The Great Physician

2020 has been a very challenging time for the world. All of us have found ourselves in a different situation than we anticipated at the start of the year. Personally, it has brought a sudden halt to my work. Worldwide border restrictions have left me unexpectedly outside of my country of service. But along with the frustration, it has given me a chance to reflect on the past two years since I went overseas to work.

I had been living in an Asian city on a high plateau. After a period of language study, I started work as a doctor in the obstetrics and ultrasound departments of a local hospital. It was a really challenging start but I began to learn that to be accepted in a local context requires patience, humility and a healthy respect for the people and systems that surround you. As my relationships improved, so did the opportunities. Despite my basic language skills, I was invited to begin formal clinical teaching.

God had given me a vision to bring learning opportunities and up-to-date skills to people who lack access to them so that they, in turn, can better serve their own people. It is also my desire that healthcare workers may come to know Jesus, the Great Physician, and serve patients with the compassion that reflects His love for the world. As the initial months passed by, I found myself busy doing all the much-needed “good” things. Most of my days were occupied by acquiring general and medical language, preparing lessons and getting to know my colleagues and the culture of the hospitals. I was also learning about day-to-day clinical work in that context. As time passed by, I found little time to do anything else. While the response to my teaching was good, I had neither the time nor language ability to talk about the deeper issues of faith.

As I got more involved in the day-to-day working environment, a different set of challenges become apparent. Why is a stillborn baby treated with less care than a live birth? Why is life-saving treatment delayed while waiting for the family to make necessary phone calls to find the money to pay for it? Why is terminating a pregnancy the only option offered when certain maternal or fetal risks become known? Why is general decision-making done so differently to what I know as best-practice? Should we not treat a person, dead or alive, with or without money, with dignity? Should we not as healthcare workers give patients balanced advice regarding their choices? The underlying issues behind these questions are complex and I began to see that the foundations have something to do with how we view the value of a person. I believe that each person—each patient—is created in the image of God, valuable and priceless, and this affects how I treat them. But how can I show this to my colleagues?

One day, a lady doctor whom I had been working with asked me if I was someone with faith. I was surprised with this unexpected question as I had not yet had any direct conversations about matters of faith. I asked her the reason for her question. She had noticed an incident where a patient’s decision had upset me. From my reaction, she concluded that I must be someone with faith. We discussed the issues surrounding it, particularly the value of every life. That day I realised that I can begin by helping one person change one aspect of their worldview at a time, even though I’d like to change everything at once! This was exciting. It is possible, with the help of the Great Physician, to point others to Him through our daily choices and conduct.

We need evidence-based medical practices to improve patient outcomes. But just as importantly, we also need to model through our daily work the compassion and love that the Great Physician has for each life. Go, love the world, just as Jesus does.

Hannah is an obstetrician living and working in Asia.
Names have been changed.

Gods love overcomes fear

We live in a 4,000 year old city, along with 25 million others. Pollution fills the air like a grey soup and the economy is in a permanent struggle to keep ahead of population growth. Yet the noise and chaos brings a captivating vibrancy to the place we call home. Hanging over this society are deep divisions between rich and poor, women and men, and between Christians and Muslims resulting in brokenness, mistrust and violence. As a minority, Christians often focus on self-preservation and separate themselves from the majority Muslims.

Eight years ago, corruption, injustice, poverty and lost opportunity drove the Middle East into revolution. In the midst of this, my family was seeking God and felt called to business for transformation. We were convinced that business has the potential to impact the financial, social and spiritual aspects of people’s lives. We soon found ourselves wearing aprons, serving coffees and baking cakes for our new, tiny coffee business!

Since then, it’s been a journey of hard work, stress, miracles and joy! Our business brings together people from marginalised backgrounds and provides a safe space for training and discipleship. We are now a community where we work, learn, laugh, eat and pray together. Sounds nice? Maybe, but the journey doesn’t always feel nice. In fact, it’s REALLY HARD.

One of our team, Ash, joined us from a slum area with dreams of being an accountant. I recall his extreme discomfort when I took him for his first visit to a bank! He was brought up in an environment where violence was normal. His father beat his mother and his brother followed in his footsteps. Ash would have made a perfect drug lord. He was angry most of the time and was always ready for a fight. There would have been many fist fights with other team members if I hadn’t physically held him back.

