Missionary Diary: Online challenges in Cambodia

Dave and Leoni Painter teach at Phnom Penh Bible College in Cambodia – a country where they have served as CMS missionaries for over 20 years. For the last 18 months, their classes have been largely conducted online. Dave shares some of the challenges of teaching remotely. 

After 18 months of online teaching, I’ve asked myself, “Why not be a ‘Zoom-missionary’? Now much of our contact with students is online, should we switch to serving cross-culturally from the comfort of our own home in Australia?” 

A (newly) typical teaching day 

At 4.30am the alarm stirs me from slumber, and I slowly slide out of bed. By 5am I am cycling my way along the three kilometres of dark Phnom Penh backstreets that connect our house with the Phnom Penh Bible School (PPBS).  

The internet at our house is very weak, but there is a tower outside my office window at the school, guaranteeing a strong signal. Along the way I see that there are now seven houses and businesses barricaded with the official red tape, warning those inside to remain confined there until officially deemed COVID negative, and for others to stay away. I knock on the PPBS gate to wake up the security guard, who greets me with a sleepy smile.  

Many students … have little hope of getting a strong enough internet signal. 

Biblical interpretation at 6am 

Today’s class is Hermeneutics (biblical interpretation). I open the Zoom app on the computer just before 6am and within a few minutes, the first students’ names appear on the screen.  

The students voted to have the class at this time, as this is when the internet is the strongest. At 8am the government schools start their morning classes. After that, the many students who live in the city outskirts or in provincial areas have little hope of getting a strong enough internet signal.  

Within ten minutes most of the students have joined us, though a few of them flicker in and out as the teaching and subsequent discussion ensues.  

When some of them speak, I can hear the noise of roosters or of other family members cooking in the background.  

We work our way through the Khmer slides that I have spent the previous two days preparing. Today’s lesson is on the application of a biblical text: the final stage of interpretation. We finish with the class working on the parable of the lost son. 

The students spend some time working on their own, going through the five steps of interpretation they have learned, and they then share their conclusions with the rest of the class – knowing they will get the often dreaded ‘Why?’ and ‘So what?’ questions from the teacher. 

Our testimony about Jesus is very much intertwined with the difficulties we face each day. 

The struggle of remote learning 

This is now our third semester of teaching in COVID, only this semester we have not even had the opportunity to meet our students face-to-face. 

Some students continue to thrive, and their discussion contributions display evidence of further reading and reflection. However, others are struggling and desperately need to be part of a physical classroom where we can so much more easily engage in meaningful discussion.  

One student recently gave me an assignment on Romans that demonstrated he still has not grasped the gospel of grace but was relying on innate goodness for his salvation. Here was someone who needed discipleship and guidance, but the current climate has prevented him from coming on campus. 

The value of shared suffering

We must remind ourselves that the hope the gospel provides goes beyond this world and its challenges. Our testimony about Jesus is very much intertwined with the difficulties we face each day. 

Compared to Paul’s suffering referenced in Philippians, our difficulties are minor. “What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” (Philippians 1:12–14).  

These words remind us that the daily difficulties we face are an essential part of the message we are seeking to impart. And that’s why, despite the necessity of remote learning, we’re not remote missionaries. We’re convinced that our students will remember that we faced this season together so that they might be best prepared for a lifetime of teaching God’s word among his people here in Cambodia. 

This article has been republished with permission from CMS Australia’s Checkpoint Online.