Reflections from Thailand and Cambodia

It was probably a mistake to go to Costco the day after returning home from a third world country.

As I begin to unpack all that I saw over the last two weeks in our whirlwind tour of Thailand and Cambodia, so much of my own regular life feels foreign.  Grocery shopping and laundry are a comforting routine after 10 plane flights, 7 hotels, countless tuk-tuk rides, and 2 loooooong van rides along bumpy roads that felt like a real-life Indiana Jones ride.  But even as I begin the process of picking back up my life here in Orange County, I know there are some things I don’t necessarily want to pick back up.

Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap, Cambodia

There’s something about travel, particularly if traveling with the purpose of learning more about the lives of children who were once trapped in sex trafficking, that can undo deeply held assumptions and expectations about life.

I keep re-playing one conversation from the trip over and over in my head.  While visiting one of the project homes, I found myself in a conversation with one of the young teenage girls who lived there.  She wanted to keep practicing her English rather than play the games that the rest of my team had planned for the afternoon, so we sat quietly off to the side — pausing our conversation occasionally to laugh as we watched the craziness going on around us.

The conversation stayed light as we covered everything from music to sports, and from boyfriends to learning how to ride a moped.  When I asked her what her favorite thing to do was, she quickly answered that she loved studying English.  This girl was incredibly bright, funny, kind, ambitious, friendly, and easy to connect with.  She had a smile that lit up her whole face, an infectious laugh, and an easy demeanor that made our 20-minute conversation one of the highlights of my trip.

Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap, Cambodia

I don’t know her particular story–we weren’t allowed to ask questions about their past–but we did learn generally how most of these girls ended up trapped in sexual exploitation.

Every story is unique, and each girl has undergone her own journey of various hardships.  But the most common scenario that played out for many of these girls starts with them wanting to do something to help their family.  Daughters will leave their homes and families, and go to the city to look for work.  With limited educational and vocational training, many of these girls can only find a job serving as bar girls.  It starts simply enough, with helping carry drinks to customers.  Over time, customers will ask for these girls to sit with them and the customers will buy drinks for the girls.  From there, men will start putting their hands on the girls.  When these innocent girls ask the bar manager, called the mamasan, they will be told that it’s normal and that they needs to put up with it.

From there, it’s a slow assault on their self-worth and dignity.  Shame builds up as their bodies become more and more of a commodity to be used for the entertainment and pleasure of others.  They still need to be able to send money home to help their family, so financial and family obligation coupled with shame form strong bonds that  prohibit them from leaving.  While they’re not in physical chains, the manipulation, coercion and emotional bondage they suffer under is very real.  It’s only a matter of time before these girls are expected to do more than just sit with men and let them buy drinks for them at the bar; sooner or later someone will pay the mamasan to be able to take the girl away for the night.

In what must seem nothing short of a miracle, one day one of the men who shows up at the bar will ask for a girl to sit with him, but his intentions will be very different than the typical customer.  Rather than trying to take advantage, he will offer a way out and a new future.  This is the work of Destiny Rescue and other similar organizations, sending agents into the bars to find these underage girls and offering them a second chance at life.

Knowing the typical backstory, as I sat talking with this particular girl I could hardly believe that she came from such a background.  Where I expected to find despair and fragility, I saw hope and strength.  This girl dared to believe that her past would not define her as she looked ahead to a bright future filled with possibility.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Angkor Wat in Cambodia

There are some things you can’t “unknow.”

I hope I never forget those brief 20 minutes of sitting and laughing with this incredible girl.  Her strength and resilience left a lasting impression, and her ability to overcome adversity is something I can only hope to imitate in my own small way.

I don’t fully know just yet how much this trip has changed me.  I think only time will continue to tell how much the stories I heard and the things I saw have challenged deeply held assumptions and expectations of what life should look like.

I know I want to be different.  I know there is a lot in my life I take for granted.  I know there is a girl on the other side of the world who has given me a new perspective on life.

