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Around 9 p.m., I stepped outside to enjoy the cooler evening air. Right on my heels was our dog Belle, her mouth holding a bright rubber ball.

After tossing Belle’s ball down our dead-end street a few times, I struck up a conversation with a guy from several houses down who was also enjoying the evening breeze. We had never met, but chatting about my well-behaved dog was an easy way in.

Naturally, he wondered what I was doing in Cambodia, and I told him that I’m a teacher and a Christian—literally, “on Jesus’ side.” He quickly responded, “Christianity and Buddhism are both good; they teach people to live good lives.”

Most Cambodians respond this way. They don’t want to offend me, of course, but also their answer reveals that they conceive of religion primarily as a set of ethical rules, a list of dos and don’ts.

“Brother, why do you think Christians do good things?” I asked him as I tossed the ball for Belle again.

“They are trying to earn merit for their next life.” His answer didn’t surprise me. He was using his Buddhist framework of “do good, get good” and applying that to Christianity.

Not wanting to shame him by directly correcting him, I gently shared with him how I believe that Jesus loves me and how that love spurs me on to want to do good things.

There was no conversion that night, no spectacular come-to-Jesus moment. I wasn’t pushing for that either. This was our very first conversation. Evangelism, especially with older Cambodians, is usually a long, slow process, one that involves removing a lot of rocks (misconceptions or stereotypes) before even planting seeds.

My goal is to be present in my community and to build relationships with those I can. I want my neighbors to know a real, live Christian.

Belle and I will be out there again.

Justin Van Zee serves with Resonate Global Mission in Cambodia, where Christians make up only about 2% of the population. Justin disciples and trains young, first-generation believers in Cambodia so they are equipped to share the gospel and disciple others. Learn more about his ministry here.

This reflection was originally published on The Network.