Reflections on time in Cambodia – Brennan McCafferty

Here are some excerpts from a seminary paper that Brennan McCafferty wrote about takeaways from his time in Cambodia and Thailand:

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At a basic level, I had the opportunity to see what it looks like to live day by day on the mission field, and the different challenges associated with doing so. I was challenged immediately by the foreign languages. Both Thai and Khmer are incredibly difficult languages to learn and speak, and I received an up-front taste of the challenges associated with learning a foreign language and trying to communicate in a foreign language. I was also able to experience and also witness the challenges associated with living in a foreign country, particularly in regards to Visas. While in Cambodia, I had the opportunity to witness and partake in the work that is involved when a missionary hosts a short-term missions team. In addition to these common missionary challenges, both Paul Henry and Luke Smith also showed me the priority of caring for one’s own family on the mission field. Living on the mission field is not easy for families, and I was impressed by the commitment both missionaries had for caring for their families through activities like family worship. Though it would be easy to become consumed with the ministry work in front of them, they made time to spend with their wives and their children, and that is something that has stuck with me. Paul Henry also reminded me of the value of having a hobby and of taking time to rest. The missionary will quickly become burnt out if he never takes some time to relax, and that can be as simple as taking a day off or as extensive as returning to America during times of furlough.

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I learned also that the missionary must be both self-propelled and flexible. It is often the case that the missionary, especially in an area where there is not yet much established work, does not have a set schedule. There is a lot of freedom in missionary work, probably even more so than a traditional United States pastor has. It would be very easy to become lazy and waste a lot of time doing nothing substantial, and there is therefore a great need to be self-disciplined. The missionary doesn’t have a boss constantly peering over his shoulder, and he spends a lot of time alone. So, self-propulsion and self-discipline are very important traits for the missionary to possess. With that said, the missionary also must be flexible. There were a number of times where there were plans to go and do something, and those plans quickly changed. Whether it was water problems in the house, an unexpected sickness, or people who didn’t show up for a meeting, there was a great need to be flexible and not become frustrated when plans unexpectedly changed.

Working in cultures that are so different than the one I grew up in was a challenge but also a great learning experience. During my time in Thailand, Paul Henry challenged me to understand culture. He showed me the need for humility and teachability, especially when working among people who are much different than you. It is best not to rush in with judgment when you have not taken the time to truly understand why people do the things that they do. In Thailand, for instance, there is much greater sense of “power distance.” That is, there seemed to be an usually high amount of social deference given to those members near the top of the social hierarchy. In addition, in both Thailand and Cambodia, there seemed to be a much greater sense of community. People genuinely seemed to live in community with one another in a way that they don’t in America’s individualistic culture. So, I was able to observe a number of different cultural practices, and I was challenged to recognize that these certain cultural differences are not necessarily wrong, but just different. And I was also able to see that there may very well be things that I can learn from these cultural differences and apply to my own life in America. But most importantly, it was instructive to learn how these cultural differences affect the way you do ministry in a foreign culture. In addition, it was helpful to see the ways that both missionaries strived to develop good rapport and gain respect among the people they were working with. While working on the mission field, I had the challenge of “adapting” or “accommodating” to a different culture. For example, while in Cambodia, I had to learn to adjust to village time. In an area when many people don’t have electricity, the day to day routine of people revolves around the rising and setting of the sun. For instance, mealtimes were at 6:00AM, 11:00 AM, and 4:00 PM, which was quite different than I am accustomed to in America. Sunday School before church on Sundays begins at 6:30 AM, and it began at this time because children would be less likely to come if it was any later. It probably would not be very smart to begin an American Sunday School class at 6:30 AM, because nobody would show up. But in a village in Cambodia, starting Sunday School at 6:30 AM is the best way to get people to show up. This is part of adjusting to a different culture…

There were also a number of church related issues that I learned about while on the mission field. I had the privilege of being able to witness what a church service looks like in a culturally different and less developed country. Along those lines, I had the opportunity to think through how one handles the regulative principle of worship in a foreign culture. I was also able to reflect on missionary issues related to money and support of indigenous church leaders, especially in a poverty-stricken culture. I was also able to see a small glimpse of the problems that arise when there is a dearth of theological training.

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Overall, I am deeply thankful to the Lord for giving me the opportunity to serve Him overseas this past summer. It was truly wonderful to be able to see how the Lord is working in countries all over the world, and I am excited about what God is doing in Southeast Asia. As someone who has been considering foreign mission work for a number of years, this trip was so helpful. To begin with, it was my first real taste of the foreign mission field. Although I’ve been abroad before, this trip was my first opportunity to really see what ministry looks like in a culture other than America. On top of that, I had a great time while I was gone. I really enjoyed the work that I was involved in, and I miss many of the people already. I feel that I adapted well to the different cultures, and I did not seem to experience much culture shock or homesickness. I understand that I was only abroad for a couple of months, and sometimes culture shock and homesickness take longer to set in, but I was pleased with my ability to quickly adjust and fit in without many problems. In that sense, I found this internship to be very confirming, and it has been an encouragement to me to be searching for opportunities to serve on the mission field in the future.

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