The frivolity of a white skirt: post-Cambodia thoughts

August 12, 2008

I was in Cambodia last week ( 6-10 Aug 2008 ) on a short medical mission trip. I wanted to pull together my thoughts quickly but it turns out that I have too many thoughts to be strung together in any coherent fashion so in the interest of time, you will just have to put up with my rambling…

My teammates probably thought it was odd when I turned up at the airport in a white skirt. A white skirt is impossibly impractical for a mission trip but hey, I love the skirt and I thought it would be nice to wear a skirt to Sunday service at Preak Tual for a change. I figured that I was familiar enough with the work that we do in Cambodia to risk the frivolity of a white skirt.

A white skirt tells you some things about the person who wears it. For one, they don’t do any work that is dirty or that involves manual labour of any kind. They don’t need to be outdoors in the dust and mud. They are always in environments that are clean. They have access to laundry facilities. They wear clothes for aesthetic reasons, not functionality. They have clothes. (Don’t laugh. I’m perfectly serious. When we did clinics in Kandah province, one father turned up in a towel.)

A white skirt is just another symbol of the differences between my privileged life in Singapore and the lives of my friends in Cambodia. This is now my 3rd time to Cambodia so the income disparity no longer surprises me. I already know they are poor. I am well-acquainted with where and how they live and have seen it first-hand. I know that they don’t have the same access to education and employment opportunities as I do. I know that the things I take for granted like clean clothes, electricity and even work are often unattainable luxuries to them. I will always be able to get food when I’m hungry, to make a phone call when I want to talk to someone, to google when I need information, to get money out of the bank and to drink a cold glass of water when it is hot. I know this isn’t normal.

Someone commented about the way I connected with the locals. I suppose it is my 3rd trip up and many of them are now friends so there is a great deal of familiarity. I am now quite comfortable in Cambodia and I’m starting to think that we are really the same. We all grieve when a loved one passes away. We all smile when there are cute kids to play with. We all love our husbands, our wives, our children. We all hope that tomorrow will be better. We all need God.

I don’t think connecting with the locals is about experience on the mission field or any sort of special skill. Maybe a God-filled life just overflows. Actually, I was tremendously blessed to see that even people who are way outside their comfort zone are amazing on the field. I loved watching them share their lives with honesty and sincerity and connecting with the locals for no other reason than a love for God and for his people. I loved how they shared stories of healing, invited new friends to church, offered help, encouraged people to pray and asked for prayer requests. It was beautiful.

I also thought about “usefulness” a lot this trip. A lot of what I normal consider useless is perfectly useful in Cambodia – from torn pages from old magazines to a clumsily-nailed together, very rickety-looking table that we didn’t think would hold the weight of the dispensary boxes. Even past life situations that seem “useless” – like illness and death in the family can be made useful in the kingdom of God. I was reminded not to be so quick to write things, people and situations off and allow myself to be surprised by a God who redeems and restores.

(Funny how I’ve not yet mentioned anything about running clinics or setting up the kindergarten. Even though that is what we DO while we are there, it is hardly our real reason for going.)

I end this already long testimony with a story:

On Friday, Rattana turned up to clinic wearing a beanie. In my cultural insensitivity, I thought it was a fashion statement. It turned out that he had shaved his head as part of a Khmer funeral rite because his grandmother had passed away. My heart sank when I realized. My grandma passed away last year. I remember the grief acutely.

I do enough pastoral ministry back home to have been in this situation a million times and to see the sadness beneath the smiles. Someone else came to join the conversation and he quickly changed subject. I figured that the best thing a friend could do, would be to try to cheer him up and distract so I took out the stack of photos that I’d taken in December. We had a good laugh and tried to think of happier times and happier things.

After Sunday service, I noticed Rattana standing quietly in the corner. I walked up to him to wish him luck for his exams the following week. He looked sad and said that it was difficult to pretend to be happy. I don’t know how to do, he said, referring to smiling and I think my heart broke a little. I gave him a sad smile. I know, I said. My grandma passed away last year. I didn’t know what else to say so we just stood there together. Back against the wall. Looking at our friends laughing and having a good time. From a distance. In silence.

It’s not a particularly happy story but it was a God-moment for me because it reminded me that my God empathizes and my God redeems. That when there is no unity in language, there can be unity in spirit. There can be unity in love, hope and most of all in Christ. It reminded me that life is sometimes pretty rubbish but God can use even those experiences to ease someone else’s pain. It reminded me that His mercies are new every morning and flowers (and, as Elaine will tell you, even fruit that is sweet) do grow on the dumpsite. Hope is a powerful thing and hope does not disappoint (Romans 5:5).

Back home, the immigration lady at Changi asked me where I’d been.

Phnom Pehn, I said.

Work or holiday?

Visiting my friends, I replied.

Maybe this is what missions is about: Loving God. Living life. Making friends.


One Response to “The frivolity of a white skirt: post-Cambodia thoughts”

  1. pilgrim mom Says:

    I read your posts and wish to tell you that you are destined for great things in service of His Kingdom. I don’t know what they are or will be. But I’m sure some already have been, whether you know them or not. God bless you!

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