Taking off our shoes: On being Romero’s Church in Cambodia
I love Oscar Romero. I love his story of conversion from defense of the status quo to solidarity with the poor. It reminds me that coming from a background of privilege need not prevent me from working effectively with the poor. I love his writings (even those wrongly attributed to him). I love how his life – and his death – continues to inspire and liberate Salvadorans and foreigners alike. I think I am especially attracted to Romero’s story because he embodied so much of what I hope to accomplish: he publicly spoke prophetic truth to power, using his position of privilege as an archbishop to criticize corrupt government and church institutions, regardless of the danger to his life. So of course I was thrilled when I learned last year that the community center where I am currently working would be named for Romero.
The Battambang church community chose to honor Romero by naming the center after him for two reasons: first, to inspire our work by the legacy of Romero’s commitment to the poor, especially in a context of oppression and violence; and second, to support a stronger consciousness of the worldwide community of Catholics working for justice and peace.
This community is alive and well in the Christian Base Communities of El Salvador that I had the privilege of visiting last spring, especially among the women leaders. They were lay presiders of breakaway Catholic parishes, former guerilla fighters, founders of meditation and healing centers in the most dangerous parts of San Salvador, and matriarchs of their villages. When they used phrases like “la solidaridad,” “la injusticia estructural,” and “la lucha,” they were not paying lip service to a theoretical construct of liberation theology, they were simply describing how they made it through each day with hope and dignity, not to mention food on the table.
But since I have arrived, I am realizing more each day how differently the spirit of Romero is expressed here in Cambodia than in El Salvador. Even though there have been Khmer Catholics for hundreds of years, the church here is extremely young, both demographically and theologically. During the war, the Catholic church was targeted by the Khmer Rouge, just like all other international institutions. In 1970, there were 63,000 Khmer Catholics, but by 1979, only 1,000 remained. Today, most parishioners are youth and children.
Unlike in El Salvador, which has been the home to a dynamic liberation theology, there is no body of scholarly Khmer Catholic theology. While this has been frustrating for me personally, as I lack these particular academic resources to prepare myself for my work here, the absence is indicative of the church’s alternative priorities. Instead of focusing primarily on religious education, the church has directed its energy, money, and love towards fostering communities of radical hospitality and accompaniment. This is especially evident in Petyichi, the church compound in Battambang, which is home to a free health clinic, a public kindergarten, a center for poor high school and college students, a home for children with disabilities, and some of the city’s soccer fields. Needless to say, the vast majority of people who benefit from these services are Theravada Buddhists.
Since Buddhist beliefs and practices are virtually inextricable from Khmer culture, understanding Buddhism and how it functions in Cambodia is a daily pursuit that is vital to my effectiveness here. This means seeking to understand abstract beliefs about spirituality, as well as concretely changing some little things about my life. One of the most obvious of these changes, taking off my shoes, has become a constant reminder of what my role here should be. Here it is customary to take off your shoes when you enter someone’s home. This act serves the practical purpose of preventing sandals from dirtying the floor where people sit and sleep, but it also expresses respect and humility. For me, it has come to symbolize entering into this community as a guest, and checking my expectations at the door.
Taking off my shoes and setting aside my expectations – without letting go of my hope for transformation and justice – is a daily, or even hourly, practice. I expected that to be Romero’s church in Cambodia was to enter into “la lucha,” – to struggle for justice, to fight for the poor. But in Battambang, when parishioners watched Romero, the movie of the Archbishop’s life and death, what struck them most was his close relationship with the people. Romero lived his life among the marginalized, sharing their joys, fears, triumphs and struggles. For my community – and gradually, for me – to be the church of Romero means simply to be with the poor: to welcome, to accompany, to support.
Negotiating how this approach fits with the obvious need for structural transformation will be an ongoing process. Culture is dynamic and malleable, so socially sanctioned violence against women need not be accepted in the name of cultural tolerance. But I’m learning that the way to fight it may be not to fight at all. I’m spending as much time as I can asking Khmer women what they hope for in their marriages, in their sex lives, for their communities, and for their daughters. And when I stop listening for righteous anger and desire for immediate change, I’m hearing them tell me about peace, compassion, and respect. I’m taking off my shoes and getting used to feeling the Khmer ground beneath my feet.