Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Holy Ground

I think those who know me will agree that, despite whatever narcissistic musings and rants I may go on, fundamentally, I’m not a pusher or worshiper of intense, meaningful moments. I'm not prone to looking off into a sunset with glazed eyes whilst pondering the deep, meaningful nature of a butterfly passing by (don't get me wrong, I stare plenty, and I'll hint at epic thoughts, but I’m usually pondering the true nature of the filling inside a Twinkie or some such).

I guess I’m just saying, deep, life-altering experiences have always been in the Bible or stuck in someone else's sentimental log-book.  I've been stuck in the cold, harsh, and often dull reality of a paradigm that's formed, more than anything, out of a need to satisfy my boredom.

I only explain this to preface an experience that will no doubt come across overly-sentimental and almost preachy in nature. That stated: you have been warned!

Before going to Cambodia, Dean Ellis (my kind mentor who recruited me to write the book) mentioned in passing that he believed this would be an experience that would fundamentally change my life and how I view the world, forever. A part of me scoffed at this notion while a part of me skeptically hoped he was right. I suppose it will take a lot more time to see how these experiences settle into the fiber that is me before any real judgment on the matter can be rendered.

At about five o'clock in the evening, standing on a muddy grass embankment, overlooking miles of rich, green rice fields with rain-laden clouds hanging low in the sky, I had the opportunity to listen to a women recount in painful and poignant detail many of her experiences during the Cambodian genocides of the 70's.

While listening to her stories I couldn’t help but be moved, not because the tragedy of it all, but by who she was. Perhaps I’m jaded or simply a negative person, but I find it difficult to be moved to think someone is extraordinary due to having survived difficult circumstances. Hardships find us all at some point—though I won’t pretend most of us ever have to handle anything to the degree she experienced. I don't particularly believe surviving, simply making it through the tough times, makes someone special. To me, it means they held on. Admirable, definitely, but it’s to be hoped that we’d all do that, at the least. What we do after hardships, who we become and what we do as a result of those tough times, say more for a person's character than surviving ever could.

Perhaps my beliefs on such matters are why I was so moved as I listened to the heart-wrenching and tragic stories of this woman's life.

It wasn't the awful stories of countless friends and family members being brutally slaughtered or the hardships of her daily life... Those are sad stories, tragic stories, but this woman was so much more than someone to pity or to praise for simply hanging on.

As she looked across the fields, which by some have been labeled 'the killing fields,' the first and only tear during the telling of her story appeared while she recounted the last time she saw her father before he died.

Something about seeing another person’s emotions has a way of boiling my own to the surface. At that moment I think I began to understand why this woman became who she is today and why I admire her.

Many people survived the atrocities that took place in Cambodia during the 70's, but she grew and became something so much more as a person because of them.

This woman now runs an orphanage which is much more than the name implies. Using her own meager means, she struggles and scrapes by, trying to provide chances for dozens of kids and adult workers who would otherwise be stuck in lives of abject poverty with no hope of escaping.

It’s an absolute miracle that she’s been able to make this place work. She told me dozens of stories about when the money just wasn't there to pay for so many people to eat, to pay the rent on the building, and yet she persevered and struggled, set up internship opportunities so the kids could get an education, learn English, and prepare for college. The list of things this woman has done, and the challenges she went through to accomplish them, are astounding.

I have heard very few stories of people who have struggled so much for so long to obtain something for someone else. She has dedicated her life, not to her personal gain—she could have long since been rich if she kept her money for herself—but to the gains and potential gains of others. It’s not like she’s some rich philanthropist, tossing pocket change at a problem that touched her heart strings. She’s a bad month from living in the gutter. This is who she is. She gives everything she has, not just what’s convenient.

I am in awe.

Perhaps something inside me will never be the same. I hope so.

As she stared across the fields, finishing her story, Dean solemnly bowed his head and said, “This place, this is holy ground.”

I stopped and pondered what he said, trying to decide how to process the statement.

I’ve heard such things said before about areas where people have died, where atrocities have occurred. Such statements have never sat well with me. Perhaps the place is holy, but not because the evils which took place there, not because of the lives lost. I don’t believe a graveyard is inherently holy. No, if this is holy ground it is but because the type of person those experiences forged.

It took me a while to decide if I was okay with his statement. I thought and pondered. I stared meaningfully off into a dying sunset in a foreign land, surrounded by the squalor of third-world conditions.

The air felt as alive as the greenery that dotted the landscape. Several people stood nearby, tears in their eyes. They’d all been in the camp. They’d all experienced a living hell I can barely imagine but which I now have to attempt to capture in my own, meager and lacking words. It did not take long to see that each of these people is incredible in so many ways. They lacked selfishness and so many of the concerns so common in my everyday life.

I have no doubts.

Is this a holy place? Yes… I’m inclined to agree.


  1. Very nicely said! It sounds like a great experience.

  2. Wonderfully well said...a meaningful, moving, picture formed in my mind and a touching welling up in my heart...truly special people and for certain, holy ground!

  3. Beautifully stated. Thank you for sharing. I cannot wait to hear/read more! Holy ground, for sure.