For roughly the last 19 years of my life, I have been a student. I have had lots of jobs, worked in lots of offices, but always, always, I went back to class. Especially in late August. I bought notebooks, pens and pencils; later, I bought parking permits and textbooks. It’s August now, and “summer” is over. Yet, on the 20th anniversary of my student-ness, I am no longer going to class.

“Adults” out there will laugh at me, for wishing that the “good old days” of school could come back. That’s not really what I’m thinking about. For the last couple of years, “school” meant more than simply a place to learn. I spent a lot of time on campus, teaching, working on research, taking classes, simply hanging out. I had a lot of fun there. I experienced an energy, a vibrancy, that so many workplaces lack. I had a good job, and a good life.

This year, on the first day of school, I went to the city dump. This is the third visit I’ve made to landfill, and it doesn’t get any less heartbreaking with repetition. Today, I saw little kids playing with old shoes in a disgusting stream in view of a mountain of refuse. I also saw a pharmacy (and wondered to myself how many antibiotics they sell), a restaurant, a school, and a pig. Life happens in these slums. People grow up there, they work there, and they die there.

Today I am struck by how things have changed for me. Instead of a day planner, I carry around toilet paper and hand sanitizer (Seriously. You never know.) Sometimes a day at the office involves standing next to a railroad track watching a puppet show, or watching a woman create pottery in the provinces. I ride around on motorbikes and in big SUVs, honking at cattle and blowing kisses to toddlers riding next to me. I used to put on makeup; now I spray on DEET. I am constantly surrounded by people speaking a foreign language.

I refuse to make any statements about being a “student of life.” Again, that’s not what this is about. More than anything, I am meditating today on how simple choices, small (and large) changes can turn everything upside down. After all, I’ve not done anything all that radical. I took a job and I relocated. People do it every day. Hundreds of incoming students just moved; thousands of graduates did it too. The ones in Nebraska, Calgary, and New York City probably feel the same way I do (but with significantly less DEET). Yet in all the changes, all the transition, there are constants. I have found an energy here, a vibrancy that—while different—is familiar. I still have a good job, and I still have a good life.

So today I went to the city dump. And I blew kisses at a little girl on a motorbike. I wrote reports. I held hands with kids who are at risk of being trafficked. I stood next to a railroad track and watched a puppet show. I smelled disgusting smells. I put on bug spray and sunscreen.

They don't make a textbook for this life. And I love it.



It’s been a strange week. Hours after I last posted, my computer died, and I spent the weekend reading books, napping, and pleading with the machine to please, just turn back on! The computer guy came on Monday morning, took one look and said he’d need to take out the hard drive, perform some magic, and it would take a couple days. My computer left me then, and after 3 long days, it has just returned.

I don’t know all the right language here, and from what I can piece together, I had a “bad sector” and my “data” (read: files, photos, mp3s, everything) was lost. So my computer is back, but it doesn’t really feel like “mine.” All the programs, all the files that made it so personal to me (after all, isn’t it a personal computer?) are simply missing. As if they never existed in the first place. Two years of “Kate history” have vanished.

It is humbling, really. Because I was so cavalier about backing up files, so heedless of all the warnings about viruses and protection. So half of this problem is my own fault. I lost things that I never really cared enough about to save. I’m a half-hearted pack rat. I collected all this information, all these documents, but I never really valued them until they were gone in a clean sweep I didn’t ask for.

I wasn’t intentionally lying a couple weeks ago, or even back in May, when I said that my life fit in three suitcases. I just forgot that these days, we carry a lot of electronic baggage with us. Computers fit in our pockets, in our phones, and on our laps. Information is available with just a few clicks, little time, and little energy expended. We can save words and thoughts for years… even when we don’t need to, want to, or shouldn’t (I’m thinking of some poor course papers I once wrote). And it’s all conveniently packaged in some aluminum and plastic casing, providing a feeling of security and safety that things like information never used to have.

The early disciples carried around parchment or simply remembered the things they learned from Christ. No cross-referencing, no Internet searches, no concordances or commentaries. Early missionaries said goodbye to their families forever, not until they reached the closest Internet café where they could make a cheap phone call. Paul’s letters are filled with teaching, but also with greetings. One chance to tell the believers and friends all the things you wanted to say. It makes me grateful for the few buttons I have to push to talk with my friends and family, the little effort that goes into being able to keep up with them, to convey my love. It puts into perspective what I’ve lost this week—just “stuff” that I was fortunate to carry around for awhile. And in the context of Cambodia, in the face of extreme poverty, an iTunes library is such a silly thing to mourn.

It’s funny that on Monday, my morning reading was this: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21). It sounds trite and over-spiritual, doesn’t it? But in the end, all that great music, all those treasured photos, and all my work is not coming with me. We’ll all be singing the same song, a glorious refrain to our King. Until then, I’m going to piece back together what I’ve lost, and be grateful for what I have. But I’m also going to invest in an external hard drive.



