Ubuntu Stories

Ubuntu Memories

Journey to Cambodia

Ubuntu Memories
Making a pint-sized pal.

On March 4, 2015, nine women from six different states traveled to Cambodia for a 10-day mission trip representing our United Methodist Women. Cambodia is nestled between Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and the Sea of Thailand.

Most people don't think of Cambodia as a destination of choice, but for me, it became a destination of calling. I answered the call as a member of the United Methodist Women Ubuntu Journey team to Cambodia. Close to the equator, this small country in Southeast Asia has two seasons: rainy and dry. As most team members left their home states with temperatures near freezing or snow still falling, we arrived in Phnom Penh where the temperatures hovered between 98 and 99 degrees by noon. This shocked me because on one of our three flights from 35,000 feet above the Arctic Circle, we saw ice caps and basked in a sunset that seemed to last for hours.

Ubuntu is an African term meaning, "I am human because you are human." Since 2012, when I traveled to the Philippines on my first Ubuntu Journey, I began explaining Ubuntu with this story:

A missionary told a group of children that he placed sweet treats under a nearby tree. The first child to reach the treats could have them. To his surprise, the children linked arms, and they ran to the tree where they shared the sweet treats with one another. When the missionary asked why one didn't run ahead of the others and take all the treats, the children exclaimed, "Ubuntu! How can we be happy when one of us is sad?"

Such is the nature of the United Methodist Women Ubuntu Journeys. We spend time on these short-term mission trips building relationships and visiting projects supported through United Methodist Women.

We were greeted at the airport by regional missionaries Esther Gitobu, Marilyn Chan, Joseph Chan and Sophany Heng, secretary of the Women's Desk at Global Ministries for the Methodist Church of Cambodia. After 30 hours of travel, the team rested for the night, ready for a day of orientation into the history of Cambodia.

We toured a complex called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum that was once a high school in the capital of Phnom Penh, but became a prison, S-21 (Security Office 21), run by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Shocked at seeing the barbed wire, mass detention cells and weapons of torture, we quietly boarded the bus and rode through the bustling streets to the Killing Fields Genocide Museum where millions died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

Sadness and solemnity filled us as we absorbed the scenes of mass graves and a towering shrine filled with unidentified victims' skulls. With images of millions who lost their lives, we cooled from the heat of the day at a restaurant called Hagar's, which employs young adults in the hospitality industry. This stark dichotomy of poverty and wealth struck each of us as we learned about the great personal losses, struggles and abundances in this beautiful country.

We also met with several women who received livelihood project funds from United Methodist Women. These women sewed intricate purses made of cord, krama fabric and recycled material such as feed and cement bags. Our orientation concluded with a tour of the royal palace and the Silver Pagoda.

Overflowing with cultural history, the days quickly filled with Bible studies with women at local villages, story time with children and songs with children. Our missionaries and translators worked closely with us to translate our English into Khmer, the national language of Cambodia, and we watched for signs of understanding. During Sunday worship, we sang the English words that we knew to the age-old hymns that our Cambodian brothers and sisters sang in Khmer. Sunday service was followed by lunch of traditional Cambodian stews and rice, which we ate while seated on the floor, barefoot.

Each time we entered a school, church or home, we removed our shoes as a sign of respect. We immersed ourselves in the culture of the country as a starting point to relationship-building. Learning about culture and history are essential to allowing yourself to being open and present in the moment so that a relationship or friendship can flourish. As Sophany and another young translator named Thida taught us traditional Cambodian dances, we laughed at our attempts to be graceful and feel the music.

Each day we traveled to a different area around Phnom Penh to visit project sites or villages where our Methodist women gather in churches. One such town, called Svaypak, was once known around the world for its brothels where underage girls were sold into prostitution by their own family members. Now, through the work of Agape International Missions (AIM), Svaypak is where AIM trains young women in sewing, screen-printing and jewelry-making for paying jobs.

We traveled to Kampong Spue, where village women shared their basket-weaving skills with us and we made the women laugh at our failed attempts to weave. At the end of each session, as we bonded with the women, we offered a table full of reading glasses from which they could choose. When the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot attempted to transform Cambodia into an agrarian utopian society, the intellectuals of the country, including anyone who wore glasses, were killed. Our small gift of reading glasses brought the gift of near-vision to many in the region.

On the day we visited Kampong Spue, I must have frustrated our hostess who several times tried to teach me to weave with palm leaves. At the end of our lesson, we offered our table of reading glasses. Tears of joy filled my eyes when one of the village women found a pair of reading glasses that allowed her to see again. She walked away from the table smiling happily, and I remembered the time when, as a child, I first gained sight through prescription glasses.

At the end of the second week, as we traveled to Siem Reap, in the province of Kampong Thom, we met two American soldiers on a peacekeeping mission who requested contact information to confirm our mission and presence in the country. This seemed odd to me, that 8,000 miles from home an American soldier would ask for proof of why I was in a foreign country. To him, it seemed odd that nine American women would travel to a country to see their projects. He seemed content when I shared our team's blog  as well as my contact information, so that he could confirm our safety.

In Siem Reap we walked through the temples Angkor Wat and Bayon. These ancient man-made wonders of the world survived wars and centuries of strife. We marveled at the talents of those working at an artisan silk farm, and we sailed on the Tonle Sap River through a floating village.

Relationship-building continued through the journey by our visits to a boarding school far out in the countryside, supported by United Methodist Women from around the world. We witnessed how funds from our local United Methodist Women groups are used to provide education to children and youth. We saw firsthand how our monthly contributions enable those in the field to provide quality care and opportunities for women to learn lifelong sewing and craft skills that generate income. Relationship-building culminated in a garden where children learn to grow their own food for the cafeteria, and are granted opportunities to study, learn and grow in the grace of Christ. We witnessed these things so we could share, so that the world will not forget. We saw with open hearts, so that our United Methodist Women members know that our presence of standing alongside our sisters in mission is a testament of being present with God. More often than not, being present in the moment means more than a souvenir present or gift.

As we rode a bus at the end of the journey, one of my teammates asked, "We saw so much. How do I fix it?" I responded, "You don't fix it. It fixes you. It's like this, you were broken just enough to allow God to work through you. Think of it as a mosaic of beautiful broken glass; when you hold it to the sun, new patterns of light shine through to you. And now, you share."

Janet Reep Morgan is a member of Messiah United Methodist Women, Lincolnton, North Carolina.

Posted or updated: 11/2/2015 11:00:00 PM

Ubuntu participants posed before the huge, ancient face carvings that Angkor Wat is famous for.The Ubuntu team at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Facebook Tweet It Pin It
Give Now
Email It Print It