I spent the fall semester of my junior year of college in a class preparing me to be immersed for three weeks in the country of Cambodia that following January. My classmates and I read books, watched movies, and participated in numerous class discussions about Cambodia, its history, its government, its culture, and its people. We went over the details of our travel plans until it was certain we’d all be at the airport on time with passports and luggage in hand.
I am so grateful for the months of learning I was afforded prior to traveling to Cambodia. Still, no amount of videos or pictures or text could fully encapsulate what it was like to actually be in the country of Cambodia. The smell of the streets in Phnom Penh, the particular taste of Cambodia’s rice, the sight of masses of powerlines strung from building to building, the feel of the hot, dirt-filled air on my skin, the sound of motor bikes and car horns whizzing by all hours of the day. The knowledge I amassed before the trip was just training equipping me for the actual experience.
No amount of study could capture what it was like to encounter heartbreaking poverty and social injustices in Cambodia, either. You know the commercials about sponsoring children in third-world countries accompanied by tragic pictures of suffering kids; it was completely different seeing kids walk up to my tour bus and start tapping on the windows begging for money.
My class visited a slum built along some railroad tracks in the capital city of Phnom Penh. People moved about from one poorly-constructed shack to another while children walked barefoot through dirt and trash. This wasn’t a tourist site; this was where people lived, where they called home. I sat in a tiny, one-room apartment rented by a Christian missions team in this slum where a few times a week they offered to paint the local women’s nails and just talk with them. I met and painted the nails of a ladyboy, a transgender young man belonging to one of the most ostracized groups of individuals in Cambodia, while our tour guide translated the story he told of how he was rejected by his family.
Coming back from my three weeks in Cambodia, I knew I would never be the same again. I would never again be able to hear about living the “American dream” without being taken back to Cambodia, to that slum where I experienced something I could never un-see. My eyes were opened to a world much larger than my home country of America. And it’s a world much bigger, more devastating, more heartbreakingly beautiful, and more diverse than I ever could have imagined. I can honestly say my time abroad in a third-world country felt like an “awakening,” an experience that has irreversibly changed me and how I understand the world.
I’ve been thinking about how there are times when Jesus takes us through faith experiences similar to my experience of visiting that Cambodian slum. Sometimes there is no way to learn a certain point unless you are required to get out of your tour bus and walk headfirst into unreal poverty. There are specific lessons you can’t fully grasp until you step foot into a small, haphazardly-built shack where a family lives. And sometimes, there is no other way to grow your heart’s ability to empathize without being uncomfortably required to look right into the eyes of a person despised by everyone else and paint their dirt-encrusted fingernails.
Visiting that Cambodian slum was not easy. But it changed me forever. Following Jesus is not easy. Especially when following Him leads you into a pitch-black night of the soul where you’re not even sure life is worth it anymore. But doing so and coming out the other side has changed me forever. God truly can, in time, use all experiences for good, in some way or another. And that’s something I never thought I’d be able to say.
The past year of my life has not been easy. I’ve been taken places I never expected to go, and endured what felt like torture in the deepest parts of my being. What I once seriously thought was intended to eventually drive me to suicide, I now see was rather another opportunity for an “awakening” experience. Jesus looked at me and said, “Sara, I know you have a certain understanding of who I am—but I want to take you deeper. I want you to see I am so much more than what you are capable of understanding about Me right now. I want you to see this life is so much more than what you have, so far, perceived it to be.”
Jesus walked me through a Cambodian-slum-of-the-soul not to punish me, to abandon me, or crush me with hopelessness. He brought me to awaken me to something more I never could’ve realized without going there. Some things you can only learn by experience. I would have never willingly chosen to go through what I have this past year, but these hardships have had purpose. I am forever changed by what I’ve experienced. I can never go back. Instead, I want to keep walking forward into the heart of Jesus, so that step by step, I might become more and more like He truly is.
Compassionate, kind, and patient.
More like Love itself.