Virginia Conference Trip to Cambodia
Monday, January 28, 2013 8:12 PM
I had to drive myself to work this morning, as there was no tuk-tuk waiting to take me. As I drove there were lanes on the road, and people approaching the highway actually stopped before entering the flow of traffic. Mostly.
Yes, we’re not in Cambodia any more.
The Virginia team returned to very un-Cambodian ice and snow, which helped us realize that we’re back in the USA. (Saturday morning a guy knocked on the front door saying he’s shovel our driveway for $30. Ah, no. I thought about people in Cambodia who would do that job for $1 and be happy to get it.
There is a big divide between us and them. But it’s also a plus: even small amounts of money will go a long way in Cambodia.
I think I can speak for everyone in saying that the trip helped educate us about a land and culture that we knew little about. But the best part is the creation of relationships. Our host Methodist church staff and the pastors and members of the 150 churches there were all very friendly and made it hard to leave.
We get to repay a small sliver of the hospitality we were shown in June when four folks from Cambodia come to Virginia for our Annual Conference. That Saturday morning we will include them in worship, and ministries of the Methodist Church in Cambodia will be a recipient of our Conference Offering.
So now I am hyper-attuned to all things Khmer... Last night Lynne and I watched a documentary called “New Year Baby” about a Cambodian family who immigrated to the U.S. after the Khmer Rouge tragedy going back to Cambodia to help their now-adult children “discover their roots.” We highly recommend it; go to www.newyearbaby.net to order.
I understand that there is a significant Cambodian community here in Richmond. But apparently no Cambodian restaurants.
So where does one go when the craving for Fish Amok strikes?
We sent the "A Team'!
Tuesday, January 22, 2013 7:13 AM
I promised my Virginia Conference to Cambodia UMVIM teammates that I would not reveal the average age of this outfit, but not to be too specific it’s somewhere between 66 and 68. It’s always nice to be the baby of any group, not that it was particularly hard on this trip. We have some well-seasoned United Methodists who’ve come half-way around that dusty globe on your desk, with more than 500 years of life experiences between us (OMG!), including much time spent in short-term or long-term overseas mission.
There’s Glenn Rowley, our boss, who has nine years on me but goes all day and doesn’t seem to tire. He has years of service to The United Methodist Church, serving as a missionary in Senegal, Mozambique, Mexico and the U.S., with many trips to locales around world. There’s Rev. Sam NeSmith, our entertainer and wily veteran, and don’t even get me started about his global service. He used to make regular trips to Russia but now can most often be found going to Haiti. This is mission trip number 94 for Pastor NeSmith, and I tell him when he hits 100 we’ll make a big deal out of it. Ann Stingle, our former Red Cross worker, is our expert on heath issues. She’s worked in Somalia, Rwanda, Kuwait and South Africa. Nancy Yarbourgh, who’s single-handedly helping the local economy, has traveled in Central America. Olivia Hinton, our principal and disciplinarian, has been to Mozambique and Russia. Rev. Judy Fender, our designated Deacon, has been to Indonesia, Mozambique, Russia and China. And Claudette Freeman, who adds a lot of class to the group, has been to Brazil, Israel and Cote d’Ivoire.
Then there’s me at 53, and as we near the final day of our journey it looks like I’m the only one who will emerge from the trip bloodied and bruised. I’m clearly the most out-of-shape member of the group, as reflected in yesterday’s death march through the Angkor Wat temple complex, and in a land full of skinny jeans-wearers, I stand out.
Today we stopped at the same roadside market and fruit stand we stopped at twice last week, and the same group of children rushed the bus. I didn’t get off, knowing if I did I would be surrounded and subdued, but sat and chatted with the girls and tried to help them punch up their sales pitches. When I laughed at something one of them said, one of the youngsters cocked her head, smiled and said “You the happy Buddha!”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I AM the happy Buddha.”
