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,