November Update

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4th grade students in YAGM Lindsay’s afternoon class

It’s been quite some time since we’ve written anything, and so thought it would be a good time to give you a general update on life here in Cambodia.

After a 24-day orientation, we “released” the YAGM volunteers to their service sites on September 21. Sarah and I took a few days to decompress (read: sleep) and clean up after orientation, and then about a week later, Rev. Franklin Ishida, the ELCA’s Program Director for Asia and the Pacific, was here for a few days to visit the Lutheran Church in Cambodia and Life With Dignity. In between meetings, we took Franklin to visit YAGM Haley in Phnom Sruoch and YAGM Ryan in Phnom Penh. Franklin got to drive on Cambodian backroads, which included maneuvering through a herd of cows and going through a stream with water covering most of all 4 wheels on the pickup.

The month of October was busy fielding phone calls and emails and text messages from the volunteers as they began to adapt to living in their new homes. For some of them, this meant learning that rats are common in the provinces. Sarah and I have been super-proud of the volunteers in how they have handled discovering that sometimes they share their space with these little critters – they took (and are taking) it in stride.

After the volunteers were in their service sites for about a month we held a “Seminar Weekend” for them. We had them come to Phnom Penh for a weekend of intentional “checking in”, worship in English, and had Longdi come and do a language class (for some, it was review, for others, it was an opportunity to learn new vocabulary for situations they find themselves in at their sites on a regular basis). It was fun to hear the volunteers describe their sites and give us a glimpse into their lives here in Cambodia. The seminar weekend was also a good time to again talk intentionally about culture shock, as well as what it means to live in relationship and service with their communities.

The rest of our time has been spent doing the “random” things that seem to fill our days: meetings, emails, reading, phone calls, text messages, our own language instruction, making newsletters, doing logistics reports, making “informal” site visits, etc. Additionally, we drove to Cambodia’s beautiful northeast and scouted out locations for our first retreat, which is starting this Friday, 27 November, and so far have made a couple of “formal” site visits. We also took a week off for our anniversary. So, we keep ourselves busy, but it’s not the “I have so much stuff to do I can’t think straight” kind of busy that so often we found ourselves in while living in the States, and for that we are grateful.

Speaking of being grateful, know that we are so grateful that you are joining us on this journey in Cambodia by reading this blog, through the prayers you pray on our behalf, and the emails and Facebook messages you send. They mean so much to us and we give thanks to God for you and your support. Have a great Thanksgiving, stay warm (that won’t be a problem here – it’s 90* as I write this), and stay safe!

Week 1

YAGMs exploring the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
YAGMs exploring the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

Crazy (to us) Fact: We’ve finished almost one week of in-country orientation!

Fast Fact: Our YAGMs have already done 10 hours of Khmer language study (with almost 40 to go – see facebook for a picture of them hard at work!).

Fun Fact: The YAGMS have either participated in, or cheered on fellow YAGMs in, local, outdoor, line dancing.

Interesting Fact: The image on the Cambodian flag is of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world. It is also the only national flag in the world that has a symbol of ruins on it.

As orientations go, the one for YAGM Cambodia is long. Three and a half weeks long, actually, and it’s all because of language. While they won’t be learning to read or write Khmer (many of their service sites will help with that), they will learn to listen and speak, which will be invaluable to them.

But, a longer orientation means being able to take our time with other things. And this week’s focus is Cambodian history! Monday we learned about pre-Angkor and Angkorian history (4200 BCE – 1431 CE) and then took a trip to the National Museum to see the art and artifacts from these periods. Yesterday we covered the Cambodian Dark Ages, the French Protectorate, and the beginning of independence (1432-1965), and then visited the Royal Palace (which was built during the French Protectorate). Today, we studied the Khmer Rouge (most deeply felt from 1975-1979, but which held onto a UN seat until 1992), and tomorrow we will spend a full day at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Friday we cover post-Khmer Rouge to present day.