You may have seen the statue somewhere… the Buddha, in all his rotund glory, sits laughing heartily with his head thrown back. (It’s sort of like the “Laughing Jesus” artwork that I’ve always enjoyed, Jesus in a moment of wonderful laughter. Yes, Jesus laughed, and since he was the personification of God, he obviously had a great sense of humor… I mean, have you seen how giraffes fight?)
But I think the combination of my laughing and my, um, body type, reminded her of this Buddha statue that you can buy at most souvenir stands here.
Oh, well… I’ve always told people I had the body of a god. Now I have the street cred to prove it.
Welcome to the Myrtle Beach of Southeast Asia
Monday, January 21, 2013 5:53 PM
Did I mention that Siem Reap has a KFC? It’s right on the main drag, the National Highway. There’s also a restaurant nearby proclaiming “the best Mexican food in Asia,” which is to say the only Mexican food in Asia.
As we rode past hotel after hotel, some quite elaborate, I said that Siem Reap is the Las Vegas of Cambodia. But that has a gambling connotation, and Cambodians don’t gamble, at least not in casinos. But when I saw a billboard advertising a Nick Faldo-designed golf course, I realized there is a much more apropos American comparison: Myrtle Beach.
Yes, Siem Reap is a town totally geared toward the millions of tourists who come to see the big enchilada, as it were, the Angkor Wat temple complex. January is the busy season because the weather is coolest, although you wouldn’t know it from today, when temperatures pushed 90 and the heat index was in the triple digits.
So there were times as we walked among the temples when it felt like a very crowded sauna.
Still, the crowds and the young hawkers selling everything from fine art to Fanta Orange soda did not take away from the incredible majesty of these temples, built with stone hauled by boat from a quarry 150 miles away. The stones were then hauled from the river to the temple site using elephants.
The first temples were built as early as the ninth century. When each new ruler of the empire that existed here became king, he started building his own temple. Some were for the king’s eventual funeral; some were just for worshiping the Hindu gods and, later, Buddha. Yes, the monuments started as Hindu temples, and much of the ornate carvings that cover every inch of stone depict Hindu gods. But around 1000 AD the kingdom converted to Buddhism, and the temples all had a make-over.
When the capital moved to Phnom Penh, the temples fell into disrepair and were "lost" for several hundred years until the French "discovered" them around 1850.
The huge temple called Angkor Wat is the most famous, and is depicted on the Cambodian national flag. But to me, and maybe it was because I was about to pass out by the time we reached Angkor Wat, the Baynon temple was more interesting. It’s the one decorated by huge faces, and you’ve probably seen photos of them at some point. The faces are as expressive and interesting as the faces of today’s Cambodian population -- pleasant, almost smiling. I didn’t see a scowl in the whole bunch.
Maybe that’s because they have KFC nearby.
You never know who you will meet in Cambodia
Sunday, January 20, 2013 9:47 AM
We keep meeting exceptional people in Cambodia. Today was no exception.
Sunday morning means worship attendance for a church mission team, so it was back on the bus for a short ride to one of Siem Reap’s Methodist congregations. As we got off the bus, I realized there were at least 50 bright-eyed children waiting for us.
The kids were arranged in neat rows in a dark building used for Sunday school. A young woman named Kahnya led them in songs for us, before the adults were hustled out for the regular service.
The Rev. Judy Fender, a deacon in full connection who serves at Burke UMC as Minister of Missions, brought a very simple gospel message: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” and “For God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son…” The emphasis on world was purposeful, of course. It's a message that is the same in English or Khmer.
When the service was over, Kahnya dazzled several members of our team with her strong command of English and oversized personality. Turns out she’s a university student studying accounting and loves her role of helping with the church’s children’s ministry, but has a job that sometimes requires her to work on Sundays and is trying to work out some arrangement with her boss. It all sounded very… Virginian. And here we are 11,000 miles from home (at least according to Korean Airlines).
In the afternoon we had an adventurous trip out onto Lake Tonle Sap, a huge freshwater body of water that plays a large role in the lives of millions of Cambodians. This time of year it’s pretty low, but in the summer months it becomes much, much larger thanks to the monsoon rains.
