The Power of Presence

A country of beauty and mystery, Cambodia has long been known for its dramatic landscapes and intriguing culture. But beneath the visual pleasantries, Cambodia has only recently begun to emerge from decades of war and isolation, gradually mending its past of violence and crime.
In 1998, a man named Koh Kim Lam challenged Christians to pray for ministry in Cambodia. At the time, Lam was part of an organization called Scripture Union International, a ministry primarily focused on young children and families. In a country where young people make up about 65 percent of the primarily Buddhist population, Lam understood the importance of ministering to teenagers as well.
That year Bob Reeverts, Young Life Asia regional director, visited Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and shared his vision for reaching young people through Young Life. Because the government leaders had shown concern for the country’s youth, they were immediately receptive to this idea and within a short amount of time had already recommended three men to start Young Life in Phnom Penh.
A vision takes root
Reeverts spent a day with each of the three men one-on-one, mostly doing contact work at a place called the Sports Palace (a popular hangout in the city). “I thought each of the men were too young to go on [Young Life] staff at that point, but I felt that Sor Pyneath was the most promising,” Reeverts said. Apparently the local government did not think the men were too young, and two months later Sor was the head of Young Life in Phnom Penh.
Every day Sor went to the Sports Palace and, over the course of six months, became acquainted with hundreds of kids. During this time, Sor learned a lesson that would become vital to his understanding of an incarnational approach to ministry. “For the three years when I worked full time for my church, I only led one of my friends to Christ, but in just a few months I had already led a few to Christ,” Sor said. “It was then I found out that God wanted to use me by spending time with non-Christian young people. They need Christ, too.”
Meeting a need
Sor gathered friends to pray about how to bring Young Life into the high school. They offered to organize sporting events for the school but the principal wasn’t interested. Sor and his friends would not give up and continued to think of ways to reach kids who attended the school. After some serious brainstorming, they went back to the principal with another offer: They wanted to teach a computer class. Surprisingly, the principal agreed.
Reeverts helped raise enough money to purchase five computers, which were put in a room just large enough for five small desks. The class became a huge success. They now have 20 computers and about 120 kids take the class each year — they must apply for a place in the class, and at the end of the course a special graduation ceremony is held. Leaders have used the class as an integral way to reach out to students. And because the computers are in a building that lacks security, a Young Life leader has slept in the room every night for the past three years.
Impact through fun
In 2001, Young Life Cambodia moved into its very own Young Life Center near the high school. The leaders teach English, computer and guitar classes to the several hundred teens who pass through the center each week. Saturday nights they hold club, and approximately 100 kids show up to sing songs, play games and hear a message about Jesus Christ.
A few years ago Young Life in Phnom Penh started a soccer league for the local kids. Ten leaders formed teams of 10 players each, and once a week for a half-day they have a soccer tournament. “In 2003, the Lord had changed a lot of our soccer players — about half of them have given their life to Jesus and are now very involved in Young Life,” Sor said.
The cost of change
Lives of teenagers are definitely changing in Phnom Penh — in classrooms, on soccer fields, at the Young Life Center, at club and at local hangouts. Yet the story of one Cambodian girl illustrates that converting to Christianity can mean heartbreaking consequences.
Kim*, a senior at the local high school, spent most of her time at home and had only a few friends at school until about a year ago — she was accepted into the computer class and went to her first club. Soon after, she began a relationship with Christ and joined the prayer team at the high school.
But in Cambodia, conversion to Christianity can come at a huge cost: the disapproval of strict Buddhist parents and a severe stigma from a culture that disapproves of young women who disobey their parents. Kim’s parents have threatened that she’ll be “cut off” from the family unless she leaves her newfound faith.**
Despite the obstacles that kids like Kim are facing, Sor and the other Young Life leaders continue to find ways to tell teenagers in Cambodia about God and help them grow in their faith. Thanks to the visionaries who encouraged government leaders and others to consider the needs of adolescents in Cambodia, teenagers can begin to create a new spiritual legacy in their scarred country. As time has healed the wounds of history, a sovereign God is bringing a new hope and purpose to younger generations of teenagers like Kim who persevere in the faith.
“Please! Pray for me,” Kim said. “I love my family and I will bring the love of Christ to my family. I want to serve the Lord and tell the good news to all my friends.”
*an alias
** Articles about the impact an encounter with Christ can have on kids can sometimes delve into some difficult family dynamics. We at Young Life understand that parenting is tough and no family is perfect. Therefore, we aim to take care to write about families with respect and grace.