We strive to model and operate by Godly principles including love, grace and forgiveness. This was difficult for Ash’s colleagues whom he often offended and frightened. Yet today, Ash is part of the management team of two men and two women, after insisting for a long while that business is only for men. He is now dependable and supportive of all of his colleagues. His faith has grown and it’s become normal for him to discuss matters of faith with both Christians and Muslims.

Mary is another team member from a slum area who battled with her family to get a basic education and find work against her parents’ wishes that she only prepare for marriage and children. Mary is an evangelical Christian which is unusual here and we were excited by the potential of her working with us. However, Mary’s behaviour towards her colleagues was far from salt and light. Her deep insecurities and fears poured out on her colleagues in the form of verbal abuse, bitterness and unforgiveness while showing a completely different side in our Bible studies. I was frustrated!

We came to a moment of confrontation when I was prepared to fire her. However, that same morning my wonderful wife and business partner told me that God had been speaking to her about how we should be growing in love for our team. Ouch! Love is an interesting concept. 1 John 3:16 talks about giving up our lives for our brothers and sisters. Who is our brother and sister? What does giving up our lives mean? 1 John 4:18 also tells us that there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

I suddenly realised that fear was in the way of God’s love. I was challenged to allow God’s love to remove my own fear. Only then could I really show love to Mary. Only then can I help Mary start to overcome her fears and the destructive force they were having on colleagues. It starts with me!

Striving to constantly grow in God and demonstrating His love is hard work. But we have seen enormous joy and fulfilment in seeing God’s transforming love impact lives through our business.

Jacob and his family live in the Middle East, working in business for transformation.
All names have been changed.

Loving my neighbour

Once again, Sarah rather unconvincingly tells me, “I know the universe is looking after me.”

In our first year here, whenever we looked out our kitchen window to the apartment building opposite, we would see a couple smoking together on their balcony. In excitement at the prospect of making friends in a new land, I thought, “If this lady spends all day at home, then we should be friends.” When I was buying vegetables from the truck in our street, I finally met Sarah. She is a migrant from Ukraine with an Orthodox background and she married a local man five years ago.

Perhaps I was a nosy neighbour but one day it occurred to me that Sarah and her husband no longer spent time together on the balcony. When Sarah and I were walking together in the local forest, she was pretty down and began sharing deeply about the difficulties in her life. “My husband is drinking heavily again and says horrible things to me. We haven’t spoken properly for weeks.” I listened and the only thing I could do was reassure her that she is valuable. I promised I would pray for her and her marriage.

A week later I caught up with Sarah and asked her how things were going. She explained, “When I got home after our walk, my husband was not home and didn’t come home that night. So, for the first time in a long time I prayed to God for help.” She was surprised God answered her prayer: the next day her husband returned home with a renewed commitment to stop drinking.

Sadly, three years on, things haven’t improved. Sarah now finds herself in a desperate situation as her husband is an alcoholic, verbally abusive and now in a relationship with another woman. Their marriage has fallen apart. Sarah is living in this country with no friends except me, is unemployed and has a very limited ability to communicate in the local language. Her husband has filed for divorce, but she is totally dependent on him for money and a place to stay. Her only other option is to return to the war zone in Ukraine where her dad lives.

Seeing her desperate situation, I did what little I could: cooked food for her when she had none, gave her bedding when her husband took all the furniture away, and took her to the city law association to apply for a free lawyer. She has had a tough life and my heart breaks for her. Some things have fallen in place. Sarah now has a lawyer and she often claims, “Oh, I know the universe is looking after me.” To which I respond, “I believe it is God looking after you. He loves you.”

I sometimes feel frustrated that Sarah won’t acknowledge that God’s love is the reason that I care about her. She mystically believes that it is the universe who loves her. However, I must remember that even before I acknowledged Him, God also loved me.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

Recently, Sarah once again exclaimed, “The universe is looking after me!” But this time she paused and then said, “Or, as you say, God loves me.”

Penny lives with her family in West Asia long term.
All names have been changed.

