Everyone has places that they want to travel to. For me, it’s always been South America. I love the food and culture of South America, and I want to increase my fluency in Spanish. But God (my favorite Biblical phrase) often has other plans. Believe it or not, His plans are always better and more fulfilling too. So, in May of 2016, I returned to the continent of Asia for the second time in my life. This time: Cambodia.
Southeastern University has a missions department called Destinations, and every year Destinations sends out many student-led teams all over the world to partner with missionaries. I love traveling and I love missions, so I was quick to look into where SEU students would be heading to.
While South America is still a goal destination for me, when I’m searching for a mission team to be a part of, I don’t decide based on destination, rather I decide based on what the purpose of the trip is and if it plays to my strengths. And also with a lot of prayer and godly discussion, of course.
So that I can focus most of this post on the actual happenings and revelations of the trip, I’m going to abbreviate the intro portion and say this: God led me to decide on Cambodia because of the nature of the trip (teaching!), the people leading and going on the trip, and through several other carefully placed nudges.
The team (from L to R): Kyra, Nate, Katie, Chad, Victoria
If I’m being 100% honest and transparent about this trip, leading up to leaving for it I wasn’t incredibly psyched to go to Cambodia. Not that I was dreading it by any means, but I wasn’t feeling any extra excitement about it other than the normal traveling bug jitters. I had somehow come to view the trip as purely a professional development experience. I would be teaching English as a second language, it would be fantastic teaching experience–extra points for being out of my comfort zone since it’s not music.
Sure, our team leader had explained to us his heart for Cambodia. Sure, I knew about the spiritual upheaval and the need for Christ’s love in Cambodia. Sure, I understood that this was a mission trip, thus the primary purpose would be to display the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I knew all of this…but somehow I had let all of that slide over me and I allowed my attitude to be one of “Let’s do this trip so I can tuck some more experience under my belt”. I would love on the kids because I’m great with kids (can you see the pride creeping in?) so that would fill my Jesus quota for the trip.
Like we should ever put a “Jesus quota” on anything we do. Ever.
I’m exaggerating my attitude a little bit to prove a point. Please don’t think I ran into this mission trip prayerlessly and without regard to the spiritual fortification needed to prepare for serving with a team overseas. The safety of our team and the success of the trip is a testament to the faithful prayers of our team and everyone supporting us back in the States. When I say success, I am referring to the fact that attitudes were adjusted, lives were impacted, and above all Christ was glorified.
Before I start highlighting the incredible work God did in Cambodia while we were there, I want to take a moment to say that this isn’t just the story of five students from Southeastern University. If you prayed, gave financially, or both, this is your story too! YOU DID THIS. YOU WERE PART OF THIS. I know I had many incredibly generous brothers and sisters join me on this adventure, and I know my teammates did as well. THANK YOU for your faithfulness in furthering the kingdom of God!
Victoria and I were assigned to helping with the elementary English classes. So throughout the week, we would be in 1st through 6th grade English classes, helping teach, emphasize pronunciation, and playing games. The first few classes, we simply sat in and observed the English teacher, occasionally chiming in to help with the pronunciation of a difficult word or explaining a concept that the English teacher had trouble articulating.
The kids were shy at first, and because we were working with elementary students, many of them only had a basic grasp of English and we were unable to hold conversations beyond “How are you?” with them. Cue attempting to learn some Khmer and failing miserably. On the plus side, we were there to help them with their English, not necessarily for them to teach us Khmer, so the language barrier actually forced them to work harder to communicate with us. And they really did want to talk with us.
Our days consisted of teaching classes from 8am until about 4pm. There were 8 class periods in a day, and Victoria and I had classes roughly 5 or 6 of those class periods every day. The majority of those classes were English classes, although we did assist in a few Bible classes and we taught one Phys Ed class for the fourth graders. During breaks in the school day, we would interact with the kids. Sometimes that consisted of running around and getting drenched in sweat. Other times it was simply sitting in a circle and talking. Every time was a ton of fun.
