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Insights into Cambodia

Sermon - 6/08/08
Anthony Eggleston
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 73

[John Moore provided this introduction:  Anthony Eggleston has been working with our youth, came over from Northwest Christian College.  In the 1980s when I was the pastor here, his father, David Eggleston, came over from NCC and worked with the youth.  Anthony is graduating -- he's just off of a powerful experience, he went to Cambodia for 3 weeks, and just got back.  He's full of this experience, and wishes to share it with you. 

I did want to mention before he comes up that he plans to go on to Pacific School of Religion and continue his education.  Anthony, we're glad to have you.]


Thanks for having me today.  As John said, I graduated from NCC about 4 weeks ago.  Before I graduated, I was involved in a small group of about 8 or 9 other people.  We talked about irritating theological ideas.  And one of the irritating theological ideas that we talked about was that of lament.  There is biblical and scriptural precedent and tradition for lament being a legitimate and important part of the worship experience.  Throughout the Psalms, throughout the whole book of Lamentations and a couple other places (in the New Testament even), looking at what's not right in the world, and just being aware of it, is a very important part of the whole communal worship experience.

Given that I just spent 3 weeks in Cambodia and saw a lot, and that I just graduated and obviously therefore I must know everything J, that I'd give it a shot today, and we'll see how it goes.

I'll start by reading a little bit of Psalm 73:

Truly God is good to the upright,
   to those who are pure in heart.
2But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
   my steps had nearly slipped.
3For I was envious of the arrogant;
   I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4For they have no pain;
   their bodies are sound and sleek.
5They are not in trouble as others are;
   they are not plagued like other people.
6Therefore pride is their necklace;
   violence covers them like a garment.
7Their eyes swell out with fatness;
   their hearts overflow with follies.
8They scoff and speak with malice;
   loftily they threaten oppression.
9They set their mouths against heaven,
   and their tongues range over the earth.

 

The Psalmist here is complaining, lamenting the fact that the wicked, in his or her world, are prosperous.  Their bodies are sleek and sound, their eyes are fat, they're wealthy, they have money, they have all the material things that they think they need to live good lives, and the Psalmist is saying 'What is this, why are the wicked people prospering?'.

And I think that ties in with my experience in Cambodia.  And I'll get to that in a moment.

In order to understand Cambodia today, we need to look back about 30 years ago to more fully grasp what went into making Cambodia what it is today.  Back in 1975, the Khmer Rouge took advantage of a weakened government (due to U.S. bombings in Cambodia) and basically staged a military coup and took over the country.  And at the time, the people were really happy -- in fact, there were parades in the street, they marched around, they had flags, it was great.

And then the Khmer Rouge began evicting and evacuating people from the cities and sending them out to the countryside.  Pol Pot, who was the head of the Khmer Rouge, decided that the modern society was not a good thing, and to take Cambodia back to its agrarian roots of the 8th century.  In his effort to do that, he decided that any free thinkers, any intellectuals, anybody who was educated could be a danger to going back to that, and so he began a system of exterminating all the intellectuals in the country. 

He would gather them up, put them into prisons -- we actually had the opportunity to visit S21, which is prison #21, in Phnom Penh, the capital.  We could see where people were taken and tortured before they were sent off the killing fields.  We walked in -- this was a high school before it became a prison -- and there were classrooms, and in each classroom there's a single bed, no mattress, just chains across it, and then there's various other canes and spikes and shackles and the other things they used to torture the intellectuals and get them to confess to crimes they didn't commit, so that they could feel more justified in their executions.

The most powerful part of the S21 museum (there was 2 parts), the first part was a giant hallway that was lined with thousands and thousands of mug shots of the people who had been brought into the prison.  There were men and women, children, mothers holding their infants.  You could look at the pictures and look in their eyes and see this mix of confusion and fear, because they had not idea at that point what they were in store for.  They had just been picked up by the officials and brought there, and they were cut off from their families.  They were now evicted far off in the countryside, way outside the city, and then they were forced to confess.  And then sent to the killing fields, which is where we went after S21.

I don't know if any of you have seen the move "The Killing Fields" that came out back in the 1980s, it's about a journalist who was captured and eventually escaped Cambodia (he was actually the one that coined the phrase 'the killing fields').  It was just one great big green field, with little pockets of water around it.  If you were to just look at it, it would look like just about any other area of Cambodia, there's nothing that really stands out about it.  Except that when you first walk up, there is this 200-300 foot tall shrine or memorial. 