Tell people about our suffering

"Will you love Muslims the way I love them?" She turned around, to the girl behind her in the pews. But she hadn't said anything. When she heard the voice again, 15-year-old Patricia knew it was God who called her.

It's hard for me to find her. Somewhere in the famous community center on the Chris Lebeaustreet in Amsterdam is the office of Road of Hope, the organization Patricia Silva Barendregt started three years ago to help refugees integrate. After twenty minutes of wandering around I find her hidden in a small, musty office on the top floor. Except for a simple desk and a discarded laser printer, it’s bare and empty. But soon the Brazilian refugee worker colours the room with her cheerful voice and lively anecdotes.

Am I going to die?
Since the moment God spoke to her, the Arab world has had an almost magnetic attraction to her. Even though she had never actually met a Muslim before. "Where I lived, in northern Brazil, there were no Muslims. I was pretty scared, actually. ‘No God, I can't do this. Isn’t there a lot of persecution in those countries?’ But I was also curious. I started writing letters with missionaries in the Middle East. What's it like living there? What's the climate, the food, the people? Is there really a lot of persecution? Am I going to die?"

Hollywood image
There wasn't much room for doubt. Convinced of her vocation, Patricia went to study theology. She immersed herself in the world of Islam and left for Egypt through a missionary organization. She remembers her arrival well. Everything was different. Everywhere she looked, she saw women wearing headscarves. It turned out to be an excellent conversation opener. Not that the passionate Brazilian seems to really need it, during the interview she talks with a flair that Moses would have been jealous of. "Then I sat on the bus next to two girls with a niqab and asked in Arabic: 'This is so different from where I come from, how do you wear it and what do you do with your make-up?' 'We can teach you', they said. That's how I became friends with a lot of women."
"One day I went home with one of those girls. When she had changed, I didn't recognize her at first, without covering. We became good friends. "You're the first Christian in my life I've talked to", she said. Many Muslims have a Hollywood image of Christians, as if they are often drunk and violent. "But you're so quiet," she said to me. "You dress like us, you're almost a Muslim.” I'll take that as a compliment, haha!"

you belong with us
Two years later Patricia came in contact with refugees fort he first time in her life, when she was transferred to war-torn Sudan. She lived and worked in a refugee camp, ate the same food and drank the same water. "I think I've had diseases I don't even know the name of."
Irresponsible, according to the the missionary coordinator, who ordered the team to stay outside the camp. The team refused. "The people in the camp said to us, 'You are the first foreigners who really live with us, you belong with us'. If we left, we wouldn't be much different from other foreigners coming and going."

road of death
Patricia couldn't let go of the distressing situation of the refugees. In 2014 she came to the Netherlands to study International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Focussing on development issues. Her goal: Iraq. To help refugees, especially from Syria, on their way to a new future. It became Amsterdam. Love caused a small change of direction on the missionary route of the young missionary when she met her husband in the capital. That and a probing visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where she did research for her master's thesis.
Patricia remembers very well the first woman she spoke to in the camp. "She had those beautiful green eyes that I will never forget. As I walked out of her tent, she grabbed my hand and said, 'Please, tell people about our suffering, about what it is like to live as a refugee. That's where the idea for Road of Hope was born. Refugees describe their flight as a road of death."

He's there
Back in Amsterdam Patricia refused to be happy for a while. "I had all those images in my head of people suffering from conflict, rape and violence. Then I can't be happy, can I?" After months of crying, bad sleep and intense conversations with a Red Cross staff member, she began to experience some rest again. "That man said: 'All the faces you have seen and keep coming into your thoughts: God knows them all. He is there. Don't forget that.' It gave me peace. I didn't have to be there. I can also help the refugees who are here. But not alone. That's why I started sending letters to churches in Brazil to support me. I noticed that they were praying for me: I could sleep again and I was doing better. In June 2016, Road of Hope was founded."

Patricia started by counseling three refugee families. Now her organization plays an important role in the work of Amsterdam refugees. Since this autumn, Patricia and her organisation have joined Team NL, the work of Interserve in the Netherlands. There she shares her knowledge and experience about working with immigrants. She also offers On Trackers from Interserve, who will be sent out for a short time, the opportunity to gain experience with cross-cultural work in her own country.