I wonder what a girl who has been rescued out of sex trafficking would think of something like walking around Costco.  It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with going to Costco, but it’s just that I can’t quite fit both of those realities together in my head quite yet.

I wonder what it looks like to make small decisions like how I spend my money and time with less entitlement and more gratitude.

I wonder what it looks like to realize that it’s something we have absolutely no control over, like what country we were born in, that can be the difference between two completely different stories.

And I wonder what it looks like to find more ways to be a voice for these girls, to find more ways to fight for justice, and to find more ways to bring hope and restoration to people who are still trapped in seemingly hopeless situations.

I’m so grateful for this trip, and for the work of Destiny Rescue.  I loved learning more about the work they are doing, and how it has challenged and unmade some of my assumptions about life.  And I’m eager to look for ways to make more of a difference with my life.

Bayon Temple in Cambodia
Bayon Temple in Cambodia

Thailand and Cambodia Adventures: Part 1

Chiang Rai, Thailand | Vision Trip with Destiny Rescue
Chiang Rai is in the far northern part of the country and close to several of the hill tribes of Thailand.
From elephant rides to playing soccer with kids in a prevention home, and from walking around the night bazaar to leading games and Bible study time at a project home, our team has really jumped into the deep end and found ourselves immersed in the work of the organization we’re here with, all while soaking up every possible opportunity to enjoy the beautiful country of Thailand.
Here’s a brief glimpse of what’s stood out to me on this trip so far…

DESTINY RESCUE

My respect for the work Destiny Rescue is doing only continues to grow as we meet more of their staff and see their centers first hand.
From prevention homes that provide a safe and loving place for at-risk kids to grow up, to recovery centers that provide aftercare for girls rescued out of sex trafficking, they are doing incredible work to bring so much hope into their little corner of the world.
Chiang Rai is where the international office is located, so we had the chance to have several of their staff join us for meals and talk to our team about their role. The spectrum of prevention and care they are working together to provide is thorough, thoughtful, and well executed. It’s a privilege to see firsthand what they are doing, and meet the incredible men and women who are making it happen!  

THE GIRLS

We’ve had a few opportunities to meet the kids that are having their lives changed through the work of Destiny Rescue.  
The first day our team of 12 rolled up to a prevention home and piled out. Our tour guide had stopped for supplies and was just a few minutes behind. With the language barrier we all just looked at each other and no one quite knew what to do. But if there’s one thing that works universally to bring people together, it’s soccer! They had goals set up on their field, we found a ball, and somehow I found myself running around in crazy hot and humid weather playing soccer with Thai kids and wondering when I would wake up from this dream!
The next day we visited their jewelry making facility and spent time with the girls making bracelets. I’m pretty sure it took us all the full hour to make one simple bracelet while they could make 3 or 4, but the time at the center provided great insight to better understand the vocational skills and training these girls receive through Destiny Rescue’s care.  
The last day in Chiang Rai, we led “len sanook” or active fun/play time for the girls, including a Zumba dance lesson. Next it was Christian studies time and we led a lesson about the importance of encouraging one another from 1 Thessalonians 5:11. Finally, for a life skills lesson, 3 of our team members who are dental hygienists led a lesson in oral hygiene and all the girls received a new toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss.
What’s stood out to me the most is the hope I see in their faces. I expected to feel heartbroken and heavy from meeting these girls, but instead I saw so much joy that it was contagious! I can’t even imagine how much they have overcome, but rather than be defined by their past they are choosing to be defined by the bright new future ahead of them. They laughed and sang and danced and smiled, and I kept shaking my head in awe at how hard it was to believe the past these girls had come from.
I was humbled beyond anything I could have imagined to learn so much from these beautiful girls and how their lives just radiate joy. I expected to feel hopeless; but instead, I walked away with so much hope for the future. What an honor to witness the true power of transformation these girls experienced as they were rescued from the worst possible environment and brought into a loving environment run by people who just want to show them the love of Jesus!
THE TEAM

