finding freedom {part 1}

You know what that little {part 1} is code for, right?


If you {don’t like that}, then come back {another day} when the story’s {all done} being told.

You know what it means when someone keeps adding {curly brackets} unnecessarily and going on and on…

{It means they’re just being a tease.}

{That’s not nice.}

So, I have a story. And I’m going to start it at 7:47am on May 1, 2016. A Sunday. I’d been writing in my journal for quite awhile already, then stopped, then wrote this at 7:47:

I wonder when church is. No one is really up and about. Maybe we could skip…

We’d lived in Siem Reap for 3.5 months at that point, and our church situation was a bit discouraging. We attended one church 3 times and just felt meh about it. It was a Khmer-speaking church (which the girls really wanted), but it lacked the energy and passion we’d had at New Life Church in Phnom Penh for the past year.

So, we found another one (also a Khmer church) and went there maybe 3 times, but it was itty-bitty and the pastor had just left, and none of us were feeling it.

(Then there were a couple Sundays we were out of town, one where everyone was sick, and 1-2 where we just played hooky.)

On May 1, we had loose plans to attend a new church all together. Our fam, Justin, Chhoengka, and Chanthou. I can’t remember how it all came about exactly. I think Justin had a friend who mentioned the church. And Chhoengka had been before when he’d been in Siem Reap for something or other.

It was called Freedom Church. Sounded good to me. Except for a little nagging feeling in my gut that I couldn’t figure out.

And then I remembered. One of our sweet staff had told me about this church a few months prior. A friend of hers who had previously worked as a prostitute had gone to the church and no one talked to her. She said everybody there was really rich and they weren’t very welcoming to poor people on the margins.

Great. Sounds like my kind of place. Ew.

But I’d already said I’d go. And why not give it a chance? (Except I really had no plans of giving it a chance.)

A little over an hour later…

(9 something a.m.) Sitting in Freedom Church. Don’t think I want to come back. So contrived, such a show. They have strobe lights. And smoke. They’re Khmer but sing in English. Khmer guy preaching (in Khmer). Young Khmer guy translating into perfect English.

The very next line in my journal:

Okay, hold the presses.

He’s sharing his testimony. He married a girl with a two-year-old son. He didn’t know how to be a good husband or father. Men in Cambodia are not good husbands and fathers. He asked God for help. A lot of people think they can find their identity in what they’re good at, but that won’t last. We are not born for what we’re good at. Who we are depends on who created us. You were made on purpose with a purpose…

And then he said a bunch more stuff and I took notes furiously, and so much of it resonated with me. (Okay, and I secretly hoped Gabe was paying really close attention.) And I thought, okay, hmm… maybe I will give this place one more chance.

An informal survey of our family after church (as far as I can remember) went like this: Gabe–“I like it.” Olivia–“I love it. I want to go back.” Ava–“It’s kind of weird. I don’t know what I think.” Nina–“I don’t know either. I think I like it.” Me–“Let’s give it another try at least. I mean, it’s kind of our best/only option at the moment.”

An Irish girl (woman) named Sarah had invited us to the English-speaking cell group (small groups that meet in people’s homes and discuss the sermon and pray for each other) the following Tuesday evening. What the hey? We decided to go. Me, Gabe, Justin, and Chhoengka. I didn’t really know what to expect. I don’t remember feeling nervous, but I probably was.

Den and Sarah didn’t have an address (no one does here) so Den offered to meet us at a nearby gas station and we’d follow him to their apartment. It’s the four of us, Den and Sarah, a couple from Australia named Sandor and Tashia, and Beth and Caleb from Oregon.

From my journal at 6:20 the next morning:

Cell group was really cool. Sarah was so hospitable and welcoming, down to earth, loved her immediately. We played an Ice Breaker game where you have two slips of paper: what you wanted to be when you grew up. And a fake one. And you try to match them with the people. Mine were veterinarian (fake) and librarian (real).

Then reading Scripture and discussing our identity in Christ and what’s holding us back from pursuing God’s dreams for our lives.

