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.