Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Greetings from Cambodia

Plastic Christmas trees with glittery ornaments have been popular in the shops of Phnom Penh this December, but the anticipation and bustling preparations are distinctly missing. For me, listening to Handel’s Messiah and reading the lectionary every morning with my housemates has helped bring some definition to Advent here in the tropics.

It is the harvest season in Cambodia, and the rice fields have turned that lovely gold that glows in the dusk as the wind brings the weary workers home. But, there is also a somberness this year since so many fields were destroyed with the flooding. Thanks to donations from around the world, the Methodist Mission in Cambodia was able to distribute relief packages to more than 1000 families in November and this week again to nearly 800 more families in the impacted regions. About 10% of the farmers in the communities where we work have re-planted fields with dry-season rice, if they have sufficient access to water. There is a story from Mr. Thy on our CHAD blog about how church members in the village of Raksmei have shared their plots of land that are suitable for dry-season farming to highly-impacted neighbors who otherwise would have nothing this year.

The morning I sent funds to a new project group in Kampong Thom to purchase a water pump. Thank you to everyone who has contributed through Alternative Giving to support these projects this year. (There is still time to make a year-end donation!) While on a church visit last Sunday, Mr. Thy gave me an update of another irrigation group that was started 2 years ago in Svay Rieng. We helped the group to dig a deep irrigation-well and purchase a water pump. At harvest, each family in the group puts 100kg of rice into a savings fund for each hector of irrigated land. After 2 years of saving they were able to dig another irrigation well to expand the impact of their group in the village.

As this is my fourth year working in Cambodia, the sustaining joy of it is the transformations I am privileged to witness as leaders in the church experience new ways to live out their calling. These last two years I've had the joy of working with Rev. Sok Nora in the Kampong Speu district. I've come a long way from the feelings of frustration on my first monitoring visit to his church. But just as I have learned patience and better communication skills, Rev. Nora has also been expanding his vision. Mr. Thy has captured this in a profile of Rev. Sok Nora on our blog.

I've received several emails asking about how we celebrate Christmas in Cambodia. Local Methodist churches here hold Christmas programs throughout the month of December and even into January. It is a joyful time to take a break from the harvest and also to visit each other. This year I joined Toul Kork church in Phnom Penh to drive 2 hours out to the Kirirom church in the mountains of Kampong Speu. There were games for the children, a modern-day Cambodia interpretive play of the Prodigal Son by the youth of Toul Kork, songs by the men’s choir of Kirirom, a sermon from District Superintendent Hong Phally and the ever popular and delicious curry (both green & red varieties) with rice noodles. We finished off the day with fresh, organic bananas that had been harvested from the lay leader’s farm and then hung from trees around the church so that children could grab one as they ran by; they reminded me of piñatas hung to tempt children with treats. The harvest was indeed plentiful!

In the face of adversity and the terrible realities all around us, I have found hope in the powerful witness of communities coming together. Together to re-plant the rice, to eat bananas and to rejoice in the coming of the Christ Child -- the reminder that God is with us even here, even now.

With joy and gratitude,

NEW Office: House #152 St. 12BT, Phum SanSom Kosal 4, Boeung Tumpun 5, Khan Meanchey Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Thursday, November 03, 2011

homesick for what

Sometimes I get asked if I ever get homesick and usually my answer is no. But today I was reading an article (online) in the New York Times Home & Garden section about shopping for bathroom fixtures and it made me feel nostalgic for the summer when I helped to remodel the bathroom at my parent's house. I remember shopping with my mom to select the fixtures.

Life in Cambodia is quite good. I have running water almost all the time. It is room temperature, which is sometimes warm and sometimes cool, but I don't mind not being able to adjust the temp at the tap. Previously, we lost water pressure every morning, but now we've got a system for switching to the water tank during that period, so no problems there anymore. I even have a faucet fixture that I can push open and closed since I dislike turning faucets.

So what is it that I miss? Polished chrome. Construction is all low quality here. My faucet is often leaking and was rusted and unattractive within a few months of my land-lady installing it. It seems like a minor point, the water still does run after all, but I do miss those lovely shinny metal bathroom fixtures.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

a typical day?

I don't think there is such a thing as a typical day for anyone working in community development, but since I get the question a lot, I though I would start to periodically write about my day (or at least the interesting ones). Here is what I did on Wednesday October 19.

5:30 am - wake up in my apartment in Phnom Penh and check emails.

6:45 am - still a bit sleepy, I stumble downstairs and over to my neighbor's apartment where we have our morning "bible club." My neighbors include 2 other missionaries (from the USA and from India) who are professors at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and my best friend Heng (also our landlady). We are reading through Luke right now.

7:10 am - hoping that the water pressure is back (it often drops off between 6:30 and 7:30am), I head back upstairs to shower and eat breakfast.

8:00 am - I'm heading out for 3 days in the province (country-side), so I pack an overnight bag, charge my phone and my battery lamp (no electricity or running water where I am going). I dawdle over a few last emails as well.

