Four months ago I traveled by bus, boat, and motorcycle to Kampong Leng, a remote farming community north of Phnom Penh, to witness a group of new Alongsider mentors signing up with their newly chosen little brothers and sisters. A few days ago I went back to check on their progress, and this is what I saw.
Even in the dry season, Kampong Leng is a lush, green country, especially for one accustomed to Phnom Penh's concrete skylines and motorcycle rivers. Most land in Kampong Leng that isn't covered in jungle or water is cultivated to grow rice and a dozen other crops. Fruit trees spring up everywhere, even on the school grounds.
When I arrive at the local church, five of the Alongsider mentors are gathered to meet me with their little brothers and sisters. They have come from all directions, and one has traveled several miles on his bicycle.
For the past four months these new Alongsiders have been meeting with their little brothers and sisters once a week on average. I ask whether meeting regularly is a challenge, and I receive an education.
Most families in Kampong Leng are rice farmers, though many are diversifying as family members start businesses, work in factories, and (in dream scenarios) get educated and find salaried jobs. Those families that subsist on farming alone are very poor, usually earning less than $1 per day according to Chanthy, the Alongsiders group leader in the community.
Farmers in Kampong Leng work through the dry season. They can't use the fields near to their homes, so they travel (or relocate) to rented fields closer to the retreating Mekong River.
The little brothers and sisters all come from farming families, so their parents are on the move. Sometimes the children move with them.
The Alongsider mentors are also from farming families. Most are high school students. When they are not studying, they may attend extra classes to learn English or computer skills. Otherwise, if they have free time, they are expected to help their parents by working in the fields or at home.
Making time for their little brothers and sisters, even once a week, is a significant gift - and an effective one!
After my last visit I wrote about Piya, an 11 year-old who cares for three younger siblings every day while her parents are away working. Recently, Piya has started attending school about three days a week. In order for her to study, her mother will stay home in the mornings until Piya returns to look after her siblings.
Piya's mother wants her daughter to attend school. The greatest obstacle for Piya isn't time or even money: it's the shame.
Chanthy says, "Cambodians don't like poor children." She repeats the words, to make sure I understand, and adds, "Only the Christians love poor children, but not all the Christians do."
Piya, like many of the poorest children, doesn't have a school uniform, just a set or two of worn out clothes, plus she lacks basic school supplies like notebooks and pens.
When she attends school without a uniform or proper materials, the other children treat her with contempt, so she doesn't want to go. She has only started attending recently due to her Alongsider's strong encouragement.
I had thought that Piya's circumstances were unique, but as I listen to the Alongsiders share, I realize most of their little brothers and sisters face similar challenges. Most would not be attending school regularly without the support of their Alongsiders.
One little sister goes to school, then she walks one-and-a-half hours to join her parents at their rented rice field. They walk home together in the evening.
So what do the Alongsiders do with their little brothers and sisters? Most spend two or three hours together and do similar activities.
- They eat together.
- They help with homework and reading and writing Khmer.
- Some read the Bible together.
- Most of the Alongsiders have taken their little brothers and sisters to buy school supplies using their own money.
- Most of the Alongsiders help their little brothers and sisters to thoroughly clean themselves and wash their clothes.
- All the Alongsiders pray for their little brothers and sisters in their personal prayer times, and some pray for them directly.
Some Alongsiders have been able to bring their little brothers and sisters to church, but for many this is not yet possible. The distance is great, and the parents of the children (who are not Christians) work on Sundays and need their children at home or in the fields.
But through their actions and prayers, they are extending the Body of Christ to their little brothers and sisters where they are.
I leave with an enlarged vision, inspired and challenged by these amazing Alongsiders. In the eyes of the world - and even in their own eyes - they are marginalized. Yet they are most significant and central in the eyes of God, giants in the real Kingdom.