When a “cruise” was mentioned, I envisioned a nice love boat. But what we stepped on to – and carefully at that – was little more than a fishing dowel, barely riding out of the water.
Once the boat's motor kicked in, we headed south to the main part of the lake, where hundreds of "houses" are built above the water in an area called the “floating village.” This place mainly attracts the poor, because the lake has resources that are not so easily available elsewhere.
The idea is that the boat takes you out to what’s basically a floating general store and souvenir stand, where it’s hoped you will do a little to help the local economy. One of the boys who helped haul us up and out of the SS Minnow was curious about Americans, asking where we were from. When we got back on the boat for the journey home, he sat down with us and became our unofficial tour guide.
Ly (pronounced “Lee”), an eighth grader enjoying a day off from school, likes soccer and follows Manchester United and Barcelona. And he said he loves Lady Gaga. He studied English in elementary school but can’t afford the extra lessons, so he mainly polishes his very excellent grammar by hanging around tourists as he did today. Ly was a bundle of information about the lake and the people who work around it. He even had advice about how to deal with beggars (“don’t encourage them”) and how to get out of the boat without getting your fingers pinched.
It was a delightful bit of serendipity that Ly decided we were worth 20 minutes of his day, and we were all the richer for it.
The church at the end of the road
Saturday, January 19, 2013 4:45 AM
Today we visited a very remote group of Methodists, remote not so much in terms of kilometers from the nearest town, but because they are located at the end of a long and difficult road. In Cambodia only the main highways and maybe a few roads in town are paved; the rest are rutted and pitted, a muddy quagmire in the monsoon season (the summer months) and a dusty back-breaker the rest of the year.
It’s a village of farmers, tending rice and maybe a few chickens and a cow or two if they are really lucky. Just about everyone in this tiny village comes to the Methodist church.
This place is special to us because funding from the Virginia Conference and the Louisiana Conference paid for a new parsonage, just completed in December. It’s a simple but handsome building, and on Sundays it doubles as the church. The patio or Florida Room, or whatever it might be called in Khmer, was built one meter longer than what the plans normally call for, so that the extra space could be used for worship services and other church-related meetings.
This kind of double-duty is common in Cambodia, where resources are scarce and just about everything must be shared.
The pastor and his folks here desperately want a school, and we hiked around to a plot of land where a school building has been started within sight of the parsonage/church. Money from the Korean Methodists paid for an outhouse – always an important first step in a construction project in a land without Port-A-Potties – and the frame of the building. There are even desks already on hand, resting in the shade of a nearby tree waiting for a school and students. Money is needed to finish the project.
We eight Americans have heard about a lot of needs and wants from our Cambodian sisters and brothers, but that’s part of our mission here, to learn about what is needed in the churches that have been started, and what might help get new faith communities established here. We are here representing a source of funding, after all, so let’s be clear with each other. They have needs and we have money. (And by the way, the Cambodian economy, interestingly, runs on dollars.)
The other way of thinking about this, the glass-half-full way, is that these people have great hopes and dreams about the kinds of ministry they can do. They are organized, optimistic and highly motivated. I think of American churches, some I have been a member of, I’m sorry to say, sitting on their fat endowments... If these Cambodian people had unlimited resources, they could do unlimited ministry!
This remote congregation has a lot of dreams, because after they finish the school they want to build a sanctuary beside this fine new parsonage. You see, that worship space created by adding on that extra meter of space to the house is already full up of children and older adults and ages in between, so more space is needed.
Lives are being transformed. To God be the glory.
Today we went to buy a bed
Friday, January 18, 2013 10:06 AM
I never thought my phone would identify itself as being in “Sisophon, Banteay Meanchey, Cambodia.” (Of course I never thought my phone would know where it was before I did, but that’s for another day.) Today we continued our visits to seven Banteay Meanchey Province churches (that's a little too Book of Revelation for me) and it continues to be a roller coaster of emotions, as Rev. Glenn Rowley said on the bus. Each congregation presents some great joys – usually in the form of children’s faces, but in other ways, too. And each is, in its own way, an ongoing success story. But all have needs; some are large and some are small. Some are big picture, and some are more immediate.
