An early morning departure from Phnom Penh meant our team's Daily Office, a spiritual practice involving silence, and the day-before debrief were both done in transit, which wasn't where we were used to doing them but seemed to work seamlessly. The bus ride was filled with rich conversation, singing, music, snacks, and of course, potholes. Our arrival at Shalom Valley was foreshadowed by glimpses of docks and something like canoes moored on the open ocean, but those paled in comparison to Shalom Valley itself.
With beautiful open green lands and fresh homey buildings, Shalom Valley sits at the base of a mountain just 900 meters from the seaside. Their camp runs entirely off the grid with solar power and strategically placed architecture that harnesses ocean wind to cool the buildings.
This place is blessed beyond its visuals, however. We first met the campers from Mango Tree School at lunch. Immediately we saw their bright-eyes and enthusiasm, sprinting to play soccer and giggling at our host MC's jokes. I spent much of the afternoon running the worship music set up, however, and doing so in a new space is never a quick process. One blessing was also an answer to my prayer: the music equipment we brought made it through transit undamaged! With this, we took a break from our soundcheck for afternoon activities with the kids, including preparing a space for planting fruits.
This gardening activity is a new tradition for Shalom Valley, which opened only 6 months ago. It is meant to give a sense of ownership to the kids through the act of creating a garden, planting seeds, and eventually seeing the fruits that their efforts bear.
Afterwards, we got together with the musicians from Mango Tree School to figure out what we would do for the evening's music session. I've never been in a bilingual music practice before, and let me tell you, it's pretty difficult! Working with new team members meant we all were carefully figuring out how to best work together, and everyone's focus and best intentions were slowed by translations and clarifications.
Sitha, a camp leader, translator, and singer was a major force in making the practice work, tirelessly translating and leading the whole practice. Tuo, Mango Tree School's main worship leader, was a huge help in choosing and arranging songs for this Cambodian setting. When we finally hit the evening session, we sang in both Khmer and English, and I couldn't help but think of the verse that goes roughly like "where 2 or more are gathered, the Spirit of the Lord is there." We were more than 2 individuals, but we were 2 communities gathering, and indeed, the Spirit of the Lord was there.
The night capped off with Craig from Alongsiders and Kevin from Mango Tree School / Manna4Life. Craig led us to a wide and deep circular ditch, full of grass and greenery. We sat on the ground and got a little rained on, which honestly was pretty refreshing after a day in the heat. Some of Craig's teaching was historical - this ditch is a bomb crater, a remnant of the US bombings on Cambodia during the Vietnam War. These bombings were one of the causes for the Khmer Rouge's rise to power, and we know how that horrifying story went.
Millions of Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge, and the trauma of that genocide continues to echo in the Khmer people today. Some of Craig's teaching was about reframing perspective - camps at Shalom Valley were not just about fun and games, but about learning, building community, and joy for kids who may not see any of these things at home. All of Craig's teaching was deeply rooted in God's love for this country and its people.
Shalom Valley was intentionally built in response to the traumatic aftermath of the Khmer Rouge reign, with the intention of providing a safe place to aid in recovery. The Khmer Rouge destroyed trust, so Shalom Valley is a place to rebuild the kind of healthy relationships God desires for us. The Khmer Rouge did not value wisdom and sought to decimate Cambodia's educated population, so Shalom Valley is a place of learning God's wisdom. The Khmer Rouge's devastation brought despair to these people, so Shalom Valley is a place of joy and hope. Today, we worshipped with our spiritual family on the other side of the globe.
Their history is not an easy one to learn and an even harder one to grow up in and live with. But hope cannot be killed, and our Cambodian family is pressing into a brighter future. But what might our role as foreigners be in all of this? Similar to our music practice, international missions are full of tiny details that can feel frustrating and slow, including language barriers, culture clashes, physical distance, and more. But just like our worship tonight, when we follow the call to walk alongside our brothers and sisters, we can learn from them, expand our perspectives, and our hearts can ultimately change.
Read more about Shalom Valley
Learn about our central, long-term missions focus, Cambodia
Consider joining us for an upcoming Justice Journey