“My older brother was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." – Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the immensity of suffering in the world. Take the case of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, off in a corner of the globe that we Americans would rather forget. Didn’t we use to bomb the daylights out of those people back in the days of the Vietnam War? Yes, we did. I wonder what ever happened to them.
What happened was civil war. Genocide. Three million people systematically executed by a radical Marxist government because they happened to be educated, or had books in their homes, or wore a wristwatch, which showed that they might have had a little more spare cash than the average peasant. Twenty-five percent of the population died in prison camps. Try to wrap your mind around that. One in four, throughout the whole country. Now a Phnom Penh museum called Tuol Sleng stands at the place of one of the most notorious of the Killing Fields, a stark reminder of the hole in the heart of a country. You don’t just get over that. Now, a generation down the line, kids who normally would have had grandparents and parents, a social and economic structure in which to frame their lives, don’t have any of that. And so they raise themselves, mostly, living life out on the streets, scrounging for food, taking shelter wherever they can find it, becoming easy prey for the ruthless bastards who use them and abuse them through drugs and sexual slavery. There are hundreds of thousands of those kids, maybe millions. It’s overwhelming.
A few blocks away from the Tuol Sleng museum there is a little two-story orphanage. It houses twenty people. It was founded in large part by my friend John McCollum, who comments here frequently, and it is funded and operated by my little church, Central Vineyard of Columbus. Those twenty kids are our kids. We know their names and their stories. We hear about them all the time. We pray for them. We send our money to help support them. And in October we will visit them. Members of my church will spend three weeks in Phnom Penh doing, what? Playing games. Singing lullabyes. Trying to undo the curse.
It’s just a little orphanage, and we’re just a little church. Twenty kids. It’s nothing. It’s a drop in the ocean. But I’m so honored and so proud to be a little part of it. We live in a world that tells people that they are nothing, that they do not matter, that their worth comes from what they do, not from who they are, that soaring hope is just a myth, that it’s for the birds. They’re wrong. We’re taking it back. Bird by bird. Kid by kid.