Another world: Tender Shoots and Hope in Cambodia


I woke up this morning in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Which is crazy to think about for me. It isn’t everyday you get to hangout over on the other side of the world in a place as beautiful as Cambodia is.
Cambodia2But today wasn’t the most impressive wake up, if I am honest, because I rolled out of bed to the sound of a man testing the loudest loud speaker I’ve ever heard, in the park right across the road from the hostel I’m bunking in. I’m on a trip backpacking all over South East Asia with my twin sister Lydia and our good friend Abi, and for the most part our morning wake ups have been peaceful and serene. I usually wake to the sound of birds in the trees or the subtle hum of a shower a few rooms away.

So this morning was a bit of a weird one for me.

Today, it turns out, is a public holiday. Which isn’t too surprising because around 30 weeks a year in Cambodia have a public holiday.

However, it was very surprising to find out that today is not just any day off. It is International Human Rights Day, and the Khmer people were having a rally.  Which is why there was a man in the park across from the hostel I’m bunking in, testing the loudest loud speaker I’ve ever heard.


And, I mean, public holidays are mean and rallies are always a good time, but the idea of a government-endorsed day to celebrate human rights in Cambodia brings me mixed feelings. On one level it irks me, but one another level I have hope.

The government of Cambodia has a long history of violating the rights of its citizens.

In 1975 a crippling dictatorship came into power and ruled until 1979. Under their regime, known as the Khmer Rouge, millions of Khmer people were murdered for an idea, and bad one at that. You were tortured and killed for simple things like wearing glasses or owning a book, or for being educated and working in a job that didn’t involve “using your hands.” Anyone else was sent into the countryside to work the land in terrible conditions.

The Khmer Rouge was replaced by a false democracy led by a man called Hun Sen. He and his officials live in grand houses and drive $100,000 SUV’s, while the majority of Cambodia’s population lives on less than $150 a month. At the last election Hun Sen was voted out but somehow remains in power. Knowing he would lose the election, a few days before it took place he threatened that if the people didn’t vote for him, another Khmer Rouge would happen. When protestors took to the streets after it was announced he was still to remain Prime Minister, 40 people were shot and killed by the police. Earlier in 2014 the government of Cambodia was given $80m to house refugees that Australia is unwilling to look after, but no one knows where the money has gone. And that’s all in the last 18 months.

Cambodia has come a long way since the 1970s, but the rights of the Khmer people are still neglected by its government.

However, I have hope. 

Just like grass can pierce the sidewalks, so too can light overcome darkness, and love win. And just like grass can pierce the sidewalks, tender shoots of God’s goodness are sprouting up on the margins.[1]

Last night, I sat across from one of those tender shoots. A girl called Karine. Next to her sat another one called Ashley. We ate the best Mexican food I’ve ever had and shared our stories. Part of what they do here in Phnom Penh is teach at a school, offering kids from the slums a route out of poverty, and extra chances to laugh and play and be kids. And they remind me a lot of my good friend Jesus.

A few hours before eating the best Mexican food I’ve ever had I was lucky enough to spend some time in a free dance class with a 22 year old Khmer guy called Vesna. He runs a program for street kids. I think for the most part they do a lot of laughing and play a lot of games. But Vesna has a way about him, and he is with these kids enough, so along with the laughter and games sometimes they open up about their lives and things that have gone down around them. Or to them.

Vesna is a tender shoot sprouting up on the margins. He is piercing the cracks in the sidewalks. He reminds me a lot of Jesus.

And as I write this I am sitting in a café called Sugar and Spice (under the umbrella of Daughters of Cambodia) which is staffed by ex sex workers. They are trained to make coffee and the most exceptional food, and often move on to work in esteemed hotels and restaurants around Cambodia.

And I am listening to the rally a few blocks away, and I am thinking about the heroes I look up to in history like Dorothy Day, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jnr. And I am reminded that even the impossible can be made possible, and sometimes the best criticism of the world as it is is the modeling of something better; and a lot of people here are doing that.

I am reminded that another world is possible, and another world is already here. And it is called the Kingdom of God.

And I am reminded of last night, when I was eating the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, across from those tender shoots, Karine and Ashleigh. They asked me what kept me committed to Christianity throughout my transition from teenage-hood to adulthood.
And I guess, in short, it comes down to this: I long to see a just world. I long to see people liberated and free from the chains that choke them. And I am convinced, without a doubt, that Jesus’ way is the best way to see that happen. I have fallen in love with the Prince of Peace, the friend of sinners, the homeless rabbi, the servant king, the slaughtered lamb, the God who is with us.


So it irks me that the government would make International Human Rights day a public holiday here in Cambodia, because they continualy violate the rights of their people. But at the same time, I am excited as prophets use days like this one to point to the change on the horizon.

Whether it be the people down at the rally celebrating the change they will usher in and preparing for the struggle on the road ahead, whether it be the teachers putting smiles into math’s classes, whether it be Vesna and the counseling he provides to abused and broken children, or whether it be you and me and call upon our lives to follow our homeless, servant king, I am learning to find hope in the hard times, to see light pierce darkness, to marvel at the grass pushing through the cracks in the sidewalks and to trust that love, just like it did on the cross, wins. And while I know that another world is so desperately necessary, I also find solace knowing that another world is possible. If we learn to look close enough, we might even see that it is also already here.

I have hope, not just for Cambodia, but for myself and for the world, because the Jesus I have fallen in love with seems to be at work all around me. And of all the places to find hope, seeing the creator of the universe never give up on people like you and me is probably our best bet.

Shot uce from Cambodia


“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Arundhati Roy

[1] Tender shoots: a term coined by Brooke Turner (CEO of ZEAL). He also calls tender shoots “mongrels.” I like that.

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