9:30-10 am - I make my way through Phnom Penh traffic (it is crazy at any time of day) to go from my house near Watt Sansom Kosal to the GBGM office in Toul Kork. I stop at the Caltex gas station along the way to pick up coffee for me and Daneth. The gas station coffee is cheaper than at a posh cafe, but a bit more expensive than at a Khmer cafe ($1.40 versus $2.50 or $.50). I like it because they actually have an espresso machine and it tastes more like American coffee. Plus, I can get it with real milk and no sugar. The $.50 Khmer coffee with sweet milk can be a bit too strong.

10 am - at the office, Daneth loads our things into the office truck while I meet with Vannak to go over some administrative tasks on which I need her help. I've asked her to review and update our list of donor addresses and to check for redundancies. My email request to her wasn't quite clear so I give a quick tutorial in how I use Excel. We also touch base about the financial records she has been preparing.

10:30 am - Daneth and I are finally leaving the office. We negotiate the road construction at the intersection of Russian Blvd and Street 271 and are finally off in the direction of Kampong Speu.

11:45 am - arriving in Kampong Speu town, we pick up Rev. Sok Nora, who is the pastor representative on the Social Concerns Committee for this province and stop at a road-side Khmer cafe for lunch. They order Somla Mchu Yuen (sour soup with pineapple and fish) since it is my favorite soup to eat while we are on the road, plus Tom Yum soup and stir fried mushrooms with beef (and of course rice). The meal is less than $6.

12:30 - on the road again heading west towards the mountains of Kirirom. We get to the turn off about 1pm and then spend the next hour on the dirt road. Some of the rivers are swollen, so it is a good think that there is enough clearance on the truck. Sok Nora gets out at one point to check the water depth before we try to cross.

2pm - we arrive at the pastor's house where we meet church members who have gathered there. The pastor sends out word to gather community members who want to come and meet us. We tour the pastor's house, rice mill, new hand-tractor, etc.

We then have an introductory meeting with folks from the village. We listen to their experience working on other development projects and try to find out if they have any interest in working together on project with the local Methodist church. There is some interest, but we decide to proceed slowly because we don't want to create any competition between a project facilitated by the church and an existing rice bank in the neighboring village. No concrete decisions are made, but we have been able to meet and start to know each other. I think the pastor feels encouraged and supported to continue facilitating the community towards a cooperative project.

4pm - since the village chief is away at an event, after the meeting we just take a walk with the pastor out to see his farm land. He has a plot of land near the river with mango trees and where he has been growing diakon radish and other vegetables for market. I manage to collect thousands of sticky seeds on my pants and I think the red ants must find me particularly delicious, but I still enjoyed the walk. We learned quite a bit about the economic conditions of the village and also of the pastor (who is one of the more successful families in the village). We walked by the old church location and picked up a few young coconut from a low branch of a palm tree on the property. Back at the house we have a refreshing drink and then decided to go and visit the new church location.

5pm - I didn't realize quite how far away the new church is from the pastor's house. They informed me that we should take the truck rather than a moto because it takes 1-lt of petrol to go there and back. This signifies quite a distance, but I thought they were exaggerating. A bit after 5:30 when we are only about 2 kilometers from the new church, we come up to a temporary dirt-bridge across yet another section of river. However, this bridge is impassable because there is both an over-turned truck blocking part of it and a mini-van stuck in the mud blocking the other half.  There is still space for a moto to get around, so traffic is moving, and the observers suggest that we should go down the embankment and ford the river.  However, the 4-wheel drive is busted on the truck I was driving and the embankment on the other side is quite steep. A lorry comes by while we are debating and pulls the minivan out of the mud. However, it is starting to get dark, both options look risky and I don't trust the truck, so we decide to turn around and skip the visit to the church.

6:30pm - it is full dark by the time we get back to the pastor's house. Luckily for us, he is quite wealthy and even has a generator to provide some light for us. They have killed a chicken for our dinner. We eat a delicious sour soup with herbs, lemon grass, lime and of course fresh chicken and also a dish of what tastes like liver (or other similar chicken parts) and onions. Both are very tasty.

7pm - a neighborhood lady shows up, we smile at each other, and soon we are gathering in the central room of the pastor's house for vespers. We read Psalm 121, sing and pray, including a time of laying on hands and healing prayer for the neighborhood lady.

8pm - most others took a bath before dinner, but I like to bath right before I sleep, so I went off for my bath.  They have a very nice indoor bathroom at the pastor's house. No running water, but a large room with an indoor cistern that fills from the rain water coming off the roof. Bathing involves using a small bucket to dip and pour water over myself. It is very refreshing after a long day on the road and nice to have lots of room to splash water everywhere.

9pm - when I come out, the pastor's wife is explaining to Rev. Sok Nora about her work as a Malaria Control Volunteer for the village for the last 2 years. We discuss many of the local misconceptions about the cause of malaria. Even among those being trained as Malaria Control Volunteers, the pastor's wife was one of the few people who actually knew before the training that malaria comes from mosquitoes rather than from bad spirits.

9:30pm - I retire for sleep since we plan to wake up at 5am (first light) the next morning to travel on to visit another church. The pastor and his wife have given up their room and are sleeping in the common area so that Daneth and I can have a private place to sleep. We even have a wooden bed (no mattress, just a woven mat) to elevate us up off the ground and of course a mosquito net!