Today’s blog post comes to you live from the Sokimex gas station. No, I’m not filling up the tank in the motorbike I purchased this week. I’m here for the free wireless in the coffee shop. In Cambodia, it’s actually “cool” to hang out at the gas station (not all have the coffee shop), have an ice cream, and simply sit inside (I suspect it’s the air conditioning). So I’m here, watching the clouds roll in, waiting for today’s downpour, a regular Saturday afternoon visit to a Starbucks—except that no one is speaking English. Oh, and I’m the only one with a computer.

Recently, churches across the nation received a letter reminding them of the legal rights of Christian churches to evangelize and the need to register with the government. Unlike the US, the state religion is Buddhism, and while the church has relative freedom to meet and to talk about faith, it is not as though Christians are the majority here (we just passed the 1% mark). A couple of well-known American Christian authors, and some international worship bands were here this summer for big events, and the way they interacted with the government was… well, embarrassing. After they were refused the use of largest venue here, Olympic Stadium, one group apparently bribed the office in charge of granting permission. At the last minute, other government agencies were told, and could not guarantee the safety of attendees. The concert and outreach were cancelled, hours before the event. That morning, I sat in a smaller gathering with this author, as she proclaimed that the government was making things worse by keeping her out of the stadium, that God was on the move, and “what were they so afraid of anyway?” Her taunts, though designed to inspire, were arrogant and prideful in a culture where relationship and humility are the keys to understanding.

This morning, I sat in a meeting about church interactions with the Cambodian government. An Indian pastor spoke about the role of the Church in restricted contexts—places in which the Body of Christ is the minority, and even faces attack for our beliefs. In places like Cambodia, “Western” models of evangelism and missions don’t always work; they can be offensive and inconsiderate to people who live differently. Yet, what the Church stands for—grace, mercy, and peace—transcend these cultural boundaries. And what opens up for us is a place to act in the name of our faith. The pastor reminded us that the Church, no matter our denominational or doctrinal demarcations, can act for justice.

This concept of justice—a Holy justice, a healing justice—is not tied up in politics. It isn’t about making sure our candidate goes through, or that our agenda is passed. Justice is about giving a voice to those who are unable to speak. I spent last week with some friends from California who were here to meet with NGOs who respond to issues of human trafficking and the sex trade. What does justice look like for the young girls who are sold or kidnapped and taken to the brothels? Who will act for them? Who will cry out on their behalf? Other examples come to mind… civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who will stand for those innocents caught up in war, to make sure that their country is rebuilt and restored, without a competition for oil profits, and with respect for the traditions of their faith and the horrors of armed conflict?

As a Body, we have a responsibility to stand in the gap for those trapped by injustice—and not just those who agree with us. Regardless of faith, location, or political beliefs, as Christians we believe that human life is valuable to God, and is worth saving. We can intercede in many ways. Our voices. Our money. Our lifestyles Our conversations. Our prayers. Justice is not to be separated from our faith. Isaiah 1:17-18: Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. "Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” I don’t think it is an accident that these words about our intercession for others come right before the Lord’s promise of intercession on our behalf.

A final thought. The pastor concluded with this quote, from Rev. Martin Niemöller, a German pastor during WWII. Though Niemöller was initially a supporter of Nazi beliefs, it is his later life and his thoughts that inspire me to believe that even apathetic, afraid, and ambivalent individuals can be agents for change, reconciliation, and justice.

First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left
to speak up for me.



Sorry, no pictures yet... give me a couple days and I'll post them...

After nearly three months in Phnom Penh, I finally have a “home” of my own. I’m renting what Europeans would call a “flat,” on the second (or, to Americans, the third) floor of a newer building. I have the top two floors; the first has the living area, kitchen, bedroom, and two bathrooms. The upstairs has two more bedrooms and another bathroom. It’s a lot of space for one person, but I like to think of it as room for all the visitors I’ll have—or a roommate should I start to feel lonely. Simply getting in and out of the house is an adventure, as it has the steepest steps I’ve ever been on. Basically, I climb up and down a ladder. When it’s not raining (rare), the landlady opens the covering over the stairs, and that makes it a lot easier to fit my 5’9” frame on the stairs (I’m not really “sized” for Asia). So far, no tumbles, but it’s only been 3 days, so I’m guardedly optimistic about my time here.

What is most strange, at this point, is to have possessions again. For the last three months, I’ve had only what fit in my suitcases, plus some extra supplies picked up in the US. Suddenly, I have “stuff” again, though not much, and certainly not anything I’m really attached to. I’m realizing how little I actually need to live on (no television at this point, and no plans for one), and which things are kind of important (currently, I need a can opener if I want to eat half the food I bought).

In that sense, moving has resensitized me to the amazing luxury that is American living. For instance, in order to buy dishes, kitchen utensils, and cookware (minus the pesky can opener), I visited two markets, sent someone to a third, and haggled for what seemed like forever. My frying pan is from Korea; apparently this means it is of superior quality and worth the $8 I paid. I’m skeptical. For a comfortable chair, some bookshelves, and a table, I made two more trips around town. The fridge and the microwave necessitated stopping in at three shops, bargaining over each and every appliance, and eventually trying to explain how to deliver the fridge—in broken English and some very poor map drawing on my part. Though the prices are cheaper, there were times when I found myself wishing for a Target, just for the convenience.

