Three hours from their nearest counterparts in Kampong Phluck, Rachel and Kat are living and serving in Mongkol Borei, a town an hour and a half north of Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. Mongkol Borei is only 50 kilometers from the Thai border and part of the region where the Khmer Rouge held power long after they were booted out of Phnom Penh in January 1979. The rest of the Graber Miller family left Siem Reap for Phnom Penh Wednesday morning while Keith boarded a bus to head northwest to Bantey Meanchey province. Kat and Rachel both are living with pastors’ families and their work is at Kone Kmeng, a Christian school about a half hour away from their homes, deep into the dusty countryside.
While all other 2010 Cambodia SSTers are living with Buddhist or animist families, Rachel and Kat are living with Christian families in this largely Buddhist culture. (Stephanie’s Buddhist family includes two siblings who are Christian, too, so she relates with their church a good bit.) That Christian context has clearly shaped Kat and Rachel’s experience, illuminating similarities and differences in the range of Christianity practiced around the world and helping them reflect on the ways in which Cambodia’s first-generation Christians practice the “good news” of the gospel. Sometimes the differences have been difficult to negotiate for the SSTers, with injunctions against dancing and card-playing, though they also have seen many strengths in familial relationships, the presence of their fathers in the home, and other very positive relational aspects influenced by Christianity.
Their service work is at Rachel’s family’s church, where her father is the pastor and her mom sometimes co-preaches. Kat and Rachel assist with the morning preschool program at the church, helping White Cigarette, the lead teacher. After their 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. stint with the younger children, they usually spend several hours on the church/school property playing and talking with the older children. That’s where Keith found them the day he visited — interacting with the kids, who clearly appreciated their presence and spirit.
By about 1 p.m., Kat and Rachel usually are back at their homes, so they spend the afternoon relaxing, riding bikes, or going to what they affectionately call “Buddhaland,” the local wat, which is even more colorful than most wats, with a golden Buddha inside what seems to be the track for an amusement ride. They then spend the evenings with their families. Kat’s family often watches TV just outside her bedroom, and Rachel’s family often sits on the front porch, where it is a bit cooler. The evening Keith visited Rachel helped her younger siblings with their Khmer homework. Both of the women are speaking Khmer quite well. When they spent a night at a Battambang hotel recently, they discovered that they identified with and were more comfortable conversing with the Cambodian families at the hotel rather than the Western tourists who were there that night.
Kat’s home is a wooden structure on top of a concrete church meetinghouse room. Her father is the pastor of the church, and her brother assists with the work of the church. A sister and brother-in-law and their baby also live across the street from the home.
Although she uses the neighbors’ dump shower, Rachel’s home is perhaps the most modest of all the SSTers’ service families, at least in terms of scale and construction. The house’s one room is about 12′ x 12′, plus a front porch and attached kitchen. In terms of worldly possessions, both Rachel and Kat’s families have far more books than Keith saw in any other SST home — perhaps 6 linear feet of books and booklets, mostly ones related to Christian faith. (One of the Tampoun students had remarked earlier that even with significantly scaling back the clothes and personal items she took on service — down to one backpack full — she realized upon arrival that her essential possessions for six weeks were more than her entire family owned collectively. This was especially true in the indigenous villages.)
Kat and Rachel’s mothers are both good cooks, so they are eating well. Often Rachel’s mother makes them lunch at the school. The night Keith visited we went up to Svay Sisophon, about nine kilometers north, to eat some Western-ish food, and the women were both thrilled to have french fries, pumpkin soup, toast, and ice cream. Keith stayed at Rachel’s home for the night, sleeping in the house’s one room (Rachel gave up her mattressed bed), with Rachel on the hardwood floor along with her little brother and sister, Elijah and Naomi, and Rachel’s parents out on the front porch.
Rachel and Kat are enthusiastic about relating with their families and working at the school. Quite removed from any of the other SSTers, the nearest ones being three hours away and most being eight to 12 hours away, they spend much of their day hours together. They seem rather happy and content, though like most others they’ll be glad to see their peers two weeks from now when they all return to the city. We’re grateful to their families and to the various other families and NGOs with whom we are working/serving for their very gracious hospitality across the provinces.
Keith will make the final service visit this week to a small village outside Kampot, where Trisha and Allison are working.