seeped into their own relationships.

I believe it can do the same for me.


Grammar and culture


If you’re not a word nerd like I am, perhaps you won’t appreciate Phuc Tran’s examination of some of the differences between English grammar and Vietnamese grammar. But I found it fascinating.

Tran could not get into the finer points of grammar and culture in this 14-minute talk, so he makes some generalizations. But his main point is worth considering: language affects reality.

If you’ve got 14 minutes, let Tran explain:

If you don’t have 14 minutes, here’s my clumsy summary of Tran’s point:

The “subjunctive verbal mood” (quite prominent in English grammar) is about possibility—what could happen or should happen or might happen. The “indicative verbal mood” (sort of the default mode of Vietnamese grammar) is about fact—what did or didn’t happen. Neither is inherently good or bad, but each is a tool that needs to be used for the right purpose. Facts can be limiting. And possibilities can be overwhelming. Growing up in an English-speaking culture, Tran acquired the subjunctive language tools to imagine a different future for himself—and this was empowering, until it became overwhelming. Then he needed the clarity of his Vietnamese father’s indicative language to move forward.

I guess I had never realized that different languages have different grammar. I mean, I understood some of the differences, like when you say, “There’s no word for that in French” or when you have to wait for the end of the sentence in German to find out what the verb is. But I didn’t understand that the underlying modes of thought and structure were different too.