Roon greeted us with her beaming smile and her infectious joy.
It is always wonderful when someone gives you the kind of smile that lets you know they are genuinely happy to see you. It’s such a great feeling to be welcome.
Roon lives in a poor urban community here in Phnom Penh. She sleeps upstairs in the home of a local woman, Huon, with whom we stayed each night last week, while our boys where away on a school camp. For us it was an opportunity to practice some of the language we have been studying and to develop deeper connections with Khmer people.
We were brought into the household, ate with them, played with the kids, were given the only bed and just experienced being there in the middle of community life. We often didn’t fully understand what was going on around us. We never did completely work out the various relationships and who actually belonged to the household because so many people of all ages constantly flowed in and out. This was obviously a place where people felt welcome.
What we did observe was that Huon is a remarkable woman. She experienced enormous hardship as a young person followed by many years of grinding poverty. But her story is repeated over and over again by all Khmers who lived through the Pol Pot years. She seems to have always been a carer. She walked the streets of Phnom Penh selling things to help her younger siblings have an education, forgoing her own. Now she volunteers for a HIV/AIDS family support programme and has several people living in her small home who seem to have no family connections. She opens her home for community meetings, health education, Bible studies and until recently a fledgling preschool which now has grown and meets in the nearby church. She supports herself and others by doing house work for foreigners during the day.
On the second afternoon as we entered the small two room house we found Roon sitting on a wooden platform which was used as a table, sitting area, preparation space and bed. She was reading her Bible. Roon had a way of talking slowly and simply so we could follow a fair bit of what she said. ‘Thank you, Jesus’ was a phrase she repeated regularly. She talked of Jesus making her ‘sabaay jet’ meaning happy and well in her heart. This afternoon she was reading out loud with a finger moving slowly underneath the words. Every few words she would stop and spell out the letters and then try to sound out the word, sometimes calling out to someone younger in the house, ‘What does this spell?’ As she read and made sense of the words she would look up with eyes radiating sheer joy. She was drawing life and nourishment out of every phrase. She beckoned me over to share what she was reading. I was able to make out that it was Ephesians 1 so I got out my English Bible and read along with her. When she got to verse 19 about God’s incomparably great power for us who believe, a power which raised Christ from the dead and seated Him above all rule and authority, she flung out her arms and exclaimed, ‘Our God is so big’. I have never seen anyone find so much delight in reading scripture.
Later she led me up the stairs to the wooden room which she shares with two others. She showed me her sleeping space which consisted of a rolled up mat on the floor and an old mosquito net. That plus an old bicycle seems to be all she owns. She shared a little of how she never learnt to read as a child because she had virtually no schooling. Being 40, much of her childhood would have been consumed with the chaos of the genocide, civil war and the destruction of infrastructure which disrupted any semblance of normal community life for her entire country. What little schooling Roon did receive was largely a negative experience. She conveyed to me how the teacher would pinch and beat her for getting things wrong. I don’t know what happened to her family.
Roon says Jesus has opened her eyes and helped her learn to read the Bible and now this is what she loves to do. Her pastor has been helping her and setting her homework to read certain chapters every week.
Until recently she worked twelve hours a day in a garment factory and would always come home tired and not have time to go to the evening church prayer meetings. But now she has part-time work cleaning in the homes of three different expat Christian families doing less hours for better pay. ‘Thank you, Jesus,’ she said again. ‘Jesus helps me’, ‘I’m so glad to know people who love Jesus’.
There was something profoundly life-giving in Roon’s joy and gratitude. It was wonderful to be around. Roon came straight to mind when I later read, ‘I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people’. Isaiah 65:18b-19.
Joy, rest, hope, secure relationships and the removal of fear are all essential for a healthy, happy heart. They are elements of God’s recipe for restoration. These are also the very things that are missing in so many aspects of life in this country. Is it any wonder that mental illness is so widespread and a new generation is selfmedicating with anything they can find to dull the pain?
Roon is a reminder to me that even in the presence of the deepest wounds God’s word brings life, the Spirit brings freedom and love brings healing.