Missioner returns from sharing Christ's light in Cambodia
By Wendy A. Hoke
ROCKY RIVER — Shortly after John Pahls, a computer technician at Rocky River Public Library, returned from a two-year mission in Cambodia last August, he found himself in a Dollar General store near tears.
Among its well-stocked shelves were so many things that were desperately needed yet so expensive and nearly impossible to come by in Cambodia—dental floss, hydrogen peroxide, Epsom salts, laundry detergent—all available for $1.
Although he’s now back to working in the stately yet modern Rocky River Public Library instead of a rudimentary Learning Resource Center in Phnom Penh, Pahls holds both places close to his heart.
A parishioner at St. Patrick Church on Bridge Avenue, it was that church’s work of service to the poor and marginalized people on Cleveland's Near West Side that inspired Pahls to work with Maryknoll lay Missionary.
“I was energized by living in that area and seeing how the church is a witness for Christ in the community," he said. "I was inspired by that witness and foreign missionary work seemed like a natural extension for me."
Originally from Cincinnati, the 44-year-old had traveled extensively in the past, but saw this as the chance to move from tourist to “part of” a foreign community. “I chose Cambodia mostly because the team working in Asia was very dynamic and I liked the projects.”
With his master’s degree in library science and his years spent working at the Rocky River Public Library, Pahls had the opportunity to put his education and work experience to good use.
“We had a small Learning Resource Center to help children living in orphanages and group homes to study,” he said. Although his work was primarily with tutors and teachers, he occasionally stepped into the classroom, teaching math and later English.
Preparation for the two-year assignment included intensive study of the Cambodia language of Khmer.
“The children would tease me about my accent. I found I could understand what people would say and could understand words, but it took much longer to understand concepts,” he said.
Before arriving in Cambodia, Pahls admitted that he had a preconceived idea of working in solidarity with others on an equal footing. Cambodia’s culture, however, is based on hierarchy. To them, he was, “Older Brother.”
“They viewed me more as someone in a position of power who could help them,” he said. “I became more of a caretaker and a provider, which is not the role I had imagined.”
Being a witness for Christ on a grand scale was difficult in Cambodia. The effects of the violent communist-inspired Khmer Rouge still linger 30 years later and churches are typically associated with foreign influences such as the French and Vietnamese.
All missionary orders are registered as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), even though they are also engaged in liturgical ministry.
“The government supports NGOs because we are doing a lot of the social service and education that it is supposed to provide,” Pahls said.
In Battambang, the northwest province and former Khmer Rouge stronghold until as late as 1997, where Pahls also worked, the liturgical work is focused on the youth. By providing scholarships, education and involving a new generation in the work of the church, “There is hope this will set the stage for subsequent generations,” said Pahls.
Learning to live with the threat of constant danger is something to which everyone must adapt, he added. “You go through the inevitable questions of why am I here?” he said.
It takes a concerted effort not to focus on the macro and instead to focus on the people, “the little part where we can be a source of light.”
He smiled and remembered a saying his sister had told him: “It’s easier to wear a slipper then to try and carpet the whole world.” While he was gone, he kept in touch via e-mail with his colleagues at Rocky River Library and welcomed the chance to work with them again upon his return.
Pahls said he misses his Cambodian friends and says he would like to go back to Cambodia and deepen his experience there. For now, he is using his Asian experience to help work with Burmese refugees brought to Cleveland through the diocesan Migration and Refugee Services office.
Hoke is a freelance writer.