Kruos Village Lutheran Church and Life Center conducts incredible community services via the hard work and dedication of a large number of passionate people. I want to introduce them to you today - intentionally and with full appreciation for the incredible souls that have taken me in, loved me, cared for me, served with me, and grown with me over the last eight months. They're a crazy, wonderful bunch.
I worry sometimes that it's easy to dismiss those we don't know personally as one-dimensional beings, separate and simple entities that just happen to cross in and out of our more complex spaces. I worry this can become even more extreme in situations where the individual in question is an extreme other - a person of a different culture or faith, someone who speaks a different language, an individual whose norm is vastly different than what we are familiar with. It doesn't take much digging on social media or the comment section of various news websites to see evidence of this phenomenon. Stereotypes and assumptions are, perhaps, an ingrained part of our human psyche that can only be overcome via intentional recognition of these biases and a strong desire and commitment to get to learn others for their full, beautiful, messy, complex selves.
When I first arrived in Cambodia, the 14 faces below were strangers to me, as I was to them. Now, I couldn't imagine life without them (or, rather, I can - and it's not quite as bright). I hope in introducing them to you today you too can glimpse all the awesome gifts they bring to the world. I can't ever alter stereotypes or assumptions people may have of Khmer people (if they had any to begin with), but I can show you why these 14 people are unique and special.
Pastor Lat Sien Mose ("Moses")
Pastor Moses is the top dog at Kruos (except Chiro, who is a literal dog - more on that later). He is more than a Pastor - he is a teacher, coordinator, boss, and, most importantly, a friend. He is technically savvy and loves playing with new computer programs and tablet apps. He has a strong affinity for Jackie Chan movies. And he is really, really good at telling jokes with a straight face so I never know if he's serious or not (he once had me convinced that, as a child, he would pick all the seeds out of dragon fruit before eating them - anyone who has seen dragon fruit knows how crazy this is - turns out, not true at all). Moses continues to train in a variety of vocations, including technical skills, management, and, of course, spirituality and religion. He is driven, and passionate, and a huge motivator to his staff.
Sophouen is my daily dose of girl power inspiration. She's incredibly motivated, dedicated and hardworking, putting in hours that would shock even the most extreme workaholic. A few months ago, she was sworn in as the first official female pastor in the Lutheran Church of Cambodia, and at 23 years old is also the youngest (by a lot). When Pastor Moses is away for training or study (which will happen increasingly over the next year), Sophouen runs the show at Kruos. In addition to being a full scale Pastor, Pastor Assistant, Office Manager, and Church Treasurer, she is also a teacher in the church's various ministries (with English, guitar, and dance classes - both at the church and at the church's outreach points in neighboring villages). She spends her free time studying new languages, singing with my host sisters, and selflessly combing the lice out of my hair (sorry, Sop!)
Dara is the type of friend everyone deserves to have: optimistic, goofy, inquisitive, genuine, and always ready with a silly joke. Our desks are next to each other, which means we spend a lot of time checking each other's language skills,and working on his projects (which are numerous - as the church's lead Agricultural Specialist, he is in charge of building out programming for 200+ farmers in our community). Together we've wired thermostats, written grant reports, and taken numerous trips to visit farmers and ask about their work. At home, he is constantly testing out new agriculture techniques that he finds on the internet, composting and creating aqua-planters. Also, Dara is a kid at heart - he gets along great with our youth ministry teams as well as his numerous nieces and nephews, and always is excited for an opportunity to laugh and play.
Long Sol is the Head Chef at Kruos Church, helping feed 50 children (plus some very hungry church staff!) each day with the church's Daily Bread meal program. Perhaps more importantly, Long Sol brings a certain lightness and laughter to the church. She loves hugs and squeezing strangers more than anyone I've ever met (and an anomaly in Khmer culture, which tends towards the more reserved). Her husband and daughter also work at the church, and for Long Sol, it's obvious that working with the church is more than just a job: it's ministry. She loves to pray and thank God for the smallest of the day's gifts, which is a beautiful reminder for all of us staff.
Muntar has filled many roles for me during my time here: she has been a secondary mother figure, a friend, a co-teacher in my beginner classes, and a teacher of agriculture techniques (she took my on my first ever rice harvest, pictured here). At the church, she serves as an assistant cook and helps coordinate the Daily Bread program. She also helps teach English to some of our smallest learners, and visits families in the village who may need some ministry or care. Muntar's greatest gift is to fix problems before they even balloon into being. She can somehow anticipate the days extra breakfast will be needed, or when my class will be extra unruly and need a second hand.Her primary concern is always with the comfort of others. Her children are mostly grown, most studying in the major cities of Cambodia to become doctors and high-level government officials, and now she studies diligently too, practicing English every day and making significant improvements in the last few months alone. Despite being a Khmer Rouge survivor, Muntar's sunny disposition is the essence of who she is - and it's totally catching. I can't help but smile anytime I'm with her.