A malaria control volunteer in Kirirom

I just got back from a three day visit to a remote part of Kampong Speu province... actually one of the few "mountain" regions of the country. It was a lovely visit and the countryside is just gorgeous. This is the third month for us to be working with a new cluster of churches in this region. And so, on this visit I traveled out to actually meet with community members at their village - rather than just with church leaders at a central location for the cluster.

One of the joys of meeting people in their home place is finding out small ways that individuals are living out their Christian service to their community. As is true for church members in the US and around the world, people of faith in Cambodia are active in their communities and partnering with various local initiatives to improve lives. Many church members are very active in health care ministry, especially accompanying neighbors to the local clinic or farther afield to the provincial referral hospital. CHAD provides orientation to this kind of service through our Good Samaritan training program. But our training really just builds on what folks are already doing in their communities.

The first night of this trip I spent at the house of the pastor of the Kirirom church, and learned about an example of health outreach being done by the pastor's wife.  His wife is the local malaria control volunteer. This region has particularly high incidence of malaria because many people get their livlihood from going into the forest (mostly to cut wood) and this is breeding ground for mosquitoes.  Because it is cool and damp under the trees the malaria mosquitoes are also more active.

She has been trained by the government's Ministry of Health in partnership with USAID in a simple chemical-blood test for the malaria parasite and how to prescribe the correct dosage of medicine according to age, size, etc. for those who test positive.  She showed us her records over the last 2 years and the growing awareness of people in her village about malaria indicated by the increased number of people who come for testing each month.  The malaria medication is provided for free to those who test positive.  She has also had some training in women's reproductive health and provides birth control and/or iron supplements to women in the village would like those options for about $0.25 per month.  She receives an honorarium of $17 per month for this work.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Flooding in Cambodia

Flood damage update. I've received several emails with questions and concerns about recent flood damage here in Cambodia. Thanks! I am fine, but there has been quite a bit of damage especially to many rice fields that were so close to being ready to harvest. Daneth Him just went up to visit Kampong Chhnang yesterday to assess the extent of damage to communities we work with there (the link is to her facebook page where she posted pictures). The flood levels have not been as high as during the typhoon in 2009, but the water has been very slow to recede, which is why the crop damage has been extensive.

The Social Concerns Committee (SCC) of the Methodist Church in Cambodia (MMC) has already distributed some funds for immediate food aid to about 1150 families in 55 villages (in 9 provinces) who have lost their harvest, but this is still just a drop in the bucket so to say. The water festival has been canceled by the government this year in order to use those funds also to provide relief. At the same time, I've heard that the flood levels in Thailand are even higher. I can't imagine.

Thanks for your concern. If you would like to make a donation to be used by the Social Concerns Committee, you can give online at through The Advance and 100% will be delivered here for use in this effort. Please add a note/memo that this is for "flood relief" so that we will know how to channel your funds.

Developing Local Leaders: Children's fellowship

One of my joys is working with Rev. Hong Phally as a co-facilitator of the Mobilizing the Church bible study for churches in Kampong Speu. She is an amazing young pastor (just 4 years younger than me) and I have learned a lot from her. While traveling to churches I hear bits about the other successful ministry activities with children that she has helped organize, and I wanted to share a bit about that here.

At the time we started working together two years ago, Phally was the Assistant District Superintendent for Kampong Speu and the chair of the Children's Committee for the Methodist Mission (Church) in Cambodia (MMC). Her committee had an annual budget of $100, but the committed pastors on this committee used their own meager resources to meet together and travel periodically to facilitate a "Children's Fellowship" at various churches around the country. A children's fellowship is the Cambodian equivalent of Vacation Bible School (VBS); it is a one day event where children can sing songs, learn a bible story and do a craft project. There is usually also a hygiene outreach such as to wash hair, remove nits and cut fingernails. Many of the pastors and lay people in the Methodist Mission in Cambodia have never experienced a Children's Fellowship, so they have no idea how to organize one on their own. Therefore, it is critical for the Children's Committee to go around teaching and modeling how to nurture and support ministry with children. Phally has also worked quite a bit in conjunction with the Christian Education Committee as they train Sunday School teachers for local Cambodian congregations.

Through my conversations with Phally, she shared that there is potential for volunteers from the USA to complement the work being done by the Children's Committee. Churches in the USA have great experiences to share with churches here about how to provide activities that nurture and enrich the lives of children. Pre-event planning between the UMC church in the USA (or elsewhere) and the Children's Committee can identify a core bible story or theme to be used during the event. Pastors here in Cambodia who are trained in biblical story-telling can prepare one version of the story and the Volunteer Team from the partnership church can prepare another using pantomime or puppets, etc. according to their gifts. The Children's Committee can select appropriate songs (some of which the Volunteer Team may even know already or can learn ahead) and the Volunteer Team can prepare an appropriate craft activity (or activities) for the children. The volunteer team can fund ingredients for a lunch and/or snacks to be prepared by volunteers from the local Cambodian congregation.

The volunteer team can also bring high quality nit (lice egg) removal combs from the USA and other hygiene supplies such as soap, shampoo, nail clippers, etc. can be brought or sourced here in Cambodia that would allow for a hygiene component of the fellowship time.

The whole day-long event can be repeated at several different churches throughout Cambodia during a week-long visit from a Volunteer Team in the priority locations identified by the Children's Committee.

