Shary, Shary wake up! It quarter to 5 and you promised Pastor’s wife that you would be ready by quarter to 6. Yes, I know it’s still dark out, but we cannot be late to Kampong Chhnang. Yes, I know it is the first province west of Phnom Penh, but it is going to take two to three hours to get there, and we can’t be late, the Governor of the Province is going to be there as well as all the members of the community.
And that is the way our morning started. Needless to say, we did get up and make it on time for what would be a very eventful and wonderful day. Of course, it was also not without it’s challenges. The first challenge would be getting out of Phnom Penh with the traffic on Northbridge Street going toward Russian Boulevard. I gave a sigh of relief as we crossed Russian Boulevard and the traffic eased up a little bit and sat back to watch the new construction, rice fields, and fish farms go whizzing by. That is until we got to the new road construction. The road suddenly turned to gravel with mounds in the center of the lanes that could easily show the road workers displeasure with some drivers. Talk about road rage, it looked like they were burying passenger cars if you got mad at them. The road was bumpy and filled with chuck holes. Pastor, who was our unexpected chauffeur this morning (thought he had left earlier in the morning) weaved back and forth between paved and unpaved lanes. Of course in Cambodia, the idea of lanes is only a suggestion and there were a number of times that we found ourselves headed at another motorbike or car coming the opposite direction.
Finally, the road smoothed out, but Pastor continued to demonstrate his driving skills! We continued until Pastor asked me if I realized we were only about 15 miles from Kampong Chhnang City. “Do you mean miles or kilometers,” I asked? “Miles!,” he said. “Time to stop for breakfast.” And we pulled into an open restaurant just east of Kampong Chhnang City, next to the New Life Church.
Breakfast is interesting when you can’t read the menu, but Shary and I both had our favorite iced coffee with (sweetened and condensed) milk and bowls of pork noodle soup. Two pastors who had joined us had a fried chicken leg on a bed of steamed white rice. One of them went to get some deep fried bananas which he shared and at Pastor’s call, we were back in the car and on our way again.
By now, the roadway was quite reasonable and smooth as we passed through Kampong Chhnang City and headed toward Battambang. A couple of miles out of town there was a gate over a narrow dirt road that had a bright red banner. We picked our way down it looking at the coconut palms, the papaya, and banana trees. “over on the left is Pastor Hai’s farm,” said Pastor Vannarith as he turned right down another dirt road into the rice paddies, only to turn left on a dirt path that led to a building we quickly recognized as a brand new school. Next to the school was a bright pink tent that covered a table with cases and cases of bottled drinking water.
As we turned into the schoolyard, a pile of speakers started playing Khmer music very loudly. We were here for a celebration! As we drove into the yard further, I could see the provincial police and the snack sellers. There were a number of people there, but most were yet to come. Those that were there were bustling around, preparing a stage, and checking microphones and a lot of details. Work continued and the number of people started growing larger.
Finally it was time for the ribbon cutting. The reason were were there was to open a Garuna Christian School for the local children. Classes of school children were ushered inside and into seats. Their parents were also ushered to seats. Outside the door, three very pretty young ladies in traditional Khmer royal attire stretched a ribbon across the stairway for a ribbon cutting ceremony. As the ceremony was about to commence, a troupe of children dancers in masks came up the road, dancing their way into the compound and over to the tent. One especially had the mask of an old man and he was especially adept at making you believe he was a very small old man.Finally it was time for the ribbon cutting. The reason were were there was to open a Garuna Christian School for the local children. Classes of school children were ushered inside and into seats. Their parents were also ushered to seats. Outside the door, three very pretty young ladies in traditional Khmer royal attire stretched a ribbon across the stairway for a ribbon cutting ceremony. As the ceremony was about to commence, a troupe of children dancers in masks came up the road, dancing their way into the compound and over to the tent. One especially had the mask of an old man and he was especially adept at making you believe he was a very small old man.
The ribbon was cut and the stage filled with guests and provincial politicians including the governor. There were a number of speeches and award ribbons for major contributors. I was fortunate enough to be ushered to a front seat where I could take pictures quite easily and meet the officials when the ceremony ended. Everyone in the audience was given a 10000 riel note with which to buy lunch, but most just had bread and water. Some of us ate back in town to have a larger lunch with the officials (at their request). They were very hospitable and made sure we were well taken care of in the food category.
After lunch, the officials excused themselves to return to their offices or to Phnom Penh, but we went back to the school and Pastor Hai’s farm and church. This was the real celebration! At Pastor Hai’s church, next to his house and in the middle of his farm, were a group of children who had been instructed by Pastor Hai. Supposedly 15 of them were going to be baptized, but when Pastor asked if they wanted to be baptized, 24 came to the baptismal font, a plastic dish filled with water and three blossoms of a flower called fragrencia. These were young men and women who wanted to know Jesus Christ as their savior. For many of them, they were probably the first Christians in their family to be baptized.
After the baptism, we returned to the new school, where we prayed. There were thanks for the new school, thanks for the support of the local people and the government, but especially thanks for the young people who were baptized.
The return trip to Phnom Penh was just and long, and just as rough. But it didn’t matter! We had a chance to celebrate the baptism of 24 new Christians. We came home to where we live, tired but happy for eternal life, both for them and for ourselves. To our new brothers and sisters in Christ, we say, “Welcome to the family.”