My first real “problem” occurred on Monday morning. Sunday was my first night here, and the landlords, who speak no English, provided a padlock on the front door. It was pretty difficult to get unlatched with the key they gave me, and I had bought one of my own for added security. However, I had locked the original on the inside of the house during the day while I was home. This was no problem for going out during the daytime, because I latched my lock to the outside, and went in and out without a problem. Bedtime, though, presented an issue. I couldn’t open the old padlock, and it was in the space on the door where I needed to put my new lock so I could sleep without worrying about intruders (not like it’s a major concern, but hey, it is Cambodia). For hours on Sunday night (and with considerable frustration and a little despair), I tried the key, wiggling it in the padlock and trying secure the door—all to no avail. I had to settle for using the very shabby lock on the door handle, and sleeping with one eye open. In the morning, I tried to explain the situation to the very cute old Buddhist landlord couple downstairs. I dragged the poor woman up the ladder/stairs and made her look at what I’d done (after 5 minutes of her explaining how the lock on the front gate worked in case I came in after they were asleep). She took the key, and in one swift movement (it’s all in the wrist, I think) popped the lock open and looked at me as if I was the dumbest person she’d ever seen. Which, given the circumstance, might be true. I smiled sheepishly, replaced the door lock with my padlock, and practically ran down the ladder/stairs and off to work. I have no idea what she told her husband, but by the time I got home, they were polite enough to not laugh at me. At least I can now lock myself in at night. I suppose my safety is worth a little humiliation. I’m just glad they didn’t see me fall off a moto today. I think that was the more embarrassing moment…but that’s for another time.



For the past two months, I have been traipsing around Cambodia in a lovely pair of black flip flop sandals. Until Thursday. I brought an extra pair of shoes (nice ones) to wear to our graduation ceremony, and left the well-worn pair at the office.

Late Thursday night, I woke up with a high fever and spent most of Friday in bed recovering. The weekend passed. I wore a similar pair of brown flip flops around, continually wishing that my favorite black shoes were in their place.

Now it's Monday. And my favorite black flip flop sandals, brought all the way from the US, perfectly fit to my great big feet, are gone. No one has seen them, and everyone's best guess is that they disappeared on the feet of one of our provincial staff members. Perhaps this individual mistook them for their own shoes. Perhaps they were in need of some new footwear. I'm trying hard to believe it wasn't a malicious attack on my poor feet. Soon enough I will be asking our provincial leaders if they've seen any suspicious looking feet. If necessary, I'll visit the markets and try to find a replacement pair.

I've been informed that for about $5000 riel ($1.25), my shoes can be put on a taxi and delivered to me from the provinces (should they be there in the first place). So maybe my shoes went out for their own joyride, to see a little more of Cambodia than they have in the past two months.

If that's the case, all I can say is: Come home, sandals, come home.



The ESL program is technically finished and we held a graduation ceremony for our students and teachers on Thursday night. Having received more than one degree in my life, I have participated in a few ceremonies of this type. They are usually filled with family, friends, and fellow graduates who are celebrating a long, sometimes arduous process and a “bright future.” The tone is usually hopeful, sending graduates out into the great, big world that awaits them, assured of their success, and confident of their knowledge.

How different, then, to celebrate with our staff. They have been learning English for six weeks (though some have a higher proficiency), and the classes were not structured to be “arduous.” In fact, the hardship was usually in regard to transportation. Class was at 5:30 or 6 in the morning for some of them; others drove an hour into the city to meet their teachers, and another hour home before dinner. Students played games and practiced conversation together, and they got to know their teachers. So the graduation that we held looked nothing like any ceremony that I’ve been to in the past.

Each class presented a skit. These ranged from an educational (and hilarious) presentation on the causes and treatment of diarrhea to songs (God is so good), to a parody of the teachers (including someone pretending to be me). Then, one by one, they accepted certificates for completing the ESL program. I think my favorite part of the evening were the cheers and shouts for each different class. Unlike some celebrations that are just about individual achievements, the whole group of students was there to support each other. They cheered for each skit, laughed with each other, and after dinner, took pictures with all the teachers and other students.

It was a fitting end to the summer program. For me, what was most significant was watching the teachers/volunteers interact with the students. I’m here to promote partnership, this somewhat nebulous concept in which we build relationships that span thousands of miles, not to mention cultural barriers. In the few hours I spent with everyone together, I realized that in every ESL class, a little bit of partnership happened. With every friendship that was formed this summer, the bond between our church partners and Cambodia was strengthened. Earlier this summer, I welcomed these volunteers to a new country, saw their wide eyes, and helped them know what to expect. Now I get to wave goodbye as they leave, many of them changed by their experiences. I guess, in a way, it is our volunteers we are sending out into the great, big world, assured of their success here—success in forming friendships, in serving the staff—and confident that their knowledge of Cambodia can transform their lives and communities. Reason to celebrate, indeed.