A Brazilian woman. Called to show God's love to refugees in Amsterdam. Intrigued I leave Road of Hope: God's roads are indeed higher than our own.

NOTE:
A short documentary about the work of Road of Hope can be watched at http://bit.ly/roadofhope.

STREAMERS:
"Many Muslims have a Hollywood image of Christians, as if they're often drunk and violent."
"I think I've had diseases I don't even know the name of."
"You are the first foreigners who really live with us, you belong with us."
"I had all these images in my head of people suffering from conflict, rape and violence. Then I can't be happy, can I?"

Photos available at the Dutch office.

A ministry of encouragement

When I first arrived in Central Asia 15 years ago, I vividly remember the Principal of the Theological College telling me, “You’ll be a great encouragement to the women pastors!”

“Most unlikely!” I thought to myself.

I knew no one. I couldn’t speak a word of the language and had very little understanding of the culture. I had years of experience of teaching and pastoral ministry, but in a very different context. In this culture, I was a complete novice.

Now that I have learned the language and gained a greater understanding of the culture, I’ve been privileged to work with and encourage many people; both women and men. The theological college is now locally run and though no expats officially work there, I’m still involved in various ways.

I’ve worked with local teachers with varying success and am always delighted when I hear from students how much they enjoyed and learned from the teaching of friends like Venera, Kostya and Gulya.

A very able young woman, Venera worked with me teaching some Old Testament books. At first, she taught only sections of each lecture and developed into teaching the subjects on her own. She married a young man from a neighbouring country and now only comes back once a year to see her parents and to teach. However, God continues to use her knowledge and skills in preaching and teaching as she serves in a large church in her new home city.

Kostya is a fine young man, who came to know Jesus through a student movement here and worked with this group for ten years. When he had leave to pursue theological studies, I was able to advise him about places to study online and guide him to books and links along the way. He is now engaged in work towards a PhD and I’m happy to be a discussion partner and resource.

Gulya, a pastor in a village nearby, is a friend and colleague with whom I’ve taught. For the past ten years she has been leading the only church in her village. It is known and respected by all. Gulya has been involved with me and others in the Langham Preaching Movement. Her continued involvement in a preaching club is helping her and the church to grow in depth of understanding and love. She says, “I used to pray and pray for inspiration about what to preach. But now I find it so much easier. We go through a book of the Bible and work carefully on the text … and find inspiration. God really speaks through his Word — to me as well as to others.”

Ordering books to expand our library has been just as important. Can you imagine trying to do theological study without books? “How do you know which books to order?” someone asked me recently. Experience over many years has taught me which of the books that have been translated would be useful for students and teachers here. Translating suitable books into the local language – or rather, working with translators to check the translations – has become part of my work, as has seeing them through to publication. Suggesting books to be translated by a publisher in other parts of the former Soviet Union has also borne fruit.

So, fifteen years on, I’m pleased to see how God has used the skills and experience He has given me to be an encouragement to people in a very different culture. God has also provided local friends and colleagues to love, teach and encourage me as I serve with them here. I’m very grateful for the privilege.

Gwen is a long-term Interserve Partner who has been working alongside the church in Central Asia for 15 years.
All names have been changed.

Serving God without leaving home

A few weeks before my family went to live overseas for the first time, I got a phone call. The caller was an older friend whom I respected.

“Ruth”, she said to me, “I know we talk a lot about Jim’s role. But I wanted to remind you that the reason your family can go overseas is because you are behind him. If he could not rely on you as his wife and mother of his kids, then there would not be the option to go.”

It was the first time I recognised my unique position to be used as a stay-at-home mum overseas. We were heading there with a baby and toddler in tow. Usually the anticipation focussed on my husband's role, whereas mine… not so much. Let's face it, being a stay-at-home mum is not glamorous.

It didn't get any more glamorous overseas. There were still sleepless nights, tantrums and dirty nappies (to be clear: Jim also dealt with all of these – I couldn’t have done it without him!). Besides that, it is tough for kids in a new culture. They needed me close by, especially at first when the street dogs were scary, their tummies were upset and they were still getting used to having their cheeks squeezed by strangers.