This year, Phally has been appointed as the District Superintendent for the 28 churches in Kampong Speu and has stepped down from her roll as chairperson of Children's Committee, although she will most likely continue as a committee member. Rev. Lun Sokom is the new chairperson for the Children's Committee. He has experience working with volunteer teams from the USA, Switzerland and elsewhere to organize fellowship events for youth such as district and national youth camps and rally's. I am hopeful that United Methodist Volunteer (UMVIM) teams will now have an opportunity to bring their gifts and skills to work through the Children's Committee to organize more Children's Fellowship opportunities.

Esther Gitabu is the GBGM missionary who coordinates UMVIM teams in Cambodia and has worked closely with Lun Sokom for many years, so I am sure that she will help to guide many exciting potentials like this.

I'm just on the sidelines on this, but I get excited when I hear about things like this from Phally and wanted to write a bit about it. I'm so excited by the ways that MMC leaders are stepping up. I think that when Volunteer Teams plan joint events with MMC Committees that it is a really amazing way to support leadership development here. It is not just enough to train leaders or assign them to a committee, the committee needs to be allocated real responsibility and there also need to be events for the committee leaders to coordinate to practice their skills. Planning a joint event is really a great way to accomplish these goals. I've observed it work really well for the Youth Committee and I am hopeful that it will be repeated for the Children's Committee.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Birthday reflections

I'm not much of a birthday person, but one of the joys of being a missionary with the United Methodist Church is that my name is listed in the United Methodist Women's Prayer Calendar. Every year about this time I get emails and cards from amazing people who are passionate and committed to supporting the mission of our church around the world. It is very inspiring to me to know that so many people are praying for the ministry and in particular for their prayers for me at this time. I hope that others also have ways to know that, in their work for the Kingdom, they are supported by this great cloud of witness. I am grateful for the many birthday greetings and prayers that came to me through facebook, emails and cards.

Many people asked if I did anything special for my birthday. In one email I wrote, "I had a lovely birthday tea with my housemates and some friends which included tea sandwiches with whole wheat bread (a treat since we mostly eat rice and the most available bread is a kind of white baguette)." She wrote back,
"I had tears in my eyes as I read your email. We sometimes forget how blessed we are here in the comfort of the US. Having whole wheat bread is not a luxury for us as it is for you. I live about 5 minutes from 3 different grocery stores and can run out for a loaf of bread of my choice anytime. I'm afraid even those of us who are plugged into missions still don't realize what others live without in order to serve our Savior."
I was actually surprised when I read her reaction. It reminded me of how much I have adjusted to living outside of the USA. I don't actually think of myself as living without anything here in Cambodia, just living differently.

I wrote back, "I'm sure that you have to live without delicious sticky sweet mangoes or rambutan fruit except on special occasions too."

It is nice to be able to have a unique treat on a special day and it does happen to be that whole wheat bread is one of those things here. I eat brown rice to get my bran allocation and so I don't miss whole wheat bread that much. If I really did miss it, I'm still part of the privileged class in this very globalized world and I could get it in the same way that someone in the USA could eat mangoes every day (mostly likely frozen or dried ones) if you really wanted them. But I'm sure that most folks don't feel like you are living without because you don't get mangoes every don't. I eat less bread here because I believe in trying to live locally either California or Cambodia, and we don't grow wheat here.

The larger question posed here is not so much about access to certain foods, but about the choices we make in life. It true that the things we have in Cambodia are different (rice instead of wheat or potatoes), but more than that, life in general is different here. There are things that I have given up in order to have the opportunity to serve in this place, although I find it difficult to actually expose them in a blog post; I've had to spend time with a pastoral counselor to come to grips with some of the consequences of living outside my home culture. But part of that is just growing up and making choices. The sacrifices I have made are, again, perhaps different, but no more or less difficult than those made by others who do not cross salt-water to live out their calling. There are also many joys that I experience here that are more rare in the USA, and that is a real blessing.

I received another email recently asking about a typical day for me.  In some ways, a typical day here is just a typical day for anyone who does church-based community development. Some days I go to the office and write or prepare lesson plans or do the financial accounting for our 7 person team. Other days I drive out to the rural churches to facilitate a workshop to help a congregation plan an outreach activity with their community or monitor and problem solve with ongoing projects and activities. What is unique about it is that I sometimes I do get stuck in the mud trying to get to a church and that meetings are more likely to happen under a mango tree rather than at a Starbucks, and I fumble through all of it in a foreign language. But despite these differences, the church is the church around the world and fundamentally more similar than different.
 Passionate people of faith around the world are actively seeking to follow God's call and to engage in activities that help to realize the proclamation of Jesus that the Kingdom of God is at hand. I am lucky to be a bridge between people of faith in different parts of the world who are working in different ways, but always in partnership and as a part of God's mission.

When we leave our home environment and cross boundaries of nation and culture and language and religion, it is not that we bring God with us. Rather, we find God already at work in the place where we are. I feel very blessed that I have the opportunity to serve God through the church in a cross-cultural setting. It is incredible to witness to the ways the God is acting in this environment and to be working in partnership with those who are committed to announcing the Reign of God in this particular place and time.

