Sharing Life Together in the Place where Grace and Nature Converge
Through the overnight bus window I could see the Cambodian sky showing the first signs of light. Soon, the bus attendant turns on the bus lights and yells rather loudly down the aisle, “Bus from Ratanakiri to PP has arrived.” Some teens stirred, and othe
rs continued to remain motionless. I look at my watch. It’s 5:30 am. A few minutes later, 30 teenagers from DOVE’s leadership club begin to emerge slowly and unsteadily from their ‘bunk-bed cocoons’ on the overnight bus, shaking the cobwebs from their heads, gathering their stuffed animals, half-eaten snacks, water bottles and other belongings.
They slowly exit the bus, one by one, into a mob of Tuk-Tuk drivers shouting to get their business. After 3 days on the farm, surrounded by nature, fresh air and rolling green hills,they are welcomed back to city life by noise, exhaust, plastic bags, plastic bottles, and wrappers of various sorts strewn about the bus depot and coffee shop. Some of the 30 will go straight to school from the bus station, others will go home to catch a quick shower and then go to school. Many, muttered to themselves or a friend, ‘Back here already, here we go again, back into the fray!” Many confessed 3 full days were too, too, short.
DOVE has a drop in center where 80-90 teens come per day to learn English, computer or other languages. Out of those 80-90 teens, about 30 who show leadership potential are invited to join DOVE’s leadership club that meets every Saturday evening for a full year. It is very interactive, and the topics they grapple with are relationships, family, emotional health and healing, how to engage and contribute to society, and drugs, porn, and alcohol addictions, etc. It is a program that encourages growth in body, mind, soul and emotions. The best kind of Christian Witness happens when the 5 or 6 Christian teenagers in the club share their faith naturally when the lesson calls for sharing in pairs, discussions in small groups or in the big group on the topic at hand. This group just had a 3 full day retreat on our farm up north, and these same Christian teens spoke and lived out their Christian faith all through the retreat as well. To get to the farm, 30 of them traveled to and from the farm by overnight bus. Each leg is 9 hours and the bus has bunks to sleep in. The theme that drop in center leader Mr. Virak selected for the retreat was: “Finding Emotional Healing in Nature,” and worked his workshops and activities around the theme.
This is the fifth retreat at Bophal’s farm has hosted and run in the last 14 months. Dove’s men group, House of Peace teens twice, Dove Elders men’s group, and now Dove’s Leadership Club teens –all have all used the farm as an adventure campsite and two more retreats are coming up. Brian and Bophal would love to use this farm for adventure camping as much as possible and they don’t need to do too much more development other than to possibly build a few more outhouses. They just built a double outhouse and gazebo on the farm for camping purposes and that should be adequate for now.
Most Cambodian campers want to experience sleeping in tents so Brian and Bophal prepared a designated camping area on the farm where tents are pitched around the campfire ring. Some of the girls wanted to sleep in the gazebo over the clear water irrigation pond. The farm seems to have just as much focus on adventure camping as it does on farming. Bophal loves to host these groups, knowing that it contributes to their spiritual and emotional growth, and to the quality of leaders for Cambodia now and in the future.
The fresh air and being surrounded by rolling green hills invigorated these teenagers. Unfortunately we were not surrounded by tropical forests that were thick in this region 20 years ago, but the fresh air, blue skies, pepper vines, cashew groves, rubber plantations, rice fields, etc., still provided a soothing and healing affect on their souls. They frequently mentioned how peaceful they felt.
Mr. Virak (right), 34, leader of DOVE’s Drop in Center and I have led at least 4 retreats together. I personally haven’t worked with this particular group but so I just wanted to be a host but Mr. Virak ended up pulling me into some of the activities.
Virak led two campfire sessions with students writing songs, singing them, creating skits and presenting them, and having the teens share various things they have been learning through the activities. One group wrote a song about finding healing in nature, and the other song had to do with making close friendships outside of their comfort zones. Other skits were encouraging care for the environment, preserving the forests, and for the people to stop the habit of littering carelessly.
I led an exercise where the teens were to observe a small plot of land (2’x2’) marked off with string and 4 stakes in a square for one hour. The point was to get them out of their heads and in touch with nature, their emotions, listen for their high power or God or just to be still in nature. The women were much better at this though at the campfire one boy from a particularly tough background said:
“My family practices Buddhism and that was what I grew up with but never paid it much attention. When we did the plot of land exercise, Virak suggested that if we got stuck, we could reflect on nature, listen for God, reflect on God’s creation, etc. Although I am not yet a Christian, something was opening up between God and I, and I think it is a good thing to have God in my life to help me because it is so hard to make it by myself.
Teen Girl: “As I tried to concentrate on my little plot of land, I thought about family’s difficulties and difficulties I have in relationships, all these thoughts were floating around my head but I felt the feeling of being in nature as well, and that felt good and brought me relief. I then tried to drive my 4 stakes in the ground and found it was very difficult but I did it and it reminded me that even though my life is difficult, there is always a way up or out. I determined to take this hour to live in the moment and take in the nature in my plot and all around me. This brought spiritual rest to my heart and soul.”
One morning, the teens, led by Bophal and Virak, hiked up to the nearby village on a mission to help teach the young village children about hygiene, showing them how to brush, handing out toothbrushes and paste, cutting their finger nails, and de-lousing them. They played games and sung songs as well. At least half of these children were Muslim (Ethnic Cham) and our city-slicker teens were happy to have a new experience in serving others unlike them.
