A Sermon: Be Ready to Move at a Moment’s Notice

This is a sermon I gave for Global Mission Sunday at Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead, MN on January 22, 2017. The Gospel text was Matthew 4: 12-23 (Jesus Begins to Preach, Jesus Calls His First Disciples). The theme of the sermon is adapted from “Passover Remembered” by Alla Renee Bozarth.

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My Home: Kravanh District, Pursat Province, Cambodia

Every day that I woke up in Cambodia this past year, I had to be ready to move at moment’s notice. I never quite knew what the day would hold or what my schedule would look like. One special, unexpected day was June 8, 2016. I woke up in Phnom Kravanh, Cambodia to the sound of horns honking as people began their work day. I could feel the intense sunlight beaming into my room, preparing for another 100-degree day. After eating breaking, my co-worker Vireak asked me if I wanted to accompany him for his work in some rural villages. I said yes.

To prepare for this journey, I grabbed my motorcycle helmet because we would be traveling by motorbike for hours. I grabbed my kroma (a scarf) – a necessity because it is used to wipe my sweat off in the hot sun. I grabbed my water bottle. And I grabbed my notebook, ready to take notes and learn whatever lesson Cambodia had to teach me that day. Vireak and I traveled around 50 kilometers that day by motorbike – we visited 5 villages and worked for many hours. June 8 stands out to me because Vireak was not only helping countless families with limited resources move out of poverty– but because Vireak spent hours teaching me, a foreigner and volunteer, about life in Cambodia. When I lived in Cambodia, I had to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. This is exactly what Jesus’ first disciples have to teach us in today’s Gospel reading.

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A special day, June 8, learning from Vireak

Our Gospel reading today from Matthew, Chapter 4 tells the story of Jesus beginning his ministry. Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee and sees some fishermen named Peter and Andrew. Jesus tells the fishermen to follow him, because Jesus will make them fish for people. And then something abrupt and shocking happens: without asking questions, Peter and Andrew IMMEDIATELY follow Jesus. Immediately. No questions asked. The story continues: Jesus went on and saw two more men named James and John and called to them. James and John immediately leave their boat and their father to follow Jesus. No questions asked. With urgency and immediacy, they follow Jesus. Inspired by this example from our Gospel, I want to challenge us today to reflect on being followers of God – how we are called act immediately and how we can pursue lasting justice and peace.

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Riding on a boat in the Gulf of Thailand – Kep, Cambodia

I accepted the call to serve as a Young Adult in Global Mission (YAGM) volunteer in Cambodia for one year – from August 2015 to July 2016. The Young Adults in Global Mission program of the ELCA sends 80 young adults into global service each year to 13 countries around the world. My mission in Cambodia was to accompany: to walk alongside our global neighbors, to grow in relationship, to learn with them, and then come back to the ELCA to share the story. In my specific placement, I volunteered for Life With Dignity, a non-profit organization that works in rural development and serves the rural poor focusing on education, health and sanitation, skills training, agriculture, and rural banking. My other volunteer placement was as an English teacher at a local public school where I taught 300 students with the help of a local Cambodian teacher. But why did I accept this call to serve as a missionary in Cambodia? The main reason was to force myself to be uncomfortable, and to be challenged in extraordinary ways. I know that real growth and learning comes when we are outside our comfort zones.

On many occasions, my Cambodian friends would say to me: “Please, when you go home to America, tell people about Cambodia.” Every single Cambodian person I met was grateful that I, an American, had come to their small, often forgotten country. It is my honor to be here today to give you a glimpse of life in Cambodia. But I must share a piece of history to put things into context. From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia experienced one of the most brutal genocides in history. Over the course of a few years, 1.7 million people were systematically murdered – 20% of the population. All of the educated people were killed. Cambodians suffered intense psychological trauma from living through the horrors of a genocide. A handful of my friends told me their personal stories of forced labor, starvation, being split up from their families, and being refugees for years following the genocide. While a genocide is certainly an important part of Cambodia’s story, it does not define Cambodia or its people. The country of Cambodia and its hardworking, strong, and incredible citizens have been building their country back ever since. The Gospel of Jesus Christ call us to be there for others who have been suffering – especially for the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten.

So, from 1979 until now, Lutherans from around the world have been contributing to relief and development efforts in Cambodia. I got to see that work of our Global Church firsthand, for an entire year. Here are some examples of this work: we, the ELCA, helps women have access to leadership opportunities, loans and banking, and job skills training. The work of God means providing health and sanitation training, access to clean water, and a quality education to thousands of students. The work of Lutherans in Cambodia means sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to many people who have never heard of Jesus and have never felt God’s grace and love before. We should rejoice in this important work. I want you to come away from today knowing that you are a part of a church that is transforming lives around the world. The ELCA is showing up in places like Cambodia and we are accompanying our brothers and sisters in every corner of the Earth – from Jerusalem and the West Bank, to South Africa and Haiti.

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A worshipper at The Lutheran Church in Cambodia, Krus Village

But there is so much more work to do, and this is where I turn the focus to you and me, as followers of Jesus. Our Gospel text from Matthew tells us the story of the first disciples’ decision to drop everything and follow Jesus. Those disciples followed Jesus immediately that day – but it wasn’t just a one-day service project. The disciples followed Jesus every day of their lives and committed themselves to a life of serving the outsiders and the marginalized. You and me – this is our calling. It a big calling – to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus’ love and mission was radical, and it is not easy work. But to be a follower of Jesus is to wake up every morning and be ready to get uncomfortable – to look beyond yourself, and to be ready to move as a follower of God.

