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From the May, 2004
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Cambodian Call by Charis Crowley

Cambodian Call

Charis Crowley Writes a Journalist Who Thinks Missionaries Should Leave

Dear Sir: It was with great interest that I read your account of your three memorable visits to Ratanakiri province in Cambodia.

Ratanakiri is my home. My family has lived there for nine years now, and I lived there for six. I am currently attending college here in the States while my parents and siblings remain in Cambodia. I enjoyed hearing you describe places so familiar and loved. Ratanakiri truly is a wonderful province with much potential, and my heart will always be there.

It was with great disappointment and agitation, however, that I read in your account of your second trip:

The Cambodian government speaks often about this new Rule of Law thing that will make Cambodia a functioning, efficient, modern, law-abiding land (or something like that). Do you think they could start with the eviction of all the missionaries who come to places like Ratanakiri to play head games on people who for centuries have been served quite well by their own beliefs? Beliefs which may be Buddhism, animism, ancestor worship, or some combination thereof. Just a thought.

I feel reluctant to continue this for fear you will brush off this letter as another run-of-the-mill defense of those “missionaries who come . . . to play head games.” Please take this seriously as a very heart-felt explanation of a situation that you may not have totally sensed.

Life in Fear

I love Ratanakiri. I love the people. I love the culture, the food, the customs—for the most part. You mentioned seeing several weddings during your trip. I love weddings—all the festivities and dressing up and taking pictures of the bride with the long face. I love watching birthing ceremonies—watching them tie a string to the baby’s heel and celebrating a new life born into the world.

There is the opposite, though, which I don’t recall you mention experiencing. Have you ever attended a tribal funeral? It is not an easily forgotten experience. The sick child becomes worse, and the family sacrifices, from their pitiful funds, first a chicken, then a pig. The child worsens, and the family sacrifices a water buffalo to those benevolent spirits that fill their lives with fear. And then the child dies—often from a very treatable condition that could have been prevented with proper help.

And the funeral begins. The wailings and sobs of utter despair will never cease to haunt me. I have sat through too many tribal funerals to be able to forget the anguish and hopelessness of the families involved. But why bother them? They are happy as they are. They live an ideal life, free from restraints, easy, carefree.

An outsider may see their lives as such. But in reality, they live in fear: fear of starvation, fear of sickness and death, fear of the spirits who rule their lives and soak up their small supplies of rice and animals for ritual and futile sacrifices. Would you deny them change if they desire it? Put yourself in their place: near-starvation year after year. Malaria, cholera, whooping cough, measles. Fear of angering the spirits or an ancestor who has gone on before. Daily toil from dawn to dusk to grow enough rice to carry your family through for another year.

Do you ever fear starving to death? Dying of malaria? Do you fear the spirits? No. And yet you would deny them freedom from their bondage. They may smile for your camera as they did for mine when I lived with them—but I lived with them—you saw only the surface. I experienced their despair and their longing for something different. I remember the stories of many who died during the cholera epidemic that terrible year. Many of them died without hope or peace. The last sounds they heard were the demonic chants and the pounding drums as their fellow villagers called out to their deaf gods for mercy—to no avail.

Sir, I understand that you and I have different beliefs. I believe in God eternal and his Son Jesus Christ, who died to save the souls of Americans and Ratanakiri tribals alike. My parents are dedicated to reaching these unsaved and fearful groups to bring them to the Savior. I know you do not agree with our beliefs, and you condemn us for trying to change these people. But if you were concerned for their welfare, you would want them to have peace in whatever form they could find it.

We do not convert “rice Christians.” The people we disciple are not bribed into Christianity with hopes of food or medicine. We preach the gospel of Christ to save souls from dying eternally. There are no “head games” involved. Buddhism, animism, and other religions have not served them so well. They have no peace, and it is peace that they seek. They are not happy in their ways.

The Peace They Seek

We do not seek to change their whole culture and bring in televisions and computers and Western clothes and macaroni and cheese. We seek to give them what they search for, while preserving their unique and very beautiful customs and culture. The government has seen our work for many years. They like what they see, and they encourage it. We teach unity and loyalty to Cambodia while retaining the tribal sense of loyalty to fellow villagers.

And our work is not just religious. We have programs to teach these people to read for the very first time—in their own language! My father recently got the Tampuan alphabet approved in Phnom Pehn, the culmination of five years of work. Once they learn to read Tampuan, the tribals can easily learn to read Khmer using the same alphabet. Would you deny them the chance to read? Imagine yourself in a world without reading. This is not taking away their culture. This is expanding it in a wonderful way.

We provide medicine for simple ailments: malaria medicine and aspirin for their many fevers, and other simple drugs. You yourself realized the danger from cholera during your time there. Is helping them with basic medical needs changing their culture? I am now in my second year at a very fine nursing school, and when I graduate in two years, I will be continuing in a nurse practitioner course, with the goal of returning to Ratanakiri in four or five years to minister to these people whom I love.

What wonders basic immunizations could work! Thousands of children die each year from easily preventable illnesses such as measles and whooping cough. Would you deny them the chance to live if it comes by the hand of an outsider who is not part of their culture? The nationals of Cambodia are included in our work as well. Your motodop driver, to whom you directed a lecture on culture-changing, was probably from the Banlung church my family attends, where my father preaches occasionally when he is not out in the villages teaching.

On your first trip, you estimated that Ratanakiri contained “ten” expatriates. These ten would have been comprised of my family of seven, another family of four, another of three, and many UN and aid workers—all approved and welcomed by the government. On your second trip (in 2002, I believe?) you would have found, if you had searched, three or four missionary families and upwards of thirty humanitarian workers and relief-aid workers. We are all working to preserve culture and to give these people peace.

I have lived there. I have seen the changes and have rejoiced over some and cried over others. Ratanakiri is my home—I would not have it changed too much.

Maybe some day you will visit this gem of a province again, and maybe you will see the tribal people in a different light. Maybe you will come across me working there. If you are willing, I will show you what we do and why. I will show you that we love these people and have given our lives to give them life. You can experience the freedom they have from spiritual bondage while appreciating their intact culture.

I speak this from my heart with many tears. Sharing Jesus Christ is not a head game—it is life. People from outside say, “They are happy! Let them be! They are fine the way they are!” And the tribals in turn are saying, “Help us. We are sick and dying, and in fear of the demons who make our lives a living hell. Why will no one help us? We are not happy.” I can only hope that this plea will touch you and bring you to understand at least a little of our part of the story.

Sincerely, Charis Crowley.


Charis Crowley is the daughter of Baptist missionaries and is currently a nursing student at a Christian university in the Southeast.

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“Cambodian Call” first appeared in the May 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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