Probably the two most important activities in any parish are the celebration of the Eucharist and outreach to the needy, usually done through a St. Vincent de Paul Society. Jesus explicitly told us to give and receive his Body and Blood and to care for the poor and needy.
In many U.S. parishes, the St. Vincent de Paul group might be little known and underappreciated. In our English Catholic community here in Phnom Penh, it is a very active program.
Cambodia is sorely lacking in agencies to care for the poor and needy. People experiencing difficult situations in life cannot be referred to Catholic Charities or parish food banks or similar groups. We don’t have them.
Our English Catholic community’s St. Vincent de Paul Society has become the de facto social service agency.
Initially, we were assisting people from the English Catholic community with problems such as losing a job and not being able to pay the rent or needing medical care for an injured child. But very quickly the word spread that the Catholic community could help in some circumstances and we were swamped by all sort of requests for assistance.
People asked for help to renew a passport or visa to remain in the country or to get a work permit. Others wanted to send money to their home country for a sick parent. (We had to make a rule we don’t send money to other countries.) The UN’s International Office for Migration worked with us to repatriate a mentally ill woman to Liberia.
And then we were inundated by Pakistani refugees fleeing religious persecution. Typically they went to Bangkok to apply for refugee status with the UN refugee agency, were denied and held in a detention center, and then released and expelled from Thailand.
At that point, they had no money and could not get a visa to a developed country, which would require a confirmed job, etc. Cambodia is close and only requires a passport photo and $30 to enter, so the refugees made their way here. Most are Catholic, none of them speak Khmer, so they come to our English Catholic community.
They need everything: accompaniment, rent, furniture, food, transportation, documentation, jobs, education for children who have been in detention and out of school for years.
And now we are experiencing more requests from men in their 30s and 40s from North America and Europe. Most are estranged from their families. They come to escape, to start a new life, to work to support families at home, for adventure.
Most are poorly educated and unskilled. Some admit to me they are fleeing the law in their home countries. Others are immigrants to the United States deported back to Cambodia after release from prison in the U.S.
They are all God’s children. They all get sick and have emergencies. They all come to us.
And the whole situation was made much more critical and demanding by COVID-19. In addition to the “normal” emergencies, we had many people coming to us who lost their jobs as schools and businesses closed down. We began to encounter people living in parks and abandoned buildings and along the riverfront.
And because we cannot meet people in person because of COVID-19, we have been doing triage by telephone and WhatsApp. It has been a stressful time for the needy and for our small group of St. Vincent de Paul volunteers. We can’t do enough, but we do what we can.
Father Charles 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.