Going Great Lengths for Christ in Cambodia

When the floods would hit in the town in Cambodia where Susan Sporl served as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner, people would use boats and inner tubes to get to church. When the waters would reach high enough to flood the floor of the church building, the parishioners would simply stand in water during the celebration.

When Susan, recently returned from her three and a half year commitment as a Lay Missioner described this at a local Maryknoll Affiliates meeting over the weekend, I was at first struck by the contrast with us at home. I do not know many local Catholics that would wade through flood waters to attend a Sunday service! I thought, though, about Susan herself, and it struck me what great lengths that she and others like her have gone to be in the presence of God.

Susan is a social worker, and she put that background to use serving people with hearing impairments in Cambodia. Cambodia has only had a sign language for fourteen years, and many of those with hearing impairments do not have the education to sign. Maryknoll runs a school for the deaf in Cambodia, which teaches sign language, math, literacy, and basic skills that will hopefully allow the students to work and earn a living. Susan, with the help of interpreters that spoke English, Khmer, and Khmer sign language, helped provide social services and access to this school to people with limited ability to communicate and advocate for their rights - both due to their disabilities and to poverty.

(A young girl ties up the inner tube that she road to church. She sits in a bucket in the middle to avoid getting her pants wet.)

(The local church during a flood)

She told of one case where a teenage girl had been repeatedly raped by a neighbor. When she tried to file a report to police, they told her and her mother that they could not take her report because she could not speak. (Susan explained that the girl was able to communicate fairly clearly what had happened to her with hand gestures, regardless of this limitation.) Susan and others provided her with an interpreter and helped her file a report with police, and are also accompanying the girl and her mother through the judicial process. In Cambodia, the family has the option to demand money from the convicted, jail time, or a combination of both. Susan explained that many people do not know all of their legal options, especially the latter one, and that explaining these options was part of how she served them.

Susan also spoke of another young woman, who is deaf as well, who was homeless and seven months pregnant. Although students can live at the school, it is not equipped to care for an infant. Susan helped find a local family to take the young woman and her child in, and the family is paid a stipend to pay for meals for the two. Susan described this family is incredibly warm and affectionate, and she hopes that they will form a lasting relationship with the young woman and her child.

(Susan, far right, with the pregnant young woman mentioned above, second from right, and the foster family that has taken her in. Also pictured, second from left, an interpreter that Susan worked with.)

While providing these social and educational services to people need in is important, Susan and other Maryknollers like her are also entering into loving, authentic, Christian relationships with the people that they serve. Just as Christians in Cambodia wade through flood waters to experience God at Mass, missioners travel great distances, struggle with language and cultural differences, and put other parts of their lives on hold to experience God in people that the rest of us may ignore. Susan is soon moving to Texas to be with her adult children and her grandchildren, but postponed that the move to be able to speak to us at the Affiliates meeting. In doing so, she was a missioner to us as well!