31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
August 6, 2017
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Her name is Sang Ly, and although Camron Wright bases his work of fiction, The Rent Collector, on her, she is a real person. A real person who lives in a municipal waste dump called Stung Meanchy, in the capital city of Cambodia – or rather Sang Ly and her husband live on the edges of this 100 acre dump, in a three walled shed with a sheet of canvas for the fourth wall.
Their sixteen month old son, who should be talking, laughing, and toddling about is so chronically ill that Sang Ly can easily carry him in one arm. Despite taking him to Western doctors who give him antibiotics, despite taking him to local healers who practice ancient Cambodian remedies on him, nothing makes him well.
It is no wonder to me that their child is chronically ill – they live in a dump. When the rain comes, it creates rivers of toxic waste, but when the rain does not come, the fires rage unchecked. Fires and their accompanying smoke are a constant in Stung Meanchy due to the decomposing garbage that creates pockets of methane gas, that then ignite in the heat. “Monstrous government bulldozers..push the garbage around, hoping to reduce the hazard, but ironically, they don’t care who they run over and bury in the process.” (Wright, 7).
Sang Ly and her husband moved to the dump for economic opportunity, because they thought they would be better off there than growing rice in their rural home in the outer provinces, but sometimes Sang Ly wonders. She wonders if Stung Meanchey is really a place of opportunity or as Sopeap Sin says, the place where hope died.
Sopeap Sin is the woman for which the novel is named. Sopeap is the rent collector – because yes, Sang Ly and others who live in hovels on the edges of the dump must pay rent to the landowner for the privilege of living in this place that quite literally feels like hell, with its smoke, toxic waste, gang violence, and constant fires.
Sopeap Sin was not always the rent collector though. Once upon a time, she was a teacher at the university. She was married herself, with a young son as well, living in a beautiful home, but a war and government change took that all away from her. Now, she is an old woman who has no hope, who drinks away her days as she collects rent from the residents of the Stung Meanchy dump.
Stung Meanchy, the place “where the hope of tomorrow is traded to satisfy the hunger of today” (Wright, 10). Stung Meanchy, the place where hope died – because how could it live in this place of poverty, danger, illness, and desperation?
Then one day, Sang Ly’s husband, Ki Lim, finds a children’s picture book as he is picking through the garbage. It has no value for them. After all, they cannot read, and it cannot be recycled for money, but he hopes, hopes, that the pictures might bring some joy to his sick little boy.
It does more than that though. This simple children’s picture book leads to Sang Ly discovering that the rent collector can read, that the rent collector was once a teacher, and that leads to the rent collector, Sopeap Sin, teaching Sang Ly how to read, opening up for Sang Ly the world of the written word and literature.
The simple children’s picture book, that has no monetary value, becomes the greatest gift of all, the gift of hope. It inspires Sang Ly to have hope for a better tomorrow, and it restores Sopeap Sin’s hope that she can make a difference in the world.
Without giving away the ending of the novel, because I encourage you to read it for yourself, both of these women’s lives are transformed for the better because of hope.
But how can that be? How can you have hope when you live in a place of such filth, a place of such poverty, a place of such hardship and suffering? The Apostle Paul would actually argue that hope comes from suffering.
In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul writes, “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)
Suffering or tribulation, as the King James translates it, does not always produce patience, steadfastness and endurance. Being “hemmed in with troubles” as the Message translates this passage, can sometimes make a person feel like a caged animal, threatened, backed into a corner, with no escape in sight. And that feeling often leads – not to hope but to hopelessness: thoughts of resignation, that nothing can or will ever change; a sense of victimization, that the world is against me and that my life is getting worse rather than better; a sense of futility, why work? why try? ‘no good deed goes unpunished’.
Suffering does not often lead to a patience and endurance that hones our character into a paragon of virtue, confidence, and hopeful expectation about life and the future, but it can. It can when we know who we are and whose we are.
In our Hebrew scripture passage, the prophet Isaiah reminds a people who have just returned from exile, reminds a people who have returned to a devastated and destroyed home, the prophet Isaiah reminds the people who and whose they are. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” (Isaiah 51:1-2). Remember the blessings and promises God made to them. Remember their faithfulness. And remember God’s promises to you. Look to God who will comfort you. God will comfort all your waste places – whether they are a devastated Jerusalem, a city dump, or the emotional, spiritual, or physical tribulations you are going through. When you feel like you are walking in the wilderness, God will make it like Eden.
Because we are God’s, because we are God’s beloved children, loved unconditionally, cared for by the Creator of the world. And because we know God, because we trust God, we can boast in our sufferings. We boast in our sufferings because we know they are simply polishing and honing us into people of patience, people of endurance, people of faith.
We know the rock from which we were hewn and the quarry from which we were dug. We know who we are and whose we are.
And so we have hope. We have hope, because no matter what we are going through, no matter how bad our life situation is, even when we feel like we are living in a dump or hell on earth, we know God loves us. We trust God to take our sufferings, our tribulations, our hemmed in with troubleness, and transform it into something good. That something good might not be what the world says is good. It might not be our expectation of good, but we trust that God is always working to make our wilderness into Eden.
Don’t ever give up. Have faith. Have hope. Trust God.