Lessons from Cambodia: How Faith Impacts Social Change

Kate Millar

With a rather empty summer ahead of me, instead of daydreaming about the future, my days have been filled reminiscing summers past. Lately, I’ve found myself reflecting on my time in Cambodia last August. I spent the month working with the Cambodian Hope Organisation (CHO), a grass roots Christian NGO based in Poipet, dedicated to empowering communities along the Thai-Cambodian border to reduce poverty and eradicate child trafficking.

As I hold my Cambodia journals in one hand, and my phone in the other, my memories of CHO mingle with the stream of information about racism, police brutality, protests and petitions. The lessons I learnt last summer seem take a new significance in this world crying and fighting for social change. My friends at CHO showed me what it looked like to live as Christians dedicated to bringing God’s hope and justice to the world. They showed me the power of their Christian faith as it sparks and sustains social change.

So, today I want to share with you all that they showed me: how faith impacts social change.

Faith chooses hope over apathy

Chomno In, the founder of the Cambodian Hope Organisation, has faced unimaginable horrors and yet is the most hope-filled man I have ever met. He was only 14 in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, instigating some of the worst horrors in modern history – mass genocide, starvation, labour camps, torture, and the removal of all personal freedoms. An estimated 2.5 million Cambodians died under the regime. Residents of cities, including Chomno and his family, were forcibly removed from their homes and marched into the countryside with only the clothes on their backs. Given no information, they were told to settle in the middle of the Cambodian forest, while soldiers tried to find information about each person’s background, seeking those who were educated and middle-class. Those who revealed their background as educated and middle-class to the soldiers were taken, tortured and executed. Many others starved or died from disease or exhaustion. Chomno himself was taken into a labour camp, forced to work past the point of exhaustion, eating bugs to survive. To this day, he still remembers the exact time he spent there – 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, unable to forget.

Chomno is not alone in his experiences. It is certain that anyone in Cambodia with lines on their face or grey in their hair were witnesses to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. The legacy of the civil war continued to devastate Cambodia even after they were overthrown: poverty, trauma, a non-existent government or justice system resulting in widespread abuse and crime, literacy rates at an all-time low, a missing generation of skilled and educated professionals. Chomno was a witness to this legacy and sought to have a part in ending it.

In 2002, Chomno found himself in Poipet, a city on the border of Thailand and Cambodia, heartbroken by what he saw. Women and children were being raped in the street by border guards and no one was doing anything about it. The city rang with the sound of crying; mothers’ tears for their children who had been taken away and trafficked.

What Chomno witnessed in Poipet, especially after a lifetime of unimaginable suffering under the Khmer Rouge, would have been enough to make anyone lose hope in humanity and fall into despair and apathy. With such widespread and unchallenged evils taking place, how could one even begin to imagine change for the better? It is so easy to be paralysed by the scale of such injustice.

He could have easily chosen that path but in that moment, while he wept at what he saw, Chomno prayed. Years previous, after escaping the labour camp, while working in a refugee hospital he became a Christian, risking his livelihood, security and social standing to do so. In that moment, faced with the suffering of Poipet city, he felt a call from God to do something about the injustices he was seeing. He was convinced that it would be God’s hand to bring transformation. In radical faith and generosity, he sold his house in Phnom Penh to move to Poipet and begin the work in creating the Cambodian Hope Organisation. He set up Safe Haven to house and rehabilitate children rescued from trafficking, and began work to empower strong, self-sustaining, hope-filled communities. Eventually, what began with a staff of two, grew to a network of leaders in over 160 villages along the Thai-Cambodian border, all working towards the reduction of poverty and the prevention of trafficking. All because Chomno, filled with faith in his God, chose hope over apathy.

Faith sustains. It chooses long-term mission over a ‘quick-fix’

Faith helps people to see things on God’s timeline rather than their own. It gives them long-term vision, sustaining them as they take daily steps that lead to fruit down the line. My friends at CHO are living examples of this. They are devoted and faithful, investing in their communities, striving to bring sustainable change from the roots upwards, praying as they do it. Every morning they meet for prayer, worship and a Bible reading to encourage one another in their mission and to remind each other that they’re part of something bigger than themselves, that God is in their work.

What began as a rescue mission for children in trafficking developed into a long-term prevention mission as Chomno reflected on the root cause of trafficking: poverty. When people are in need, their need creates a desperation which can result in people unknowingly sending their children to be trafficked in the hope of getting money. So, CHO has many projects to help people lift themselves out of poverty. These projects include agricultural and animal husbandry support, providing skills and resources to empower families to generate their own income; microloans, to give financial support to local businesses; health, sanitation and anti-trafficking education; and the education of children, through School on a Mat (free education in remote areas) and Safe Haven School (full-time primary education to vulnerable children), to raise up the future leaders of Cambodia into capable, equipped and empowered individuals.

It may not be possible to see immediate fruit from their actions – poverty isn’t something that can be ‘quick-fixed’ – but they trust that God will use what they’re doing to bring sustainable transformation.

Being with CHO made me realise the importance of being in it for the long-run, not seeking quick fixes. When seeking true justice and genuine change beyond the surface level, it is so powerful to have a faith that sustains a mission past the point of novelty and into sustainability. And the knowledge that God is working in those actions of devotion is a hope that cannot be taken away.


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