I’ll be honest: this is the part I was the most nervous about. I’d briefly met just a few other members of the team a few months ago, but basically was showing up at LAX to go on this trip with a bunch of strangers. There are 12 of us from the states: 9 from California, and one each from North Carolina, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. We range from 19 to 35, and all come from different denominations and church backgrounds.
And I’m SO happy to be able to share that I genuinely LOVE these people. It’s been so sweet to get to know each of their stories and how God is at work in their lives in such a way that they would want to go on a trip like this. I’m slowly seeing the different personalities and strengths shine through, and it’s so fun to get to share two weeks of life with this incredible group of people.
THE ADVENTURE

And then there’s the fun parts of the trip. Thailand has not disappointed!
It’s been an elephant riding, waterfall jumping, jungle hiking, street bazaar exploring, Thai iced coffee drinking, river boat exploring, crazy good Thai food eating adventure so far and we’ve barely gotten started!
I have a heart full of gratitude for the opportunity to be on this amazing adventure, and can’t wait to see what happens next and continue learning more about Thailand, Cambodia, human trafficking, and how ordinary people like you and I really CAN make a difference.
We’ll spend the next 5 days in Cambodia before heading back to Thailand for a few more days. Check back for more updates!
One last note: for safety purposes we can’t take or post pictures of the facilities or kids.  But check out some of these other photos from my time here so far!

   
                   

Good Things Come to Those Who Work

If I knew what I was supposed to do, then I would do it!  If someone would tell me what I’m supposed to do, then I’ll get started on it!

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve shouted those phrases in exasperation.

Where should I go to school?  What kind of job or career should I pursue?  How can I give back?  Who should I be investing in?  Where should I live?  What or who should I be focusing on?  How can I help others?  Who should I spend the rest of my life with?

Most recently for me, I’ve been asking questions as I’ve become increasingly aware of the inequalities and injustices plaguing our world.  It’s atrocious and overwhelming and paralyzing all at the same time.

I’m leaving on a trip in a few days to Thailand and Cambodia to learn more about the work that an organization is doing to fight back and help rescue and restore victims of child sex trafficking.  As I was talking about this trip, and the related issues of human trafficking, my friend made the following comment:

“It’s horrible, but I feel like I can’t do anything about it.  It’s so overwhelming.  What can I possibly do?”

As he said it, I saw the compassion in his eyes and heard the genuine care in his voice.  And I think that is probably how most of us feel.

My guess is that, to the degree of which you are aware of the atrocities and injustices in our world, you DO care!  You DO agree that they are evil, and your heart DOES break for the victims.  But like my friend, and like myself most of the time as well, we frequently feel completely helpless to do anything about it.

We’ll look for opportunities to give resources or funds to non-profits who are on the frontlines, sponsor a child, or find opportunities to volunteer in some way.  These are all great things, and things we should all continue doing!  I know people who are doing incredible things to live sacrificially and help those who can’t help themselves, and I admire those people incredibly.

Recently, I’ve found myself in a bit of a wrestling match with God.  As I’ve thought more about the problems of injustice in our world, and as I open my Bible and over and over again come across verses that point to God as a God of justice, and a God who cares for the poor, and a God who deeply loves and cares for the orphans and the least of these, I’ve found that God has been pushing me and challenging me to think about what more I can do to take up the fight.

It started about 6 months ago when I was reading Isaiah 58.  In this chapter, Isaiah is calling out the Israelites.  The people of Israel are complaining that God has not noticed their fasting or answered their prayers.  God responds with a harsh rebuttal that their fasting has been completely misguided: they are going through the motions and only pretending to care about the ways of God, all the while persisting in their wickedness, quarrelling, and exploiting their workers.  And then God tells the people of Israel that if they want a guarantee that he will hear and respond to their prayers, a different kind of sacrifice will get his attention:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:  to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will appear quickly; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.  Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say:  Here am I…
“If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
Isaiah 58:6-10

This passage in Isaiah, and so many more like it that I have come across in the last few months, keep tugging at my heart.  And while I still don’t know what exactly it is that I’m supposed to do, I know that inaction is no longer an option for me.

