The door of the bus opened and a blast of hot air rushed in filling the bus with stifling heat. I stood and stretched; my legs were stiff after the eight hour ride on the washed out roads scattered across the Cambodian countryside. As I stepped off the bus, all of my senses went into overdrive. The heat, the smells, the sounds, and the sights all overloaded my system. Sokhom, the Khmer director of Heritage House, found someone to ask if we were in the right village. He quickly found directions to the small, wooden, stilted house and we started walking. I immediately started sweating as we walked though the small paths cutting through the rice fields.
My family had moved to the Kingdom of Cambodia in January of 2002. It was now September 2003 and we were embarking on a journey that would change the course of our lives forever. We had moved to Cambodia feeling like God had called us to help orphans, little knowing that He not only wanted us to help, but to open our home to orphaned and abandoned children.
I now walked along the pathway to see the first group of children that we were bringing into our home. We had received a phone call from a pastor in Kampong Thom province a few days before asking us if we could house five orphans. As we approached the house, nothing could have prepared me for the sight that awaited us inside of that home.
The grandmother was waiting for us at the foot of the steps. As we approached, you could sense the demonic influences that controlled this woman. She had lived through the war and it had obviously greatly impacted her life. When Sokhom asked her about the children, she said she had sold the oldest three the day before and had only two left. She seemed to treat the transaction no differently than one would have if selling a pig or chicken. She bragged how she had gotten $25 for each child and was asking how much we would give her for the two youngest. It took all of my self-restraint to stand there and not respond to this woman in anger. We told her that we were with Heritage House – Home for Children and that we could not buy children.
As we went up the steps and entered the house, what I saw lying there is forever engrained in my mind. Kanah, a five year old little boy, was lying on the floor not moving. Beside him was his younger sister, Naomi (her name was actually a curse word; we later changed it to Naomi). Both of them were naked, had high fevers, and were frozen in fear. Their dark eyes stared at me and I knew that I had to do something to get them help or they might not live. Kanah weighed twenty-two pounds and Naomi weighed fourteen.
I told the grandmother that the children were sick and that she would not be able to sell them in this condition. I told her that it would cost a lot of money to get them well and that she might as well let them come and live at our house. I knew that the threat of having to spend money on a doctor would possibly open the door for us to take them from this hell on earth. I could see in her eyes that she did not want to spend money on a doctor. She relented and said that we could take them. We walked out of the house and down the dirt path to see the village leader. We signed the papers with the grandmother to give us custody of Kanah and Naomi. After the papers were signed, the village leader and his wife thanked us for taking the children. They told us about the abuse that the children had suffered under their grandmother. After their parents had died, the grandmother had physically and emotionally abused them. She would beat them, starve them, and demand that they beg to bring money into the home.
Once back at the house, the grandmother simply said, “Grandchildren, you are going with these men.” The children were almost to weak to stand, so Sokhom and I took the children in our arms and walked down the steps. With that farewell, we walked out of the village with the first children that would call Heritage House home.
Both of the children were sick, but Naomi was very ill. At 14 pounds, she had a distended belly and could barely stand. When we reached the road with the children in our arms, we flagged down a taxi and began the long ride back to Phnom Penh. All I could do was hold Kanah in my arms and praise God for allowing us to get these children. I also ached that we had missed the older three children by a day. I have prayed for those children for the past ten years. I have no idea where there are or what they have endured, but I know that they are important to the God of the fatherless.
After an hour’s ride, we stopped to get dinner at a roadside restaurant. I had no experience with malnourished children and innocently thought that giving the children some food would be helpful. Once the food arrived on the table, both children looked at me to see if it was alright to eat. As soon as I said yes, they began shoveling the food into their mouths with both hands. I have never witnessed anyone eating like that. It looked like two starving animals fighting for life.
After dinner, we got back into the taxi and started back down the dirt road. It wasn’t long before Naomi was throwing up all over the car. The children had never ridden in a car. The combination of overeating and being car sick was a horrible cocktail.
After a car wreck, a run-in with the police for riding in a taxi that ran over someone, running away from police with assault rifles who were trying to exhort money from us, changing taxis, and enduring the vomit smell for eight hours, we pulled into Phnom Penh. We were exhausted, stinky, and expectant to see what God was going to do in the coming months. Kristen, Sterling, Benjamin, Srey Roth, and Sophea were waiting at the gate with smiles spreading across their faces.
The first few days were filled with doctor visits, talking to specialists, and getting the children settled into our home. Two of the specialists said that Naomi had suffered too much abuse and that she would never be able to care for herself. I remember the one man saying, “I hope that you are willing to take care of her for the rest of her life because she will never be able to do anything more than basic life skills. You will have to financially take care of her forever.” At that moment it did not matter, I knew that God’s heart was for this precious little girl and that He would provide for all of her needs. I had an amazing wife and two sons who had joined me on this adventure and we knew that Jesus was doing something special.
We immediately began to pray for Kanah and Naomi. We sent emails to our friends back in the United States and asked them to pray. We asked God to heal them emotionally, physically, and most importantly, to save their souls. We started getting emails saying that they had a burden to pray.
It is 2014. Kanah is in ninth grade and doing great. He is really funny and has a quick sense of humor. He is a healthy, strong, young man who loves playing soccer and volleyball. Naomi, the little girl who came to us as a curse word, is in eighth grade. She has finished at the top of her class every year. Her name in Hebrew means, delightful, beautiful, and lovely. She is all of this and more.
One day she and Kanah will be adults and living on their own. They will be pursuing what God has called them to individually and advancing His kingdom in Cambodia.
At the ten year anniversary of the orphanage, we had a family night. We asked the children to recall what they remembered about coming to live at Heritage House. When it was Naomi’s turn, she said, “I remember lying on the floor and feeling like there was Someone who wanted to take care of me. I was dying, but I know that He wanted me to live. You brought me here and Jesus saved me, He gave me life.”
Kanah and Naomi are two of the twenty-seven children who have called Heritage House their home over the past ten years. All of them have stories just as real as Kanah and Naomi’s. The children continue to grow and the orphanage continues to expand. Ten of the children have grown and moved out into society. Four of the children are now married, three have children of their own, one is in university, several have finished vocational schools and are working, and Jesus is working in all of their lives. They are living in seven different provinces and the gospel of Jesus has gone with them. They are witnesses to His glory wherever they go.
Kristen and I are just a part of the team of people who have found God’s heart for the orphaned and abandoned children in Cambodia. Heritage House has a great board of directors, faithful supporters praying and giving financially, and an incredible Khmer staff living and taking care of the children’s daily needs. I am thankful that Jesus challenged us to step out and trust that He would reveal the Father’s heart to us.