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Peace and problems

March 3, 2010

The Khmer phrase for visit is “sua sok tok,” which roughly means “asking about peace and problems.” Since my work at the Romero Center officially began in March, Theary (my work partner), Kiwee, and I spend most afternoons visiting a few homes in villages around the church compound. We sit and listen, while the women talk. Yes, just the women – we do our best to plan our visits for when the men of the house will be out, so that we can sit and speak with their wives, mothers, and daughters. And speak they do. With hardly any prompting, we hear detailed medical histories, gossip about the neighbors, worries about unmarried 20-something children, and frank admissions: “koat oh somatapheap,” (“my husband can’t get it up.”)

The visits will serve as the foundation to our work, since they are a chance for us to reconnect with women we have known over the years, identify people who may be able to serve as leaders and facilitators, and gauge interest about a variety of proposed programs. Of course, the programs are important; I would not be here if I could not be applying myself to something tangible, worthwhile and (hopefully) impactful. More than that though, visiting women in their homes give us the time and space to build friendships.

One of the privileges of working for the church here is that the value of my work is measured not only in the effectiveness of our programs (although that is certainly important), but also in the relationships that I build with the surrounding community. I keep returning to this beautiful passage from Henri Nouwen as an encouragement (and sometimes, a challenge):

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.

-Henri Nouwen, Gracias

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