After school, we would either help with a project that needed to be completed at the school or we would go out and do something tourist-y. Several times, some of the older kids (who Nate and Kyra had built up relationships with on previous trips) would join us. It was so much fun to travel with these high schoolers and hear about their lives.
Traveling on Sunday to church and the day we spent there was the turning point of the trip for me. Up until this point, everyone else on the team had been ecstatic about their experience and were quick to say as much as possible how much they loved being in Cambodia. While I had been enjoying myself, I was not on the same page with my team. That weekend I did some serious soul-searching to try to determine why it was that I felt a lack of connection to the place that my team so obviously felt.
The answer came in the same form that it always does whenever I’m feeling disconnected from a place: one meaningful relationship.
I believe in love at first sight. But not a romantic love at first sight. I believe, and I’ve experienced, that you can meet an individual for the first time and know that you love them and you desire to pour into their life. I think it’s the act of God putting someone into your life that you can impact and will in turn impact you.
Over the course of my life, this experience of instant connection and desire for impact has been mostly dominated by kids. Which plays a huge role in my decision to be a teacher–my heart is for kids, I fall in love with them, and I want to pour all that I am into impacting their lives for the cause of Christ.
We drove a good distance to a small church that Sunday morning, and on the way we picked up a couple families and their kids. We were squeezed nice and tightly into that van. One such family was the family of Kaprile (English spelling, pronounced Gabriel), a second grade boy at the school. Instant connection, instant desire to be this kid’s friend, instant longing for this boy to be filled with the joy that comes from knowing Christ.
Over the course of the day (which we spent the entirety at the church), Kaprile warmed up to me and I felt as if I was finally understanding the mission of the missionaries we were with and I was finally seeing the hearts of the people we were there ministering to. Church was a small gathering, but it was authentic and joyful. Worship was heartfelt. These families were traveling over an hour to be with other believing families for one day where they could worship their Savior and seek after His heart together. It was incredible.
Sunday lit the fire in me that had been previously absent. Going in to week two, Victoria and I were taking over all of our classes and teaching entire lessons. Having learned from mistakes from the week before, and gathering as a team to discuss the best methods for teaching English to non-English speakers, we felt prepared to take it on. At this point, the kids were very familiar with us and were much more open to conversation, feedback, and correction in the classroom.
Simply put, teaching was a joy. Yes, there were moments of difficult. Occasionally the heat would get to one of us and we’d have to take a brief break. There were upset stomachs from time to time. Victoria and I had the good fortune of working with the high school principal’s daughter (Sara) who could speak English very well and was instrumental in helping us explain concepts to the students. The three of us worked seamlessly together, taking turns so that no one every got too exhausted or worn out. While challenging and draining, I loved every second of pouring out all my energy into teaching those kids.
And it didn’t hurt that every free time Kaprile would find me so we could take pictures or play a game.
I love Cambodia. For a bit, on that trip, I doubted that I would fall in love with the place. But I did. Because of the kids. Because of what the missionaries are doing at that school. Because of the teachers and the staff who are trying to display the love of Christ in the classroom. Because how can you not fall in love with a place that is so clearly touched by the hand of God even in the midst of all the spiritual confusion surrounding it.
God reminded me of where His heart is. His heart is for the lost, the children, the souls searching for Him. He reminded me that my heart is to look like His. How am I mirroring that longing to bring the lost into the fold of Christ?
He confirmed my passion for teaching. The past year and a half has been amazing in that regard. Time and time again, God has confirmed my desire to teach and has placed people in my life to encourage me and assure me that this is an area God has gifted me in.
Minor confession time: I’ve been rewatching Glee, and I’ve been getting a lot more choked up about it than I remember getting. The other day it hit me why: ridiculous plot lines and questionable choices aside, Glee at its core is about a teacher helping students discover their passion. The show is hitting home in a much more real way than before because that is the kind of teacher I want to be! Anyways, confession time over.
