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Domingo, 09 Noviembre 2014 00:00

Joy of the Gospel… in Cambodia

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Rich Lessard – Albany Chapter, Affiliate Board Member


FAB travelers, with Denise and Rich Lessard on the far right, before the stone faces of the ancient Bayon Temple.

Around the world in 18 days! My wife, Denise, and I recently participated in the Maryknoll Lay Missioner’s Friends Across Borders (FAB) program in Cambodia.

”So, how was your trip?”—I find myself entertaining this question in my first weeks home. How do I capture the essence of this Cambodian FAB experience? How do I explain the transformation working inside me? After a chuckle—they don’t realize how loaded the question is—I exclaim, “It was great!” an accurate, though short, response. But if the questioner is interested, I’ll explain that the trip was a mission awareness experience and that we visited with a number of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, Sisters, and Fathers. I’ll highlight some of their various ministries, and provide some context to the plight of the Cambodian people, past and present. Often, I’ll mention my blog of each day’s activities. This response still doesn’t capture the richness of the experience, though. 

Rich and Denise meet a teacher and student at LaValla School
for Young People with Disabilities.

Initially, it’s really hard to process the profound effect of such an experience. It takes time, reflection, and patience with oneself; you need to marinate in the experience—mind, body, and soul—to figure out what happened to you before you can convey it to others. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Trust in the slow work of God… your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them … Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.” 

Student Ambassadors sharing their dreams with Denise

One day at work, a coworker politely opened a door for me and allowed me to pass through. At that moment, “crossing the threshold” popped into my head. ”Hmmm,” I thought, “a nice analogy for my experience in Cambodia.” Having been an Affiliate for about eight years now, I’ve met many missioners and heard their stories. And before that, I’ve been on three Sister Parish visits to Guatemala—all wonderful experiences in and of themselves, but this FAB trip was different. For the first time, I really crossed over the threshold from the environs of my own familiar and comfortable world into a world touched by mission life, if only for a short time. 

Cambodian women harvest water lilies.

Throughout Cambodia’s history, from the Khmer Empire—an advanced civilization ruled by kings—of a thousand years ago to the recent horrific and tragic era of the Khmer Rouge, there has been one constant: the suffering of its people—at the hands of their own leaders and those of foreign invaders. In addition to the lasting effects of the Khmer Rouge’s destruction of social, political, judicial, medical, educational, administrative, and spiritual systems, Cambodians today still suffer from the shortsighted and corrupt policies of government officials. The resulting lack of security, lack of hope, and pervasive fear have scarred the individual and collective psyches of the Cambodian people, many of whom find themselves marginalized and impoverished.

Children at LaValla School introduce Rich to rambutan.

The compassion and missionary spirit of Maryknoll thrive in this environment. In response to the pain and suffering of the Cambodians, the Gospel is lived fully and joyfully, and the mission of Jesus is truly evident. We witnessed it through the Maryknoll missioners we encountered; we saw firsthand their expression of peace, justice, love, compassion, and joy as they respond to the needs of the people they serve. In the midst of so much pain and suffering, in their face-to-face encounters—there was an infectious joy! 

LaValla’s librarian (former student) and Denise share a big hug.

The great pilgrim routes are dotted with shrines, monuments and markers to identify places where pilgrims pause to rest and pray and to give thanks for the holy ground they’ve covered. Truly, this FAB experience was a pilgrimage. As I look back over the holy ground we covered, I am filled with gratitude for the many joys which have marked our pilgrim route. I saw joy in the face of the HIV+ resident I met in the shantytown of Anlong Kngan Resettlement Community. With the gift of a scooter from Maryknoll, he can work to support his family. I experienced joy getting down on my hands and knees and butt and playing with the little children in the Boeung Toumpun Education program. My head and heart are full with memories of joy.

The shantytown of the Anlong Kngan Resettlement Community

How awesome it was to be with the missioners and to share in their lives for even the briefest of time! This is a gift I will surely treasure. Knowing them has enriched my life. Being with them has been a blessing. I pray our paths will cross again.


…the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk

of a face-to-face encounter with others,
with their physical presence which challenges us,
with their pain and their pleas,
with their joy
which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.
     - Pope Francis, December 2013 

 Rich Lesssard's complete blog of his experiences in Cambodia is available at Joy of the Gospel...In Cambodia.

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