As I sit down to write this article, it is August and my kids are in the middle of enjoying their summer break. And yet, much to their chagrin, we are already starting to make a list of their back-to-school needs for this Fall. Pencils, pens, paper, new shoes – the list for their academic success seems endless! At this point though, the development of a list has not yet translated into an actual back-to-school shopping trip. That joyous event was put on hold by my recent trip to Cambodia.
On this trip, I was reminded once again of Cambodia’s beauty. It was the rainy season and the fields outside of Phnom Penh were a wonderful shade of green as the rice crops grew. On several occasions I experienced the frequent heavy rainfall that is so predictable at this time of year. Suffice it to say that when it rains in Cambodia, it really rains! The sky grows eerily dark very quickly with flashes of lighting preparing the way for the heavens to open up and drop a deluge of water while the thunder rolls and echoes through the humid air. As I sat in an outdoor restaurant during one of these ‘rain events’, the physical darkness was a chilling reminder to me of the spiritual darkness that threatens the country. Sadly, there is a long history in Cambodia of exploitation and human trafficking that continues to rob thousands of people of their dignity and freedom. On this trip, I heard about many examples of the profound darkness and the great need present in Cambodia today.
At one of our project sites that I visited, I was struck by a piece of décor that adorned a wall: a giant banner that announced “MERRY CHRISTMAS” in bright, bold lettering! Upon first glance, it seemed like the banner was out of place for early August. But, as I continued to hear more stories about the vast needs of exploited people in Cambodia, I began to realize that the “MERRY CHRISTMAS” banner was not out of place, but rather fully in place. I found myself thinking about a passage in the Bible that is normally reserved for Christmas church services: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:6). The key to the Christian faith is contained in this passage: God, in Jesus Christ, stepped into our world, into our darkness, into our mess. God stepped in. And when God steps in, make no mistake: light dawns and hope is born.
During many of my meetings in Cambodia, I heard of great need; the darkness in Cambodia runs deep. I heard stories of women and men caught in the web of human traffickers who are bent on exploiting people for their own selfish gain. Some of the stories I heard were gut-wrenching. But in those meetings, I also heard of powerful, life-changing work; a light continues to dawn in Cambodia! I heard many stories of exploited people being restored and given hope for a life of freedom and dignity. I was reminded of the wonderful prevention work that Ratanak participates in where community leaders are equipped to educate villagers about the dangers of human trafficking. The most exciting part for me was talking with people who are ‘stepping in’ on the front lines and seeing restoration in the lives of so many vulnerable people. As I returned from this trip, I strongly sensed the continuing call for Ratanak to step in – into the darkness and into the complex needs of Cambodia. And I firmly believe that when we step in as followers of Jesus, light continues to dawn and hope continues to be renewed.
So, now that I’m back from Cambodia, it’ll soon be off to the store with my kids and their back-to-school lists! I want to make sure they have what they need to thrive in the new school year. But as the pace of my life quickens with a busy fall schedule, I don’t want to forget my call as a Christian to ‘step in’ to places of darkness with the light and hope of God’s love. So as you get back into the swing of your own post-summer schedule, may we stand together to see Cambodians thriving in dignity and hope. In that spirit, I wish you all a very early “MERRY CHRISTMAS”!
Graeme Illman – Executive Director, Ratanak International
Graeme comes to Ratanak with a background in pastoral ministry and has served congregations in Atlanta, Georgia; Whitby, Ontario; and Coquitlam, BC. He was first exposed to the work of Ratanak through his congregation in Coquitlam that enjoys a long-standing partnership with the organization. Graeme has a heart for cross-cultural ministry and has participated in mission trips to Venezuela, Mexico, Hungary, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Honduras. He brings executive leadership to the Ratanak family in order that hope may be brought to the people of Cambodia. Graeme and his wife have three children.