For Karuna Seng and Brooke Hill, it's been an unforgettable summer. Both twenty-one year olds have had the opportunity to travel to a different country through their work with Alongsiders International. Along the way, they've been learning what it means to serve people as their equals.
Karuna Seng grew up in the Chak Angre Leu, a slum community in Phnom Penh. Her father died in an accident when she was ten, leaving her, her mother, and sisters living with their grandmother. After his death, a woman in her community invited her family to worship at a local church.
Karuna didn't understand the service, but she was warmly greeted and welcomed by everyone there. Her heart filled with happiness as they shared some cake together.
Shortly afterwards, a woman in the youth group invited Karuna to become her little sister in the Alongsiders movement.
Karuna didn't understand what Alongsiders even was, but she was so excited to be invited by Somaly that she quickly agreed. Somaly took Karuna to Sunday school each week, and eventually Karuna became a Christian. Somaly taught her many important lessons, including how to clean herself and how to study hard so that she could get a good job later.
On the other side of the world, Brooke Hill was growing up in a small agrarian town in Missouri, USA. Growing up in a broken home, Brooke did not understand the depth offered in community.
Like Karuna, Brooke lived with her mom, and often missed her dad. As a representation of many American families, Brooke's family usually did not eat dinner together.
Also, like Karuna, Brooke discovered fellowship with local Christians. When she was at her friend's house, at age twelve, she saw a picture of kids at Christian camp. She thought it looked like a lot of fun, so she asked her mom if she could go. During an incredible week being welcomed by many loving people at the camp, she became a Christian. At the age of 16, she heard about missions at a Christian conference and was fascinated by the thought that some people spend their lives helping other people.
After a few shorter mission trips, Brooke decided to combine her love for the Lord, her heart for people, and her skill at photography in a summer internship with Alongsiders. In May 2015, she moved into Chak Angre Leu, right down the alleyway from Karuna.
For the past two months, Brooke has slept under a mosquito net, taken bucket showers, and eaten lots and lots of rice. Through laughter and language learning, Brooke has built relationships with her host mother and new neighborhood.
One of the first things Brooke noticed is the way everyone in the community looks out for each other. The most commonly asked question is "Have you eaten rice yet?" Her host mother feeds everyone who answers no. Many elderly women without steady income stop by regularly for meals. Meals are a time of fellowship and unity for Brooke and her community.
When Brooke first arrived in Cambodia, a little girl named Dali came over to the house and asked her name. Since then, Dali has come over every day to play with Brooke.
Every evening she walks in asking, "Hello Brooke, how are you?" Brooke loves to listen to Dali sing "Open the Eyes of My Heart."
Brooke reflects: "Dali has the purest form of faith I have ever witnessed. [She teaches me] that life is much bigger than myself. Dali has reminded me of the importance of praising God regardless of circumstances. When I return back to the States and my heart is aching for the people I have met in Cambodia, I pray that I will ask God to open the eyes of my own heart, that I may be open to sharing this same love and faith with those I encounter, just as Dali has done for me."
When she's not spending time with Dali or others in her community, Brooke works as an intern photographer for Alongsiders. She rides with Karuna on her moto to the Alongsiders office, where Karuna works as the receptionist.
Karuna is now an Alongsider herself, walking beside her little sister Vegegar in Chak Angre Leu. Karuna recently traveled to Singapore to share her story at an Alongsiders fundraising banquet. It was her first time outside of the country, and what she saw changed her.
Singapore was clean, beautiful, and organized. Cars obeyed the traffic laws and people waited in lines. Karuna couldn't believe that there was such a thing as a bus timetable, as she was used to waiting for the bus until it eventually showed up at an unspecified time. "When I saw that, I was so proud of their wisdom," she reflected. Her time in Singapore gave her a vision for her own country.
One of the most poignant moments was the prayer time at a Singaporean church they visited.
Karuna and the other Alongsiders present were intercessors at the end of the service for anyone who wanted to ask for prayer.
As an older man came forward to ask Karuna to pray for him, she hesitated. "He was rich and older than I, so why did he want me to pray for him?" Karuna asked herself. In that moment, God spoke to her heart that He had lifted her up to pray for these people. Tears streamed down her face as she prayed from her heart in Khmer for the Singaporean man.
Next she prayed for a woman who cried with her. It was a moment Karuna will never forget. "I hope God was working through me then," she said earnestly.
Back in Cambodia, Karuna shared about her experience in Singapore during the Alongsiders' Office devotional time. "May God open the eyes of my generation so that we can transform our country," she prayed. In the future, Karuna hopes to see three changes in her country.
- Justice for the poor
- An end to government corruption
- Respect for all people
"Someday, I want everyone to have rice together," Karuna dreamed. "No one will hold onto their position and use their power to set themselves above each other. We will all have rice together."
It's been a summer of learning to walk alongside those who are richer or poorer than themselves as equals. For Karuna, it's meant sharing her story and offering prayer for the people in Singapore. For Brooke, it's meant building friendships with people in her slum community. But for both of them, it's meant eating lots and lots of rice.