I want to share a glimpse of how serving in Cambodia as a missionary has impacted me. One of the foremost lessons I felt so deeply while being abroad was that living in another country – being outside of America – made me feel the pain and joy of the world so much more deeply. Being outside of my comfort zone forced me to look beyond myself and really feel the pain of others. There were days in Cambodia where I would wake up and weep for the 65 million people who are displaced in the world today. These migrants and refugees are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the world right now. I would cry for those affected by changes in the climate, including farmers in Cambodia, whose livelihoods depend on the environment and so the uncertainty of agriculture production could send them into poverty. I would cry for children – especially the 35 million young girls in the world today – who don’t have access to an education.

Not only did I feel the suffering of others so deeply, but I experienced my own challenges that helped expand my empathy towards others. While living in Cambodia, I felt my race – the fact that I am white – every single day. By experiencing my race, my understanding of the fight for racial justice deepened. For one year, I lived as a wealthy person by the world’s standards and woke up every day knowing my wealth, standing, opportunities, and privilege. In Cambodia I lived in a brand new place and started a new life there, but I was lonely for most of the days. I can now understand the importance of hospitality because I was the outsider looking to be welcomed. This has been the value of global service for me: a deepening of my empathy and love, an understanding of the multiple fights for justice facing the world, and a renewed call to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So now that I have returned to the United States and live in Moorhead, I am following Jesus by working in our community. One example of my work now is that I serve as an English teacher for a woman named Gamila for 1 hour per week. Gamila and her family, who are originally from Sudan, live in south Moorhead. Gamila has her medical degree from Sudan but needs to learn English to practice as a doctor here. I know that each one of you has a different set of life experiences. Not everyone is able to do a year of global volunteering like I did. However, wherever you are, is the place God calls you to serve. Every day in this community of Fargo-Moorhead we have opportunities to listen to people who are different than us and to get outside of our comfort zone to be better followers of Jesus.

So thanks be to God for the work of our sisters and brothers in Cambodia and in so many other countries, and for the many incredible global mission ministries of this congregation. But I ask God to empower us today. May God work in each one of our hearts to be ready to show up at a moment’s notice for our neighbors who are oppressed, marginalized, and suffering. May God work in our church and its members to look beyond this one day of celebrating Global Mission, so that we commit ourselves to being peacemakers and justice-seekers every day in the name of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Nyat Kru Ellie (Teacher Elise)

A few weeks ago I was able to celebrate an incredible teaching moment that was 7 months in the making: Over one hundred and fifty of my ninth grade students stood up in front of the class and spoke in English!! Their presentation assignment was to state four sentences – their name, how many people they have in their family, and the jobs of two family members. I convinced nearly every single student in my four sections to do it. Some students willingly memorized their presentations while other students needed support from myself and their peers – but all of them did it!!! These presentations were an incredible accomplishment because the majority of my students are either lacking confidence in their English ability, afraid of making a mistake in front of their peers, or very shy. Unfortunately, one of the main interactions I have with my students is when they say to me, “nyat kru, ot bahn” (Teacher, I can’t). Every single time, I respond with an emphatic “NYAT BAHN!!!” (YOU CAN DO IT!). I have given every ounce of my effort towards helping my students believe in themselves. Here are a few samples of the magical presentations:

“My name is Min Hoy. I have 6 people in my family. My father is butcher. My mother is a seller.”

“My name is Sreynat. I have 7 people in my family. My mother is a housewife. My father is a farmer.”

I have the incredible privilege of teaching roughly 350 students at Samdech Ou Secondary School in my town of Phnom Kravanh with the gracious help of my co-teachers, Piseth and Daravuth. Here are the stats: I have four sections of 8th grade and four sections of 9th grade, the class sizes range from 30-60 students, and I teach about 12 hours per week. I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to try and explain my teaching to you… How to explain the public education system, the Cambodian teachers, my students. I can definitively say that my school here is the most complicated place I have ever been a part of; therefore, I won’t break down everything (the good and the bad) here on this blog post. It’s simply too complicated. I will say that the school has many cross-cutting issues that are actually quite similar to issues faced in education in the States: the divide between the rich and the poor, the difference between privately-funded and publicly-funded education, high drop-out rates, underappreciated and exhausted teachers, gender inequalities, lack of funding, an inefficient curriculum. Celebrating a public presentation of four sentences may seem rather simple or unimportant at first glance, but it represents the positive environment and creativity that I have been working to cultivate over many months. The following is a small glimpse into the goals and challenges I’ve had.

Because the Cambodian education system puts too much emphasis on copying answers from the board or copying from a friend, my students have a difficult time thinking for themselves. So, to grow their creative thinking skills, I often give them an open-ended assignment like, “Please write 3 sentences using the word should.” Just getting students to attempt such an assignment and not just wait for me to give them answers to copy has been such a success itself. For their presentation assignment, the students had to think of their own answers and were encouraged to be creative.

As I have tried to learn the Khmer language this year, I have realized that confidence makes all the difference when learning a language. Just a few small successes can result in a huge confidence boost! 90% of my students are extremely hesitant to answer in front of the class or share their answers; they are quite shy, especially with a foreigner like me around. Cambodian students are also gravely afraid of making mistakes and it is a fear that seems deeply embedded in this culture. One of my deepest hopes is that various lessons and assignments have given my students confidence and combatted the fear of making mistakes.

While teaching in Cambodia, I have put extra effort towards encouraging female students. Females in Cambodia face many challenges in this male-dominated culture and, statistically, girls are more likely to drop-out of school. Moreover, Cambodia’s extreme emphasis on female beauty has made me very passionate about helping my female students know they are smart – and that there is much more to a person than just how they present themselves on the outside. It needs to be cool to be a smart, strong, outspoken, confident young girl.

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Danet, a 9th grade student

 

In each of my classes, there are 3-6 students who normally would do all the answering, participating, and talking (similar to the States, huh?!). This is not an effective or encouraging classroom environment. Furthermore, those 3-6 students typically have private English tutors for which their family pays extra money. This is where the cross-cutting issue of wealth plays a huge role in my classrooms. Encouraging participation from all students is a small way I try to level the playing field between the rich and the poor and feed confidence into every, single student – not just a small handful of students. I have done my best to show that every single student in the classroom matters.