As with most places in the world, history is incredibly important to the people here and understanding who they are, how they view the world, and how they live. And with Cambodian history, we experience both phenomenal heights in the temples and civilization of Angkor, and the depths of killing their own people in the Khmer Rouge. It’s a fascinating history, and it is sure to have made an impression in the lives of anyone who walks it. So if you know a YAGM, make sure you ask them about it.

Next week’s focus: culture and religion!

Better than Target

Orientation shopping at Orussey Market!
Orientation shopping at Orussey Market!

10 DAYS.  THEY COME IN 10 DAYS.

I could do a whole post on how this is both amazing and terrifying, but that just seems obvious.

And no matter how excited and terrified we are as coordinators, the excitement and terror is tenfold that for these YAGMs who are about to arrive.

So, for today, just a picture. A picture of us preparing for the excitement and terror by shopping at Orussey Market – which is also an amazing and terrifying 3-story behemoth of a building with mazes of stalls with anything and everything you could ever possibly imagine. Not that one knows where to find the one thing you’re looking for and not that one doesn’t have to sometimes just squeeze your way through an unknown row until you find yourself outside and then walk around the entire building so you can begin where you started again.

But in the spirit of focusing on the amazing, YAGMs, there’s a place (almost) better than Target!

On the Road

The back of the pickup got a little dirty after our first trip with it into the provinces.
The back of the pickup got a little dirty after our first trip with it into the provinces.

Since we’ve arrived in February we haven’t had a vehicle. Primarily, we have gotten around using tuk-tuks (in fact, we have our “own” driver, which is awesome!), but we’ve also been driven around the provinces by Life With Dignity and Lutheran Church in Cambodia staff, taken buses, taken a taxicab and a taxibus, and even rented a motorbike for a week. We could, but haven’t yet, taken a boat from Phnom Penh up the Tonle Sap River to get to Siem Reap (northwest) and down the Mekong River to get to Vietnam (southeast); at some point I’m sure we will. The only mode of transportation that truly isn’t available to us in Cambodia is train.

During each trip we’ve gone on, whether in the city or the provinces, I’ve made it a point to try and pay attention to what traffic is like, what road conditions are, and how we’ve gotten to our destination. I was trying to prepare myself for when we finally got a vehicle and would be responsible for getting ourselves where we needed to be. Well, that day came, and I realized exactly how much I really wasn’t prepared.

Driving in Cambodia is drastically different than in the United States. One drives on the right-hand side of the road (thankfully), but that’s where the similarities end. Having observed traffic for a few months now, I knew that there would be motorbikes darting in-and-out between vehicles and that the roads would be rough, but knowing something and experiencing something are completely different things, as I’ve come to find out.

Having grown up and learned to drive in northern Wisconsin, I’ve had lots of practice watching the roads for deer that might dart out in front of the car, but that really doesn’t train you for having to watch the front and the sides of your vehicle for bikes and cars and trucks that will suddenly swerve in front of you or come up alongside you, seemingly out of nowhere (not to mention the, what I consider to be unusually- high, number of cows that seem to wander along the roads). Add into that equation nighttime and rain, and it becomes quite a stressful experience. I have driven 15-passenger vans full of high school students while pulling a U-Haul trailer through Chicago and in the Appalachian Mountains, and I’ve not gripped the steering wheel as tightly as I did the night it rained on our way home.

I don’t know if driving will ever be truly “easy” here, but I do know that it will get easier. This is just another in this series of experiences we have, and will have, as we continue to make Cambodia “home”, and I’m sure in a few years when I think about these first few times driving that I’ll laugh at how I overreacted. At least, let’s hope it gets to that point. 🙂

July Update

Visiting one of the many temples at Angkor.

It’s been a while since we’ve posted anything on the blog, so thought we’d provide a quick update:

A highlight of our time this “summer” has been a trip to Siem Reap in June to visit the temples of Angkor. A part of the in-country orientation when the YAGMs arrive will be spent on Cambodian culture and history, and so we thought that it was important to visit the pride and joy of Cambodia, Angkor Wat, before the group got here. I mean, if we’re going to bring the group here in September we’ve got to know which bus to take, which guest house to stay at, and how many temples to visit, right? 🙂 Seriously, we are incredibly lucky to be doing this job for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the ability to visit some of the most amazing historical sites in the world!

