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A Harvest of the Heart

Compassion takes root in a Cambodian household

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When my husband, Soeuth, and I moved to Poipet, Cambodia, in July 2003, concerned friends from Siem Reap pleaded with us to find a family we had met a few years earlier that was now living somewhere in that city. There were hundreds of thousands of people in more than 300 villages in Poipet—how could we ever find them? And since we were not yet familiar with the area, where would we begin? Nevertheless, we promised that we would look for a woman named Bong Raa and her children.

After months of searching, we finally located them. They were living in a small grass-roofed shed on the edge of the Cambodia-Thailand border among thick bamboo bushes filled with land mines. There were five children in the family, aged 18 months to 12 years. And Bong (which means “older sibling”) Raa was pregnant with her sixth child. Her husband had abandoned her and the kids a few months earlier.

Immediately, we made arrangements for Bong Raa’s family to move closer to us. We hired workers to build them a small hut and bought bedding and mosquito nets in addition to other basic supplies. In partnership with other NGOs, we had a well drilled so the family could have clean drinking water.

When we found them, Bong Raa and all five kids were sick with skin diseases, scabies, and parasites. And all were severely malnourished. We took them to the local clinic for treatment and gave them food daily. Next, we paid the older kids’ public school tuition and bought uniforms, shoes, and school supplies. We also purchased three bicycles so they could ride to school.

We introduced them to families at the Living Water Church and made transportation arrangements so they could attend church and weekly small groups. After “Baby Andrea” was born, Bong Raa said she wished to raise vegetables to sell at local markets for a living. So, we helped to purchase a water pump, hoes, and other supplies so she could begin working. In just a few short weeks, her garden produced lush vegetables, and Bong Raa, to her great joy, was able to earn a small income.

Bong Raa, the third oldest child of a farmer with 12 children, had grown up in a small village outside Siem Reap. Because her family was poor, she never went to school. Her alcoholic and abusive father took pleasure in constantly reminding Bong Raa of her lot in life. “Girls don’t need to go to school,” he told her repeatedly. “Your job is to learn housewife work—cooking and cleaning—because once married, you will live in another household.”

Her father’s predictions were postponed, however. On April 17, 1975, when Bong Raa was just nine years old, Cambodia fell into the hands of communist ruler Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Like hundreds of thousands of other children, Bong was separated from her family and sent to a concentration camp. At the end of 1979, when the Vietnamese took control of Cambodia, Bong Raa was released. But sickness and famine had claimed the lives of most of her family members; only she, her malnourished mother, and two younger sisters had survived the war. Being the oldest and strongest child, Bong Raa took charge. At age 13, she became the bread winner—raising vegetables to sell at local markets.

Bong Raa (back right) grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, which she then sells in the local markets to support her family and her outreach to neighborhood children, some of whom are pictured here among her own kids after a day of transplanting rice.

Life was hard, but the family managed to survive. When Bong Raa was 23, her mother arranged for her to marry a farmer’s son from another village, a man she did not meet until their wedding day. Bong Raa reluctantly moved in with her husband’s family, leaving her mother in the care of distant relatives. She tried to fit into her new family, working hard to become the ideal housewife her in-laws expected. “But my best was never good enough,” Bong Raa told me as she recalled the poor treatment she received. After two years, her husband uprooted her to another village called Moundul Bey.

Shortly after the death of her mother, Bong Raa’s abusive husband coaxed her into selling her mother’s property, Bong Raa’s only inheritance. Fearful for her life and the lives of her three small children, she reluctantly agreed. But when he got the money, he left her for another woman. For years, Bong Raa remained single while struggling to care for her children. To support them, she found work as a laborer at construction sites, as help in small shops, or as a waitress.

Between jobs, Bong Raa and her children sold home-grown vegetables at local markets. Having a natural “green thumb,” Bong Raa could grow anything. But with no money for a fence to protect her garden, many times her hard work was destroyed by other people’s animals. Sometimes, due to prolonged drought, there was not enough water for her thirsty plants, and she barely earned enough to buy food.

