I am sitting at a table in a beautiful place: Shalom Valley. Literally a place of peace. Around me are dozens of teenagers and children. For the past few days, I have been helping at a camp, together with a team of Dutch people. We tried to make contact, which wasn't so easy since I don't speak Khmer and they barely speak English. The participants have virtually nothing. They walk around in their fake brand clothing or fake soccer jerseys. For these participants, a healthy meal every night, a safe home environment and going to school is not the norm.
During camp, children beam from time with peers, from seeing the sea, from playing with each other, from good food. Yet that is not what brings peace. All the children have come with an Alongsider. A "big brother" or "big sister" who walks with them. These duos of a big brother or sister and little brother or sister know each other well. They meet weekly, talk to each other, sometimes share with each other of the little they have. And also the Alongsider (often only 13,14,15 years old him or herself) shares from his life with Jesus, what they themselves learned in their time from a big brother or sister.
And so the good news is passed on. The problems by no means always solve themselves, but they learn that there is a God who loves them, who cares for them, and of life as Jesus intended. That's what makes for peace there: the children and teenagers, who are imbued with that, often without access to a church or even a Bible.
The contrast with the Netherlands is stark. Both Christian and non-Christian teenagers all have access to the Bible. There are plenty of churches and plenty of activities for young people. But more often we see young people walking away from church, thinking they don't need God anymore, than we see teenagers from non-Christian families coming to know Him. For the teens who do stay, we organize all kinds of things. But encouraging them to make a difference in someone else's life fails to happen.
At this table, I have one more moment to ask questions. Sure there are great cultural differences. But one question remains: Why do Alongsiders do this? In the Netherlands it is often hard to find volunteers. Especially for tasks where you commit yourself weekly for such a long term to another person and the teenagers in the Netherlands are really busy with very different things. And here it seems to be so easy, so obvious.
So (with the help of Pon, who translates for me) I ask the teenagers, "Why are you doing this?" An elaborate story follows about the young brothers, that they are poor and that it is important to take care of them. I listen and ask some more questions. But I don't get a real answer. So I ask the question again. This time very directly, "What does it get you to do this?" To my surprise, I get the same story again. I look at Pon and ask if he understands my question correctly. He says he does and asks the question again. Again, no response.
Somewhat puzzled as to what exactly is happening there at the table, I ponder. One of the leaders of the camp sees me thinking and comes and sits next to me. I explain what just happened and then I understand. They are not concerned with that. It doesn't matter at all what it brings. Not out of any kind of politeness or modesty. But they are so out of it that they don't even understand the question. They can't imagine that this is about themselves.
It reminds me of Jesus' words, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. " (Matt 19:24) Looking at the contrast between Cambodia and the Netherlands, I cannot help but conclude that these words are painfully true. Why are we unwilling to invest without gaining something for ourselves? Can it cost us something to help the other person? You gain a life for the Kingdom by doing so. Surely that should be valuable enough. Who are you willing to invest in without it directly benefiting you?
(This blog was written by Maarten van Dijk. He traveled to Cambodia with a group of young people in early 2023 to see and discover how Alongsiders works and what we in the Netherlands can learn from it. In this article he shares his reflection with us. Maarten is a youth worker and works at Next Move).