The other major thing that we’ve been working on has been purchasing a vehicle so we can get around to the volunteer service sites. The ELCA is now the proud owner of a Mazda BT-50 4×4 pickup truck! It would not have been possible for this vehicle purchase to take place if it wasn’t for the amazing assistance from Life With Dignity, who arranged for bids to be received, test drives to take place, paperwork to be filled out, and insurance to be purchased. We are excited to make visits to each of the service sites at least once more before the volunteers arrive, not to mention figure out how to navigate the countryside roads of Cambodia. However, before we can make our inaugural “solo trip” to the sites, we’re waiting on license plates. It seems to be taking a bit longer than originally thought, but thankfully we do not have any major time crunches, so it isn’t an issue right now.

Other than a trip to Angkor and pickup trucks being purchased, there is not a whole lot to report. We continue our language lessons three times per week; for about 7 weeks now we have been learning to read and write in Khmer. It has been nice to be able to read (some) signs on buildings and streets, but it is clear that we have so much yet to learn. When we’re not studying Khmer, we are continuing to prepare for the volunteers’ arrival and going about our day-to-day lives in a much more relaxed way than we were ever able to in the States. Life is good and we pray that yours is, too!

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Book Cover: In the Shadow of the Banyan

When we arrived in Cambodia in February we had to hit the ground running: find a place to live, visit and meet with potential YAGM partners, select YAGM service sites, put together a presentation for the Discernment-Interview-Placement (DIP) event, fly back to Chicago for two weeks and then fly back to Phnom Penh, and start learning the language. We spent all of our time going from one place to the next and there was hardly time to catch our breath.

Since we returned to Phnom Penh after DIP, though, we’ve been able to breathe a bit and live more of a slower-paced, Cambodian lifestyle, which has been great. In fact, we’ve actually been able to sit and read! One of the books I read was, “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner.

Raami, the protagonist, was seven years old and a member of the royal family (royal blood, but not immediate family members of the king) in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in April 1975. Just like the rest of the population, the family packs as much as they can and evacuates the city, in anticipation of American bombs being dropped. For Raami’s family, the ordeal is viewed primarily as an inconvenience at the beginning, as they were able to drive their car to their countryside home to “wait out” a potential attack. It soon becomes clear, though, that the family is not going home. The rest of the book describes the ordeal that Raami and her family went through during the rule of “Angkar” (“The Organization” – what the Khmer Rouge called themselves).

Ratner’s story-telling draws you in and it becomes difficult to put the book down, even though much of what she writes is tough to read, as no child, no family, no one, should have to endure this in any time or any place. A seven year-old girl, who was so full of life, is forced to look death in the face on a daily basis. A seven year-old girl, who loves stories, is unable to put words to the horror she witnesses until much later in life. A seven year-old girl, who knew nothing but love, experiences the cancer of hate.

Ratner is able to bring the reader so fully into the story because even though “In the Shadow of the Banyan” is technically a fictional tale, Vaddey Ratner lived this nightmare. Raami’s story is Vaddey’s story. Vaddey was five years-old in April 1975 and her father descended from the royal line of King Sisowath, one of Cambodia’s early 20th-Century kings. While some of the particular stories and thoughts in this book may not be factually accurate, they are experiences the author lived through during her time in forced exile in the Khmer Rouge forced labor communities. The tale is fictional, but the story is real.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who would like to put a human face and an actual story to the tragedy that was the Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea from 1975-1979.

They’re Really Coming

YAGM program staff, country coordinators, and Time for God staff all meeting together in Chicago before DIP.
YAGM program staff, country coordinators, and Time for God staff all meeting together in Chicago before DIP.

We have people coming to Cambodia!!!! After several meetings, a couple presentations, lots of interviews, long conversation, and prayer, we are finally able to tell you that we’re ECSTATIC about the 7 people that have accepted the call to come serve in Cambodia this year!