Finally, an assignment like these presentations creates an exciting and positive learning environment. When I first started teaching here back in November, I naturally started clapping when a student would answer a question correctly. Since then, one of my classroom rules in that every person in the room claps when a student answers (either correctly or incorrectly). Because speaking four English sentences in front of the class is a huge and scary task for the shyest students, I hope it makes them feel so proud when we all clap for them. My hope is that some of this positive feedback will make a student really believe they can learn English, and having that confidence can change everything.

It has been difficult to measure the impact I am making through my service here, and it is equally difficult to measure just how much of a difference I am making for my students. Sometimes I am not so sure that I have actually improved my students’ English reading, writing, or speaking skills, but I do hope that I have taught them larger, more important lessons such as: you CAN do it, every student is important, it is okay to make a mistake, you are capable of thinking creatively, you are smart, I am proud of you, and I am HAPPY to be your teacher.

My Top 10 Favorite “Little Things”

I’ve caught myself a few times lately thinking about Cambodia and saying to myself, “Wow, I LOVE this place. What an incredibly beautiful time in my life.” Taking some time to appreciate the little things here has brought me a deep sense of peace and gratitude. Here are the Top 10 Little Things that, usually on a daily basis, make me smile, giggle or feel thankful.

#1: Soam Raht (Rest time). AKA, mandatory nap time every day. From 12:30 to 1:30 pm all of Cambodia stops to rest, because the workday typically starts at 7 am and ends at 6 pm. And if I am away from my home and not able to take a nap on my bed, hammocks are everywhere. Napping in a hammock… Heaven? I think so.

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#2: The abundance of fruit. It was oh luck (watermelon) harvest in March, so they were everywhere. Sometimes I would buy a small one for 1000 riel ($0.25) and eat it for lunch on weekends. Now, in May,  swai (mangoes) are in season. They make for a great snack at school! I also like to buy one pligh bom (apple) for a snack on some afternoons – 1000 riel for one.

#3: The way that women hold my hand. It’s totally normal for friends of the same gender to hold hands – no big deal. Sometimes my co-workers will hold my hand as we walk to dinner. I was riding the bus last month and a random woman sat next to me and held my hand as we talked together in Khmer. It’s such a small act from these women, but it makes me feel loved and connected.

#4: Everything Cambodian kids do. Cambodian kameng kameh (kids) could not be any cuter. The elementary schoolchildren are so adorable in their uniforms. Siblings or friends give each other rides on their bikes. The flirting between boys and girls in school is absolutely hilarious.

#5: Hearing my favorite Khmer songs, “Su Kleat” and “Nhi Keng Jerng” EVERYWHERE. Sometimes I perform “Su Kleat” for people… Seriously. Sometimes people perform the “Nhi Keng Jerng” dance for me 🙂

Su Kleat: the chorus is at 1:40!

#6: Being outside all the time. None of the places I inhabit in my life here are air conditioned or fully sealed. Therefore, I live by the temperature outside 100% of the time. I teach and work outside. (Disclaimer: I have a fan on me almost always, except at school. Fans = lifesaver.) I feel my senses more deeply because I am outside, especially sense of smell, hearing, and sight. Even at night I can hear a full of array of noises that represent life in Cambodia – music from the pagoda or the neighbors, cars on the road, or the sound of a television.

#7: How awesome mhoot tuck (taking a bath) feels right now. The weather from March to May has been 90 to 105 degrees every day – KDOU NAH (SO HOT.) The joy I get from a bucket shower right now is seriously comparable to going swimming in the lake in Minnesota during the summer.

#8: The amount of sunsets I watch. Also, on some days around 6 pm, the entire sky is a deep orange. I feel God through the sunsets, helping me feel at peace.

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An amazing sunset while on vacation in March – the Mekong River in Kampong Cham City

#9: Cambodian Cross-Stitching. It has single-handedly filled all my free time and it is my favorite thing. Just 1 more month until I finish my Angkor Wat.

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7 months of work so far!!

#10: Drinks in a bag and portable drink carriers. My routine at school is to buy kahfey da koh (coffee with milk) and it comes in a bag for 1000 riel ($0.25). Sometimes I treat myself to a large fruity drink (3000 riel – $0.75 – pictured below) and it comes with a handy plastic carrier so that I can put it on my bike handle and make it home safely without spilling it.

Giving, Receiving, and Showing Up

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” — John 15:12-13

In my blog posts, newsletters, and Facebook posts, I have overemphasized what I do on a daily basis, such as teaching English, volunteering at an NGO, my daily schedule, etc. I am now, more than ever, aware that American culture places extreme emphasis on what we do, what we accomplish, and what we have to show for it – that is what some of you are wanting to hear about regarding my time in Cambodia. But what I want to explain is that my service here extends way beyond my work or what I technically do each day. I want to tell you about the intangible things – what I have given and what I have received.