“It was absolutely hopeless!” Bong Raa cried. “I just ran out of ideas on how to care for my children.”

But her story was about to change. “Jesus came to my village when I was about to give up on life! Jesus came to my rescue just like the story He told in Matthew 25.” (See below.)

When asked to explain, Bong Raa said, “I needed water for my vegetable garden, and the Christians dug three wells in my village. One was just 30 meters from my house. When my children were sick and I had no money for medicine, I took them to their weekly free clinics, and my children got better. And not only that, these Jesus people sometimes gave me bags of rice, just when I ran out of food!

“All my life, people have been cruel to me, even members of my own family. But these people were kind and gentle to me and my children. They did not even know me, but they welcomed me and accepted me for who I am. My children and I were complete strangers, but they made us their friends.

“That is how I met Jesus—I fell in love with Him through meeting His people.”

Pastor Nhan, a leader of the Alliance Moundul Bey House Church (now vice president of the Khmer Evangelical Church), and my husband, Soeuth, prayed with her to receive Christ as her Savior in January 1999. Bong Raa and her family were among the faithful attendees at the church. “Even though I could not read, I liked to go just to listen to the beautiful songs they sang every week,” Bong Raa told me. “And the pastor seemed to always know what was troubling in my heart whenever he preached!”

In August 2002, Bong Raa and her three children moved to Poipet hoping to grab “free land” and work in the Cambodia–Thailand Border Market. Soon, she met her second husband. An alcoholic, he was not willing to shoulder his responsibilities. After fathering her twin boys and then learning that Bong Raa was pregnant with another child, he abandoned his family altogether. It was then that we found Bong Raa and her children in December 2003.

In November 2008, through the generosity of a family from ClayHouse Alliance Church in Colorado Springs, a team came and built this family a sturdy tin house. Bong Raa and her family still live there. With the help of her children, she continues to raise vegetables to sell at local markets.

Through the years, Bong Raa and I became good friends. After persistent invitations, Bong Raa patiently sat with me as I used Bible-based adult literacy books to teach her to read. When I asked her to come to discipleship classes I taught on weekends, she reluctantly agreed. She passed all five Christian education classes with average or above grades! Then, at my encouragement, she studied all six books of Theological Education by Extension level 1.

Neighborhood children gather in Bong Raa’s home for English lessons. Many of these children are now attending Living Water Church (Alliance).

When the class graduated to level 2, she quickly told me, “Naak-kru (“teacher”), my brain hurts. I cannot take any more learning.”

“OK, then, what are you going to do with your ‘spare time’?” I asked.

“I’m going to use what I’ve learned from you and teach it to my kids, my neighbors, and friends,” she declared.

True to her word, Bong Raa boldly shares the gospel with her neighbors and friends. She told other vegetable sellers at the markets about Jesus and invited them to church. Kids from the neighborhood frequently visit her children and stay to join the family for their nightly devotions. Every time I visit, village kids are hanging around, kicking balls with her boys or helping Bong Raa with the garden. When we were invited to celebrate Andrea’s eighth birthday, 17 kids from the community attended the party. As a gift, they sang their “special Christian songs” to him. And some recited many memorized Bible verses as birthday tributes.

“Where did you learn all these songs and verses?” I asked. “Who teaches you?”

The kids immediately told me that they learned everything from Bong Raa and her children. Through this family outreach, many of these kids have accepted Christ as their Lord.

“Please pray for the children coming to my house,” Bong Raa requested. “Many are from broken families. But they are finding hope and peace in Jesus at my house. Pray that my children and I would continue to live as good witnesses to them.”

Bong Raa knows firsthand what hardship is like. And God enables her to reach others in similar situations, drawing many into His Kingdom. Her life has always been harsh, but every time I see her, Bong Raa is smiling. When I asked the reason for such joy, without hesitation she answered, “Naak-kru, I may not have much worldly materials compared to my neighbors and friends. But actually, I have more than they have, because I have Jesus in my life!”

Matthew 25:31–46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

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