Learning to fish

We arrive at the fish pond in that soft golden glow of late afternoon that photographers wish they could bottle.

Behind us, on one of Phum Krus’s dusty, palm-lined roads, our sandal scuffs blur with the hoof prints of homeward-bound buffaloes but make neat deliberate arcs around the piles of dung.

In front of us, the vista opens up to dry rice fields, divided into neat squares by hundreds of shin-high levy banks, all the way to the mountains. Shaggy palms and skinny grey buffaloes rescue the scene from monotony.

At this time of day it’s a softly peaceful, if not spectacularly beautiful, sight.

Peaceful now, but it wasn’t always like this. You wonder what these rice fields have seen … how much blood flowed here, how many dreams were crushed, how many people were dragged away dead, right here in these sun-bathed fields.

On the far side of the pond, 20-year-old Pich Chantrea is asking two villagers to bring some nets. He has something he wants to show us.

Chantrea is tall, tanned and muscular, but he’s not a farmer. He bears the telltale mark of a student: soft hands. A generation ago that quality would have marked him for death. Pol Pot’s barbaric plot was to create a nation of communist peasants, and to eliminate the rest. People who wore glasses or had soft hands were suspected of being educated, and were executed.

Between 1975 and 1979 Pol Pot’s monsters murdered or starved to death around 2 million Cambodians, about one-third of the population. The children, as young as three or four, were separated from their parents and herded into communes, where they were forced into slave labour and brainwashed to love the regime and to hate their parents.

In four years Cambodia lost a generation of nation-builders.

Now Chantrea and young adults like him, through the Youth Association for Cambodia (YAC), are working hard to lift their country as it wobbles tentatively to its feet. It’s not hard to imagine him in 20 years as a leader of Cambodia. In fact, that’s one of his goals: to become a political leader. But first he has to finish his medical degree and earn his stethoscope.

‘In Cambodia, if you don’t have money, you don’t have access to doctors’, he says. ‘I want to serve the poorest of the poor, those who don’t have money for medical services.

‘Then I want to work overseas, in the poorest countries, perhaps in Africa, perhaps for the UN. I want to get experience in very poor countries so that I can bring what I learn back to Cambodia.

‘And then I want to get into politics. As a doctor, I can help patients only one by one. As a politician I can have much wider influence.

‘I want to serve my country in the name of Jesus Christ. I want to help Cambodia to become a Christian country.’

He’s made a promising start. He has already led his mother to Christ, and two of his sisters.

One of eight children, Chantrea grew up here in Phum Krus, which is typical of Cambodia’s provincial villages. The people live in much the same way as they have for thousands of years, dependent on the annual rice harvest for their life and at the mercy of unfaithful gods should they become ill or the rice-planting rain be tardy.

In the provinces, even those who have received a little bit of education have few opportunities to use it; there are no businesses or industries to speak of. When your rice field can no longer support you or your family, you have to find factory work in Phnom Penh or in another country. Young women are especially vulnerable to abuse when they leave the relative safety of the village.

There’s no such thing as social welfare in Cambodia, so it’s advisable not to lose your job, become ill, suffer an injury or get old.

Yesterday we visited some of Phum Krus’s most vulnerable people: the elderly, frail, blind and ill. Staff of the Lutheran World Mission, based here in the village, take a meal to these people daily. For some, it’s the only decent nutrition they get.

Naively, I asked one of the Lutheran staff, ‘What would happen to these people if you weren’t here, caring for them, and bringing them food?’

‘They would die’, he said.

Chantrea wants to stop his people dying before their time. And he’s starting in his own home village. While delivering bowls of soup and rice door-to-door meets some people’s immediate needs, he knows that’s a short-term and unsustainable approach. Instead, he wants to teach the people how to fish.

Probably Chantrea has never heard that Chinese proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. But that is precisely the principle he’s applying here.

The idea came to him when he was in high school.

‘In high school I learnt about agricultural practices in other countries’, he explained. ‘Farmers elsewhere use their brains and not just their muscles. I thought, How can Cambodians use their brains for farming and stay home with their families? And how can they help their own family economies too?’

