One of the things I’m most excited about for the upcoming Humanism at Work conference is talking to the Pathfinders who have been traveling the world helping people for the past year. I want to hear their stories and learn from their experiences, some of which Wendy Webber has recounted in the latest issue of The Humanist.
For me, the best part of our work in Cambodia had to do with the fact that we were humanist volunteers working with Buddhist monks to teach Christian and Buddhist students—a truly cooperative, interbelief endeavor. The monks didn’t participate in the classes but donated the use of buildings at their pagoda, and when we Pathfinders would enter the pagoda grounds, the monks were often as eager to greet us as the children.
When Conor and I first met the local chief, he commented (in hesitant, broken English) about how wonderful it was that we—the Pathfinders, Bridge of Life School, and the monks—were working together to help children in such desperate need. Before we left, the chief tied a red bracelet traditionally symbolizing bravery onto each of our wrists. Tying a bracelet on another’s wrist signifies unity. As he tied the bracelets the chief wished us long life. Conor and I plan to let the bracelets fall off naturally in their own good time.
We spent one week teaching at another pagoda in rural Cambodia. In Kampong Thom, we slept on thin mats on a wooden floor in a house built on stilts because of annual flooding during the wet season. We stayed with the local English teacher who, though greatly respected in town, had no electricity in his home. And the toilet was two houses down, past the neighbors and their cows, chickens, and barking dogs. Truly, I loved it.I also loved that we spent the week unplugged. We walked up and down the one road through town. We met with our host’s family and sat cross-legged on the floor. Although they didn’t speak English—and we didn’t speak Khmer—we all communicated in the universal language of laughter. We napped in hammocks during the day and tried local alcohols with the men at night. The fact that Michelle and I would sit and drink with the men struck them as bizarre. On the other hand, their snacks were absolutely bizarre to us—instead of peanuts or chips they served bite-sized grilled fish caught in the standing water of the rice paddies.
Choosing my favorite moment in Kampong Thom is hard, but certainly near the top of the list is when several women from the village came to the house. They wanted to thank us for coming, thank us for teaching their children. Though we couldn’t communicate much with language, we had no problem connecting as just plain people. We could hold each other’s gazes. We could laugh. They could and did say, repeatedly, “Come back, come back. Stay longer, come back.” That’s our plan.
We had to get up at 5:30 am every morning to get to the pagoda for classes at six. Our early morning students had to head to the rice fields when class was over. English class is optional and in addition to regular school. (The week we were there happened to be a school holiday, which is why they were working instead.) These students were choosing to get up at or before dawn to walk to English class before toiling in the fields all day. They value their education and have a lot to teach those of us who take ours for granted.
As I have been from the start, I am in awe of these young people and what they’re doing.