Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I answered, "Change the world." 

As an intern for Alongsiders International, I was excited to travel to different Cambodian provinces to conduct interviews, write for the blog, and live in a Phnom Penh slum. I was sure I would see God working in incredible ways in my slum community.

I moved into an extended family of eight people, a dog, several pesky rats, and a million mosquitoes. I took bucket showers and slept under a mosquito net. I ate rice three times a day and tried hard not to get food poisoning. I went with Ming to the market to buy live frogs and helped her and her son cut them up and cook them. I biked to work in crazy traffic and learned to ring the bell on my bicycle when turning corners to alert other drivers to my presence. 

Most importantly, I fell in love with my host family and neighbors. I'll never forget the night I carried the baby outside the slum to a sand dune to watch the sunset, while she laughed and clapped her hands. Or the night that Theary and I read Alongsiders comic books for hours. Or all the days spent playing Moan, Moan, Tia with the neighbor kids (Cambodian duck, duck, goose). Or rocking in a hammock while eating green mangoes dipped in chili powder and salt, trying to communicate with my host family using my limited Khmer.

But I also can't forget the hard things: the nights I ran to the bathroom with food poisoning. The day a drunk man shook Ming, and her terrified little granddaughter tried to slash him with a wire hanger. The meals when I looked down to see yet another plate of boiled, fatty fish and steeled myself to choke it down again. The neighbor lady who would slap her her little daughter. The food offerings made to ancestors by people who could hardly afford three meals a day. The rubbish and the stench everywhere. 

Most of all, I can't forget the way I had to leave. One of the sons had a party, and eight hungover men sprawled in the living room later, my time in the slum came to a screeching halt. I cried to leave, choked back tears when Ming asked if I still respected her family. How could I possibly love a family and community so much and still walk away? 

Because I had money and a support network, I could walk away and find new housing. The young granddaughters staying with Ming weren't so fortunate. 

I had spent three weeks living beside them, playing with them every day, and now I had nothing to show for it but a broken heart and a lot of memories that were suddenly more bitter than sweet. I had read the story of changing the world, and this wasn't how it was supposed to go-- was it? 

As I tearfully told the story to a friend, she stopped me. "What if living in the slum wasn't about you changing the slum but about the slum changing you?" 

During our listening prayer time at Alongsiders the next day, I closed my eyes and told God how much it hurt to have fallen in love with my slum community, invested wholeheartedly in it, and then been forced to leave it unchanged. I poured out my prayer, and waited for His response.

He said simply, Listen.

You are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.
— Luke 10:41-42

Over the next few weeks, I began to listen to God. At my new house, there was nothing for me to help with, so I found myself with a whole lot of silence and spare time. In the stillness I realized why it had hurt so badly to leave the slum: my identity had gotten wrapped up in making a difference. I was basing my worth as a person on 'changing the world,' at least in my Cambodian slum. Yet I myself had loved the people in the slum for who they were, not for anything they did. 

The week I left the slum, I re-learned two important things: I am not the savior and my worth is wholly in the Savior. Ultimately, I learned that changing the world starts with being changed.  

Three weeks later I got a text from the son: "I want to know that you feel safe now. I am sorry for the inconvenience. Our family would like to say goodbye before you leave."

So I head back to the slum one last time, to say goodbye to the community I've laughed and cried with, the community that taught me that worth is in being not in doing. As I walk back down my old street, the children come running. "Hello!" they cry. "Hello!" I enter the gate and Ming comes out and gives me a hug. My heart begins to heal as I greet her in Khmer.

It wasn't exactly the incredible summer of changing the world that I'd planned on. But I don't regret it for a second. 


When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.
— Shauna Niequist