She hoped that what seemed impossible in her native Cambodia really wasn't.
A student leader and veteran of Cru conferences, Sovannraksmey “Smey” Chhith already learned about and committed to tell people about Christ. She also learned how to help young believers grow in their faith and even how to train them to tell others about Christ.
But, back on her campus, the Royal University of Phnom Penh, that training wasn't becoming a reality. Many of her fellow students wavered under pressures and temptations. Christians gathered together on her campus, but it seemed to stop at that.
The 21-year old sociology major wondered how to make things different. How could she get students to apply what they learned and join her in reaching Cambodia?
She soon discovered she wasn't the only one with that question.
Cru staff members have asked similar questions. Students seemed to understand the idea of moving beyond just filling up their weekly meetings with people – instead to spark a lasting legacy of young leaders that continues after graduation. But something hindered them carrying out that vision.
"We found that our students are at a loss," said Glenn Velasco, a staff member in the Philippines. "They were waiting on the staff members to know what to do and were fearful of making wrong decisions."
So Southeast Asian leaders attempted something new to concentrate on these concerns.
Tucked away between palm tree plantations and dragon fruit stands of Malaysia, 108 hand-picked student leaders, including Smey, gathered for a 6-day event focused on building spiritual movements. They gathered in Port Dickson, one hour south of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
A first-of-its-kind student congress, the event hosted participants from 7 Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Philippines and Cambodia. Instead of only talking about the vision of spiritual movements, the congress team asked participants questions about what works, what doesn't and what could be better.
"This congress was unique in its focus on hearing from students rather than putting on a conference for students," says Philip Zimmerman, a leader from Cru's Global Campus Ministry office.
The interactive environment allowed the students to debate tough questions, first in small groups, then with the entire congress. Discussions occurred beyond their meeting room, whether on the beach with the Strait of Malacca tickling their toes, or over group meals, dining in the hot, sticky Malaysian summer air. They spoke openly of their own successes, failures and challenges.
Still, Smey wanted more.
"We don't have a lot of ideas and really want to see why," she said. "We learn a lot from Cru and get a vision, but only apply some of it. Sometimes we just learn but don't get any practice."
That practice can't happen in a mock setting. Unlike learning about evangelism or how to lead a Bible study, building spiritual movements is much bigger than a lesson, discovering a system or applying a tool. And it takes time to become a reality.
Instead, the congress emphasized its theme of “Journey for a Lifetime.” Staff members hoped new connections made during the week would result in many years of encouragement and insight reaching across both land and sea. The hilarity during group games and mealtimes created many inside jokes and nicknames.
These bonds quickly formed despite English being the only universal language among the diverse participants.
For those more comfortable in their native tongues like Malay or Filipino, simple conversations instead became group efforts. Smey, a stand-out with her tall and slender frame, conversed naturally with new friends, while others regularly stopped mid-sentence to ask their fellow countrymen, "How do you say this word in English?"
In the same way, the students discovered their common hope – seeing everyone in their countries having the opportunity to know Christ – united them.
Telling others about their challenges back in their home countries stirred the students to pray for one another.
"They cried for my country and prayed through tears," said Malaysian student David Yap. "I had never cried for Malaysia. I saw compassion in them."
Smey wants to reach her people and is willing to make any necessary sacrifices, even if it means disappointing those she loves most. Her parents hope she will marry and move to the United States for better job opportunities.
"I know moving to the United States could glorify God," said Smey. "But I want to stay in Cambodia and do something for God here."
Even with Smey's commitment, taking the actual steps and finding others to join her have proven difficult.
She found some real-time encouragement meeting students like Basten, a 19-year old Marine Biology major. Back on his campus, Basten meets regularly with 10 new believers, helping them to grow in their faith and teaching them how to tell others about Christ. So far, 3 of them have helped lead other students to Jesus.
Basten is building movements, not just gathering people.
Smey and Basten are on the same path, both greatly concerned for their homelands. Basten is just a few steps ahead – representing hope to Smey that it really can happen.
Each student, approaching graduation during the next few years, committed at the congress to move from knowing how to leave a legacy to actually doing it, no matter where life takes them. After all, the journey is for a lifetime, not just the college years.
Equipped with new ideas and the inspiration of her peers, Smey's time in Malaysia began answering her questions about how change can happen in Cambodia, too.
She also discovered that sometimes it means not waiting for others to begin the work. "I learned to be the one to stand," she says.
Because Smey found a new community of fellow leaders, she won't have to stand alone. And now she knows her hope for the impossible is not in vain.
Editor's Note: Smey's story is part 1 of a 4-part series on spiritual leadership. Part 2 answers the question, "What is the difference between a ministry and a movement?"
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