So Thy, Long Sol's husband, is considered the church's caretaker. He is also heavily involved in the church's evangelism outreach programs. If there is one thing I have learned about So Thy, it is this: he is passionate about Christ, his community, and serving both. He's always excited to help fix a bike tire, or run to buy the randomly needed items that will help a crazy project. He loves telling stories about the incredible things he's witnessed throughout his life during the Khmer Rouge, the following civil war, his time in the military, and the role Christ has played in his life. So Thy also loves music, and is often found sneaking off to practice the guitar or pound on the drums. His talent pays off during worship services and evening bible studies, when his music carries so many prayers off into the night.
Sitha is a more recent addition to Kruos Church, joining the staff in January to help Dara's growing Agriculture Development program. In such a short time, he's become a good friend. He loves practical jokes and is always ready to capture the cockroaches in my room (as long as he can scare another staff member with them!). Together, we love watching the really bad auditions for Cambodian Idol and humming the song "Neary Sok Klai." Kid's a hoot.
Mey Lai Heak
It's possible if you've read my last major blog post that you already know how much I adore my host mother Lai Heak. But starting this month, she's officially a part of the Kruos staff, taking on office administrative work, teaching part time, and helping to build out our growing education programs (including a plan to introduce a Kindergarten center at the church). She's my best friend and closest confidant, and we spend a lot of time on the kitchen floor (sometimes chopping vegetables, sometimes just being beautifully emotional). We cross-stitch together, we try on clothes with each other, sometimes we practice playing hymns on the piano (her favorite thing, for sure). She's an incredible mother to my two favorite humans here, and has taught me many a secret to Khmer cooking. She also just knows how to care and care deeply. She is selfless and strong and really just the absolute best.
Sarann is a first-year Bible School student who returns to Kruos on the weekends to help with our children and youth ministries (she is a native of one of our neighboring villages where the church does outreach projects). She likes to giggle, and gets nervous in front of crowds, but shines in front of our congregation. She sings with our morning service choir, and loves to heckle me with her signature eyebrow waggle and spot-on monkey impression.
REcently just a really active youth member of the church, Dola joined the church staff in January to help teach computer classes. He's inventive, funny, and an incredible dancer (both traditional Khmer style and choreographing more modern group dances). He likes dinking around on the guitar (I say "dinking around", but he's really good), and surfing the internet (like any good young adult male does). He's also an incredible role model for the church's youth - friends with many and yet an excited and active particpant in church programs and worship.
SoThorng is the Life Center's intern (she has been for two years), and though she is the daughter of Long Sol and So Thy, she is as much a part of my (emotional) family as she is a part of her own. SoThorng is bold, vivacious, and has the loudest laugh I've ever heard. She loves teasing people, braiding my hair, and picking out earrings at the market with me. One of the most exciting and human things I've watched this years is the growth SoThorng has experienced as she prepares for her wedding this May. She is strong in all the right ways, afraid in ways beautiful and humbling, and excited like any bride-to-be should be. We've had a blast picking out wedding invites and talking about the big day.
Pahn is a member of our church council, and an enthusiastic member of the church. It's no secret that a lot of Kruos Church's parishioners are women. Pahn is working to change that. He loves coordinating bible studies and home visits, likes joking with a serious face, and is always game to dress up as the bad guy (aka Herod) in the church Christmas pageant when no one else wants to.
Ravarn is also a member of our church council. She is kind and considerate, and mother to some really awesome daughters who have quickly become my second family here. Her family is always quick to invite me to dinner or to watch Cambodian Idol on their nice TV on their upstairs veranda. Ravarn is highly respected in our Kruos community, and is an excellent example to so many on what faith and compassion should look like.
The Random Members of the Church Band: Peak, Phum, Dola, Doen (and more!)
This is not a complete picture, and they're not technically staff, but I love our band boys so much and also love this picture, so they definitely deserve a shout out. I am blown away by how much musical talent is hidden in this village.
Finally, of course, there is Manu. Manu is a fellow volunteer from Germany's Mission One World program, and has also been in Kruos since September with me (he took a brief hiatus for a few months in the middle of the year to switch placement sites his co-volunteer Andi, but he's back for good now!). Manu has been a motivator, inspiration, and excellent friend this year. He pushes me to be a better volunteer by working hard at his own projects, encourages collaboration and increased time in relationship with our community, and, of course, is so good about pressuring me to work out once in a while. His optimism is infectious, his spirit admirable. I'm always so humbled by his awesomeness, and am so happy to have found such a good friend to share this year with.
Then there's me. I work here too. I'm sometimes so overwhelmed by the fact that I get to live and work with this wonderful humans.
And, of course,Chiro
It would be cruel of me to forget Chiro, who is as much the church's mascot as she is a friend to all who enters the church. Chiro joined Kruos Church in October, and in March decided to grace the church with six adorable puppies: Baloo, Mr. Bean, Jessie, Skirmy, Ellie, and Jenny. Though their squels drive me nuts, they are easily the cutest part of my day everyday (and that's saying a lot because I hang out with some pretty darn adorable kids).