There's a lot of energy there. (You never know when two boys might run at each other with pillows and knock a tooth out). There's a lot of hormones (you never know when a bus full of middle schoolers will turn into a giant game of truth-or-dare, which then turns into kiss-or-kiss). Do you remember the teen years? There's always pain and excitement, competition, and deep friendship, foreign odors and foreign emotions, and, of course, lots of drama in the locker room.
But what about teenagers living in a village in a developing country? I have attended several of the World Relief sessions for teenagers in these villages, and while these programs are very different from the youth group I helped lead, and the students are a world away from the teenagers I know, in the end, teens are teens.
The World Relief Teenage Mobilization for Life program consists of several groups of 2-4 teachers traveling out from each provincial base to a different village every day to teach on a certain topic and fellowship with the youth in the village. The staff repeats the same lesson in a different community each day, and then returns to the same villages the next week with a new life lesson and biblical principle to share.
Because many of these teens deal with intense social, familial, emotional, and health pressures, the curriculum for these programs reflects this intensity, while still bringing a message of hope and joy with these warnings. Depending on the day, the students may learn about and discuss HIV/ AIDS and other STDs, families and friendships, abstinence before marriage, money management, self-awareness, acceptance of differences, alcohol, drugs, peer pressure, difficult working situations, wise choices, human trafficking dangers, violence, and commitment to their spouse and family. They are just kids, but many of them are getting married or preparing to do so, facing issues of providing and caring for a family, or struggling to avoid the trap of trafficking and harsh work conditions. Some are also learning the hard way about health and social issues related to sex and drugs. These lessons are always integrated with Biblical stories and principles. I can't imagine how physically exhausting the job must be, but the emotional exhaustion of teaching such heavy topics to a very vulnerable demographic would be even more difficult than the physical labor.
On a warm afternoon in mid-July, ten teenagers gathered from one of the communities to a typical session held in Kandal province. They chatted with each other, and made crafts, while their leaders, Yamat and Soheng, circled the village on their motorcycles to greet and gather more students. The road to the village can get a little rough.
There were some obstacles in the way, that made us ditch the motorcycles and carry on by foot, but we made it eventually.
Soheng provided crafts and games and led them in a time of singing, and Yamat followed this time with the lesson. Both leaders were visibly overflowing with love for their students, and the students reciprocated with fond respect. Yamat shared a story about a family and their struggles, and taught about the importance of being a good, faithful husband or wife, as well as being helpful children and loving parents. He spoke about the many problems that single-mothers have to face and the problems related to sex before marriage, using diagrams, questions, and sincere explanations. He then commended each student one by one, and allowed them to declare their commitment to a life of purity, fidelity, and wisdom.
Later that day, as the leaders waved goodbye, gave their final bows of respect, and pulled away on their motos, Yamat explained his passion in more depth: “I love teaching the teenagers through World Relief. Because I love Cambodia and the people of Cambodia. I know that I can help the teenagers through my teaching. It makes me happy to commend them to be good parents and teach them about health and abstinence and Jesus Christ, and they can learn to be good people.” He has an acute perception of the issues in the world of a teenager, and desires to address these head-on. “I tell my students that drugs are bad for them, and I teach them about Jesus Christ, and they believe me. And now they can teach their friends about it.” He follows the curriculum that all of the teenage teachers developed together, but also adds elements based on the needs of his particular groups. Yamat is worried about a few of his students who have decided to leave home and go to Thailand to find work, and wants to educate them about working conditions, trafficking traps, and family values, urging them to stay near their families a little longer.
Yamat has a special affinity towards teenagers, because his story of transformation began at that age. When he was 16 and came to know Jesus Christ, Yamat was part of a firmly Buddhist family who did not take to his decision warmly. His father found out about this change, and told Yamat that he would beat him if he ever went to church, but Yamat still wanted to go. His father then told him that he would kill him if he went to church. His father was so angry and saw this rejection of the family religion as a rejection of the family and culture. Yamat was frightened, but still could not suppress his love for Jesus. There was something very special about Christ's holiness that drew him towards Jesus despite the outside influences trying to keep him away. He desperately wanted to follow Him and learn more about Him. He would secretly meet up with pastors and other Christians outside of church to learn about God.
Some of Yamat's family members are now Christians. Although Yamat cannot go to a Sunday service because his weekends are busy studying to be a teacher at a university all the way in Phnom Penh, and his week is full of work for World Relief, he and his Christian family members go to services when they can, and worship God together in their home.
Despite the fullness and intensity of this program, all of the teenage teachers attack their work with a passion and love that are dripping with God's blessing and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. The fruits of this program are visibly present in the joy on the faces of teenagers who's lives are transformed by their promise to be faithful spouses, wise decision-makers, safe consumers, and devoted followers of Christ.
The teenage program goes beyond teaching these teenagers, and empowers them to become leaders themselves. Through the Bong-P'oan (big sibling- little sibling) program, the teenagers learn about important issues that must be addressed and younger members of the community are then entrusted to their teaching and care. The teenagers are given the opportunity to experience responsibility and solid relationships through this process as they become educators, mentors, and guardians for smaller kids. This effects the children as they learn about health and social issues, as well as the adults who see this good example of love and unity within their village. This is the Bong-P'oan training at the Kandal headquarters.
The leaders of the teenage program at World Relief face each day with compassion for the heartache faced by the youth of Cambodia, and humor to relate to and become one with them. Their passion is contagious, and spreads from the staff to the teenagers, and, in turn, to the communities around them, portraying a beautiful picture God's ability to work through individuals and to penetrate a land of devastation with hope, bringing smiles to weary faces and love to desperate souls.