Thank you again to everyone who sent greeting and prayers to recognize that I have been gifted with another turn around the sun.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Stuck in the mud

I was really humbled about 2 weeks ago when I went to visit with a new cluster of churches in the hills near Kirirom (Kampong Speu province).

I got the truck stuck in the mud and it was the one where the 4 wheel drive is busted, so I couldn't get it out on my own. This was only my second time to meet with these folks so they didn't really know me yet nor I them, but they got straight to work pulling out hoes to try and dig out the stuck wheel and machete to cut branches to try and get some traction, all to no avail.

Finally someone went off by moto and came back with a winch which they tied to a small papaya tree and took turns cranking until they had pulled the truck out. I was humbled by the entire experience but not least because one of the most active men out there digging out the tires was an amputee who had lost his leg in the war.

This man is now the leader of the men's group at his nearby church and quite a charismatic guy. While I am still just getting to know him, I heard in his sharing during the workshop that he has faced a lot of difficulty and discrimination and depression. I spent more time chatting with his wife who is a new Christian believer. I can see that she has joined the church in large part because she is inspired by the transformation it has made for her husband. She told me about her job collecting lotus plants and bringing them to market (they live on an island), and how most of the burden of supporting the family falls to her because her husband can't work as hard as other men (which is likely true although he is by no means lazy and was very active with the truck rescue).

Being there and part of the two day workshop and fellowship was very inspiring to the wife. She asked for prayers to strengthen her new faith, which I took also to be about prayers for how she could continue to help her husband in his transformation towards the inspiration for life he has found through his faith and with his leadership roll in the church.

The main focus for the first day of the workshop was studying the story of the Good Samaritan and talking about the question of "who is my neighbor" and "how do we work together." Yet as the facilitator, I was humbled that the group members acted out the story as they rescued my truck even before we started the lesson.

The dialogue was rich. We told the story of the Good Samaritan many times in several ways. Participants talked about the challenges of supporting friends and neighbors with drug and alcohol problems and encouraged each other to continue in this work. One participant commented that as members of a minority religious group, Christians in Cambodia are also outsiders like the Samaritans were. Others were interested when in a modern re-enactment I asked the narrator to substitute Khmer for Jew and Vietnamese for Samaritan. One participant commented that they now knew that anyone, even a Vietnamese, can show compassion and help someone in need. And even I, with my fancy truck, was in need of help.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Droughts & floods, change & challenges in Cambodia

I continue to be overwhelmed by the rapid pace of change in Cambodia. I missed driving my normal route to the office for a week and next thing I knew they had paved the road in front of the Cambodia Methodist Bible College (CMBS) - how did I miss this? I almost got stuck in a pile of dirt on my way to Srei Som Pong church two months ago and during my following monthly visit there were another 5km of blacktop - cutting down my travel time by about 15 minutes! Of course, it is rainy season now and I still managed to get the truck stuck 3 times last month, oh well - good thing for 4-wheel drive and helpful church members.

And there are new challenges. For example, power outages are more frequent in Phnom Penh  as the load on the grid outpaces the ability to predict and ramp up delivery. Likewise, the less predictable global weather patterns were reflected in droughts last year; this year many farmers in the north (near Siem Reap and Kampong Thom) are facing difficulty from severe flooding. The pressures of migration and urbanization and the challenges this pose for the Cambodia Methodist Church were hot topics of discussion at Annual Conference last month. I feel swept up in the frantic pace and long for a moment to pause and reflect. Where is God in all of this?

Despite the stresses caused by the rapidly changing environment, there continue to be signs of hope that inspire me.  Thirty-four new rice-banks were established in the first half of this year to address food security concerns brought on by the drought last year. In a move towards greater localization of the development initiatives, the Social Concerns Committee of 16 Cambodian pastors took the lead in this effort with major funding from UMCOR and back-up support from the CHAD program staff.  Thank you to all the churches and individuals who also sent in support for rice-banks through Alternative Giving gifts last year to Advance #14916a.  A second round is already being planned for this coming January that will include expansion of some of the existing rice-banks and establishment of new banks with groups who didn't quite get organized in time this year and those who have been impacted by the recent flooding.

I was inspired during a monitoring visit this year to one of the previously established rice-bank groups after their first full cycle of loaning and gathering back the rice.  It was a big effort by the community to prepare the store-house and to keep records of the rice-loaned. I asked the group secretary how he felt and if he was willing to keep serving the group in this roll for the coming year. He replied honestly that during the days of distribution and collection he was really tired and he wanted to give up, but now with that behind him and as we were reflecting together on the whole experience he could see the benefit to his community. He was committed to continuing to volunteer his time for the next year so that his community could continue to improve their local food security. Stepping back from the day to day hustle to join with Annual Conference and reflecting with visitors who joined us from the USA and Europe this summer, I too am reminded that, in the connections and the working together, God is there. Thank you for your partnership and support in this ministry.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

3rd Mission Conference Session of the Methodist Church in Cambodia

August is "Annual Conference" season in Cambodia. In the Methodist tradition we gather all together once a year to share (report) on how it has been going, to think together about the future, to worship and praise together, and to recognize new leaders in the church through ordination.