Then prayer requests. I asked for prayer for our fam heading to the States this summer and trusting God that everything will work out here while we’re gone. (ahem) Den and Sarah prayed the most perfect anointed prayers, pinpointing my exact concerns and prayed for everything I hadn’t dared ask God for. Wow.

This all just feels right. Infinitely more awesome than either church we’ve been to.

(Wait, but what about the strobe lights, the smoke? What about the this-is-all-for-show vibe you got? Well, I soon realized that I had an unfair bias against that kind of thing. I started thinking of it as an artistic form of expression, not a showing off. Nothing anyone was saying or doing seemed show-offy in any way, so it didn’t make sense to think that smoke = pretentious.)

(And these were not a bunch of rich people. Not by a long shot. Lots of hard-working Khmer, very few foreigners, lots and lots of young people. With HUGE hearts for people on the margins. I’m sad that nobody reached out to our friend’s friend a few months prior, but how many people have I let slip through the cracks because I didn’t say hi to them on a Sunday morning? Ouch.)

We kept going back. On our first visit, the pastor and his wife (a couple from Belgium–the age of Gabe’s parents almost exactly) were in Europe, so we didn’t get to meet them. They were still gone on the 8th.

On May 15, they were back, and my introduction to them was this gigantic hug from Pastor Jan (pronounced Yan). The kind where you’d assume you’d known this person forever, not that you’re meeting for the very first time. I really wish I had a video of that hug. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something to the effect of, “I can already tell I’m going to love you guys.”

Things were super busy at the center in May, and we were preparing to leave for the States on June 8, so I didn’t journal as much that month and don’t remember a lot of specifics from our Sundays at Freedom before we left for America.

We kept going to C-group and really enjoyed it. And I went for coffee with Sarah not long before we left for the summer and had a really good, deep chat with her.

There was Sunday, May 22. Then Sunday, May 29.

Then Monday, May 30. I was scrolling Facebook and read something that made my stomach lurch. A missions team from Columbus, Ohio with Asia’s Hope was in Siem Reap, a stopover on their way to Battambang. (Asia’s Hope is the organization we came with on our first trip to Cambodia in 2010).)

On Sunday evening, one of their team members, Bob, had been crossing the street and was struck by a moto and killed. His wife and granddaughter were here in Siem Reap with him along with four other members of their team.

So tragic. So heartbreaking. So far from home. I couldn’t even fathom. I immediately messaged our friend, John, Executive Director of Asia’s Hope. What can we do? How can we help? Do they have anybody here to take care of them?

He sent some messages, made some calls, and asked us to go to their guesthouse and pray with them. We said we would.

When we arrived, we met a couple named Ray and Deb (the team leaders who have now become good friends of ours), a couple named Kevin and Jill (missionaries from Battambang who drove down for emotional support), and Jayla (Bob’s 16yo granddaughter). We hugged everybody. I hugged Jayla, kissed her on the cheek, told her how sorry I was. Then Kim (Bob’s wife) came down. I asked her if I could hug her. We cried. I said I was so, so sorry.

We walked to dinner. On the same road where Bob was killed. Man.

Our conversation was mostly light-hearted. I think we were a welcome distraction. Of course everyone was still very much in the shock phase. Heartbroken and grieving, but not all the way yet, by any stretch. Kim and Jayla showed us pictures of Bob on their phones and told us all about this wonderful man we’d never gotten to meet.

They had decided to do a cremation here in Siem Reap before heading home. The other options just weren’t feasible. Bob (and the rest of the team members) were Catholic. All the Catholic priests in Siem Reap were on a retreat. Did we know of a pastor who could officiate the ceremony?

Yes, I said. Our pastor is wonderful. Let me ask my friend for his number. (What I didn’t say: because I’ve only known him for 2 weeks, and I don’t have his phone number yet.) Sarah texted it to me right away. I asked her to give him a heads-up before I called. She did.

My phone only works on speaker. I dialed his number, turned the speaker on, and we all sat at the table together waiting for him to pick up.

(Please, Jesus, don’t let this be awkward. I know we’ve shared just a handful of words and one really huge hug, but pleeeeeease let him remember who in the heck I am.)


“Hello. Pastor Jan?”


“This is Marla. From church.”

4 thoughts on “finding freedom {part 1}

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