But in the Middle East, there is a lot more respect for mothers than I'd experienced in Australia. To locals, I was doing a legitimate role. It was beyond their imagination that I put my children to bed before 11pm at night, or hadn't toilet trained them by 12 months old. But walking the kids to school, shopping at the market and doing my own cooking did make sense to my local friends. And that helped as we built our relationships.

Being a stay-at-home mum also enabled me to use other gifts in flexible ways. Relationship building was part of our ministry within the Interserve team. We loved having visitors and we would often have people over to share meals together because I had the time for hospitality. In the frequently stressful times of a foreign land, this mutual encouragement strengthened and refreshed us all for our ministries elsewhere.

Interserve’s vision is transformed communities. Did I transform anything through my school drop-offs and nappies and pots of spaghetti bolognaise?

Maybe the question is not what did I transform, but what was God doing though me? Like a tapestry that is not yet finished, I can only see scraps of the pattern God was creating. I do know my role contributed to helping us thrive as a family in the country. I had a part in enabling my husband to do the role God had for him. It also allowed me to pour time into building relationships with other cross-cultural workers, to support them in fulfilling their own God-given purposes. It gave me time to see the opportunities, and as the kids got older, to find my niche outside the home too.

I am no hero of the faith, but I trust God used me as a stay-at-home mum. He placed me there, made me the person I am, and gave me my role for that time.

The rest is His story.

Ruth served with her family in the Middle East for six years.
All names have been changed.

Village to the city and back again

“You can’t think of teaching as a job. You have to think of it as a vocation.” It was very sage advice that I received in my first year of teaching and it still guides me to this day.

In Australia, my favourite subject to teach was Year 11 Ethics. I loved challenging my students to think for themselves – to reflect on their values and the kinds of people they wanted to be. I loved tapping into their idealism and their belief that we can make a difference in the world.

Four years later, holding tight to the side of the Jeep as it jostled and swayed over the rugged hillsides of Central Asia, I couldn’t help thinking that I was literally half a world away from my bright and cosy classroom. I looked out the window at sun-aged brown hills without another person in sight before we took a turn and suddenly came across shepherds guiding their flocks of black and white sheep and then, a small oasis of green that surrounded mud brick houses. My sense of awe at seeing this part of God’s creation gave way to nerves as we drew closer to the village. In spite of the 43C weather, I put on my socks so as to be culturally appropriate and readjusted my headscarf. My local colleagues and I were about to meet with the Ministry of Education and the Head of School in these parts. We hoped to convince them to allow the high school graduate daughters of the village to join our teacher-training project in the city.

We knew we had our work cut out for us because what we were asking of them is so counter-cultural. For a young unmarried woman to not be under her father’s or brother’s roof overnight can bring a great deal of gossip, if not shame to the family. Yet work was urgently needed to help village girls to go to school and stay at school as long as possible, in order to curb one of the world’s lowest literacy rates for women. One factor for why girls in villages do not go to school is because there aren’t any female teachers. We hoped to change this.

Negotiations with the Ministry and Head of School ended, and we made our way to one of the girls’ mud brick home. Huddled in one of their two rooms and surrounded by family member of all ages, we sipped our tea and listened to the parents’ fears: of gossip; of damage to the family name; of family opposition; of letting their daughters study for a couple of years only to see people from the city with money and power get the jobs and then never turn up in the village to teach; of how the families will put food on the table because at least now their daughters can sell some craft pieces to make ends meet. A family allowing their daughter to move to the city is an act of tremendous courage. The back and forth conversation quietened as a meal was spread before us in the true spirit of hospitality in Central Asia. Overwhelmed by both their struggles and their generosity, I ate quietly, smiling at the girls, acknowledging the hope in their eyes.

Fast forward again, to the beginning of our teacher training program in the city. In my classroom and in their spare time, the young women from the village work so incredibly hard, determined to shape their own futures. We will learn about classroom management, and social and emotional intelligence, and critical thinking, and how to actively engage students in their own learning instead of using the traditional method of rote and repetition. God willing, after two years I will visit them in their classrooms in their home villages and mentor them. But mostly, I pray in hope for these precious young women, that after everything they have overcome to be here, they will return to their villages with their heads held high, they will teach with love and integrity, and they will shine the torch on the capabilities and dignity of women and be a role model for the next generation of girls in their villages.