This year I was honored to serve again as the recording secretary for English language during conference session and also to compile all of the reports for the Conference Journal. The bulk of the work for the Journal fell to the CHAD office staff, Vannak, who spent the entirety of August (including several weekends) translating reports. My work was really only a week or two of getting all the formatting adjusted, margins set, headers and footers and descriptors, etc. laid out for the 180 page book. It involved two all night sessions this year making last minute corrections and I still managed to not get the corrections to the BOOM report into the early edition printed for the pre-conference meetings. Daneth, another CHAD staff, was instrumental in helping me make it through these all-nighters (Daneth also helped with translation of some of the reports). She stayed up with me one night to help with Khmer language editing and she made important negotiations with the printer to give us as much editing time as possible. Daneth put in another late night translating one more report for the post-conference meeting yesterday.

I really appreicate these two young ladies for their commitment to this conference and the overtime they put in to give us this wonderful collection of reports to help folks share with each other about the way God is working through the church in Cambodia.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Evaluations with Methodist Church Finland and emergency response by churches in Cambodia

Last week we had a wonderful visit from a delegation of the Finland Annual Conference (Swedish speaking) of United Methodist Church (aka Methodist Church Finland). It was a young volunteer from Finland, Pontus Fred, who seven years ago thought that we needed to have an agricultural development component of the ministry here and secured the original funding for a Rural Agricultural Development program from their mission board. The CHAD program has grown in those seven years, merging with the health ministries, formation of the Social Concerns Committee, taking on a larger community development and outreach role. The Methodist Church Finland has been a vital partner, and supportive in our goal to localize the development ministries as an authentic expression of the emerging church in Cambodia to reach out to its neighbors in life affirming ways. Therefore, it was a joy to have the delegation visit us for an evaluation. We looked at several successful projects, as well as those that have struggled and reflected together on the lessons learned during our partnership.

One of the churches we visited was in the village of Raksmey in Kampong Thom province. They have 4 successful projects running that include both church and communities members (3 are funded by CHAD, 1 is funded by World Vision). While on a monitoring visit last January, Mrs. Sophal and I were inspired by the initiative of this church. She and Mr. Thy returned to write a story about some of the ways this church is reaching out. Last year, UMCOR's Mellisa Crutchfield facilitated a workshop on emergency response for church leaders where she highlighted the importance of having a plan because it is really the folks on the ground who are the first respondors in any situation. One of the stories that came out of our visit to Raksmey is just that, when a cooking fire destroyed seven homes in a nearby village, it was due to the good stewardship of the rice bank committee at Raksmey and the faithful repayment of its members, that within a day, they were able to mobilize 500kg of rice plus a cash offering to bring to these distraught families. We talk a lot about the security a rice-bank provides to ensure food through the hungry season, but it also provides this other kind of security, allowing the community to respond to disaster in their midst.

There are several new stories on our blog including the one about Raksmey, a weaving group a Prey Cherteal and hopefully by then end of the week a story about a cancer survivor. Thank you for reading and for sharing in this outreach.

On a personal note, I am happy to report that my visit to the USA was a wonderful success. I joined the Cambodia Consultation for just one day, but was inspired by the stories and the dedication of so many to support this country. I was also able to successfully submit and defend my masters thesis on Bacterial Contamination of Drinking Water in Rural Ghana. I completed the research three years ago before I was called to Cambodia, but the concluding steps were put on the back burner as I engaged with my work here. I am so appreciative to my adviser Dr. Robert Metcalf and the faculty of the Biological Sciences Department at Cal State, Sacramento, that saw me through the process, encouraged me to continue and gave critical and helpful feedback.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Surprise discovery during monitoring visit

One of my responsibilities in the CHAD program is to monitor and support ongoing project groups.  Sometimes these visits are a headache as we negotiate why the group acted in contradiction to the by-laws that they themselves wrote.  Sometimes there are surprises and joy when a group moves beyond project limitations to use the resources to reach out and meet real needs in their community.

Last January when Mrs. Sophal and I stopped at the Raksmey church in Kampong Thom province to audit the records of the rice-bank, we didn't know what we would find.  There are provisions in most of the by-laws, especially for rice-banks, to account for loss and other costs.  Rain can creep in or rodents can get at a bag or a particular family just can't repay this year.  Typically if the loss is less than 10% we assess the situation, but don't give them too a hard time.  So we wanted to know what was going on when this group in Raksmey was down by 500kg.  They hadn't had any loss for the previous two years and had an excellent track record of full repayment even with a community establish interest rate that is on the high end for this type project. 

That is when we heard about the fire in a neighboring village that destroyed seven families homes.  On a subsequent visit to the area, Mr. Thy and Mrs. Sophal interviewed the leader of the group, the story is on the CHAD blog

Rice-bank project groups are designed to help communities come together to cooperatively store rice so that the poorest in the community will not be at the mercy of seasonal price inflation even though as individuals they are unable to grow and store sufficient rice to meet their food needs for the entire year.  If the recent disasters in Japan and Haiti and elsewhere have taught us anything, it is that we must rely on our neighbors in the imediate aftermath of a crisis. 