At first it just looks like a building standing up 300 feet tall, and you think that's interesting.  And you look in the dark glass and you can't really see inside of it, but as you walk up, you start to realize how incredibly huge it actually is.

And then you look inside the glass, and you see shelves stacked up, all the way to the top.  And you kind of wonder what's on the shelves, and as you walk up to the shelves and get a little closer, you realize that every single shelf is full of skulls that they have excavated from the various mass graves around the killing fields. 

I couldn't see it, but our tour guide told us that at the very top all the other bones were in a pile.  Down at the bottom, they had various pieces of clothing they have gathered up and piled there.  Our tour guide lived through that period (1975-1979), and he picked up some of the skulls and showed us the cracks and the holes, how the people had been tortured and killed.

 

 

I had seen pictures of that memorial, and I had read about it, and I had read about the bones, but there is something about being there that is very powerful.  Being able to step inside the glass, and to be within reaching-out distance of the bones, there is something incredibly sad and powerful about being that close to that kind of atrocity.

 

Our tour guide took us around the rest of the killing fields.  There were a couple of things that really jumped out.  There are a couple of the mass graves that haven't been excavated, and were left as they were so people could see what was actually there.  But I think the most striking moment was when we walked up to a tree.  It looked like any normal tree in Cambodia, it was a little bit bigger than most trees.  As we walked around the corner there was a sign next to it, and it was in both Khmer and English, and in English it said something to the effect of "This is the tree the Khmer Rouge beat children against in order to kill them".

And so all of that helps put into context the pain and the difficulty of the Cambodian people today.  The Khmer Rouge ended up killing about 2 million of the Cambodian people in that 4-year period, which out of a population of 8 million is 25% of the entire country.  And it was the most educated 25%.  So where a lot of Asian countries were able to bump up technology and highly educated fields, Cambodia hasn't been able to.  When you lose 25% of the most educated work force, it's really hard to do anything besides farm and that sort of thing.

Today, the primary export and primary product of Cambodia is rice.  The average income for a Cambodian is about $2,600 per year, although I think that number is skewed up a little bit by some of the super hotels in the area.  A lot of the people I talked to don't make anywhere near $2,600 a year.

We went on an observation walk.  We started on the north side of the riverfront and walked all the way south to the slum at the bottom.  We noticed a couple things -- including the incredible amount of begging.  Here in Eugene, if you walk around you might see someone asking for food or money on every other corner, or every few corners (especially at major intersections).  But in Cambodia, at least in Phnom Penh (the capital), there are multiple people at every single corner, along the sidewalks.  There were people who were landmine victims who had lost limbs, who would drag themselves out into the middle of the road so you had to go around them.  As you're waiting at a light, you have no choice but to look down and make eye contact.

It's hard enough in Eugene when you make eye contact with someone asking for money or food, at least for me, it tears me up a little bit inside to know that I can't do that much to help them.  But there's something else when you're sitting alongside a person whose legs end just above his knees, and they're pulling themselves around on a little skateboard-like board.  There's something about seeing that kind of pain and that kind of suffering that just. . . . . . . I don't want to say a part of you dies inside, but it's almost like that.  It's just a really deep pain.

So in this whole area along the riverfront, there is extreme poverty, but at the same time it's a tourist area, so there's a lot of white Europeans walking around, buying drinks, and drinking and having a good time.  This guy on the little board walked up to one of them who was taking pictures, and was kind of just sitting on his board, and the tourist looked down and snapped a photo of the beggar and then just keeps going like nothing changed or happened.

At one point we stopped and we sat along this wall that went alongside the river, and off on our right-hand side, imagine the Asian palaces like in the movie "Mulan" from Disney -- picture that in real life, but more glamorous.  And that's what the King's palace is, it overlooks the river, it's just beautiful and wonderful.  You can see the little ornaments.  But then you look on the other side of the wall we were sitting on, a long concrete embankment down to the river.  Along the bottom where the water meets the concrete, it was just littered with garbage.  There's people down there fishing, because fishing was one of the only ways to get any type of meat, because meat is so incredibly expensive in the area.  And then along the river were these little floating shacks that people were living in. 

