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Bible teaching in Cambodia: Challenges from Coronavirus and the rest of life

CMS missionaries Dave & Leoni Painter have served in Cambodia for more than 20 years. Here Dave describes a general challenge of ministry, and the specific challenges that have arisen at the Phnom Penh Bible School that have come about during the pandemic. 

In the Khmer language, the word romkan is most closely translated by the verb ‘to disturb, however, it is generally used with a greater intensity. If somebody comes to your door, knocks, and then profusely apologises for romkan-ing you, there are several levels of meaning to notice. 

Firstly, their reason for this romkan is important and cannot wait. Secondly, they are acknowledging that you are a higher-class person to them, so that normally they would not have the right to romkan you. 

He turned these disturbances into opportunities to heal, to teach, and to reveal his true identity as the one who forgives sin. 

Cambodia is a highly stratified society. Class is determined by a number of factors, including age (older people of the same class are deferred to), power or position (prestige), wealth (unless you are a monk, more is better), skin colour (light skin indicates you are a person who does not need to labour in the rice fields), and knowledge of English (a more recent social indicator).  

You can see that Western missionaries, particularly older Western missionaries, and especially older ones from English speaking countries, generally do quite well in this social hierarchy. That might be a good thing, in one sense, because we often go around romkan-ing other people without realising the status of those we are intruding upon. 

Romkan—disturbance—in the Bible school 

I have a personal office at the Bible school where we teach. This is the place where I expect peace and quiet so that I can sit and think upon God’s word and theology (as well as preparing lessons). The problem is that people continually come and romkan me. Staff come to me with the many mundane administrative requirements of running a Bible school, the other teachers come wanting to resolve one problem or another, and the students come wanting to discuss their marks, some issue that has arisen in the classroom, or even their personal problems. It is easy to become frustrated and annoyed with others. 

The example of Jesus 

Jesus, God who walked on this earth a man, was often disturbed. Mark’s Gospel shows this clearly through a number of vivid examples: the four friends of the paralysed man who break through the roof to interrupt his teaching (2:1 5), the woman subjected to 12 years of bleeding unwittingly disturbs him when she touches his cloak (5:25–34), the Syrophoenician woman intrudes upon his mission to Israel (7:24–30), and of course, blind Bartimaeus shouting out disturbs the procession along the road to Jericho (10:46–52).  

How did Jesus respond to these disturbances? He turned these disturbances into opportunities to heal, to teach, and to reveal his true identity as the one who forgives sin. 

A very big romkan for students—COVID 19 

Teaching online proved even more of a challenge for many of our students than for the teachers. We have now witnessed just how valuable the interaction in the classroom really is. The common struggles were weak internet connections, no access to laptops, endless household and farm chores given by unsupportive families, and a general lack of motivation because of being away from our campus and the school community. As one student said, I stopped studying and just prayed… with the expected result!  

Firstyear students, with their lack of experience, found it the hardest. Only a few of them passed all their subjects. Despite the difficulties, this year, 10 students graduated from PPBS, but they now face a difficult post-COVID future with many city churches remaining closed 

COVID-19 and Cambodian churches 

Those city churches that have recently opened, have done so with very severe restrictions (maximum of 30 peoplesocial distancing of 1.5 metres, duration 30 minutes).  

So many churches have failed to survive these last 12 months, or are a shadow of their former selves. Most were heavily dependent on foreign funds, and as electronic giving is not a habit here (most Cambodians don’t even have bank accounts), the already small giving dried up when churches stopped meeting.  

Most of our 2020 graduates have not yet found somewhere suitable to serve. The graduation ceremony has been postponed to later this year.  

With the Bible school officially shut for most of one semester last year, small groups of students continued to meet in our home, including Leoni’s Tuesday night class, studying Introduction to the Bible. One of the students was particularly struck by the New Exodus: “At last, I can see the Bible coming together, that the first Exodus is only a shadow of what we can look forward to… a new beginning, in a new Land, with a new King… all free of corruption, disease and decay.” A wonderful reminder of God’s sovereignty in these ongoing times of uncertainty.  

PRAY 

Cambodian churches have been heavily impacted by Coronavirus. Pray that they would be able to meet again, and that there might be fruitful opportunities for the graduates of the Phnom Penh Bible School to serve and take the gospel to the Cambodian fields. You can sign up to receive Dave and Leoni’s prayer points here.