Having just stepped off the bus in Phnom Penh, I retrieved my pack from the pile of them being unloaded and stacked on the dusty sidewalk. Joining my friends across the street to wait for further directions to our hotel for the night, I was immediately greeted by what would soon become a familiar sight – half-naked street children flocking to us, begging for food. With my team’s permission, I distributed the leftover bananas we’d brought for our ride from Vietnam. The youngest boy in the group wasn’t even old enough to peel his own banana, and as I assisted him, I watched as the others quickly devoured theirs. Like everything we saw in this city, the children were covered from head to toe in dirt. There were no parents in sight, if they even had them, and no telling when they’d last been bathed.
As was the case with every previous ministry assignment, we had no idea what to expect. Where we would be living, what kind of work we’d be doing and even where we’d lay our heads at night was all a mystery to us. All we knew was that our host was an American woman in her eighties who had spent the last ten years of her life building an English school for Cambodian children. The following day, nine of us crammed into the back of several tuktuks with all our belongings and set off for some unknown corner of the city.
Our ride took us first through the heart of Phnom Penh and then to a quieter neighborhood on the outskirts. As we rode over innumerable potholes, the traffic stirred up a cloud of dust through which we caught glimpses of cows roaming the streets, people shopping in giant outdoor markets, and children bravely venturing into swampland to retrieve the giant lotus flowers that grew in the muck.
Finally, we arrived at the English school. We were greeted with an elaborate meal and introduced to Doris and her staff of five, all native Khmer people. It became immediately apparent to us that there was something crucial missing from this place. As soon as I’d entered the front doors, I sensed an atmosphere that was heavy with tension. It seemed everyone working there had been robbed of their joy. Each time I introduced myself to one of them, extending a hand and a smile, I found timidity, surprise and only the most brief eye-contact. As we ate, the staff sat in silence as Doris lectured us in her deep southern drawl about the shortcomings of the Khmer people and the ways in which the country’s violent past had left them handicapped. A crowd of children began to grow at the entryway, clearly eyeing our food with hunger. Rather than offer them any, Doris snapped at them to leave us alone.
Finishing our meal in silence, stunned by the demeaning way she spoke of her staff, we were then ushered into a meeting with Doris to learn more about the history of the school and to discuss what we could do to help them. As we assured her that we were perfectly fine with sitting on the floor, she waved away our offer while yelling to her staff to bring us chairs. My team and I exchanged uncomfortable glances, unsure of how to proceed.
While she originally assigned us to help develop her staff, all of whom she perceived to be incompetent, we realized that this really was not why God had us there. We knew from that very first day that our goal was to see improved communication and a mutual respect between Doris and her staff members. And we knew that it was not for no reason that Doris acted this way.
In our meeting and as the month went on, we probed deeper into Doris’ heart to find the root of the anger and hostility she was imposing on her staff. She informed us that she had spent the last ten years in Cambodia, following the death of her abusive husband. Since moving there all by herself, she had interacted almost exclusively with native Khmer people who spoke only fragmented English. Doris still hadn’t learned to speak any Khmer, despite her extended stay. We also learned that she had strained relationships with her children and grandchildren, that they rarely spoke or even visited when she was able to go back to the United States.
Before I met Doris, I imagined a sweet old lady who had bravely rejected relaxing into a comfortable retirement in favor of fulfilling the great commission. Essentially, I expected a female version of Mister Rogers, purposefully living a meager life in a foreign country for the sake of the gospel, and probably baking cookies for the starving street children, wiping the dirt from their faces. And this truly may have been the case when she first arrived. I really believe that her intentions for moving to the other side of the world, rejecting the familiar comforts of America (including Cracker Barrel, her favorite restaurant) and singlehandedly starting her English school were pure. But somewhere in those ten years of isolation, having no one else around who could truly know her and speak into her life, that sweet old lady got lost.
One of the greatest gifts we could give Doris during our stay with her was just to listen to her. Given the opportunity to talk, she did not hesitate to share that she felt lonely, unappreciated, and misunderstood. I managed to find much more sympathy for Doris that month, despite how painful it was to watch her put down her staff and blame them for things outside of their control. But my heart broke for her because I could see myself in her. Left virtually alone in a foreign city, separated from all my loved ones who really didn’t make an effort to keep in touch, and reeling from a lifetime spent in an abusive relationship, I could easily be a Doris. Without the refining that only occurs within genuine, transparent community, anyone could be a Doris.