As you looked down the river and looked to the left, there were a couple of them right next to each other, and there were children with no clothes on (because they didn't have enough money for clothes), bouncing back and forth, playing.  That's where this grandiose palace that was built for the King is placed -- overlooking the slums of the river.  So you have this incredible, incredible tension between the extremely wealthy, and the destitute.  And it's right there.  I got one picture where you can see both the palace and some of the shacks in the same photo.  That tension is just heartbreaking.

They have these things called tuk-tuks, which are wagons behind motorcycles, kind of like taxis.  One of them that I saw on that day had a public service announcement.  Now, over here, our public service announcements are about things like anti-smoking, or don't drink & drive, and that sort of thing.  This public service announcement in Cambodia, on the back of a tuk-tuk, had a picture of a man holding a child's hand, and it said:  "Sex with children is illegal".

My first reaction was why in the world would you even make a public service announcement about that?  Seemed kind of obvious to me that adults wouldn't have sex with children.  But then I remembered that Cambodia is kind of the child sex trade capital of the world.  Up until a couple years ago, it was just blatant, out there in the open.  They've tried to crack down on it, so it's more hidden now.  We didn't see any of it, or children wandering around like that, but the fact that they had to have a public service announcement about it, and had to make a sign and put it on a taxi cab, says something about the problem.

For me at least, of all the pains and all the sufferings that I saw, that public service announcement was the most painful.  Because these children are sold into this trade by their parents.  There's something, for me at least, I think a parents core duty among all else is to protect their children.  If you don't have all the food you need, you give the food to the child and you go hungry.  If you have just enough cover for your child to be out of the rain and you sleep in the rain, then you put your kid under the cover and you sleep in the rain.  There's something so deep and so complete about the betrayal of a parent selling their child into the sex trade that just, well, a little part of me did die inside.

And so after that, we spent a couple more days in the capital.  And then the majority of our time was spent at an orphanage, just outside a town called Banon, which is one hour outside of Battambang, which is the second largest city in Cambodia.  We went to this orphanage -- there was no electricity, no running water, they had a well that was donated by a church, but the well wasn't a deep well, so for us, with our sensitive stomachs, it wasn't safe for us to drink, but it's what they used for their drinking water.  If anyone wanted to check their mail, check the Internet (which was important for the pastor, as that is how he sends out photos and information to drum up sponsorship), you had to go 1 hour to Battambang, a dirt road.  We were coming out of the dry season, so it was dusty, pot-holes.  It was only 20 miles, but because the road was so bad, you couldn't go very fast.  And this was the dry season, so imagine the worst rain we've ever had here in Oregon, multiply it by 3 or 4, and make it extend for the entire day, every day, and think about what that would do to a road that is just dust.  The Pastor said there were some days during the rainy season when you just think we cannot go to Battambang, because there was no way to get there safely, the road is too muddy, slippery, etc.

One of the things we brought over -- we brought a bunch of toys for the kids to play with -- were stickers, crayons, and coloring books.  We thought most kids would play with stickers, maybe think that was fun for 30 seconds and then they'd get tired of it.  When we took some of this stuff out, some of those kids had never seen stickers before.  They had never used a crayon before -- they're not manufactured in Cambodia, and it's too expensive to import them.  And so they were entertained by the crayons, coloring books, and stickers, for hours and hours and hours.  That's the kind of thing that we take for granted to the point where we don't think about it because we can pick up 400 of them at the Dollar Tree for one dollar.

Rice being the primary staple, most Cambodian people eat about two bowls of rice every meal.  Except for the rice shortage right now.  Even though rice is the primary export and crop in Cambodia, the rice shortage around the world is affecting them, and it's actually doubled the price of rice in the last year.  Income hasn't kept up, so many people are eating only 1 bowl of rice a meal.  And rice, as you know, may be filling in the short term, but really doesn't have a whole lot of nutrients.  So these children eat rice, maybe some vegetables, and periodically a little bit of beef or chicken.

The children are tiny.  This 10 year-old boy I could lift with one arm without giving it a second thought.  Part of that has to do with the lack of calcium and other vitamins and minerals, it just stunts their growth.  So they can't prosper like they should.