This story demonstrates that rice-banks are also a way to build resilience within a community to be able to respond to disasters immediately and to help each other.  I was inspired and I hope that you will also be.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A letter about ARI in Japan and the upcoming Cambodia Consultation Options

My heart goes out, as I'm sure yours does, to the people of Japan and all those around the Pacific Rim that have been affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. I have been reading updates from friends and staff at the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) who are located just 130km from the nuclear plants. They have been reaching out with food and spiritual aid both to people in the immediate area effected by the quake and to evacuees who are showing up in their town. ARI is very close to my heart and has also been very supportive of the mission in Cambodia. One of our young staff members, Ms. Daneth, spent last year there as a participant and I am so inspired by her transformation and excitement to serve her people as well as the new skills she has developed since she has returned home.

ARI will be delaying the start of this training term, probably by a month, as we all watch the unfolding nuclear crisis and as they clean up all of the earthquake damage to the school and farm buildings. But ARI is committed to continue with its mission to build an environmentally healthy, just and peaceful world where every person can live to his or her fullest potential. Funds are needed to rebuild and continue this vital training program that provides connection and inspiration to rural leaders of all faith backgrounds from around the world. For those of you in the United Methodist connection, donations can be made through your local church or online using the code Advance #220450 specifically for ARI or Advance #3021317 for the overall earthquake relief. You can also donate through the American Friends of the Asian Rural Institute at where there is also additional information about the disaster.

Life in Cambodia continues with inspiring glimmers of hopes in the midst of constant struggle. I finally posted a few reflections from last January on our blog, which I invite you to read including the story of what actually happened to that cow I mentioned on facebook. There is also an updated vision page that includes details about our recently completed five year strategic plan.

The California-Nevada Annual Conference of the UMC will be hosting a Consultation March 31-April 2 in San Jose, CA that is bringing together folks from all over the USA and Cambodia to celebrate the mission and consult on how we can strengthen our work together. I've heard that there are about 150 people already signed up to come. I will be there and there is still time to register and make plans to join together. I hope to see many of you there. I have also received several requests for "Alternative Giving" catalogs and I hope to have those finished in time for the Consultation with details of specific project that you can link in to.

I am not always good at capturing those glimmers of hope that sustain me into words to share with you, my friends & supporters, but they are there. Thank you for your prayers and notes of encouragement even when I fail to communicate regularly.

with hope and a peaceful heart,

Thursday, March 03, 2011

An open letter Aptos UMC about missionary life

Great timing on your email. Thanks! I've been thinking about writing an update for the last few weeks and feeling guilty about not getting the earlier email to you, but I just haven't quite sat down to put my reflections into words. I've been doing some annual planning this last week and I decided to set aside Tuesdays to attend a bible study in the morning and then to do some writing and reflection in the afternoon. I know it will be hard to commit to this schedule because it is very seductive to schedule meetings or field visits or just to catch up with various crisis paperwork (I probably only made it to bible study 50% of the time last year at best), but I am going to try to take this time and do better with my communications this year. Last Tuesday I was at the beach in Kep because I took 4 day get away with my friend who was visiting from New Zealand and then today my bible study group was canceled so I almost jumped right into working on some overdue financial records instead of taking time for reflection writing, but luckily your email came in, which kept me focused on my commitment to do this writing on Tuesdays! So, thank you so much. As folks say here, it was one of those God things.
peace and love,

Dear friends at Aptos UMC,

It was a real pleasure to meet so many of you last fall when I had an opportunity to be in California. In December I returned to Cambodia and am so happy to be reconnecting with our Methodist churches here. As always, there is lots of activity among the churches here; these are just a few highlights of what is going on in my work and life right now.

There is a real celebration to be had for the increased empowerment of the Cambodian leadership of the church. In our CHAD program I was so happy to meet last week with the two clusters of churches in Kampong Speu where Rev. (Ms.) Hong Phally had been facilitating the "congregational development for social outreach" lessons while I was away (aka "mobilizing the church"). Last year Hong Phally had been acting as my translator when teaching and I'm excited to see her increased confidence in preparing and facilitating the lessons. She has taken on quite a bit of new responsibilities this year. In addition to pastoring her local congregation and working as the chair of the Children's Committee for the past two years, she was also selected to be the assistant District Superintendent. The Methodist Church is unique in Cambodia that more than 10% of the pastors are women (most churches have few to none), and particularly blessed to have young women like Hong Phally who are encouraged to take on major leadership roles. Please pray for her that she will be granted a visa to the USA when she goes for her interview on January 20 since we are hoping that she will be able to attend the Cambodia Consultation at Wesley UMC in San Jose March 31-April 2. I hope that many of you will be able to attend and to meet her and the other Cambodian delegates (I am also hoping to attend). (post script - Rev. Hong Phally was denied her visa, but two other women pastors, Rev. Than Heak and Rev. Ming Hongly were successful.)