As a missionary of the ELCA YAGM program, my mission, in the simplest terms, is to accompany my neighbors and grow in relationship with them. To accompany means to walk alongside, to break bread together (though, we don’t eat much bread in Cambodia, so it is more like eat rice together). I am here to walk with people and eat rice! It is so simple yet so profound. I am here to listen, to see, to ask, to laugh with, and to grow in relationship. My mission is not to change something, to give my opinions, to tell about a “right way” to live. Most days I am not doing anything except the most important thing I could do: be human with other humans. This is accompaniment for me – being, living, and showing up. So what does this look like? I will try to paint the picture…

Most importantly, I want to tell you about the times the Cambodian people have accompanied me. The times I have been cared for, challenged, welcomed, listened to. A few weeks ago I had quite a horrible week. It happens. My co-worker, Roatha, noticed that I was not myself. She said just a few words to me but I will never forget them: “Elise, I think on Monday you were sad. I worry about you sometimes, that you are lonely here.” She was paying attention and knew I wasn’t myself that week, and her care and concern for me was so genuine. There was another day when I was lonely and a co-worker, Sokchea, invited me to eat lunch with him – he had just a small amount of rice and some fish, but he invited me to the table. Sokchea accompanied me. There are the innumerable times that my co-workers at the school have treated me as an equal, invited me to sit and talk with them, and started a conversation with me even though they know my language ability is limited. They are patient with me and willing to engage in relationship with me. Patience… everyone I know here has shown me patience. My co-teachers, Piseth and Daravuth, accompany me as I teach by continually showing up to class and lending me their advice. In a country where it is unfortunately common for teachers to not show up to class, the fact that they show up for me and for the students speaks volumes of their willingness to accompany me. On the days this year when I have been tired, lonely, angry, homesick, or confused about why I am here, I cling to these moments where my friends have served me.

Because my Cambodian friends have so graciously walked alongside me, I have tried to wake up each day and give myself fully to them. These times I have accompanied the Cambodian people are not related to my job description. They are the in-between moments. My favorite moments of accompaniment are the moments of laughter and conversation. In my home/office, there are tables in the main area. On the days where I am particularly bored or struggling with my purpose here, I continually tell myself to keep showing up. I go and sit at the tables in the office and beautiful conversation with co-workers always ends up happening. I tell myself to keep showing up to school even if it is 100 degrees or 6:30 am, and I end up being quickly reminded of my purpose as I shared deep laughter with students or co-workers. I have also accompanied my Cambodian friends by listening first, and doing my best not to rush to judgement. There have been facets of Cambodian culture that I deeply disagree with or really do not understand. For example, the school I teach at functions very differently than my experiences in American schools; therefore, every day is an exercise of patience, asking questions, and trying to understand why it functions the way it does. Instead of seeing my volunteer work from the viewpoint that I have all the answers or the correct way to run things, I accompany my neighbors by seeing them as equal, valuable, thoughtful, smart, and capable.

I am indeed able to give you a list of accomplishments and things am doing while living here in Cambodia, but they may not be what you expect or want them to be. My mission here comes down to showing up each day for my friends and co-workers, even when I am frustrated or do not understand, even when I do not speak the language, even when I disagree with how things are done, and even when I am bored and there is not much for me to do. Showing up is hard to do. Really hard. But I come to the table and offer my full self and the people sitting across the table do the same, and there is such a simple and profound beauty in being human together. These are the relationships God wants for us and for our world – brothers and sisters of Christ who are willing to rejoice and struggle together, to bear witness to both beauty and pain, to be thankful and forgiving, to show up and listen to each other. How sweet it is to have seen a small glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

“The only constant family rule is that people have to keep showing up.” -Glennon Doyle Melton

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Funny moments in the office with Roatha

Ot Tuck (No Water)

Ot tuck. No water,” said my co-worker, Sothy, as we visited a farmer in Ksatborei Village which is 20 km from the nearest town. Sothy and I took one look at the farmer’s garden and knew that the plants were dying. “Ot tuck”, the farmer said. She has no water to grow her crops. We visited another family garden; same story. Ot tuck. And another. Ot tuck. And another. Ot tuck. The repetition of these words hit me hard. Clearly I needed to pay attention, because the Holy Spirit was trying to tell me something – trying to tell me to open my eyes and listen.

I told you in late December that the rice harvest was happening and the seasons were changing. Now, in the middle of February, Cambodia is in the middle of its dry season. The dry season typically lasts from around December to June, but it’s becoming harder to know when the rains will come again due to climate change. Climate change has made the seasons very unpredictable. So, for the time being, the dry season means dust. Dust like you could never imagine; dust that carpets houses, sits in the air indefinitely, and causes allergies. The dry season means no rain, for weeks and months on end. The dry season means no water in wells or ponds for rural Cambodian families.

Over the past few weeks, as I have continued to visit villages that are roughly 20 – 30 km from the district town that I live in, I started wondering about water. I began noticing that water holding tanks are empty. Fields are incredibly dry. People are dusty; I am always dusty. How do these families get their water? How do they bathe and flush their latrines? Is there any clean water to drink or cook with? I have slowly been able to understand the water situation during this dry season.

The primary options for rural Cambodian families to get their water are a shallow well, a family pond, or a river. I most commonly see shallow wells that are around 5 – 10 m (15 – 30 feet) in depth. Right now, most shallow wells are empty. Ot tuck. They look like this:

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A typical Cambodian shallow well

Some families and farmers have a pond that fills up during the rainy season and can help them irrigate their crops. I visited this farmer last week whose pond is nearly dry. Ot tuck.

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A family pond that is nearly dry

Other families, like the one pictured below, are lucky to live near a river that still has a substantial amount of water. Because of these farmers’ irrigation system, they are able to maintain this gorgeous garden year-round and improve their family’s livelihood.

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A family garden that is irrigated with water from a nearby river

But for the families whose well or pond is dry, what do they do? They walk for many kilometers to the nearest river to bathe or carry water back to their home. They buy water, with what little money they have if they can afford it, from a large water tanker. They find any means necessary to find water – walking to it, borrowing from a friend, or buying it. Poor farmers simply cannot grow anything during the dry season because they just don’t have water. This reality has hit me hard.