Chantrea is working hard at his medical studies, which, in Cambodia, are conducted in French. But if simultaneously studying medicine, English and French isn’t enough of a challenge, he also spends every second weekend back home in Phum Krus.

Using the Lutheran World Mission’s Life Centre as a base, he has initiated an agricultural training program for the community. Together with staff from the Life Centre and some fellow students from the Lutheran hostel in Phnom Penh, he is working with village leaders to increase food supply and improve nutrition in the community. They are teaching around 50 families how to breed fish, raise pigs and chickens, and to plant and nurture vegetable crops.

‘There are a lot of farmers in Cambodia and many cannot get enough food out of the rice fields to feed their families’, Chantrea says. ‘So they go to other countries to work, mainly Thailand and the Philippines. They are away from their families. They get sick, they die … ‘We want to help them to grow enough food, all year round, so they don’t have to leave home, and they can be healthy.’

On 26 February about 25 villagers came to the Life Centre to receive agricultural start-up packs, which were presented at the close of the worship service of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. They were presented with seeds for vegetable gardens (and some worms, which Chantrea has lovingly farmed over several months) and nets for catching fish in the new village ponds.

‘We wanted the people to come to church to receive their gifts’, Chantrea explained, ‘so that they can see that these gifts don’t come from us but from God’.

The gifts were presented to the villagers by Glenice Hartwich on behalf of the LCA/LCNZ. A number of LCA congregations and individual members had raised funds to support this project. ‘I believe that religion teaches us to do the will of God … Listening to the word of God helps us to learn life’s values. We are like these seeds here; we are planted in our community.’

There’s no doubt about that. The Lutherans at the Life Centre are planting seeds here, which are taking root and bearing fruit. People in the village cannot fail to see God’s love at work in the community: the agricultural program, the English and computer training, the food-delivery service that provides for those most vulnerable, the praying for people that comes as naturally as conversing with them, and the joyful Sunday morning worship.

‘God has given me this opportunity to do this project’, Chantrea says. ‘I get to help people and to share the gospel at the same time. The outer life is important but the inner life is even more important, because it goes on forever.’

‘We pray for people when we have agricultural project meetings in their homes, or when we visit them for any reason. We pray that God will bless them. And they say to us now, “God bless you too”.’

He smiles broadly: ‘You can see that they are working out who is the giver of all these blessings’.

His favourite Bible verse is John 3:16. It’s the verse that got him interested in Christianity in the first place, four years ago. ‘God sent his only Son. God came to earth. Wow! Buddhism doesn’t give us anything like that. People need to be able to see God, not just hear about him.

‘And today, too, through us, what we are doing here, people can see and feel the love of God.’

When the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church opened its doors in Phum Krus in February 2010, the only members were its handful of staff. Two years later there are 79 adult baptised members. These new Christians are excited about the good news of Jesus. They tell their friends and invite them to church. They remind you of those very first converts, who were also fishers: ‘Come and see Jesus’.

The fish are camera-shy. The net has so far dragged up nothing but a few slimy weeds. Chantrea suggests that they throw it on the other side of the pond. This time the net comes up wriggling. A dozen silver fish land unceremoniously on the grass, thrashing and glinting. They’re not big enough yet to serve for dinner, but they will be soon. They are put back in the water. There are about 3000 of them in this pond, happily growing and breeding.

There will be food for both body and soul in this village for a long time to come, now that Chantrea and the little band of Lutherans here have taught the people how to fish.

Click here to read the story of Chantrea’s mother, Muntha.

Many of our partner churches are working in new territory for the kingdom of God; therefore, spiritual attack is their everyday reality. As a member of a congregation, school, or family, or a couple or individual, you are invited to commit to praying for our partners in mission. For regular prayer point updates, go to www.lca.org.au/international-mission/act-now/pray

Read more stories about our partner church in Cambodia at www.lcamission.org.au/category/stories/international-partners/cambodia/

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