Cambodia, Missions, service

5 Lessons We Learned Serving at Cookson Hills

Rod and Tina Johnson’s Story

God moves and speaks in ways that are unique to each one of us. He is a God of persons as well as a God of people. He will always have a very individual relationship with you as well as your marriage, family, church, culture, and country. God uses unique experiences to speak in unique ways to each individual.

Back in 2010, God started getting my attention, moving my heart towards Him, speaking to me and I started listening. Really listening like I hadn’t done before. When He had my attention, He started telling me it was time for a change. That change involved my whole life. It also included my family and their lives. God had us leave where we were and go into full-time ministry. As we searched out how that would look, we looked into ministry and missions. We were ready to head out into foreign missions if God wanted us to, but God said, “not yet”.  He first had to get us ready and that involved stripping us and equipping us. To do that, He took us to Cookson Hills.

We spent five and a half years living and working at Cookson Hills. God used this time to get us ready for the foreign mission field by teaching us these five valuable lessons.  

1. We had to die to the “American Dream”.  What culture tells us we need and want is very different from God’s Kingdom. We walked away from our jobs, schools, neighborhood, house, stuff, and left our friends, families, and church. After we sold our house and about a third of what we had, we moved 600 miles away to rural Oklahoma where we knew no one. We were following God with reckless abandonment. This was our first time really stepping out in faith and trusting God for a future where we had no idea what would happen. Many didn’t understand and told us we were crazy, including some of our own family, but God asked “Do you trust me?” 

2. Live with what you have instead of what you want. This was a time to learn to be content in all circumstances. Living minimally is a new trend in this society yet the people at Cookson Hills have perfected it for years. 

service, community, mentor
Rod and Tina with Jack Moody

3. Working in ministry is still messy. Most people come in thinking this will be great, we are all Christians and we will all get along. But every person in ministry is a fallen sinful person who needs God’s grace as well as each other’s. We still had to learn to work with others, listen, lay down our pride, and forgive. As Jack Moody (Rod’s mentor who has been at Cookson Hills for 53+ years) said to us on our second day there, “Keep your eyes on God and not on what anybody else is doing or not doing. If you do that you’ll do just fine here.” 

4. God does not call the equipped, he equips the called. When you say “YES” to God before you know what the question is, He will put you into positions that you are not equipped for. As we have learned, God does not call the equipped, He equips those who answer His call. God put us into positions at Cookson Hills we didn’t have experience in. Yet, He quickly enabled us to do the things He had planned for us to do. When God does it this way, He gets all the glory and we do not get proud, because we never could have done it on our own.

5. Do not underestimate the role of the family. Family can come in many shapes, sizes, and even colors. The family of God is made up in the very same way. When a child does not have a family or a healthy one, it impacts every part of that child’s life. They are often left with a big hole in their heart. At Cookson Hills, we had the unique opportunity to model the love of a family for these children. We got to share with them the hope that it can look different. This kind of love is lived out not only in the home setting with their houseparents but all across the campus.  

Whether it is in the school with their teachers or other school staff, their social worker, the cooks, the maintenance personnel, or even the friendly person sitting at the desk in the main office.  These children are shown that they are worth loving and that they are part of something much bigger than themselves.  The staff at Cookson Hills have a beautiful opportunity to model an extravagant kind of love. It was first modeled for them by Jesus Christ. The exciting thing about this love and family at Cookson Hills is that it eventually gives birth to hope. The hope that these children can experience something very different than their past…a loving family and the love of their Heavenly Father.


Most of the kids placed at Cookson Hills have been through some kind of trauma. This was really important when God brought us into the foreign mission field in Cambodia. This is a country full of people who have experienced trauma due to a mass genocide in the 1970’s followed by war. 

Many of the skills we learned at Cookson Hills we are able to use in Cambodia. We walk alongside people going through hard times. Helping them to know and understand there is a God who loves them and can heal them. Not only from their trauma but from the sin in their lives so that they can experience the love of the Father and have true peace. So many of the young people we work with are first-generation Christians in need of spiritual mentors and biblical wisdom.

mission, service
Rod and Tina with several young Khmer.

Most every day as we serve in Cambodia, we are reminded of the things God taught us in our time at Cookson Hills. We praise and thank Him for that time as He taught and equipped us for so much more. Then there are also the lifelong friendships that He blessed us with from that time. People who love our Lord and love us. They pray continually for us as we pray for them. It was hard to leave Cookson Hills when God called us to the mission field, but there is such blessing in being obedient. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR — Rod and Tina Johnson worked at Cookson Hills from 2011 – 2017, Tina as a Social worker, and Rod in maintenance. They were senior class sponsors twice and led each group on a mission trip. Tina enjoys having coffee with a friend, eating hot chocolate cookies, and being part of a team. Rod enjoys being outdoors, building friendships, and giving/receiving hugs. They are currently serving in Battambang, Cambodia with Youth With A Mission (YWAM).