“And amazingly, when these teens told their parent they would be reaching out to minorities, their parents went out and bought all the supplies were needed: pencils, note books, lice shampoo, rulers, washcloths, etc. We had boxes left over for next time.”
Virak asked me to lead two activities. By far, the more exiting one was a scavenger hunt I devised (they never experienced such a thing). We split into four teams I gave them 45 minutes to bring back the following items: a piece of sawn-wood or log at least 6” x 6” and over two meters long, a live fish, shavings from a planer, an interesting insect, a photo of their group in our muddy irrigation/fish pond, a wild flower, a pair of red underwear, a feather and some other smaller items including a dip in our clean irrigation pond.
Below:Virak’s sessions in cow barn.
Bophal, Virak and I had so much fun watching this unfold. When we said, “Go” they took off like they were shot out of a cannon. They were very into it and were very competitive. But, one group had a very heavy girl and when they went to take a photo of the group in our muddy fishpond, the heavy girl got stuck in the mud and it was very slippery and they just couldn’t get her out. A member of another group came along, sacrificing 5 minutes of his group’s time, and was able to get the girl out. Group 3, heavy to girls, could not seem to catch a fish, but a few men from another group sacrificed 5 minutes to help them catch one. Competition broke down when it needed to. Group 1 accidently brought back two 2.5 meter-long 6” x 6” beams, instead of one, but won anyway. Strategy was sharp but sometimes broke down, as when girls were sent to find smaller items while men worked on difficult items, the group leaders didn’t quite figure out that the girls would be repelled by ‘interesting’ insects and have a hard time collecting them. Every group was able to collect all the items, although some varied in quality but no one cared who won. They had such wild time.
They were debriefed them at the campfire with these questions:
What did you learn about teamwork and your role as a team member?
Was there a strategy to for group? What was it, and how well did it work?
Who emerged as leaders and how did that happen?
What did you learn about each of your teammates? What did you learn about yourself?
Many said that although they attended club together, they didn’t know their fellow students outside of the classroom and this exercise helped them to know and really appreciate their fellow group members – especially when they were all outside of their comfort zones. Many were just so proud of their group for working so hard and cooperating so well, even though some in the groups had had personal conflicts in the past. They also loved the fact other groups helped them accomplish their goal when it cost them time. Although there was an appointed leader for each group, more times than not, the leader and group would allow a particular group member to lead when they felt he or she had a good plan, so most of their leadership methodology was egalitarian in nature. They were surprised how their cooperating together withstood under pressure.
Needless, to say, they learned many lessons from this exercise. Below:New Gazebo where the girls slept and we did debriefing of exercises.
During the retreat, Virak led sessions on emotional healing in nature, using a gallery walk with various photos and pictures, then debriefed those sessions in the cow barn loft, the gazebo over our ‘clear water’ irrigation pond, at the campfire services and in the common area in front of our small farmhouse. Lots of tears were shed, but grief was offset through camaraderie, friendship, healing, fun, bonding, and sharing new experiences together.
The next morning Virak led the 30 on a hike into the nearby community forest and I tagged along, although I was way low on energy having got to the farm two days early and worked liked a dog to prepare the place. It was nice to walk and chat with students I have seen for years but never talked to at length. We hiked up to the swimming hole, which was a bit shallower than usual due to being in the middle of the dry season. Some vigorous jumping and swimming stirred up the bottom, and some of the kids got leeches attached to their legs, provoking a few outbursts of panic but they survived and notched a new experience on their collective belts.
We walked back to together in groups and pairs and stopped half way to debrief our hike in the jungle.
Ms. Phalla:I was walking out of the jungle with Mr. Virak and some others when I decided to break off from them and walk alone in silence for remainder of the hike out. I wanted to feel what it would be like to be only with myself, to process some of my problems alone without distractions from friends, family members, or social media because I know there will be times ahead when I will have to walk my path alone.
Right:Debriefing our Jungle Nature Walk.
After the jungle hike, on the last afternoon, we went back to the farm, broke camp, and packed up. All teens went to visit a waterfall and a pristine crater lake to swim before getting on the night bus back to the city.
Most of these teens have had a really rough life and are making the best of it. DOVE and Mr. Virak have walked alongside many of them since 2013, encouraging them along the way.
They were invited over this past weekend to take a seat at the table where nature and grace are in harmony together, where grace is experienced explicitly through nature.
It is hard to see the goodness of God in the city while going through our hectic day-to-day striving, and in the news and social media, but it is nature and the natural world where we can be reminded of God and see and experience his goodness with clarity. I am grateful to God for allowing me be the caretaker of a place where brilliant sunsets, sunrises, a night sky chock full of twinkling stars, rolling hills of green, and even the smell of cow manure serve as means for emerging leaders to experience the goodness of God through nature, to experience themselves and one another. Through this event, their life journeys are now linked together by something spiritual and tangible.
Many testified to the impact of the retreat through the sessions, activities, mission and being in nature through the writing songs/poems and presenting skits about healing in nature, protecting the environment that assists us in our healing, being free to process the pain without distractions, finding strength in each other, and their community, and for some, realizing God was on their side.
By: Brian Maher