Jodi is a teacher-trainer, serving the girls and women of Central Asia.

Names have been changed.

The work of walking humbly

A friend recently commented that living cross-culturally strips back your identity to its most basic shell. My experience took me on a journey from being a competent, confident adult who was contributing to his community to a place where every aspect of my identity was challenged.

This was partly by my own choosing. Several years ago Marie Clare and I, along with our two children, departed Melbourne (one of the world’s most livable cities) for Bangkok, Thailand. We spent our first year studying Thai. We easily could have moved to Thailand to teach in English or to work in a large international church or school. However, we felt a strong desire to partner with the local church, to be involved in community and to learn to speak Thai.

We have now been in Thailand for three years. A large portion of our time has been dedicated to learning Thai, watching the people and environment around us and attempting to understand a culture that often intrigues us. We are often exhausted, frustrated and at times desire to return to a place where we are understood and are able to clearly articulate our thoughts and feelings.

Thai is a tonal language with 5 distinct tones. The meaning of a word changes based on its tone. Thus far I have yet to master these tones. I have discovered I enjoy getting out and about and speaking to people. In English I love to talk to people about politics and debate the current hot topic. However, in Thai my conversations last 5–10 minutes before I run out of things to say. In meetings I am 5–10 seconds behind the conversation. By the time I have decoded the conversation and translated my thought into Thai, the conversation has well and truly moved on. Thai people are kind and they are always amazed by how much Thai I can speak. But I know how far I have to go before I can think and speak Thai effortlessly. The more I learn, the more I know how much I don’t know.

So is learning Thai worth it? Why can’t I, like many mission workers here in Thailand, just speak English and get someone to translate for me? Then I could get down to doing what I really love: teaching and discipleship.
The answer is yes, it’s worth it! I don’t always feel this way. It is hard living in a place where you can’t express your thoughts clearly and have deep conversations. However, this journey is not about me. I have come to understand that without walking humbly with God, one cannot understand or practice justice, mercy or humility (Micah 6:8). Not being able to speak has provided me with an opportunity to observe, to slow down, to listen and to pray. Language learning has taught me to rely on others and on God.

God often reminds me that I am not walking on this journey alone, nor am I leading the way. I am walking humbly with Him. My identity is not found in my Australian passport, my Persian heritage, my science and teaching degrees. My identity is found in God my father.

Emmanuel is a qualified chemistry and biology teacher. He and his family are in Thailand long-term, partnering with the local church in outreach and discipleship.

Listening with respect

I see myself more as a Jack-of-all-trades than a specialist. I spent more of my working life raising children than in my profession of medicine, returning to family practice and then counselling as they grew up.

In my new country, I work in ‘support’. I do not run any projects myself. ‘Support’ for me may mean collating clinical data, making cushions, dolls and straps for disability work, applying for grant funding, updating health training materials, training locals in counselling and offering child development and parenting support. There is no ‘ordinary week’ for me. Some work is fun, some engaging and exciting, some frankly boring but necessary.

There are highs and lows. Here is one low from the start of my work: I was finally going to do something useful and I was excited! After a year of cultural and language learning, I was going to assist a local NGO with health promotion and a women’s shelter. I had carefully prepared my first training presentation and I arrived twenty minutes early, ready to set up and start on time. The room was in use, so I waited. With five minutes to go, I showed my face at the window. When it was time to start, I knocked on the door. A colleague came out. She said that the person before me was still talking. I waited for forty-five minutes. The team then came out and asked me to give my presentation another day, as now they did not have time for my training!

We now live in a relationship-based culture, not a time and task-based culture. I knew ‘flexibility’ was important for living and working here. I just didn’t know how flexible. Your duty is the person in front of you and other commitments go on hold until they leave. I have learned to call the day before I run training, and to schedule sessions at the start of the day so it starts approximately on time. That is, after the mandatory relationship-building cup of tea and chat.

I have continued to work with the same wonderful ladies for the last five years. They sat patiently while I attempted to teach in a new language. It was a relief to all of us when they offered to allow me to train in English, with one of them translating. They always encourage me and tell me how much they value me, which makes it hard to get good feedback for improvement! I think it took three years before my health training took root. I think it also took about that amount of time before they really trusted me.

