Everyone needs to be part of a community: to be accepted, to belong, to contribute. And we all know what it feels like to be excluded and marginalized, how it threatens our well-being to the core.
Consider this story told by a Cambodian friend (in her words as I remember them).
Growing up I was very poor. One of the poorest children in a poor village. Everyone looked down on me. The other children called me names, and I felt dirty and ashamed. When I got older, I had to drop out of school and work. Someday my dream is to drive into my old village in a big, expensive car. They'll all see me and say, "She made it." The poorest children will think, "If she could do it, I can do it." I want to open a school there and use my money to help others, because that's the responsibility you have if you are rich.
Like many children in the developing world, my friend's community of origin was a rural village. It's a place where everyone knows everyone else. Despite its shortcomings, it still helped to shape and guide her. Years later, having finally gotten her high school degree, she still wanted to return and be validated by the people there.
Her home community was not just important to her for emotional reasons. Besides family, local community relationships play an important role in shaping our lives as we grow up. Here are some examples of what children need to learn while growing up in a Cambodian village:
- Culturally appropriate manners in various relationships
- Verbal and non-verbal communication abilities
- Work habits and credibility
- Respect for community values and traditions
- How to navigate vital customs like courtship, marriage, and property ownership
Of course, communities (and families) don't always function as well as we wish they would.
My friend's story demonstrates a sad truth: that even in poor villages the poorest and most vulnerable children and families are often treated badly and further marginalized.
How can they benefit from growing up in the village community if they are excluded?
There's a moment in our Alongsiders video (see below at 0:53) in which a little girl is watching a group of children play. She is standing outside a gate, looking in with longing in her eyes to join in. Then her Alongsider comes and takes her by the hand. She helps her little sister join the group and they all play together. In a moment this little sister moves from excluded to included. She is no longer on the outside looking in: she has been chosen and loved.
My friend from the opening story wanted to be included, wanted to be seen differently, but it didn't stop there. She wanted - and still wants - to contribute. To be part of a community and respected within a community is not just about receiving benefits, it's also about participating and giving.
So here's another side to that moment in the video. The Alongsider was once a little sister herself. She was once the one outside the gate; now she is opening the gate for someone else.
Perhaps other gatekeepers in her community - or readers here - will see her example and begin to change.
Many Alongsiders have been at the bottom and felt the sting of being excluded. To be sure, many are still struggling to find a way forward economically.
But as Alongsiders they are no longer mere victims or numbers, they are servant leaders and agents of change.
In another vocabulary, they are disciples of Jesus - who himself was marginalized, who identified with people outside the gates.
The community in which the little sister in the video lives isn't perfect, but it has so much to offer. She needs to be included in it for her own learning and development. And it needs her and what she can give. The same is true for many thousands of boys and girls in Cambodia (and in whatever country you may name).
Fortunately, there are many thousands of potential Alongsiders in Cambodia (and in India, Indonesia, China, and a growing list of countries), and they already make their homes in countless rural villages and urban slums where the most vulnerable children live.
Alongsiders see the excluded ones, bring them inside the gates, and walk with them until they can do the same for others.