Yes, you read that right – seven. Not six, but seven. Seven fabulous young adults will show up in Cambodia in late August.  After seeing all of the opportunity in Cambodia to serve and actually meeting these incredible young adults, none of us could resist the nudge to ask just one more person to come, and she accepted!  So whoever of you out there was praying for this ministry, for DIP, for us, and the young adults, thank you. It worked, and we couldn’t be more excited.

Who are they, you ask? Excellent question. Please add to your prayer list: Andrew, Elise, Haley, Jessica, Lindsay, Ryan, and Savannah!

So now the “real” work starts.  Over the next several months we’ll look at all our placement opportunities again, match the gifts and personalities of these young adults with a site, and revisit those places to ensure everything is ready for them – basic necessities like a bed, fan, and bicycle, as well as the things that will shape their year – setting up orientation (yay language study!), retreats, continued learning opportunities, etc. And in the meantime, our young adults will be busy finishing up school and work, applying for visas, deciding what to pack, and all the things that lead up to spending an intentional year abroad.

We’re thrilled. Seriously thrilled. And so we extend our thanks to all of you again: those of you who are supporting us and praying for us, those of you here in Cambodia partnering with us, and those of you who will be coming here in August to serve! We’re grateful.

DIP

Working on the presentation for DIP.
Working on the presentation for DIP.

In just a few hours (less than 10 at this point) we will be getting on a plane and heading back to the United States.  No, we didn’t quit our job and, no, we weren’t kicked out of the country (although, part of the reason we’re leaving is because our visas expire today and we need to leave and re-enter the country before being able to apply for a business visa, so I guess we are being kicked out of the country!).  We’re heading to Chicago for our first-ever “DIP” experience.

“DIP”, as it’s most commonly referred to by the YAGM program, stands for Discernment-Interview-Placement.  The Chicago YAGM team has gone through hundreds of applications and conducted hours upon hours of phone interviews with young adults from around the United States who have said, “Yes, I am willing to live and serve abroad for a year and am ready for this adventure!”, and they (staff) have made the initial difficult decisions of who will be attending the DIP event and who will not be.  Now the country coordinators from all nine YAGM programs around the world will come together to interview these young adults to discern which country programs these young adults will be placed in.  In other words, it’s the event where we finally get to meet the young adults who will be serving in Cambodia starting this August!

Not all young adults interview for all country programs.  Typically what happens is that each young adult will interview for two countries and the country programs interview twice as many young adults as there are volunteer positions.  Because we will have six YAGMs in Cambodia we will interview 12 young adults.  Following the interview process all of the country coordinators will gather in a room and begin the difficult process of discerning which young adult will go to which country.  The DIP event begins on a Thursday afternoon and ends on Sunday morning.  Before the young adults depart on Sunday they will know which country they have been placed in, and then they will have a short amount of time to accept or decline the placement.

We’re excited for DIP, but we’re also a little nervous because we need to put together a presentation on the YAGM Cambodia program.  Where do you begin?  What do you put in the presentation?  What do you leave out?  How much history do you tell vs. jumping right in to the present-day reality?  Which bits of information about our partner organizations are critical to share now and which ones can wait until in-country orientation begins in August?  How do we ensure that we’re not just talking at the young adults during the presentation?  These are just some of the questions we’re asking.  Oh, and let us not forget that we need to not only give this presentation for the young adults but we also need to present it to the other country coordinators who are seasoned pros at giving country presentations.  No pressure…

Seriously, though, we are looking forward to sharing with as many folks as we can the program that we are working on putting together here in Cambodia.  We truly believe that God has called YAGM (and us) to this country and are confident that whichever young adults end up coming to Cambodia will also be truly called here.

And so now we ask for your prayers to surround this process.  Pray for the young adults as they discern how God is calling them to use their gifts in the world.  Pray for the country coordinators as they share about their country of service and make the difficult decisions regarding volunteer placement.  Pray for the YAGM program “in general” that it may ever be faithful to its calling to help raise up global servant leaders for the sake of the world.

Meetings, Meetings, and More Meetings

Meeting with LWD staff, and the teachers and principal of a local school.
Meeting with LWD staff, the teachers, administrators, and principal of a local school.