First, because this water situation could get even worse due to climate change. As I mentioned, the seasons and rains have become unpredictable and unreliable. Climate change in Cambodia can cause severe drought or severe flooding. The prediction for 2016 is that rain might not come until July, whereas it would ‘normally’ come around May (though, there is no normal anymore). If farmers cannot plant their crops in a timely manner, or get a good harvest at all, their family is at risk for extreme poverty. The problem extends beyond Cambodia: Water scarcity and extreme hunger due to climate change are affecting millions of people around the world. This Lutheran World Relief (LWR) article discusses El Nino and the 60 million people who are being affected by global drought and water shortages – a large majority in East and Southern Africa, and some in Asia. The breadth and depth of such humanitarian crises hit home for me now because, on a weekly basis, I meet and get to know these families who are facing drought and at risk for falling into poverty. It’s not just another news headline to scroll past. It’s real.

Second¸ because opening my eyes to the water situation in my surrounding community has made me realize my privilege. I have never had to think about water for a single day in my life. I come from a city that is known for good water quality. I have never thought about how water got to my house, in my shower, in the sink, or in the hose. I have never gone a day in my life without access to clean, tasty drinking water. And I continue to live in that privilege – in Cambodia – because I have enough money for it to never be a concern. Now I live in Phnom Kravanh, a large district town, where water comes up through the pipes at my home and I’ve never even thought about where it comes from and we’ve never run out. I have it whenever I need it – to shower, to cook, to do laundry, to drink.

So please join with me, by recognizing your privilege and all of the resources you have free access to. Join me in prayer for those who will struggle to find water today and the millions who are facing severe shortages. But it’s not always enough to pray for a few second and move on with our lives – so join me in deep reflection about how we can better use our own resources to help others and how the world can fight, together, for the eradication of hunger and poverty.

 

 

Communal Culture: From “Me” to “We”

The first day I arrived in my village, Phnom Kravanh, over 4 months ago, I started experiencing culture shock. Every day since, I have had to face the fact that I come from an individualist culture and pride myself on being an independent, trail-blazing, make-my-own-decisions type of person. We always hear this generalization about American culture and values – that we value the individual, freedom, independence, and so on. Well, wanna figure out how individualist you actually are? Try living in a collectivist, communal culture like Cambodia. Instead of placing emphasis on the individual, the culture I have experienced in Cambodia emphasizes sharing, mutuality, and interdependence. This type of culture is officially, in academia, called collectivist culture, but I’m going to refer to it as communal because Cambodia is literally divided into “communes.”

On my very first day in Phnom Kravanh, I went out to eat at a restaurant with two co-workers. They asked me what I wanted to eat and, without a menu to order from, I abruptly said: fried rice. You see, fried rice is not a dish that can be shared. It comes on its own individual plate and is only consumed by one person. My two co-workers, however, ordered two dishes together and proceeded to share their food during the meal. Thus, I had my first nudge to stop being so individualistic and live the Cambodian culture. Food – which is so foundational to a culture – has taught me many lessons about Cambodia’s communal culture.

First, I learned to order dishes that can be shared. Then, we set all the dishes in the middle of the table and we are free to eat from any of them. For example, think about going to a restaurant, deciding collectively which 3-4 dishes to order, and sharing them all. Folks, eating like this is like eating at a church potluck for every single meal!

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Sharing a meal (and stories and laughter)

Second, I have learned that eating alone is a rarity. For almost every meal, I eat with other people and community is created. I don’t get to run away and eat by myself if I’m having a bad day. Nope – my co-workers will be asking me to eat dinner and it will end up being a blessing. Eating meals together in Cambodia, whether as a family or as a group of friends, is sacred.

Third, I must always be prepared to share drinks or snacks. Example A: You go to a wedding and there are some pops/sodas sitting on the table. Do not expect to drink a whole can by yourself. Someone will take “your” can and pour it into their glass. This is completely normal. To be polite, share “your” can with a friend by pouring some into their glass. Example B: You buy some fruit as a snack and bring it back to the office. It is highly likely that your co-workers will just start eating “your” snack, and you can’t be offended. If you have a snack, you share. Example C: At my home/office, there is rack of drinking glasses where staff members take a sip of water. These glasses are not to be discarded, but reused. Even such a small thing as water glasses are for the community and shared amongst the members.

Beyond food, the collectivist values of Cambodia impact my English teaching. As a teacher, one of the first things I try to do is learn the name of each student. Names, I think, are a way to know students individually and on a personal level. So I came to Cambodia and tried to do that… And it is impossible! Why? Cambodia culture does not place an emphasis on names. In the Khmer language, I have learned to call everyone by a broad label based on age – brother, sister, aunt, grandpa, and so on. This doesn’t mean I didn’t try to learn my students’ names. I even went so far as to make each student put a name tag on their desk – with their name in English – so I could learn their name. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I showed up the next week and all of the nametags had disappeared. We, who come from an individualistic culture, love our name(s) for many reasons; maybe because it sets us apart or has special meaning. My Cambodian students indeed have names, but in the classroom they are viewed as a small part of the larger class. And so this has been another lesson of cultural learning.

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I wish I knew my students’ names, but I don’t..

Finally, I want to mention a bit of what I’ve learned about the family culture in Cambodia. Let me first lay out the American, individualistic cultural expectations: when a young person turns 18, they are most likely expected to move out of the house, get a job or go to school, and make a life for themselves (living in your parents’ basement is not cool). “Freedom, kiddo! Do whatever you want without your parents’ supervision!” Communal culture is quite a bit different. Nearly every time I visit a house in my village or district, there are at least three generations of the family – or maybe four – living in the same house.

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A house like this commonly includes three to four generations of the same family

The house serves as a “daycare center” where the grandparents or aunts and uncles take care of the little kids while the parents work. The house serves as a “nursing home” for the elderly grandparents who will be cared for by their children. Every stage of life occurs within the family’s home. If a child goes away to college for a few years, they will likely return to their home village and work there. If the family has enough money to buy another house (for newlyweds, probably), they will likely buy the house right next door and continue living, as an extended family, all on the same street. Can you imagine? It’s vastly different from American culture, but I think it’s quite amazing. Of course, there are individualistic-type Cambodians who move away from their family and make a life for themselves. Life is also different in cities, where families are becoming more individualistic. But on the whole, in rural areas, families here live near each other or with each other for their entire lives.

