There are some tasks that come along as part of my role as Chaplain which provide deeper meaning than the average day to day. Our recent service trip to Cambodia was one of those tasks. During the June school holidays, I had the privilege of taking thirty-three students and five staff to Cambodia to learn from the local people and build homes with Habitat for Humanity.
For two weeks we experienced all that Cambodia has to offer. The food was incredible, for us that meant avoiding street food for obvious reasons (although others had told me I was really missing out). Cambodia’s culture is ancient and glorious, attested to by the majestic Angkor Wat. Their recent history is tragic and the guides were generous with their personal stories of overcoming incredible difficulty as they deeply desire a future of peace and harmony. Of course, there were the obligatory visits to the markets for bartering and souvenirs.
Up to this point you may be thinking this sounds more like a holiday than a service trip! However, these broader experiences of culture were designed as an important part of the service journey. It is easy for westerners to fall in the trap of thinking of themselves as the ‘hero’ who has come to save. Often our desire to help others comes from very good intentions, but can unwittingly develop into a superiority complex. We wanted our students to discover not only the complexity of poverty and the difficulty of alleviation, but to see the Cambodians as people with a long history and incredible culture that has high and low points like any country. We wanted them to experience the incredible beauty of the land, the gentleness of this people and the variety in how they work and live.
We also wanted students to understand the push and pull factors behind the poverty that they see. Our hope was that we would develop at attitude of humility and a willingness to learn to serve. International aid is not accomplished purely through good will, but thoughtful engagement and understanding the needs of the people. It was good for us to learn that we were just a small cog in the larger work of Habitat for Humanity and its collaboration with communities, government and other NGO’s. We were able to work alongside local families and tradespeople as together we built four houses. Our visits to other communities that Habitat have assisted highlighted the sustainability of their approach, their focus on empowering those in need and learning that poverty alleviation is about restoring broken relationships with government, land, self and God.
Service is not an activity, but a mindset. A modelling of the teaching of Jesus who taught us to put others before ourselves and to love our neighbour. Our greatest challenge is to consider what service now looks like as we reengage with our own community.