PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Communion And More

Today was all about Communion.

Our morning began very early, before the sun had even considered rising, as we needed to take a journey back to Phnom Penh following the wedding the previous night. The journey had been about four hours in our minibus, but the return trip in our taxi was slightly under three, getting us to Phnom Penh about 8 a.m.

For me, the most shocking thing about this part of the trip was the cost. A taxi picked us up at 5 a.m. in Kampot, drove us to Phnom Penh and then drove back with no passengers — all for $40.  Yet, we would pay $5 for a tuk tuk ride from Jen’s apartment to the church — a mere 30 minutes. The tickets to get to Kampot were $6 per person for a seat on a large bus. Jen assured me that when it came to money, nothing about Cambodia was relative.

The plan at worship was for me to preach and be present at Communion as Pastor Daniel, who had just been approved for ordination earlier this week, presided.

The Lutheran Church in Cambodia is quite young, with its first congregation beginning in 2010. It currently has five people who are at various stages in pastoral training — three men and two women — and Pastor Daniel will be the first Cambodian to be ordained, a celebration that will take place in November. In an unusual twist, he will not only become the first ordained pastor but will also assume the role of bishop.

For me, the service consisted of a series of firsts. I have always been a “black clerical shirt” kinda gal, and I broke out a new blue one, in part of a quest to push my boundaries. (I need to break out of my comfort zone every once in a while.)

It was also the first time I have ever preached in bare feet, the first time I have ever seen a cat run across the Communion table during worship and the first time I have ever used “Footprints in the Sand” as a sermon illustration.

Of all of those, I feel the “Footprints” needs the most explanation. When one preaches in a different culture, one needs to be deliberate about examples so that they mesh with the culture to whom you are speaking.

My text was the Road to Emmaus and the concept of Jesus walking with us, even when he disappeared from their midst, lent itself well to that story, which no one hear had heard, so it wasn’t cliched. In a culture where one often walks a long distance in sandals, footprints work as an image.

The worship service itself was Spirit-filled. Most in attendance were the students who live at the hostel that the church runs for university students from the provinces. Some come from Christian backgrounds, but others come there for lodging and experience Christ along the way.

One of the things that moved me most deeply were the prayer concerns, which included prayers for Turkey and Erdogan, racism in Europe and the situation in North Korea. This is a church that is globally connected.

It was an honor to be present as Pastor Daniel presided, as an ordained pastor standing alongside a future colleague and bishop, and to serve Communion with him. And I loved bringing greetings from the ELCA, my synod, and Elim.

Following worship, Jen and I headed back to her flat to drop off our stuff and then headed out to the rural village, Tang Krang, where we would join another young congregation — which began just last October.

The trip out there and back was all part of the journey — first in a van that normally seats 15, but rarely has that few. Jen said the max she had been in had 30 people. Ours wasn’t quite that full, but there were a few chickens who joined us, clucking back and forth at each other from the front and the back of the van.

After we were dropped off — quite a distance from where we wanted to be dropped because the driver didn’t think Jen knew what she was talking about (not an uncommon occurrence since this village isn’t a tourist hot spot, so why would foreigners think they should stop here?) —  we took a tuk tuk down a rough dirt path that had plenty of jolts, passed ponds filled with lotus, to the church.

We arrived just as Sunday School was ending. One of the main outreaches to the village is providing education for the children. The Young Adult in Global Mission volunteer, Lindsay, was doing a new song with the kids today — Father Abraham in Khmer. What a delight to witness that!

Worship was full as well, mostly with children. The ministry sponsored a football (soccer) team, so the kids were there in uniform, ready for a game that would take place following the service. It turned out to be the younger kids vs. the older kids, so the pastor sent them off with the story of David and Goliath.

Part of the service included Communion. Since Pastor Vibol and Sister Sreleak had not yet been approved for ordination, they cannot preside, even with an ordained pastor present, so this was an opportunity to share the sacrament with the community.