So what happens, exactly, when two people are dropped into a country with no place to live, no schedule set up, no knowledge of the culture or language, and equipped only with the directive to “figure it out” – both their lives and the entire base of a new program… in 2 months?

There is, of course, the typical sight-seeing and the stumbling attempts at communication and simply trying to figure out which television stations are in English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, or any number of other Southeast Asian languages. This week we’ve even managed to pick up our Cambodian driver’s licenses and rent a motorbike (a serious “win” for us). But as it turns out, what happens is… meetings. Lots of meetings. Meetings on Skype, meetings in crowded offices with no air conditioning, meetings literally on a table underneath a house, meetings with oxen and chickens as company, meetings in dormitories, during weddings, at schools, restaurants, hotels, in cars, on a boat… you name it, we’ve probably had a meeting there. And while all of them have been different and some more helpful than others, they have allowed us time and space to literally meet the wonderful people that now will be a part of our lives.

So, we’re going to let you in on just a few of the people and organizations who have taken the time to meet us in this world:

  • Once a week, we are invited to meet with the people at the Lutheran Church in Cambodia City Church. It’s a congregation made up almost entirely of university students, as worship is held in the church’s “hostel” (dorm) for students. Worship includes heavy drumbeats and synthesizers mixed with testimonies, scripture, a sermon, and the Confession/Absolution/Kyrie right out of the Lutheran Book of Worship.
    • We were also allowed to meet with all 58 of the students here to interview them on Cambodian culture. 10 groups and 80 questions later, we have 3 hours of video with their responses.
  • Three times a week, a local Christian translator and language teacher meets us at our home to teach us Khmer.
  • Every day we “meet” a tuk-tuk driver and his small son at the end of our street. They wave and say hello and make sure we have a ride to wherever we need (and our motorbike hasn’t seemed to have an effect on that…)
  • ELCA – it’s like we showed up and suddenly lots of other ELCA people did, too (ok, their trips were probably already planned, but still…). We met the 3 Asia-Pacific regional reps (one for church relationships, one for diakonia, and one for theological education) and a variety of different directors in the ELCA for everything from sustainable development to disaster response to World Hunger. We learned a lot about the ELCA’s work here, current relationships, current projects, and how we and the YAGM program will interact with them.
  • In Cambodia, there are roughly 4,000 NGOs – at last count, it was second in the world only to Rwanda. Now, probably half are actually operating at the moment. But that’s still a huge number of NGOs per capita. We have not met with all 4,000 (or 2,000), nor do we intend to. In fact, we’ve already turned down 4 organizations because we were already beyond capacity in both time and available volunteers. But, with the 6 NGOs and 3 congregations we did meet with, we could place 20 volunteers. We’re receiving 6 this year. You do the math.

All of these meetings have had their own amusements and frustrations, but they’ve also been the lead-up to being able to have YAGMs come in August. Which brings us to our next big meeting (in two weeks): DIP (Discernment-Interview-Placement). We’ll post more on that later, but we’ll meet the other Country Coordinators for YAGM as well as all of the potential young adults that will be spending a year abroad somewhere in this world and more specifically, in Cambodia.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever come to a place of saying “I love meetings”. There’s just something that sounds wrong about that. But truly, all of our meetings have had a certain blessedness to them. In an incredibly short amount of time not only have we met people who will become important to us, but they’ve allowed us into the tragedy, hope, and determination that is Cambodia. And for that, we are grateful.

The Harvest

During our time in Kansas City, we had the good fortune of working with, and getting to know, Dr. Pat Taylor Ellison of Church Innovations.  Pat developed a “spiritual practice of deep listening” technique called “Dwelling in the Word”, in which groups commit to “dwelling” in a particular scripture passage whenever they meet.  Some groups may choose to dwell in a passage only once, and others may pick a passage and stick with it for a semester, a year, or longer.  In fact, the staff of Church Innovations have dwelt in Luke 10:1-12 for almost two decades!

