Returning to Cambodia

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Roy Kim | 11/07/2022

I decided to return to Cambodia because the work of the missionaries to Cambodia is particularly meaningful to me: their ministry model is predicated on a model of church-planting and discipleship - which is foremost among my beliefs and values - and encompasses several mercy ministries, including rescuing and rehabilitating girls from the horrors of sex and labor trafficking (which continue to be devastating problems in Cambodia), teaching English and other supplemental educational programs in the village, and feeding the poor.

This past June, I traveled to Angk’jeay village in Cambodia to serve with a nonprofit Christian missions organization called Mission to the World (MTW). I was very familiar with this cultural context as I had worked and lived with the MTW missionaries in this particular village for three months last summer. The past two summers have seen me go to the village and contribute my time and effort in a variety of manners, such as teaching Bible studies, piano and English classes and making visits to students’ homes.

Although my trip this year was much more abridged than my previous trip, it was more meaningful due to the compounding joys of reuniting with friends made last year and witnessing the impacts of my work. I was especially eager to focus my attention on two specific students in the village to help me reflect upon the impacts of the missionaries’ work - and by extension, my work in the short-term - to inform my future work in serving underserved and unchurched people as a pastoral missionary overseas.

Zoe and Irene (names altered to protect their identities) are two Khmer students who represent the success of the missionaries’ mercy ministries. They have been involved with the missionaries since the latter arrived in Angk’jeay village nearly thirteen years ago and have come to bear such fruit remarkably. The first lesson I’ve drawn from the lives of Zoe and Irene was the efficacy of diligent, faithful service that operates with the longitudinal effects in mind rather than merely the short-term ones. The village has seen a remarkable amount of change in the past thirteen years - things like running water, electricity, refrigeration, phones and mopeds are rapidly replacing wells, iceboxes, ox carts and such, and the global coronavirus pandemic troubled life in the village for the last two years - and yet the missionaries have remained resolute in their method of ministry, choosing instead to make only minor adjustments as the circumstances dictated. As a result, students like Zoe and Irene grew up under the consistency of the missionaries, faithfully attending the classes they offered and involving themselves in the life of the church.

The benefits of such an upbringing are manifold, especially because life in the village is rife with challenges. Poverty in Cambodia tends to disintegrate the two-parent household in the village as parents leave to work in the city where employment opportunities are much more readily available than in the village. Such an exodus means that children are left with one parent or no parents and are often raised by elderly or disabled relatives who are unable to rear children in a physically demanding environment. This often means that children remain in a vicious cycle of poverty; in worst case scenarios, these children are left exposed to human traffickers when their relatives pass away or are otherwise unable to protect them. On the other hand, the missionaries open their metaphorical (and physical) doors to all, giving students a place to call refuge where they can also benefit from Bible studies and gain proficiency in English, mathematics, music and sports. In a sense, the missionaries aid in the childrearing efforts of the village, filling in gaps that under resourced guardians could not otherwise fill. This has real ramifications for students as they gain confidence in themselves and competence in their abilities, opening up pathways and opportunities for themselves that their deficient government schooling could never afford them. This is apparent in the stories of many students who passed their national college entrance exams and have very real chances to become doctors, engineers, translators, music directors, bankers, veterinarians and pastors upon graduating. Students like Zoe and Irene thus benefit from the thirteen years that the missionaries have invested as they have grown to be mature young adults who are well-prepared for the academic rigors of college in the city and well-equipped to deal with the rigors of poverty and religious persecution directed at them even from their own families.

Meanwhile, in comparison, the work I was able to accomplish over the span of a cumulative three and a half months was minimal. While the students thanked me for the Bible lessons I taught and for the encouragement I gave them while teaching English and piano classes, it was clear to me that any positive thing I effected built upon a foundation of trust and consistency established by the missionaries. In other words, I learned that change is best actualized not by ostentatious initiatives by the strength and wisdom of man, but by faithfulness and consistency in the work of faith over years and years. This “faithfulness over time” model of ministry motivates me, then, to plant my roots in such a place, roll up my sleeves and be faithful and consistent in my service unto God and others.

The second lesson I’ve learned from my missionary work is to look beyond the metrics to evaluate progress. The village context especially renders metrics and measurable statistics moot. After all, if even standardized testing in the United States fails to adequately capture the full story of educational aptitude, how can the statistics from the singular standardized exam Cambodian public school students must take be of any value? For example, the fact that Zoe performed better than Irene on their college exam reveals nothing about how the church’s educational programs can improve Irene’s English proficiency. Furthermore, one cannot easily measure subjective elements like encouragement, much less things like spiritual maturity or Biblical literacy. The metrics for the type of missionary work we did in the village were either non-existent or failed to adequately capture a model that dealt comprehensively with all of life’s matters, especially across cultures. However, the notes that students wrote to me tell a different story: referring to me as their brother in Christ, they thank me for being among the first to encourage them and make them believe they could play the piano, for example, and beg me to bring my fiancée and future kids back to Cambodia to meet them. Thus, the work in Cambodia has been teaching me how to look where metrics fail to see, and to care for people in such a way that builds them up, encourages dialogue and feedback, and addresses their concerns eagerly and swiftly.

There are still a great many questions I leave Cambodia with, specifically regarding how to best care for children and seniors in incredibly difficult circumstances. I’ve heard about and met too many Cambodian children who were trafficked or raised by incompetent or negligent guardians, too many elderly or disabled adults with no prospects in life, and far too many others trapped in a cycle of poverty and deficit, all of which is devastating and heartwrenching to witness. Nevertheless, I thank God for the opportunity to visit my beloved Khmer brothers and sisters and learn more about the intricacies of Khmer culture so that I may better understand and serve them as a missionary in the future. I hope to return soon, not with a grand ten-year plan on how to “rescue the village,” but with a heart set on long-term, faithful and consistent witness and service unto God and men.