A daughter finds life in Christ and a new relationship with her family through The Greatest Journey program
Children in the Cambodian village crowd around to hear the teenager read stories from her colorful book. They squeeze in and scoot up close, barely giving her any room to recline in an old blue hammock.
Thida is a natural. The 13-year-old reads to the children as if she’d been familiar with the Bible for years instead of a few months. Not a hint of nerves creeps into the voice of the sweet, poised young storyteller who captivates her audience with a smile that beckons them to draw near and experience her joy.
Her smile has a way of doing that. Thida’s warmth and tenderness put people at ease.
A year ago, though, Thida could not have been described as a joyful, caring child who loved Jesus. Her family would have labeled her quite differently. Thida herself would be the first to admit there’s been a massive shift in her life.
Thida’s heart began to change when she received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox gift. Not long after, she was invited to participate in The Greatest Journey, the 12-lesson Samaritan’s Purse discipleship program for children who receive shoebox gifts. During lesson five, everything began to change.
Every day the trucks stop at points along the busy highway to pick up and drop off garment factory workers. Thida’s mother, Sookcan, is one of about 700,000 Cambodians who work long, hard days in garment factories for little pay.
“Every day I go to work at the factory and I work for the whole week,” Sookcan said. “I have no day off and I work until 7 p.m.”
Sookcan’s husband is a contract worker who works different jobs like farming and construction as they’re available. She worries that even their best efforts won’t be good enough to provide for Thida, who has big dreams.
“She wants to be a doctor. I don’t think I have the capacity to support her to be a doctor,” Sookcan said as tears filled her eyes and she tried to steady her voice.
Sookcan worked hard, and loved Thida and her siblings, but her relationship with her eldest was strained. Thida never wanted to spend time with her and didn’t appreciate how hard she worked.
“I did not want to talk to my parents. I made my mother hurt a lot,” Thida explained.
Thida was disrespectful to other adults, including Sithan, her teacher in The Greatest Journey class. She talked back, didn’t participate in class, and didn’t talk with other children. Thida seemed to show little, if any, interest in God or the Bible.
A Different Thida
When a church near Thida’s home needed a teacher for The Greatest Journey class, Sithan, 32, was glad to do it. “I knew God was calling me,” she said. “When we teach children, we show we care for them.”
About halfway through the lessons the faithful teacher realized Thida had been paying more attention than she thought. The lesson that grabbed Thida’s attention—and heart—was about Zacchaeus.
“Zacchaeus was not a good man,” Thida said. “But when he met Jesus, he repented.”
Thida also repented and trusted in Jesus, and her life changed. Sithan could hardly believe it.
“She completely changed; she immediately changed,” Sithan said. “After Thida believed in Jesus she tried to help me in class and helped the other students.”
Sithan’s pupil was different at home, too. She helped take care of her siblings, respected her parents, and expressed her love for them.
Thida made her mother’s birthday one to remember when she gave her a special present.
“I told my mother I loved her,” Thida said. “She cried because she had never heard those words from me.”
“She cried because she had never heard those words from me.”
Thida’s mother and father were overwhelmed to see the change in their daughter. “I am very happy,” Sookcan said. “I want her to know we work hard for her. We want to raise her up to have a good future.”
Thida said she’s excited to be a Christian and feels like a different person. “I want to be a person who respects my parents, follows Jesus, and follows the plan God prepared for me.”
The “new” Thida isn’t shy about sharing the Gospel and telling friends and family what she learned during The Greatest Journey.
“She invites children to study at the church,” her mother said. “Even at home, she invites children and teaches them.”
Thida is also helping make disciples in a nearby village. She and five other graduates from her class go with Sithan and teach The Greatest Journey to a group of children who needed a teacher.
Sithan enjoys teaching in the neighboring village, and she’s thankful Thida and her former students wanted to join her. During the class Sithan lets them help lead in games, worship, and teaching.
She also invests in their lives beyond their time together teaching in the village. “I mentor them,” Sithan said. “We meet two or three times a month. I take care of them.”
Thida is learning from Sithan how to teach, how to lead, and how to love people in Jesus’ Name. Her mentor prays Thida and many children who graduate from The Greatest Journey will make a difference for God’s Kingdom.
“My hope is that my children will become strong leaders,” Sithan said. “They are the hope of Cambodia.”