For lack of knowing what to do, I started reading and searching Scripture and talking to people who are already working against injustice.  I watched talks from Christine Caine and Gary Haugen.  I read books and articles and started becoming more and more aware of the intricacies and complexities of some of the issues related to injustice.  I dipped my toe in a little bit by trying to do a few fundraisers and volunteering for a non-profit.  I moved forward with plans for this trip to Thailand and Cambodia.  I prayed and kept looking for action steps.

And as I took these steps, even though I didn’t feel like I was taking any real tangible action to make a difference, I still felt deep down like these tiny steps were hugely important.  Instead of running away from how hard it was, or returning to complacency, I did what I could.  I started educating myself and pressing into this topic.

Too often in my life I’ve been concerned about a topic, but let lack of a clear action step keep me from doing anything.  At all.  I want the opportunity to change the world handed to me on a silver platter.

I wonder if the world isn’t changed yet because instead of making our own opportunities or figuring it out ourselves, we’re waiting for someone to come along and hand it to us.

And I wonder how different the world might be if we picked a topic we cared about and didn’t wait for someone else to tell us what to do about it, but we decided to start figuring it out for ourselves.

I don’t want all of us to care about victims of human trafficking.  I want some of you to care about orphans and foster kids, about at-risk teens and single moms, about victims of abuse and domestic violence, about poverty and clean drinking water, about teenage pregnancies and drug and alcohol addiction, about unreached people groups and illiteracy, about people with disabilities and the homeless, about family and raising healthy kids, about healthy marriages and healthy bodies, about the elderly and the widows, about the persecution of believers and the crisis in the Middle East, about church plants and Bible translation, about discipleship and prayer, about racial tension and gender equality, about justice and truth.  I want you to care about your little corner of the world and how the values and ways and love of God can best be lived out in your sphere of influence.

If you believe God is tugging on your heart to care about an issue, but you don’t know where to start, can I suggest you start with Scripture?  Can I suggest you start by building your confidence that God is passionate about the very thing you are becoming passionate about?  Can I suggest that if you think you’re willing to do the work for a cause you care about, that work might start by educating yourself?

I got tired of not knowing what to do.  And so while I still don’t know the solution to problems as big as human trafficking, not knowing is no longer an excuse.  I’m going to learn.  I’m going to study.  I’m going to put in the work, and travel, and talk to people, and figure out what can be done.

“If I knew what I was supposed to do, then I would do it!”

“If someone would tell me what I’m supposed to do, then I’ll get started on it!”

I’ve said these phrases so many times, and I’m tired of using my lack of knowledge as an excuse.  In my life, this looks like reading books about justice, having intentional conversations, and leaving for a trip to Thailand and Cambodia to immerse myself in these issues for 2 weeks.  It’s not a solution to the problem.  But it does get the ball rolling.

And something tells me it will be easier to be ready for the right opportunity when it finally comes along if I’m already in motion.

So if you find yourself asking questions about what to do, or you’re wrestling with what steps you should take, or you feel stuck with where you’re at in life and wondering what exactly it is you’re supposed to be doing, first, let me tell you that I feel your pain.  But let me challenge you with this:

What if what you’re supposed to do is put in the work to figure out what you’re supposed to do?

What if what you’re supposed to do is just start working — even if it’s not the perfect solution or situation — because good things come to those who work?

For those of you who are past this stage of figuring out what to do, what advice would you give?  What helped you move forward with pursuing your purpose in life?

What are the causes you have found worth fighting for, and what are the tangible action steps you are taking in that direction?

By the way, here are a few book recommendations to get you started:

Good News About Injustice by Gary Haugen

Interrupted by Jen Hatmaker

good things come to those who work