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All of these small things, on a daily basis, are teaching me lessons about life. Always, always, always be willing to share. Move beyond selfish impulses (especially with food) and share with those around you. Moments and memories are more special when they are shared. On the days when I feel particularly lonely or frustrated, a meal with co-workers reminds me that I am part of a community. I am not alone. Communal living requires trust; embrace that I cannot always be in control of every little detail (which actually, it turns out, is quite freeing). Think less about “mine” and “me.” Instead, view life as “us” and “we.”

“So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” -Romans 12:5

Rice Basics 101: The Rice Harvest

I knew next to nothing about rice before coming to Cambodia. I knew how to buy rice in the grocery store and boil it on a stove-top. Not only have I eaten rice for nearly every meal over the last four months, but I have also learned about rice itself and the rice harvest. Meanwhile, the seasons have been changing! In early November, we transitioned from the rainy season to the dry season. Here is an example of how the fields have changed (dry on the left, wet on the right). The golden brown fields mean that rice is ready to be harvested!

Things I Have Learned About Rice

  • There is more than one kind of rice. Actually, there are thousands of brands of rice. I didn’t really know this! In my first month here, I figured I would try to cook rice. So I went to market thinking I would just see rice and buy it. I bought some rice I thought looked good. I came back to cook it and all my co-workers were laughing at me! Apparently, I had bought a very weird type of sweet rice. I still don’t really know, but I didn’t buy the normal kind.
  • Rice can be eaten with everything. Have some fried fish? Eat it with rice. Have some cucumbers? Eat it with rice. And rice actually tastes good with almost anything!
  • Cooking rice is an art. I assumed you just put the rice in a pan with some water like at home. NO. First, you must wash the rice multiple times. Second, you need the perfect amount of water. Third, it needs to be cooked the correct length and at the right temperature. I’m four months into living here and haven’t been successful yet…

The Rice Harvest

At this very moment, Cambodian farmers are consumed by the rice harvest. Families are spending all their day time and free time harvesting the rice. Most of the harvest in rural Cambodia is done with manual labor, though machines are sometimes used. I am going to simplify the harvest process for you — because I don’t understand all the details myself! And I apologize if I make any mistakes.

Planting and Growing

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Planting occurred about 3-4 months ago during the rainy season in Cambodia. The rice had been growing in the fields for about 3 months now.

Cutting

Done manually, a harvester cuts the rice stock. It is done extremely quickly because the field is huge and they need to harvest the rice in the right conditions. I learned how to cut the rice and it is harder than it looks, friends (but I had a lot of fun trying)!

Collecting

After being cut, the rice is collected into bundles and laid in the field. After cutting all the rice in the field, a tractor comes and collects all the bundles.

Threshing

The rice stalks then must be put through a machine like what is pictured above. This removes part of the stalk and leaves the rice pods. It also involves some manual labor to remove the stalk and leave the rice pod.

Drying

Once the pod of rice is removed from the stalk, it lays out in the sun to dry. I see the rice drying in the yards of many houses. At first, I didn’t think to take a picture because I didn’t know that it was rice drying!

Removing the Layers

After a certain amount of drying (I’m not sure how much… this is all so complicated), the outer layers are ready to be removed. Then the rice goes from a brown pod to the white rice that we all know!

Eventually… Eating

Well, it’s supper time. I think I’m going to eat some rice now!

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“So, What Do You Do?” – My Daily Life

Monday & Tuesday – Teaching English

These days of the week are some of my most rewarding – and exhausting! I teach English at the local public middle school with the help of the English teachers at the school. The students are well-behaved and motivated to learn because they enjoy learning from a native speaker.

6 am: I slowly roll out of bed as the sun is rising. I shower, gather all the materials I need for teaching, and head to the school!

6:30 am: I arrive at the school after a short 10-minute bike ride. I find breakfast at a nearby food stand. I always eat rice with pork, and usually treat myself to a coffee! Breakfast and coffee costs me 3000 Cambodian riel (USD 75 cents).

7:00 to 11:00 am: I teach four sections of 8th grade English with my co-teacher, Piseth. Overall, during this time, I teach about 200 students. We have a short break in-between each class, so I have been getting to know the other teachers. They like to talk about Cambodian politics and ask me tons of questions about America.

12:00 to 12:30 pm: LUNCH. YUM. I eat with the LWD staff where I live, or I walk to a restaurant just down the street.

12:30 to 1:30 pm: The BEST part of Cambodian culture = mandatory rest (NAP) time each day. This is super important time for me, since my day begins so early in the morning.

2:00 to 4:00 pm: I teach two sections of 9th grade English with my co-teacher, Daravuth. Over the course of Monday and Tuesday afternoons, I teach about 200 9th grade students. (So, between 8th and 9th grade, I teach 400 students! It’s kind of difficult to learn names!)

4:00 to 5:30 pm: I lay on my bed. And rest. And sometimes prepare lessons for the next day!

5:30 to 6:00 pm: I eat dinner with co-workers Sovanny and Sokkim.

6:00 to 9:00 pm: My night-times always include showering, checking emails, reading the news, and journaling about the day.

9:00 pm: GOODNIGHT!

Wednesday, Thursday & Friday – Working at LWD

My main service this year is with the NGO Life With Dignity (LWD), a longtime partner of the ELCA that improves local governance and works to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor. I am the first long-term volunteer LWD has had in Phnom Kravanh, so I have to be patient when figuring out my role with the organization. It has required patience, asking questions, and being willing to saying “yes” to everything.

6:00 to 7:00 am: I have started waking up earlier on these days because it is a convenient time to Skype family and friends. I also try to do a devotion or read the Bible in the morning.