That’s how we came to be bed shopping.
One pastor was showing us – in good humor – how he, his wife, their two-year-old and their infant were sharing the one bed that the Rev. Dr. Romeo del Rosario, leader of the United Methodist presence in the country and our guide for these two weeks, had purchased for him some months ago.
It’s a nice sturdy bed, square and strong and large, but I mean really.
When we got back on the bus the hat was passed and we collected enough money for a new bed. So "Romy" told the pastor that he needed to come with us and show us where to find a bed. “Today?” he exclaimed with great surprise. Yes, today. Such is the mighty power of the Virginia Annual Conference! Huzzah!
Part of the solution is always del Rosario’s “can do” attitude. He’s a problem solver who would rather do something than spend a lot of time talking about it.
The other was our unarticulated feeling that, while it’s important to go through the official channels of the General Board of Global Ministry in terms of donations and how money is spent and carefully making sure that it goes to the right ministry and filling out the paperwork in triplicate and all that, sometimes a man just needs a new bed, and if the eight of us can gift that to him – right now, today – then it is right and proper to do so.
“Celebrate each grace you receive in life,” Romy said to us later on the bus after the sun had set and darkness was rolling in, “and thank God for each.”
Pretty good words to live by, if you ask me.
Mind your step
Thursday, January 17, 2013 12:23 AM
The pastor of the church we visited this morning is one of many, many Cambodians who have lost limbs or been killed by land mines. When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1977, they laid tens of thousands of mines along the Thai and Vietnamese borders as a cheap way of protecting themselves. And no one cleared them, at least until recently. In terms of these mines, parts of Cambodia are still the most dangerous places in the world. Just this week, a U.S. military team was training teams to defuse these mines when one blew up in their faces, injuring four Americans, two critically.
While serving his required military service in 1987, the pastor stepped on a land mine during a training mission. Later he got involved in the church, and met the Rev. Joesph Chang, who suggest he get training as a pastor. His rural church is one of the first Methodist churches in the country. As our Virginia team visited, dozens of children played or sat patiently waiting for us. They stood and sang beautifully to welcome us.
After the welcoming event, the pastor told me through an interpreter that giving his life to God has helped him overcome his handicap. In fact, he said, pointing to his wife and son who sat nearby, he feels blessed by God to be in his position.
Get in the Spirit
Thursday, January 17, 2013 12:14 AM
Many homes and some businesses in Cambodia have "Spirit Houses" in front of them. To American eyes they look like brightly painted bird houses, and every village has a place to buy them. In Buddhist tradition, these are places to make offerings to the spirits of your ancestors, either by burning incense or putting actual offerings there: fruit or other food, maybe even a can of beer for a father who was particularly fond of such.
In my road weary state, as I drifted in and out of sleep, I thought that maybe this is a concept that The United Methodist Church could adopt. Make a little Spirit House out in front of the church as a place to honor all the pillars of the church who have gone on to glory. Then the inside of God's house could become a place where new things are tried to bring people to Christ.
Then when someone says "we've NEVER done it that way before," or "we've ALWAYS done it this way," we could say, "oh, that attitude is for the Spirit House, not for God's House. In God's House all things become new!"
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 9:29 AM
We covered many a mile today, some of which over roads that are actually paved. The time in the van – I now call it “The Washing Machine” because of its excellent agitation – was to get out and visit a couple of Methodist churches that Rev. Romeo del Rosario calls “the strongest in the country.”
We drove north along the river and quickly into a different world. It was good to get out of Phnom Penh, not because there is anything wrong with the capital city, but just to see how the other half lives. It turns out they live pretty spartanly. Despite the plastic chairs, which seem to be everywhere here, today really felt more like a trip back in time: seeing haystacks, ox carts, and whole families spreading rice out with rakes to dry in the sun. These farmers have done it this way for a long time.
