I still see their faces, small hands pressed upon the window of the moving bus, heads inclined towards me, voices that spoke not a syllable in audible sound but enunciated volumes in the deep recesses of my spirit. Traveling across the border from Vietnam into Cambodia was no different to any other part of our journey… the children followed. They walked with me on the streets, they told me about their lives, they knelt beside me in restaurants, their enquiring faces looking at me with eyes of hope, they asked me to take their photograph, they showed me places hidden in the ruins of Angkor, they pressed their hands upon the windows of buses, they took my hand in theirs, they said nothing at all.
At first the pivoted attraction seemed merely amusing to those with whom I traveled, however after a day, after two days, three days, four… they all shook their heads in bewilderment and asked ‘what is it about you?’ I left Asia forever changed by the memory of these children, my heart was softened and I found within me a compassion that I never knew existed. It was almost as though they had seen within me something which I myself had not yet understood.
In some ways I still don’t understand it… I gaze at their photographs on my wall and find tears rolling down my face, they have got to me in a way that few can. The stories of tragedy and hope interwoven through the lives of those so young and innocent inspires bravery in the weakest of persons and ignites compassion in the hardest of hearts. On 25th December I will again be encountering stories that will both inspire and break me as I travel through Philippines, India, Africa and Cambodia. I can only hope that the raw strength and tenacity of my compassion can drive me beyond mere empathy and kindness into the realm of determined change. 7 years ago
Anything that is of any importance in our lives must at some point come under subjection and scrutiny. Questions must be asked of ourselves that seek to determine the heartbeat of our motives and ascertain whether our current course of travel is driven by the convening of external influences or by the response of something much deeper within us. The world around us never ceases to lure our hearts with opportunity and the promise of adventure… we are captivated by the challenge of going places we’ve been before, exploring new territory, meeting new people and seeing the world through new eyes. In light of this and in light of my own inherent weakness for the love of travel, I recently came to a pivotal point in this journey where I had to consider with all devout seriousness and contemplation the purity of my motives in being a forerunner in this ministry.
I walked for hours along a lonely beach one Friday evening seeking answers from the roar of the waves as to whether I was being true to myself and honorable to the responsibility that had been entrusted to me. ‘Many are called, few are chosen’... these resounding words penetrated my spirit with such conviction that I found myself wrestling with the question of whether my involvement with free to be kids was simply coincidental or whether it was indeed purposed for such a time as this.
It’s amazing how the ocean in its greatness can bestow upon us such clarity of thought and depth of understanding. The vastness of the ocean conveys to our spirits an impatient intolerance for the trivial, the small-minded, the unimportant and inconsequential matters of life, and compels us to question the greater aspirations of our destiny and purpose. It took an ocean for me to see clearly the great responsibility that had been entrusted to me and to know with all truthfulness what my response must be. It took an ocean for me to realize that if I was not pursuing this course of justice as a response far deeper than the sentimental ideal of kind-hearted compassion, I should release it immediately as the shoreline lets go the tide. It took an ocean for me to feel with agonizing conviction how deeply I was impassioned to fight for this cause and an ocean to know with unwavering belief that I had been chosen for this task and my responsibility to the call far outweighed the trivial deviations of life that had sought to divert my attention. This humbling memory is one that will forever define and strengthen my involvement in this cause, in its painful process it made me see more clearly that it’s not about me… its promise is rooted not in some esoteric, excitement alluring or adventure-flung ideal, but rather founded in the simple and humbling hope that my life could contribute to a cause above my own. 7 years ago
Life has a way of enticing us to deviate from our well formulated plans… like a mysterious little path in a sun fragranced forest; it beckons our intrigue and causes us to wander afar from the road of regulated complacency. The opportunity to work with Free to Be Kids was one such path which, I believe with absolute certainty, will change my life forever.
Whenever we aspire to something beyond the strength and capacity of ourselves we are assailed with the prevailing awareness of raw and tender emotion. Compassion, inadequacy, hope, despair, passion, fear – all the delicate emotions of life juxtaposed into a beautiful and despairing reality. And fragilely encased in the midst of these seemingly conflicting feelings is a small voice whispering ‘what have I to give?’
We ask this question as though we are hoping for the world to present us with the answer… we call out to the still of night for providence and riches and ask that in its grace and infinite knowledge, it would align for us the stars and heavenly clusters to show us the way in which we must go. Yet it is not to the stars that we must look, it is not even to the dark of night that we should seek answers from in our quest – we must cast our eyes from the exalted heights of outward thinking and in deep retrospection look to the depths of our inward self. What have we to give… what do we have right here, right now lying dormant for its awaited hour?