7:00 to 7:30 am: This may be my FAVORITE time of the day. I eat breakfast at a food stand near my home and it is so delicious – I can’t even put it into words.

7:30 to 12:00 am: Life With Dignity (LWD) starts work at 7:30. Each day is different, so I never have an exact idea of what is happening. I live by the motto, “Be ready to move at a moment’s notice” (from Passover Remembered by Alla Renee Bozarth).

Some of the activities during this time may include, but are not limited to: correcting English reports, writing funding proposals in English, visiting neighboring communes or villages, attending ceremonies or government meetings, attending a workshop or training, or joining the LWD staff meeting. Or, sometimes, I have a morning of free-time. So I read the news, study Khmer, and read a book.

12:00 to 1:30 pm: The glorious 1.5 hours that is lunch and rest time!

1:30 to 5:30 pm: Again, I am ready to move at a moment’s notice when one of my co-workers asks for help or has something for me complete. Or, if my co-workers are taking a trip to the “field” (where LWD works with the citizens of rural villages) I ask to join and learn about LWD’s work.

5:30 to 9:00 pm: I eat dinner, shower, reflect on the day, and maybe watch a movie if I’m feeling extra crazy!

Saturday & Sunday – The Weekend Life

Most of the LWD staff heads home for the weekend, but I stay at the office along with two co-workers – Vuthy and Vireak. I really, really enjoy the free time and rest I have found on weekends. It is so unstructured and beautiful. (I don’t have internet, so I need to have hobbies!!)

7:30 am: I sleep in until this time… Crazy, I know. Then I go eat breakfast my favorite stand next door!

8:00 am to 9:00 am: LAUNDRY. A quick tutorial on how to do laundry by hand: I soak my clothes in soap for about 10 minutes in a very large basin. Then I scrub the clothes with a brush and rub them together a bunch of times. I do a three-rinse cycle of ringing out the clothes and soaking them in new water. After the final rinse, I ring out the clothes really well and hang them on the clothes line. All my clothes are dry in one day. It really is a very efficient system, I have found.

9:00 am to 10:00 am: I take a quick trip to the Phnom Kravanh market. Sometimes I just walk around for fun. Other times I actually buy necessities and food. And I ALWAYS buy a coffee.

10:00 to 12:00 am: I cross stitch while lying in my hammock. It is peaceful and calm. I love actually having hobbies and free time.

12:00 to 12:30 pm: I eat lunch at the local restaurant with Vuthy and Vireak.

12:30 to 5:00 pm: I take time to rest and nap. I might end up watching a movie. I might pay a visit to Jasmine (a Peace Corp Volunteer) and her family. I also enjoying reading, going for bike rides, and visiting a local church on Sunday afternoons.

5:00 to 6:00 pm: I eat supper by myself at the local restaurant, because I need to be back by the time the sun sets at 6 pm.

6:00 to 9:00 pm: MOVIE TIME! I save Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights for movies.

I hope this helps clarify and explain what my daily life looks like! Daily life looks different for every YAGM and my daily routines often change, so we will see what the rest of the year holds.

Reflections On My Race, From a “Sa-art Sar Ba-rang” (Beautiful White Foreigner)

One of the main reasons I have embarked on this YAGM year is to push myself outside of my comfort zone. That meant leaving behind my comfortable life and willingly subjecting myself to new challenges. I knew I would be living as a religious minority, a racial minority, and a foreigner. Stepping outside of my comfort zone means feeling uncomfortable, and one of the ways I have felt uncomfortable in the last two months is because of my skin color. In my previous travels to India, I experienced my white-ness a little bit. But it’s different for me here in Cambodia, because this is my home now. I’ve been in Phnom Kravanh for six weeks and I thought maybe I would start to fit in. I want to look and feel normal here. But I’m realizing that I will always stand out. I guess today, especially, my skin color really started to bother me because it makes me stand out wherever I go. Every day when I bike to school or go to the market, nearly everyone stares at me. Kids and adults say hello. I am polite and say hello back with a smile. Today, while walking to lunch at a restaurant, four young children were screaming at me and shouting things in Khmer and so I smiled back. But these kids proceeded to follow me to the restaurant and playfully shout some words at me. I would turn around to say hello, and they would giggle. Then tonight at dinner at the restaurant, another child walked right by me and looked for about 15 seconds. And then she turned around to look some more.

What I don’t want you to do is feel pity for me because people stare at me. There are certainly many reasons for their staring. I may be the first white person they have ever seen. I may be really beautiful to them. They may be thinking, “What the heck is a foreigner doing here?” I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, because I have experienced white privilege for 22 years of my life in America. White privilege is everything from institutional privileges in our government in order to benefit whites, to the ability to buy “flesh” (white) colored band-aids at the store. White privilege is getting pulled over by the police and not having to worry it’s because of my skin color. So, it’s not a very natural feeling for me to talk about my race because I have been in the racial majority in 95% of situations I have been in; I have not had to notice or feel my race because everyone else was mostly like me. I didn’t stand out. For example, in nearly all places I have worshipped on Sundays, I have worshipped among people of my race. At my college, I was among the majority race. Even though I have many friends who are of another race, I would still say the majority of my friends are white.

So I have not had to feel uncomfortable about my race, until now. I sort of wish every white person in America could understand what it feels like to really feel their race; then, maybe, we might make a hint of progress towards racial equality in the United States. Just take a minute to imagine what it must feel like to walk into a predominately white church in America and have people stare at you because you are of a minority race. Imagine walking into a grocery store wearing a head scarf and all the stares you would endure. Imagine what it must feel like to get questions about your hair and how you wash it, or to have people dare to touch your “exotic” hair because they are curious about it. Trust me, I have watched the hair situation happen – just a few months ago in the US among people I call my friends. We have a lot of work to do in regards to race in America. And this is something beautiful about a YAGM year: living in Cambodia is nudging me to reflect on the weaknesses of my own culture.