My January and February schedule are filling up fast. My target geographic region has changed a little bit this year. Our new staff member Ms. Sophal will be taking over responsibility for the Kampong Thom region and so I will be traveling up there at the end of January to introduce her and collect our bi-annual project monitoring data. I have also been traveling for monitoring out to churches in my three target area Kampong Chhnang (where I will be working in partnership with Ms. Daneth who just returned from a year of study at the Asian Rural Institute in Japan), Kampong Speu and my new area in the Takeo district. We had a great meeting yesterday with the cow group at Trang Tre Yeung, Kampong Speu where I had been confused for the last year about exactly what had happened to their cows and calves. We sorted things out and I am excited to report that from the initial two cows purchased in December 2005 there have been 9 calves born. One of the benefits of a cow-bank is that it provides increased security for the group members. Chen Han was one of the first care-takers of a cow, and so after passing-on he benefited from keeping the second calf born in March 2008. When he faced some health problem in 2010 he was able to sell the calf in order to pay for his medical care. Of course we hope that families can experience the full benefit of a cow by rearing it until it is larger so as to gain maximum benefit and additional offspring, but I am also heartened when the cows can serve their purpose to provide security to the family that can be used in times of need such as this situation to pay for medical care. Unfortunately, one of the original cows in this group was kill in a car accident and her current calf was not able to survive the loss of its mother, but the other cows continue to produce and the group is working well together.

On January 6 and 7th we had a meeting of the Social Concerns Committee (SCC) where Rev. (Mr.) Pho Phala is the new chair (last year missionary Ken Cruz was the chairperson). This is another exciting area of increased Cambodian leadership. The Social Concerns Committee was awarded a grant from UMCOR this winter in order to respond to anticipated food insecurities in the coming year due to drought during the 2010 rice growing season. As I have been conversing with various congregations it is apparent that this is a real concern since there has been a decreased harvest this December, in some cases 50% of the previous year yield. This is due in large part because of the variability in the rain we had last year. Some rains came early but then they stopped and so many seedlings died before they could be transplanted and heavy rains came very late in the growing season when it is typically time for the grains to be ripening. As you know from my other writing and sharing, food insecurity is already a problem in Cambodia and many families are not normally able to produce enough rice to eat for the year so the end up borrowing rice at exorbitant rates (50%-100% interest).

The Social Concerns Committee plans to use the UMCOR grant for three purposes, one is to provide rice-aid to highly vulnerable families who face severe shortfalls this year, a second is to provide rice-seed to farmers that suffered significant loss the previous year and would benefit from access to improved varieties and the other is to start about 100 new rice-banks (at about one-ton each rather than our typical three-tons), which will double the amount of rice available through rice-banks for low-interest community loans in the communities where the Methodist Mission Cambodia is working. It is a big job for the pastors of the Social Concerns Committee to set up all of these and I have continued to meet with pastors in the districts where I am working to coach them and discuss the details of how we can quickly achieve this plan. One of the challenges to this kind of work is that the pastors will need to travel to visit communities in order to facilitate the planning meetings to initiate the new rice-banks. There are funds in the UMCOR grant to support travel to the initial meeting (about 100 meetings conducted by 18 different pastors over the next 3 months) and to transport rice to the effected areas, but I am worried that there will be insufficient funds left for the pastors to travel to visit the rice-banks for the 6 month and 1 year monitoring visits, so there is a need to raise additional travel funds to support the pastors of the SCC to monitor the new rice banks. The next SCC meeting will be on February 3rd.

Winter is a wonderful time to visit Cambodia and I've been so happy to meet many people. Rev. Pa Nou moved in downstairs. He is a Cambodian-American who is retiring to Cambodia and has been volunteering with the church to teach Old Testament to first and third year students at the Bible College and also with medical referrals through the CHAD program. His son is also visiting. A friend from when I was researching water quality in Ghana as well as my close friend from college both visited Cambodia. Amanda, a new year-long individual volunteer (UMVIM), arrived this week and many teams are scheduled for the upcoming year. In February we will have a visit from an UMVIM team initiating from the Louisiana Annual Conference that will work together with the churches in the Svay Rieng/Prey Veng district to host a free medical clinic in three rural villages. These events are a big endeavor for the visiting volunteers, the host churches and the CHAD program, but they can also provide a huge impact to the community with increased awareness of health options, proper diagnosis of ailments and connecting individuals to the available government services for follow-up care.

I was honored when Rev. Hong Phally invited me to preach at her church on December 26th, which was only the second time I have preached here and the first time for me to preach almost entirely in Khmer (Hong Phally helped me with specific words and a bit more at the end when I started getting tired, but I was pleased that the congregation seemed to understand me). I reflected on the preparations that Mary made to welcome the baby Jesus. There are many children in Cambodia (over 50% of the population is 20 years old or younger), and of course there are many preparations to be made in anticipation of a baby. Yet the Christmas story is so strange, I feel quite a bit of pity for Mary and Joseph and Jesus about the situation where they found themselves, and thinking about this story brings up the feelings of pity I have for the families I work with in Cambodia. Pity is a very strong cultural emotion in Cambodia and it is evoked in many conversations I have here. Reading the following poem by John Dunne got me thinking about this question of why I feel pity. I am inspired by Mary, who did not feel ashamed by her situation but rather rejoiced in her opportunity as she sings the Magnificat. She couldn't prepare a lot of "things" for the birth, but she prepared her heart and she was not ashamed by her situation to invite God into her place. We too can take inspiration from Mary to prepare our hearts, to not feel ashamed but to do what we can with who we are and what we have.

I have also started learning how to type in Khmer, which is quite fun. ខ្ញុំរៀនខ្មែ។

with gratitude for your prayers, support and concern for the mission of our church in Cambodia,
your sister in service for Christ,