I must have the words “Easy Mark” tattooed on my forehead, because I seem to attract a lot of people who want to sell me something. When we made a pit stop today at a sprawling roadside market it was a cheerful young girl, maybe 11-12, wearing a “Hello Kitty” t-shirt.
“Hey, USA! Buy bananas?” she began.
“No, thank you. I just want to walk around and take some pictures.”
“So maybe you buy bananas when you come back,” she responded optimistically.
“Maybe,” I said, trying to be polite but non-committal.
When I did come back around to the van she came rushing at me like a missile.
“I think someone in our group has already bought bananas for all of us,” I countered, and truthfully.
“Ah, but he didn’t buy THESE bananas,” she said, holding the plastic bag high and closing the deal.
“Well you’ve got me there,” I said, reaching for my wallet. At least she wasn't selling the deep-fried spiders (which were for sale a few yards away).
The churches we visited are two that serve an ethnic minority here in Cambodia, the Kouy tribe. These people are marginalized, in part because of their isolation, but mostly because they are different from the ethnic Khmer who dominate the country. During the winter (dry season), many men go to Vietnam or Laos looking for work, or to Phnom Penh, lured by the myth that the big city can always create jobs.
Despite their poverty they are happy, with beautiful children, and seem healthy. We received a royal welcome at both churches, the first in a wonderful building surrounded by lots of church-owned land (donated by the current pastor), and the second in a temporary “building” with “see-through” walls and a metal roof with more holes than a golf course. They both gave reports on their very positive participation in the CHAD project, a Methodist church-supported program which among other resources provides a communal “rice bank” that loans rice to families when they run out.
Rev. Sam NeSmith has been teaching a song to our hosts wherever we stop:
“Humble yourself, before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
It’s hard to get much more humble than these simple folks, who are showing the love of Christ to their neighbors through the sharing of food when they are hungry.They will be lifted up!
Monday is a school day
Monday, January 14, 2013 4:30 AM
I always wanted to be the most popular guy in school, and today I finally arrived. All it took was a playground, a bunch of first-graders and a video camera.
When I flipped open the camera, dozens came running toward me, wanting their moment to shine, I guess. That's about all any youngster can ask for in Cambodia, which is among the poorest nations in the world.
The children are dark-haired and dark-eyed and beautiful. Interestingly many of them came running and flashing the "peace sign" - which takes on a new meaning in this war-ravaged ciountry.
Today we visited two schools which are supported by the Methodist Church of Cambodia, which in turn is supported by United Methodists in Virginia and other annual conferences.
First was the Cambodia Methodist Bible School which is actually a seminary that trains pastors for the countryside. The students were not present today, as Monday is a travel day when they come back to the capital from serving in their local churches on the weekend. Every student also has a local church that they serve, so they go to school Tuesday through Thursday and then travel back to their hometown. It sounds a lot like the seminary program at Virginia Union University where my wife teaches, where all the United Methodist students serve a local church, go to school and work a full-time job!
After an all-American lunch at Steve's Steakhouse (!), we visited the Methodist School of Cambodia, where kindergarteners through high school seniors attend classes in a giant complex. While it's a bit over-crowded and the equipment is antiquated, students and teachers are enthuastic. That's a new trend in Cambodia, where less than 10 percent have completed college and the vast majority didn't attend much school at all. Today that's changing, and the Methodist Church is helping to make education important again.
The day's very first stop was at the headquarters of our Methodist mission in Phnom Penh, where we met the staff and participated in a devotional time. In fact our own Rev. Sam NeSmith brought the morning message, talking about using your own hands to make things, to work with what you have at your disposal, to glorify God.
Sam's message became even more meaningful when the Rev. Joseph Chang, a district superintendent here, pulled me aside and said that the reason he was spared by the Khmer Rogue in 1977-79 was because he had grown up in the country and knew how to work on a farm, how to fish and make nets for catching fish. Because he could work, and had "hard hands" instead of the soft handed white collar workers (who were executed), he was considered productive to the state and was allowed to live. Now he works bringing lives to Jesus Christ.