But back to Cambodia… Another aspect of the topic of race in Cambodia is the Cambodian preference for whiter skin. My co-workers have explained to me that Cambodians believe darker skin tones must mean you are outside a lot (AKA, a farmer) and/or that darker skin just looks dirty. I have noticed that some people wear socks to prevent a tan on their feet and gloves to prevent a tan on their hands. I suspect that some Cambodians wear a hat every day to prevent their face from tanning. A common conversation with someone I have just met often includes them pointing to their skin and saying, “Poah k-mao (black)” and then point to me and saying, “Sa-art, poah sar (beautiful, white).” Or when I respond to people saying I don’t want to get married yet, one woman asked me if I don’t want to marry a Cambodian because they have dark skin. I also often get comments about my “beautiful and big” nose.

Now, before you judge this aspect of Cambodian culture, take a look at your own culture first. For me, I see skin insecurity problems in America – though with the opposite goal. Most white people in America don’t mind being more tan – myself included – and feel more beautiful if they are of a slightly darker skin tone. People pay for tanning beds, risk the threat of skin cancer to lay in the sun, and also go to extreme measures to prevent tan lines (I have done the two latter examples fairly often). So it seems that wherever you go, people are worried about their skin tone and/or trying to change it. When I am pointed out as more beautiful here in Cambodia, it brings me a small feeling of sadness. I want people to love themselves no matter what. Waking up in the morning and being considered more beautiful than other people just because of my skin color is an uncomfortable and odd feeling.

Another aspect of being a white foreigner in Cambodia is the assumption that I am wealthy and have lots of money. This assumption is… probably true. That, dear friends, is really difficult to admit because I don’t feel rich most days in America. But I live in the top 1% of people in the world wealth-wise, because I come from the US, my family has good jobs, and I have had great access to education. (Read more here.) So, I guess, here in Cambodia I am a walking image of wealth even though I hate that feeling. I recently attended a primary school dedication and noticed my race more than ever. Ford Cambodia and a few NGO’s, including my NGO, Life With Dignity, donated money to open this new school. The executives of these corporations and NGO’s walked up to me and thanked me for my monetary donation to the school, assuming that because I am white and attending the school opening that I must’ve donated some money. I responded, “You are welcome,” because what else was I supposed to say? At a recent social event meeting a friend’s extended family, the host apologized that his house was so small because he assumes houses are so big in America. I tried to explain that his house was actually bigger than mine, but I’m not sure he believed me.

I say all of this to portray just how eye-opening it has been to live as a racial minority. So, now I have a small, small understanding of what it is like to feel and notice my race. And despite feeling uncomfortable, I am glad for this learning experience. I am glad I feel really uncomfortable every day when people are staring at me or making comments about my appearance. It has made me feel and reflect upon my white privilege. But this issue also stirs in me deep hope for a time (hopefully in my lifetime) where our world will stop judging each other based on the color of our skin – this battle that humans have been fighting for many lifetimes. We have a long way to go to achieve racial justice for all brothers and sisters in God’s beautiful kingdom, but we begin the journey to justice by listening, hearing, and empathizing. Because we are not white, black, or brown. We are sisters and brothers, and one in God’s eyes.

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3: 26-29

The Cambodian Joy

I live in a place of joy. I live in a place with copious amounts of laughter. And for these things, I praise God.

Today marks two weeks since I moved here to Phnom Kravanh and to the Life With Dignity (LWD) Phnom Kravanh office. You see, I live in the workplace of an NGO (non-governmental organization) focusing on rural development. There are 18 employees at this LWD office who live here Monday to Friday, most of whom have a permanent home in another province where they return to their families for the weekend. So it would be easy for this place to seem like an “office” or “where I work.” But these staff – my friends and family, I’ll call them – make this place home for me.

It’s the endless stream of laughter that has helped me through all the newness – being bombarded and overwhelmed with the language, adjusting to the food, and not quite knowing what I should be doing on a daily basis. I feel the Cambodian joy when I walk down the street and kid after kid says “hello” to me with a beaming smile.  I feel the Cambodian joy when I say a sentence in Khmer to someone new, and they are so surprised that they can’t help but giggle and grin. I feel the Cambodian joy in the moments where I am taking things too seriously, and the LWD staff remind me to loosen up. I felt the Cambodian joy on my birthday last week when the staff surprised me with a celebration that included sweets, fruits, singing, and gifts. And I felt the Cambodian joy as I was preparing to post this blog, when we had a 30-45 minute afternoon snack break with fruits and sweets!

Laughter and joy at my birthday celebration

Laughter and joy at my birthday celebration

Maybe my favorite moments of joy and laughter have come in my first three English lessons to the LWD staff. For Lesson One, I asked the staff to write a few sentences about themselves as an introduction. Vuthy wrote, “I have 1.5 children” (because his wife is pregnant), to which all of us laughed and laughed… and laughed. For Lesson Two, we practiced asking questions like, “What will you eat for dinner?” Oumuet mistakenly responded, “I will eat coffee for dinner”, which we laughed about for the rest of the class. During Lesson Three, I asked Oumuet what he ate for dinner last night and we had a nice giggle about eating coffee.

You know, I like to think that I am a pretty joyful person and consider it one of my gifts from God – and maybe I have brought a tiny bit of joy to someone here in Cambodia. But my Cambodian hosts and the Cambodians I have met have schooled me in the practice of joy. Because joy isn’t the same as happiness; happiness is a fleeting feeling that comes and goes, but joy is a state of being. Joy is hopeful and humorous. Joy permeates every action, interaction, and thought. Joy does not promise there will not be struggle or pain, but joy reminds us that there is light in the darkness.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” — Romans 15:13