The Other Side of the Coin

A GO Trip Transformation Story by Earle Kennell from visiting our Global Partner, AIM, in Cambodia

Up by 5 am and breakfast at the hotel. Following a team meeting and devotion our mission team loaded into a van for the trip to another church and school in Phnom Penh. 

The day before we saw a clean well run school and church with hundreds of children singing and laughing and joy pouring out of them. It was a school for the poor that was built and run by a Christian organization and was so well respected that even the rich claimed to be poor so their children could attend the school. At the end of the tour our team was instructed that we would be visiting another church and school tomorrow. We were instructed to wear hard soled shoes, long pants and apply bug spray before arriving at the next location. 

Our destination, a Vietnamese village along the Mekong river which runs through Phnom Penh. The community was extremely poor, high crime and drug use, low employment and at one time the area was a cemetery. There would be lots of flying insects and needles on the ground and we were told to beware of pick pockets and to stay together and to watch out for each other. 

The 20 minute trip left us standing before three church pastors who would be our guides today. Following introductions and a time of prayer we began our journey to the other side of the coin. The community was made up of poorly constructed structures that were surrounded by decades of trash, human refuse, flooded and muddy paths, and I realized that poor has a smell. The air was filled with smell of decay. And then there were the children.

They seemed to come from no-where and every-where. Most were shoeless and wore faded and stained old clothing. Their voices sang an excited and joyful song of welcome – Hello!  Hello!  Hello!  Each chorus more precious than the last. One small boy took my right hand and another my left and we very slowly began to walk the alleyways. Two of the pastors took the lead and guided our team, the third pastor walked with me in silence as we trailed behind the main group. The pastors would stop from time to time to talk with someone in the community and then to pray for them. A young woman stepped from a small enclosure and said she was 7 months pregnant and had no money for the birth. The pastors and several of our team prayed for her and her baby and then moved on. With head bowed low, she quietly disappeared back into the enclosure and I saw it with my head and I felt it with my heart and I began to understand.

It’s the rainy season now and many in the village were driven from their homes by high water and flooding. They sleep in temporary structures beside the muddy alleys – to return to their homes when the waters have retreated. As I looked into one small living space after another I saw eyes staring back at me from the dark. Eyes with no place to go and nowhere to be. It’s humid here, but the heaviness in my chest is from a heart filled with despair and hopelessness.

The church and school I saw yesterday was clean and well run and a model to be admired. There was laughter and joy, but this walk had neither. I asked the pastor walking with me if these children went to his school and he told me they did not. I asked, “Where do they go to school?” He replied, “I don’t know, maybe somewhere, this very bad place!” The pastor explained that these children did not have papers or birth certificates and therefore could not attend a public school and the church school was very poor with no outside financial support and could only provide education for a very limited number of children. The heaviness in my chest grows as I trail behind the main group. From time to time the group stops to let me catch up. On one occasion they stopped before a structure where the entrance descended down into a small dark room. The overhead was so low that we were forced to bend at the waist to enter. A family was preparing for a funeral. We had entered the morgue. Just another room not unlike the ones the people live in. There is almost no light and darkness reigns here. There is little difference between the living, the dying and the dead. I was not in a hurry to see this, but I took it all in.

The smell of decay weighs heavy upon me 

as the children sing – Hello!  Hello!  Hello!  

And we walk on.

People fill their doorways as we slowly pass by

 Tall white men well fed and clothed. 

Here a few minutes and then gone again

They stare with blank eyes 

and we try to not stare back. 

This isn’t the only place like this.

The pastor’s words come back to me,

“This very bad place!” 

On many levels I would have to agree.

Grandpa! Grandpa screams a little boy, 

and he hurls himself into my open arms!

And the children keep singing – Hello!  Hello!  Hello!

And Grandpa! Grandpa! Fills my heart

as he holds me tightly

Now what am I going to do about this?

I can’t unsee what I’ve seen

and I can’t unfeel what I felt.

I saw the other side of the coin today.