Finally, my biggest takeaway from the trip: I am capable of teaching English as a second language in a foreign country. I realize this doesn’t sound like much, but here’s why this is important to me. My heart is still very much for teaching elementary music at a public school in the States. But I know how God works. Sometimes our plans aren’t what He has planned. This trip has now equipped me with the knowledge and the experience that I am capable of teaching English overseas and that I enjoy doing it. Should an opportunity arise in the future, I have no excuses for not prayerfully considering it.
Also, the trip served as a reminder to me of how much I love partnering with long term missionaries and learning about what they do. It occurred to me that as a teacher, I will have summers off. How amazing would it be if I could spend my summers traveling and encouraging and serving missionaries? Just a little thought.
Alright, this has been a long post, and I’m so glad you’ve read the whole thing. Before I close out, I’m going to introduce to you some special students who made an impact on my life while I was at their school.
I’ve already talked about this guy, but he’s worth talking about again. He’s full of energy, mischief, and joy, and he makes the best faces! He was my buddy, my partner-in-crime, throughout the entire second week and it was hard to say goodbye. I’m so grateful for technology that allows me to keep in contact with his family!
Sunlong is another student I really connected with. He’s a fourth grader who I ended up partnering with when his class paired off to practice conversations in English and he was short a partner. From that moment on, he took it upon himself to explain to me conversations his friends were having in Khmer, to pester me to make sure I would be teaching their Phys Ed class later in the week, and to knock me down a few pegs when I finally thought I was getting a handle on the whole soccer thing.
During one of our team meetings, Nate decided that we should challenge each other to do something out of our comfort zone. The challenge that the team presented to me was to interact more with the high schoolers. I don’t know what it is, but something in me switches from crazy-outgoing-fun to nervous-aretheyjudgingme-quiet when I switch from interacting with younger kids to the older students. Nonetheless, I took up the challenge and ended up spending almost every lunch hour with Daniel and several of the 10th grade guys.
Daniel is incredible. First of all, he has a good understanding of English, so we were able to hold conversations about a variety of topics. Secondly, he’s a talented musician (cue the connection and shared interest conversations). Thirdly, he spends his break from school taking additional classes and studying because he’s motivated to do more, to be more. He’s a great guitar player, and leads worship at his church. He’s respected by his peers, and from what I saw, a good friend to them.
I’m bragging on him because I can and because he encouraged me so much. I’m so blessed here in the States with all the music opportunities available to me, and here Daniel is, with a guitar that he was fortunate to have because of another missionary’s generosity, studying and practicing so that he can pursue his passion.
And I’m at home watching Netflix saying I’ll practice cello tomorrow.
He’s way cooler than I am. Daniel is the student on the far right.
Sixth Grade Boys
These boys really opened up to me the last two days we were teaching. Which was both awesome and sad, because I wish I would’ve had more time to pour into them but I’m also grateful they finally did open up. The sixth graders had been fun to teach because they had a good grasp of English, yet they had been somewhat distant when it came to getting to know us. Victoria was able to make some good connections eventually with the girls, but I had been having a hard time reaching the boys.
Apparently, all it took was one class of 1/4 English review and 3/4 run around and do sporty things outside to break the wall down. One sweaty game of soccer later, I had a whole group of new friends asking to find them on Facebook and begging me to come back again soon. I didn’t even have to score a goal (not that I could’ve if I tried, some of those kids are pros!).
The End (…?)
We had quite an adventure returning to the States: long story short, our team got split in half in Dubai and three of us made our way back to the States while the other two came back a nerve-wracking day later.
I had an incredible trip and I’m so incredibly grateful for those of you who gave so that I was able to love on these kids and serve these missionaries.
It is definitely a goal of mine to return to this school and minister to these kids again, but I do not know when that might happen. In the meantime, I’m praying that God would continue to do great things in Cambodia and I ask that you would make that a prayer of yours as well. Even if you just prayed for the kids in these pictures, it would mean the world to me.
GOD IS GOOD AND HE IS FAITHFUL!