FOOD FOR THE SOUL
Cambodian farmers sow community development
We know how to farm rice, but we don’t have access to land. We could help many poor families if only there was a field. Can CAMA help us?”
These were the words Pastor Joseph and the elders from Nazareth church shared with us in 1997. My family had recently been assigned to work with church-based community development initiatives in northwestern Cambodia. We desired to work alongside the Khmer Evangelical Church (KEC) enabling local congregations to demonstrate the love of Christ through addressing needs in their communities.
Pastor Joseph and the members of Nazareth church had lost their land during the Khmer Rouge era of 1975-1979, when Pol Pot’s regime killed at least 2 million people and destroyed the physical and social infrastructures of Cambodia. Despite the devastation and isolation of two decades of war, the believers were eager to study the Bible and learn what God’s Word said about community outreach. Since the average Cambodian household consumes more than 300 pounds of rice per month, the church members wanted to start a rice field project.
The church’s outreach committee initially requested a one-year loan from Compassion and Mercy Associates (CAMA) to help 13 farmers rent a 10-hectare tract of land (about 25 acres), buy seed and plow their fields. The loan would be repaid after harvest. A savings plan would also gradually allow the farmers to have funds to meet these “up front” costs each year.
After two years of faithful loan repayment, the committee approached CAMA with a request to buy 112 hectares (more than 220 American football fields) for $5,000. Most of the tract was covered with 10-foot-tall grass and some trees. It was located just next to “nowhere.” In fact, the hamlet of homes closest to the field was called Phum Kasauee, or “Weak Village.”
Could these hectares be made into something beautiful for God’s glory? It was a big piece of land, but the price was right. Through a donation from the Ratanak Project, a CAMA partner, we helped the KEC purchase the property with the understanding it would be used for local church outreach and food security initiatives.
“After I had given the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah, I prayed to the Lord: ‘Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you’” (Jer. 32:16-17).
The new farmland stretched toward the Tonle Sap lake and relied on its annual gradual flooding for the three to five feet of water the “floating rice” needed to grow in for a couple of months. Since the field was a two-hour journey from the Nazareth church, during plowing and harvesting the farmers from church and ones from Weak Village lived at the field under makeshift tarps. They slept on hay, foraged the land, caught snakes and rats for food and drank from small water holes. It brought the word “camping” to a brand-new level; any of them would have won Survivor or Fear Factor hands down!
Everyone worked together to prepare the soil, sow the seed and harvest the crop. The Christians also prepared the soil of the heart, sowing seeds of the gospel and praying for a spiritual harvest among their unbelieving coworkers. Each morning and evening all the farmers joined together for devotions, singing and prayer.
After the first year, a man testified during a church service. He had pushed an ice-cream cart through the villages, making a few sales each day to survive. But he was also the “town drunk” and used to beat his wife. He shared that the church, no doubt with some hesitation, had invited him to join the rice field project. But while living in the field he saw and heard the love of Jesus. He decided to follow Him and put his old ways behind him.
“‘As the rain and the snow come down from heaven . . . so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’” (Isa. 55:10-11).
Each year the farmers cleared more and more land, and the number of participants in the food security project grew. A co-op was eventually formed with 30-50 families. Some outside farmers saw that the members could not farm the entire tract of land, so they plowed and used 30 hectares without permission. In an environment where land laws are fluid, the outsiders argued that because they had cleared and plowed the field, it was theirs. The co-op offered to pay for the labor and other expenses, yet the outsiders wouldn’t budge; they wanted to sell the land back to the co-op for a high price! Church members feared that, if forced to give the land back, the outsiders would burn the rice fields just before harvest. After trying different approaches for three years to get the land back, the co-op felt it was best to “let it go” and continue with what they had.
During the third year, rats decided to make the field their cafeteria. To make matters worse, the expected flooding was inconsistent, and the water source for the rice was unreliable. People around the world prayed for this situation and for the release of roadblocks that had prevented a harvest two years in a row. Would the work go on? Would the farmers give up? At a group meeting the surprise decision was made to give the co-op one more year.
“Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:5-6).
The farmers and CAMA worked together to devise another plan for the field: If a huge dike with culverts that could be opened and closed was built around the land, the co-op could control the water levels during and after the Tonle Sap flood. This would be an enormous undertaking, and we started looking for help. God brought to our door a Dutch water engineer who was working on his doctorate amid the rice fields and dikes of Sri Lanka. He volunteered his expertise, and through e-mail and a trip to Cambodia, he helped the co-op to design an earthen dike. The farmers surveyed the land with poles and water hoses and, using a rented tractor, built a 1-2-meter-tall dike around the field.
While God provided the knowledge and science we needed, we all knew the results for a good crop were still in His hands! Just after planting, the farmers spent a day walking around the field, praying at every corner. When they came to the part that bordered the stolen land, they prayed a blessing for those who had taken those 30 hectares. The group of farmers also prayed for the land and the rice crops of everyone in the area. For the past five years, the co-op has organized a prayer time at the field after planting.
The year after the dike was built the co-op members received an average to above-average yield! They knew it was God who had caused the seeds to grow, had brought in the water and had kept the rats to a minimum. The Lord had answered the prayers of many! They asked CAMA to help teach about tithing, so along with KEC leaders we spent three Sundays speaking on the subject before culminating with a First Fruits service on the fourth Sunday. Everyone brought a portion of their rice yield to the church. Those who had other employment brought some of their produce, such as vegetables or soy bean milk. The offerings were given to the church with much joy! One lady, a widow with AIDS, had been a believer for just a few months, yet she was the first person to bring a tithe of her crop to the church.
“‘I tell you the truth,’ [Jesus] said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others’” (Luke 21:3).
In July 2010, we were having a meal in the village with the pastor’s family. One of the elders said, “When I first met CAMA [workers], I did not like them because they were not handing out rice and fish to us like other NGOs. Now the other NGOs are gone, and many people are in the same situation as before. Not us, though. I now appreciate CAMA because you worked with us in such a way where we can have rice year after year.”
During the past three years, the project has not needed any outside funding. Co-op committee members drafted a constitution that helps guide them on issues related to land use and field selection each year. Project funding is generated through a small “land-use fee” to help with administrative costs and is handled separately from church administrative costs and offerings. The farmers save for each year’s seed and plowing costs and participate in group activities such as clearing land and repairing the dikes.
For the past two years, the co-op has mobilized the rice field members to harvest the pastor’s portion of land. It takes 50 people one day to harvest by hand the two hectares the pastor’s family uses each year. This “tithe” of labor is a great encouragement to him and is a practical expression of love and support in an environment where pastors are bi-vocational. Last year the local church had to build a small grain storage shelter to house the two tons of rice given as offerings to the church. The church will sell the rice as church needs and outreach opportunities arise.
“’Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 3:10).
We give thanks to God for enabling a local pastor’s vision to become a reality. What started in 1997 has grown into a local church initiative that continues to provide employment to farmers, resulting in rice on the table. Most importantly, the rice field continues to be used in evangelism, prayer and discipleship. While I was visiting Pastor Joseph in September 2010, he shared that the church is full and growing! Farmers are discovering who Jesus is and are growing in their relationship with Him!