In the spirit of the New Year, what could be more on topic than the subject of transformation? It’s the hope of transformation that keeps us going. 

When we find ourselves paralyzed, lacking hope, and resorting to actions we later regret, it’s so often because we wonder if anything really changes. 

How do we change? This year many resolutions will fail because we lack an answer for this question, so here's a simple, encouraging lesson from a young woman in Cambodia.

Sreyleak is seventeen years old and lives in a community on the outskirts of Phnom Penh that most people would call a slum. It’s full of vibrancy and life along with suffering and heartache.

And that just about describes Sreyleak as well.

Slums are communities in transition, but we don’t usually think of them in terms of positive change. Rather we see repeated patterns: family dysfunction, kids dropping out of school, and cycles of poverty. 

Sreyleak’s parents have been ill for a long time, as long as she can remember, but seven years ago one of the first Alongsider mentors chose Sreyleak to be her “little sister.”

Back then I was always alone. When I saw how others had relationships, I thought, ‘No one cares about me.’ But my Alongsider showed her love for me and cared about me.

She invited me to come to church every Sunday. She said, ‘Jesus is coming soon, so we’d better not wait.’ She told me about God’s love and encouraged me to read the Bible.

One day my Alongsider invited me to celebrate my birthday along with her daughter, because our birthdays are on the same day. I was very happy, because someone knew about my birthday.

Before knowing God, I used to have bad dreams. It was like war and fighting every night. It was frightening. But I’m not scared of anything around me anymore, because I have God with me. Last night my friend was talking about ghosts, and it was scary, but I didn’t have bad dreams.

Now my purpose in life is to get wisdom from God for my studies, so I can get a job with enough income to support my family. I pray that God will give my family health and energy.

Someday I want to be an Alongsider and do what my Alongsider mentor did for me. She showed me love and encouraged me, and I want to give this gift to my own Little Sister.

I thank my Alongsider, and I thank God. I feel like God is near to me now.

So what can we learn from Sreyleak about transformation?

If you ask Sreyleak questions about God, she is likely to answer with a list of religiously correct rules and principles.

But if you listen closely to her story, she will tell you about freedom from fear and about being loved. The principles may point in the right direction, but love and courage are what will sustain her through real, lasting transformation. People who change from living in fear to living in love and courage will surely experience transformation.

But how do we change at such fundamental levels? Sreyleak may not have all her theological answers straight, but she has experienced truth. Now she’s on the verge of transitioning from receiving as a “little sister” to giving and mentoring as a “big sister.” 

We have sometimes over-emphasized the role of knowledge in transformation.

Knowledge is important, but if transformation were powered primarily by knowledge, then most New Year’s resolutions would be a piece of cake and the most well-educated, knowledgeable Christians would be the most transformed people on earth. 

Real transformation takes place in the world of experience and gritty face-to-face relationships. It’s powered by messy everyday choices coupled with the limited information we have.  

Those who lean on the clean flow of seemingly unlimited information online, or prefer an ever-increasing knowledge of scripture detached from relationships, will not experience transformation despite many New Year’s resolutions and prayers. 

Through the simplicity and rough edges of Sreyleak’s story, we see a life being transformed with ripples shooting out in all directions. It’s about love and courage from God lived out in relationships.

Really, it doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that for any of us.