The children are orphans, sometimes because their parents don't have enough money and resources to take care of them, feed them, to make sure they're sheltered.  So they bring them to the orphanage where they know they'll get food and be taken care of, and have attention.  One of the children, his name was Roo, had the most amazing smile I've ever seen in my entire life.  About 11 years old, was dropped off a few years ago by his mother.  I guess last year his mother got a hold of the Pastor and said "I have the resources now, I'd like Roo back so we can be a family again".  The Pastor was skeptical, because she'd never really had any steady income.  And so he asked around and looked around, and she had no income.  Her intention was to get Roo and sell him into the sex trade, for about $150.  She would sell her son into a life of horrors and atrocities and abuse, for 150 U.S. dollars, and never see him again.

The Pastor prevented that from happening, he said 'No, Roo is part of our family, our community, and he will stay with us'.  But the fact that it was so real and so present, and it wasn't something happening off in the capital, but was happening right there in Banon where we were staying, with a child we played with and had gotten to know and love, it just tore us up.

The Pastor was telling us that back during the late 1970s, he escaped over the Thai border to escape the genocide and managed to avoid it.  He stayed at a U.N. refugee camp over there, where he met his wife.  She had seen her father killed by the Khmer Rouge before she escaped to the refugee camp.  And again, it's one thing to go to the killing fields and see the memorial, and one thing to walk by the cedar tree, and it's one thing to talk to a person that was affected by it, but it's an entirely different thing to be in a relationship with this child for 10 days (which may not seem like a lot, but it is when you're in a concentrated community for that long), and to have gotten to know them, and then to realize that they were actually there, they have been affected by it, it's part of their story, it takes the genocide out of the abstract and brings it into the real.

I had an opportunity to preach at the church there in Banon, on one of the Sundays.  I was trying to find a topic to preach on, and I decided that James would be really good -- it says faith without works is dead, it's about faith in action.  The Christian population in Cambodia makes up about 3% of the population.  For that 3% to have made 8 orphanages with this 1 denomination, with hundreds of kids being taken care of and growing up over the years, is remarkable.  And I reflected on that, and preached on that.

But I think that all that I saw, and all that I learned, and all that I experienced, has prompted me to realize just how important faith in action really is.  I can't stand by, knowing what I know and having seen what I've seen, and do nothing.  So I'm telling you all of this because that's what we're supposed to do.  We're called to love other people, to love universally, and that means loving people on the other side of the world that we'd rather not think about.

When we were walking around town, because of our pale Oregonian skin, people took notice of us.  One time we were riding in the tuk-tuk, 6 of us, and a guy on a cell phone snapped a photo of us.  And then we were in a grocery store, and we had a person bag our stuff and carry it out to the vehicle that was waiting for us.  And it made me realize that for better or worse, because of where we were born, because of people's impressions of people from the United States (or Europe for that matter), we're in a unique position to be able to make a difference.  As we go to Cambodia, or the developing world, and we start talking to people, they're going to listen.  And it's not because we're particularly good at it, it's not because we're particularly special, it's because of the luck of the draw, we were born where we were born, and had the parents that we have.

But because of that, we have a responsibility to be advocates and to work to help right the wrongs of the world.  And not necessarily just abroad, but right here in the United States.  Right before I left, there was that cyclone in Myrmar, and I remember reading that a certain head politician of ours was refusing to let U.S. aid workers go to Myrmar, because he didn't agree with the politics of the situation.  Meanwhile, thousands of people were dying of disease and the conditions.  We can't stand by and let that sort of thing go unchallenged. 

There's Vietnam, Cambodia, and then Mrymar, it's just right there.  So I've been in that part of the world, and seen the conditions that people are living in, and realize how much a storm like that would effect us here, and how much more it would affect them over there.  We can't just stand by, especially when someone says because of a political point we can't help them.

When there's a genocide going on right now, at this moment in Darfur, and we're not doing anything about it as a nation (the administration, anyway), that's not right.  Two million people died in Cambodia, and I think there's roughly 800,000 people that have been killed in Darfur when I checked a couple months ago.  And it's still going on, and nothing is being done about it.

So all of this is to say that we should do something about it.  We need to take action.  We need to speak out.  Even if it's just making people aware, 15, 75, 100 people at a time, that makes a difference.

And so I leave you with these words from 1 John:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

 


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