Living Mission —
A parish’s response
to poverty in Cambodia

Father Charles Dittmeier

In Cambodia, in addition to leading the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme, I am also the pastor of the English-speaking parish in Phnom Penh. Our parish, St. Joseph Church, has the same vision and mission as Catholic parishes around the world — hopefully the same vision and mission as Jesus — but the way we function as a parish can be quite different. Our St. Vincent de Paul Society is a good example.

Practically all Catholic parishes around the world have a St. Vincent de Paul “conference” to help those needing material assistance. In my experience, the St. Vincent de Paul groups depend on the poor boxes in the back of church or on relatively small allotments from parish funds. But for us, the St. Vincent de Paul work is a major priority. In the past year and a half, more than 75% of our parish income was designated for the poor and needy.

The people we serve are not from a local parish neighborhood. One large group served are the refugees, mostly from Pakistan and fleeing religious persecution. Some of them have been abandoned here by people smugglers. Then there are the Africans who have come to play football (soccer) or to set up import-export businesses. Another group are the Europeans and North Americans — often estranged from their families — who have come for adventure or to make it on their own.

They all end up here because entry into Cambodia requires only $35 and two passport photos. Immigrating to other countries requires a confirmed job, a letter of invitation, work permits and other documents.

Life in Cambodia is always difficult. Basic parts of the structure of government and of society don’t exist or they function only minimally. And then many of the foreigners who come — the majority of them men — have little planning, no insurance or savings, no Khmer language skills, and find very tenuous employment, often teaching English without any credentials in so-called “international” schools.

They get into relationships with Cambodian women and have children, increasing their economic fragility, and then at the first instance of a medical or other problem become penniless, cannot renew visas and become subject to a $10 a day penalty for overstaying their visas.

COVID-19 made things much worse because the schools were closed. The teaching and similar jobs — and the salaries — disappeared.

On a given day, I can receive 40 or 50 calls and messages asking for assistance. The stories are heartrending. Cambodia does not have a social service network. Once we help a few people, the word spreads and I get calls for help from all over the country.

Many of the calls are scams. Because of COVID-19 lockdowns and other restrictions we have not been able to meet in person with the people calling. So it becomes a function of triage on the telephone, determining which calls are legitimate and, of those, which we can give money to — when we have money.

All our savings are gone at this point, so increasingly I have to tell people living in abandoned buildings or needing food or medical care that we just can’t help.

As our St. Vincent de Paul work has become more known, we have also begun receiving more and more calls from Cambodian people. They are suffering from COVID-19 also but working with them adds another layer of difficulty because they don’t speak English.

We have a dedicated group of five or six St. Vincent de Paul Society ministers and we do our best but it is a difficult and stressful ministry.

Father Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at parish-without-borders.org.

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