I brought the wafers (a gift from Elim) and wine (an expensive port I purchased before we left at the liquor store down the street from Jen. They had a dearth of reds, so this was my only option, which was fine since it keeps with my Communion motto:  “Jesus didn’t die for cheap wine.”)

As I presided, I got goofed up. I have said the Words of Institution well over a thousand times, but when it is interrupted by translation, that muscle memory failed me, and I lost my place.

But that didn’t matter because the eyes of the little ones were trained on me with amazement. This was the first time many of those children had ever witnessed the sacrament. And kids who had been squirrely during the sermon, prayers and readings, sat still with rapt attention. None were baptized, so they didn’t partake, but it was moving nonetheless.

Following worship, we headed back to Phnom Penh, using a reverse route — tuk tuk to van. The trip started out fast but ended in standstill traffic by the river, where we moved only a few hundred feet in a half hour.

Traffic, by the way, is a whole part of the experience. Jen likens it to a dance, which makes sense as motorcycles and tuk tuks move back and forth, finding space where none seems to exist. Direction also seems optional, as I learned as we headed the wrong way down a one-way street once, to avoid road construction. My greatest fear in all of my travels is always traffic accidents.

We finally got out of the tuk tuk and walked the river, looking for a place to eat. We settled at a cafe where we sat outside, by the street.

Almost as soon as we sat down, we were approached by a young boy — perhaps 8 or 9 — with excellent English patter that he used to try to convince us to buy his bracelets or wallets. Jen spoke to him a bit and invited him to sit with us, but refused to buy from him.

Although it is hard for me, I understand and honor her conviction. These children more often than not have “handlers” who use them to get sales and take the money. And even though the kids may be punished if they don’t sell anything, by buying, the cycle is perpetuated. If it makes money for the handler, they will continue to exploit these children. Besides, the sales for those items will either go to a woman in a market supporting her family or these kids supporting some form of human scum. I know who I chose.

After my order of fried spring rolls had arrived, a couple of more kids showed up. As they eyed the spring rolls I offered the boy some and said he could take them. As he grabbed them, other children magically appeared, and suddenly there were three spring rolls for four kids. As one grabbed at them, the other pulled back with a look in his eyes that can only be described as hunger. The real effects of hunger.

Jen quickly placed an order for two more plates of fried rice, and we were joined by five street urchins at our table. Jen engaged in conversation with them, as she urged them to sit in their chairs instead of on their haunches. And we both encouraged them to keep the volume down. Jen also took advantage of the time to learn the colors in Khmer. The other diners looked quite shocked.

We thought the scene might be a bit much for the proprietor, and Jen asked for a to-go box for that and most of the rice and sauce that came with my chicken amok. She said no, as that might result in the kids fighting among themselves, and instead brought five plates and told us to stay. A kindness that Jen plans to remember when she chooses where to dine in the future.

As I went to pay the bill, I thanked her for kindness, and she thanked me for mine. I truly said it was nothing. I spent $6 to feed a few kids. But she said it would at least fill their bellies for tonight. A sad truth, a brief respite from a seemingly never-ending struggle for these poor boys, forced to work, paid nothing and fed less.

They devoured the food with a ferocity that can only be seen in those who lack food security — a situation I have never been in. And then they headed off to work the streets again, aware that the eyes of their employer were probably on them, and they would get in trouble for taking a break without making a sale.

One boy was thirsty, however, and we wandered down the street with him to buy a 75-cent bottle of clean water.

Water and rice. That is what we shared. Communion in a Cambodian context.

There is much that could be said about what happened — both good and bad. There is so much we cannot do and so much that we do to only make ourselves feel better. There are struggles with feeding a few as opposed to investing in addressing the systemic structures that lead to hunger.

And there is the great problem of being seen as the “benefactors,” the “good people” who have the ability to help, somehow becoming superior for simply being in the position in which we can give. There is nothing heroic or particularly great about what we did that night, and no praise should be rendered.

However, all those thoughts aside, sometimes you need to take situations for what they are. And that meal, and my memory of it, will simply be the last form of Communion I shared today.

Because in all of them, Jesus was present.

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