Here are some of the highs:

I was asked to work as a counsellor in a medical clinic. It is always challenging seeing people in very difficult circumstances when you are unlikely to see them again. What could I really do? I was very humbled when lady after lady shared their experiences of difficulties with husband or children. They entered sad and left smiling. What had I done? There was really no advice I could give them, no change in their circumstances. It was simply important to them that both I and my Christian translator listened and valued them. I encouraged them. So many of these ladies only get abuse and blame. To be listened to with respect and cared for was a new experience for them.

The ladies running the women’s shelter asked for training to help the children who had escaped abusive situations with their mothers. I explained that although the children will probably later need counselling, the first and most important thing is to provide them with a safe and nurturing environment, provide good food and clothing and to cater for their educational needs. I also gave them training on basic child development and parenting skills. They were very grateful and said they found this training helpful even in their own families. They also realised that their work was just as important as what professionals did.

Nothing happens by chance. God uses all our experiences, and I am grateful for everything he is doing through my retirement!

Marian and her husband are doctors, serving long-term in a remote part of Central Asia.

Names have been changed

Social work and software

OSCaR is one of those things that’s hard to write about. It’s a social work case management and database software package. It doesn’t tug at your heartstrings like rehabilitating drug users, or rescuing people from trafficking, or reuniting children with their families. It’s certainly not what I had in mind when our family left Australia for Cambodia in 2014.

In my life before Cambodia, I was a case management social worker in a high school, working directly with disengaged young people. I also had some experience supervising social work students through their university placements. Coming here, I knew that I probably wouldn’t be doing the same thing – social work in a second language is really tough – and I assumed I would fit into a support role at an NGO.

Social work is a fledgling discipline in Cambodia.The Royal University of Phnom Penh started offering the Bachelor of Social Work in 2008, and the number of qualified social workers in the country is low. While there are many Cambodians at NGOs with a lot of life experience, the lack of formal education often results in people making things up as they go. It goes without saying that social work like that often doesn’t lead to the best outcomes for vulnerable people. Unfortunately, there is also a history of some missionaries obtaining visas as social workers despite being unqualified, contributing to the perception that social work is not a real discipline. But now work is in progress to address these issues.

I now work at Children in Families (CIF), a local NGO dedicated to providing family-based care for vulnerable children. When I started here in 2015, I was asked to conduct a social work audit. We had some good practice strengths, but weaknesses in client assessment and record-keeping. Those administrative things don’t sound particularly exciting, but they have knock-on effects for the quality of social work generally. How can you make a good plan for someone if you haven’t assessed and understood their situation? How can you keep the details of 20 people fresh in your mind and provide high quality follow-up every single day, if you never adequately write down the things you’re doing with them? And how can you ever hope to report on your work to your donors (and so keep on doing that work in the future!) if you haven’t got records of what you’ve done?

I’m not a computer programmer, but I grew up comfortable with computers. And our office already did most of its work digitally, so it felt natural to look at supporting our work with better software. We applied for (and won!) a grant to develop a case management system in late 2015. The system has continued to be more and more widely adopted, but it’s tempting to ask, so what?

I’ve been really excited to see how OSCaR has contributed to the development of social work practice at CIF. Our assessment structure is now more relevant and lets us track long-term whether the work we do is improving the lives of the kids we support. We keep records in Khmer, with processes in place to let managers supervise their staff. We track all the things we need to in order to report on our work to our donors, and our managers are beginning to understand how they can be involved in monitoring and evaluation processes themselves. As I’ve helped other organisations integrate OSCaR into their practice, I’ve seen how they also wrestle more with their own work and consider how best to serve their beneficiaries.

I believe that God wants to see Christians not only reach out to the vulnerable, but reach out in ways that are helpful, relevant and competent. And while OSCaR by itself does not work with vulnerable people, it is supporting hundreds of social workers, in Cambodia and in other countries, to do so more effectively. This isn’t the work I expected to do, when I left Australia five years ago. But I’ve seen God bring things in line, and I’m grateful to have been put where I am.

Chris and his wife Stacie advocate for family-based care for children. Their family lives in Cambodia.