Who we are
Sunday, January 13, 2013 10:08 AM
I should introduce our Initiatives of Hope team… our leader is the Rev. Glenn Rowley, the conference director of Justice and Missional Excellence, who came to Cambodia a year ago to lay the groundwork for our visit. Also on the trip are the Rev. Sam NeSmith, a “retired” pastor who is making his 94th mission trip; the Rev. Judy Fender, a deacon at Burke UMC, a church which already has a covenant agreement with one of our missionaries in Cambodia, Clara Biswas; Olivia Hinton from St. Andrews UMC in Portsmouth, who just came off a term as conference United Methodist Women president; Nancy Yarborough from First UMC in Newport News; Ann Stingle, also from Burke UMC; Claudette Freeman, a clergy spouse from Richmond; and me, the embedded journalist and Advocate editor.
After spending a few days in Phnom Penh, we'll head out into the countryside and visit the Banteay Meanchey (pronounced "Ban-tee-aye MIN-chay") Province along the border with Thailand, where the Cambodian Methodist leadership wants Virginia to partner, and visit churches in that region.
Alive and well in Cambodia
Sunday, January 13, 2013 9:54 AM
For months now my vision of going to Cambodia has been Martin Sheen cruising up the Mekong River to find Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in “Apocalypse Now.” That or Sam Waterston in “The Killing Fields,” which is an even less happy image.
No, the real Cambodia is a much more alive place. Although we’ve only seen parts of the capitol city of Phnom Penh, where nearly half of the country’s 13 million population has come because this is where the majority of the work is found, I can tell you that this city is alive with “motos,” “tuk-tuks” and “cylos” going forth with little regard to what Americans cling to in terms of traffic patterns.
January is the ideal month for western tourists because the weather is mild, but it seems pretty hot this weekend, pushing 90 at midday. But later, late afternoon, when the sun begins to fade and the breeze off the river picks up, the people pour out on the street to shop, drink the local “Ankor” beer at French-inspired sidewalk cafes or moto to and fro, to see and be seen.
Here’s an eye-popping statistic about Cambodia: about 70 percent of the population is age 30 or below. Or an even more astonishing stat: half of the country are children or youth.
What did we say in the 1970s? “Never trust anyone over 35.” Well here 35 is an elder statesman. I’m 53 and haven’t seen many people older that I am.
The reason, of course, is the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s. Communist leader Pol Pot and his henchmen instituted a communal system of living that de-populated Cambodia’s cities and destroyed the family unit. His next move was to kill anyone who might be a threat to his plans, including professionals, foreigners, intellectuals (i.e. anyone who could read or write), people who wore eyeglasses or had “soft hands.”
Walking through the real Killing Fields today was a sobering experience. A memorial tower contains 9,000 skulls, a fraction of the millions that the Khmer Rouge executed with farm implements because bullets were too expensive to be wasted on fellow countrymen.
When that nightmare came crashing down after three long years there was something of a baby boom in Cambodia. The survivors picked up what was left of their lives and started over. Spend 10 seconds in Phnom Penh traffic and it’s hard to imagine this was once a ghost town.
So while American churches moan about the lack of young people in worship, Cambodian churches are lousy with children and teenagers, so many that most churches can’t fit them all in. While Christianity is still practiced by only about 2 percent of Cambodians –most are Buddhist or Hindi – the Methodist Church of Cambodia is growing and thriving.
It’s not because of the big salaries; Cambodian full elders average about $100 a month plus a little more if they have children, and some of that goes to help their members pay medical bills or buy rice when they run out.
But the flame of the Holy Spirit is burning bright, and the Lord is providing in God’s own way. That’s what our little team from Virginia has come to see, to learn how the Virginia Conference can forge a stronger relationship.
Headed to Cambodia
Wednesday, January 09, 2013 4:40 PM