I (Adam) bring up Dwelling in the Word because  Sarah and I have had the opportunity to visit several Area Program Offices of Life With Dignity, one of our primary partners here in Cambodia, and the phrase, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” from Luke 10 has been bouncing around in my head.  One of the steps in Dwelling in the Word is to share with a partner what phrase or image stood out to you when listening to the passage being read.  Although I’m not sure if Dwelling in the Word works well via a blog post, I’d like to share with you why that phrase has stuck out to me.  Before reading the rest of this post, feel free to read Luke 10 yourself and then leave a comment and we can dwell in this passage together virtually!

It actually frustrates me that the phrase, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” is what is sticking out.  I think whenever someone hears this they automatically think about going out into the world, sharing the Gospel, and bringing the “sinners” (and those who don’t know the Gospel) to Jesus so that their souls may be saved.  While this may be one interpretation of this half-verse, and it may be easy to make that connection given that we are living and working in Cambodia, a country that is 95+% Buddhist, that is a model of evangelism (and missionary work) that often says, “I know what you need better than you know what you need, so listen to me and then do what I do”, and it can be oppressive rather than life-giving.

Rather, what I mean when I highlight this phrase is the immense need in this country and the seeming inability of the church and non-government organizations (NGOs) (the laborers) to alleviate it (the harvest).  In our visit to just three areas over two days we heard about the work Life With Dignity is doing to empower the local people to become more self-sufficient.  They told us about “village banks” which provide micro-financing to families at affordable interest rates, with funds pooled together from the locals who want to participate.  We visited with a family who recently (within the last 6 weeks) got running water at their home (not inside, but outside), along with 58 other families in the village and are working together to create their very own “water district” by paying for the water at affordable rates while still creating a maintenance fund and replacement fund for the PVC pipe and generator which allow the water to be pumped from the top of the nearby mountain.  We heard about the hopes and dreams of the staff who want to start youth “clubs” in which leadership development is promoted and skills are learned and teachers who want English to be taught to their students so that they have an ability to “market” themselves in order to find jobs once they leave school.

These are all good and worthwhile things to hope for and to work towards.  But when confronted by so much need and hearing about the many challenges that stand in the way of being able to accomplish these goals, it can seem overwhelming.  There clearly aren’t enough laborers to alleviate the need.  Sarah and I visited 3 Area Program Offices of Life With Dignity in 2 days.  We easily could place at least one Young Adults in Global Mission volunteer (YAGM) in each of the program offices.  We will visit 4 more Area Program Offices this week; Life With Dignity has a total of 9 Area Program Offices in 4 districts throughout Cambodia.  If the other offices are like the 3 we’ve already seen, and I have no reason to believe they won’t be, we could place 9 YAGMs with Life With Dignity this year.  We have 6 YAGMs who will come to Cambodia in August.  At least 2 of those YAGMs will work with the Lutheran Church in Cambodia.  We’ve also met with 4 or 5 other worthwhile organizations that could benefit from having a YAGM live and serve in their midst for a year.  Clearly, we have a math problem here.

And yet, despite the math problem, I know that there will be incredible things that happen here in Cambodia once the YAGMs arrive.  Six different communities will benefit because a group of American young adults decided to live and serve in this context for a year.  Six different American young adults will benefit because a community opened their arms and extended radical hospitality to them and walked with them in their struggles to adapt to a new reality.  Together they will work to confront the needs of their communities and to learn from one another.  There will be times of frustration, anger, and confusion, but there will also be times of great joy, celebration, and happiness.  It will be messy, and it will be beautiful.

“The harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few” is indeed the reality here in Cambodia.  But where the laborers are, there is a harvest that is taking place.  Those who once had to walk up a mountain to get water can now go out into their front yard and turn on a spigot, saving time and energy for other things like education and work.  Micro-loans with an affordable interest rate are being offered to those who have an idea for a business but not the means to secure capital to make it a reality.  This is the harvest I’m talking about when I think about this scripture from Luke 10, and I cannot wait to hear about and observe more of these stories of harvest when the YAGMs arrive.

Mr. Nuon Borin, one of LWD’s program managers, and the new water system LWD installed in a village.
An on-site water system installed at a school in one of LWD’s program areas.
Primary school children at a possible YAGM placement site.
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