My dormant gift for this hour is photography, writing and creativity… the artistic translation of life. In January of next year I will be traveling to The Philippines, India, Uganda and Cambodia taking photos and transposing the stories of many young children whose lives have been condemned to the evils of prostitution. In one month I shall collect photographs and heart-rending stories of hundreds of girls, families and villages whose lives have forever been affected by the suppression and exploitation of women.
Like all little paths – the further we travel upon their narrowed route, the more obscured and shadowed is the way from whence we came. The familiar landmarks become less distinguished, the voices and chatterings are diluted into faint murmurings and the glowing lampposts which once guided our route grow fainter in our absence… until one day when we are surprised by silence and look back – and in that moment realise that we can never return. 7 years ago
Cambodia is a country of stark contrasts. Ancient kingdoms of antediluvian beauty and age-old religious customs draw the traveler into a world rich in history, mysticism and unassailable splendour. Yet beyond their laterite stone walls, these ancient empires are shadowed by the devastations of a war that is not so long gone and the prevailing poverty that lingers still on the face of orphans, refugees, landmine victims, child prostitutes, and the many thousands infected by TB and other life-threatening illnesses.
Like many unsuspecting travelers, my trip to Cambodia in January of this year confronted me with many poignant truths and heart-rending realities, but the most painful and unforgettable of all was the evident exploitation of young girls in child prostitution. One hour north of Siem Riep at the ancient ruins of Banteay Srei, I was compelled to take a photo of this young Cambodian girl. Her eyes were filled with a deep sorrow that I did not understand and they looked beyond me, as though they were searching for an unconscious reality whose promise was ever elusive and out of reach. As I stood with my camera poised, silently struggling to reconcile the image of the beautiful girl before me with the impressionable shadow of fast-tracked maturity that rested upon her shoulders, God spoke to me these words that I shall never forget. ‘She is a child prostitute.’
Never in my life have I felt such a feeling of insuppressible brokenness as I experienced in that moment. The fragranced illusions of innocence were stripped bare and the image of the child that stood only a few feet away tying a yellow ribbon around the neck of a well-worn stuffed rabbit splintered my heart forever.
Silhouetted in the hollowed pink sandstone ruins of Banteay Srei, this child plays with her silent furry companion in a world unimagined by passersby. Behind her sits an unsmiling hard-faced woman with a weathered novel in her hand, glancing up every now and then to detect any commercial interest from the influx of western tourists. It is a lucrative business; it is a livelihood, it is a childhood that has been stolen, an innocence that has been exploited, and a foreboding reality that knows neither mercy nor hope. I will forever be broken and inspired by the memory of this unnamed Cambodian girl whose bravery and courage gave newfound meaning to my life. 7 years ago
There are many worthy causes in the world that seek to bring justice, health, hope and life to destitute people or impoverished circumstances. These causes give expression to the most generous and beautiful of human qualities by reaching out and lifting up the head of the downtrodden, the oppressed, the poor, the helpless, the hungry, the abandoned. My soul is stirred constantly by the efforts and the vision of organisations and humble individuals who dedicate their lives for a cause greater than their own. It is this honourable beauty in humanity that inspires us to draw perspective from truth rather than the fabrications of our self-serving lives.
Above and beyond the wider reach of charity however, there comes a cause which stirs our hearts in so great a way that we cannot simply sit on the sidelines with a monthly cheque or softly spoken prayers, we feel that we must do something more. For me, this cause is ‘Free to Be Kids’, an organisation which exists to rescue young girls out of child prostitution and rehabilitate them to a hope-filled future. With orphanages currently situated in India, the Philippines and Uganda, Free to be Kids is giving hope to hundreds of girls who have for years, known nothing but abuse, oppression and slavery.
Sometimes the path is never clear when one embarks upon a journey such as this… how can I be used? What can I possibly do that will make a difference? Sadly, this overwhelming sense of inadequacy allures many away from doing anything at all. Though I don’t know the full picture – I know I can contribute something, I can open my hand with some of my gifting and talents to champion the cause of a vision far greater than myself. It is with this openness of heart and mind that I dare to believe that my life can make a difference in lifting up the heads of thousands of young girls destined to a hopeless existence. 7 years ago