Kampong Chhnang. An exotic sounding place situated several hours by road from Phnom Penh. We were not there as sightseers and wrenched from my comfort zone, I wondered what I was doing here outside a Cambodian prison. But after submitting to a thorough search of our belongings, we stepped through the barred gates. They clanged shut behind us and we entered a different world. The oppressive atmosphere weighed on my soul, yet I was merely a visitor, part of a small group come to lift the spirits of the inmates for a brief hour or two.
To our interpreter, as a former inmate of Communist concentration camps, this was familiar ground. It wasn't entirely strange to us either, having visited a Thai prison at Chon Buri the previous year. There, two thousand young men attended our concert. But it seemed to me they possessed hope. Here, it was obvious hope didn't exist.
It is said the eyes are the windows of the soul. When we communicate with another person, we search their eyes for that glimmer of understanding, that flicker of interest, that spark of accord or dissent. We see the person inside. But the eyes of these prisoners were lifeless. I could only see fleeting sidelong glances, downcast eyes, and deadpan expressions. Their souls were as barred to human emotions as their bodies within the confines of their cells were barred from normal life. They were crushed beings learning to survive by building barricades against both the humiliation hurled at them from without and the ravages of guilt within.
Did they deserve to be here? Yes. Some for taking a life. Some for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many had been implicated in the the drug culture and all that involves. All were probably guilty of the charges against them. But that wasn't the point. We were here to offer that elusive thing ... comfort.
Could they accept it?
The prison chaplain, a doctor who had given up his lucrative practice to minister to his suffering countrymen, welcomed us warmly. I felt humbled by his sacrificial attitude. We only stopped in from the big, free, outside world, and soon would fly out again. He would stay the course.
I hated the way the prison authorities yelled and bullied their charges into a neat formation before marching them in lines to an open-sided shelter absent of chairs. All sat cross-legged like small children, with a warden parading before them, daring anyone to move. Not exactly a great lead up to our concert. I struggled against the indignity, I struggled against the turmoil f my emotions. But as they say, the show must go on. We all felt the same way, and we carefully set our masks in place and began our performance.
Packages from World Vision were on hand for distribution, and though longing to distribute them immediately, we resisted, cautioned by the thought they might believe them to be some sort of bribe to gain our attention. No, we ourselves would have to gain that respect. Yes, we offered them all we could. The freedom to applaud or not to applaud. To laugh, or remain stone-faced. They would be free to give or withhold. It wasn't much, merely a "cup of cold water water" offered in Jesus' name, but it seemed like a small triumph for us.
Guitars strummed and young singers broke into joyful songs set to haunting, rhythmic Kmer melodies. Toes wiggled to the beat, but no change of expression. I taught them a simple action song in English, this time asking for their participation. A couple of guards leaning against posts got caught up in the spirit of things and entered in, somehow signaling the prisoners to join in, too. A little more unbending. More songs, and this time, forgetting themselves, they clapped along.
The chaplain prayed. I couldn't understand a word, but he poured his heart and soul into that passionate prayer. The prisoners were silent, as in a holy hush. My husband recounted an inspiring Bible story while I illustrated it. Bible stories translate well into any culture, and our interpreter threw himself into his role. Even though I faced my chalkboard, I knew our audience was spellbound, hanging on every word. And when I'd finished my sketching, I looked around. The sullenness had disappeared, replaced almost imperceptibly by something else. Was it a fragile interest peeping through that empty dwelling place of the heart?
The interpreter concluded the concert with a short prayer, inviting any who wished to know more about Jesus to accept a Cambodian New Testament. The chaplain whispered that he felt the prisoners had been listening and weighing up everything we said. Then came a formal speech of thanks from the prison warden, who ended with a stiff bow as I handed my sketch to him. Well, the Word of God had been shared; what more could we do? As the band started up again, we did something usually frowned upon by prison authorities. Yet itseemed as if the Lord had touched our hearts to connect with theirs. Walking among the prisoners, we warmly shook hands with the males and embraced the females. Men with men, and women with women, respecting their customs.
How do I explain what happened next?
The atmosphere changed dramatically. An undercurrent was released. A complete transformation unfolded as for the first time, we saw a visible response. Tears welled in the the eyes of prisoners and overflowed. Smiles appeared like shafts of light penetrating the darkness. Women hugged us in return. Men relaxed taut muscles.
What had cut through those strongholds of unbelief and despair, breaking down those mighty barriers of self-preservation? Why, the power of God, alone, through the application of a small thing: touch.
We had touched them, the untouchable. As ambassadors of the living Lord, we identified with them as individuals, releasing a sudden surge of hope that maybe God could, too. Hadn't Jesus identified with them by suffering humiliation at the hands of men without mercy? And wasn't he punished for their sins even though He was innocent?
We believe Hope was born that day. Hope that things could change. God had used us to display the power of compassion. The power of touch. The power to set the captives free from the prison of their souls.
* Published author, Rita recently returned from ministry in Thailand among the Hmong hill tribes and Buddhist government schools. If you'd like to receive her colorful one-time report via email, see her website, at www.ritastellagalieh.com and go to contact.