Fr Luca Bolelli, a 9-year veteran in Cambodia, writes his Christmas letter. He talks about the story of Aunt Pet, a mother of two children on the run from an alcoholic husband, and Bora and Rose, who took her in, like another "special" family, that odd couple, Mary and Joseph, whom God chose to come into this world.
Kdol Leu (AsiaNews) - Dear friends,
Christmas is approaching, and as usual I have written a letter for you. It is a story that I hope will bring you some of the fresh air that flows down this corner of the Mekong. It is meant as a token of gratitude for all your help.
Usually there are not many of us. Grandma Niang arrives right after the bell to prepare the altar. Then Aunt Sokha, chorister and reader. Finally, at the last minute, Grandpa So with some grandchild, ready to be an altar boy. Sometimes Sokha’s husband, Uncle Phan, also comes so that she can breathe a bit let him read. Of course, you won’t find here the huge crowds at papal Masses, but to us Jesus’s word is enough for he promised to be present whenever two or three meet in his name. So far, we have always had a quorum! Some days the number of those present can even double. Twice a week, Katherine and Jonathan, a Chinese missionary couple from Hong Kong, come in from the city. For the past couple of months, they have been taking care of our kindergarten. Last week, Brieuc arrived, a young French volunteer who came to teach . . . English.
Occasionally, some truly special attendees come, as was the case last Thursday.
In the front row, with her two children crouched beside her, was Aunt Pet. It was her first time in a church. Cambodia is a Buddhist country and churches are few and far in-between, least of all in this district where ours is the only one. There are also some wacky legends about Christians. One of the funniest is that at funerals, not only do we not weep, but instead we dance and party! These biases certainly do not tempt simple people like Aunt Pet to come into a Christian church. So? How did she get here?
I met her by chance at the hospital Tuesday night, as I was visiting a grandmother from our village. But it was not Aunt Pet who approached me, but rather a woman who, having heard that I was a Christian, asked me to help a woman in need, who had fled from her husband. After I had her better explain the story, I realised that the situation was serious, because her husband, the night before, found her at the hospital and beat her in front of everyone. He was drunk, as he has often been for several years. Aunt Pet, along with her two children, had taken refuge there thinking that she would be safe. Instead, . . .
We organised ourselves and the next morning Aunt Sokha went immediately to pick her up and bring her with the children to our place, in Kdol Leu. She did in the nick of time, because a few minutes later her husband showed up.
On the back of a motorcycle taxi, Aunt Pet, her daughter Srey Pech and son Vin arrived in Kdol Leu, where they finally could breathe a sigh of relief. It took no time for the two children to make friends with the parish kids. When I came back in the afternoon, I found them on the kindergarten swings playing carelessly together, as if they had known each other for years.
Still, I certainly did not expect to find them all three at Mass the next day. In fact, I had been very clear at the hospital when one of those present, perhaps thinking of doing me a favour, had urged Aunt Pet to become Christian. "Go with him, then become a member of his religion and he will help you." "We help everyone; so don’t worry,” I explained, “there is no need to become Christian." I knew that my words would not dent that much another old prejudice about Christians that people repeat in Cambodia. In any case, was it the fear of not being helped, or simple curiosity, or who knows what other reason, the fact is that Aunt Pet was there, sitting next to Aunt Sokha, in front of the altar.
During the celebration my mind wondered about what was going through her mind, especially as she watched this big bearded stranger (yours truly), dressed in a strange way, gesticulate and talk about things just as strange. I could not hide a certain discomfort during the homily, as I tried to comment on the reading of the prophet Isaiah. The text in itself was beautiful, a true declaration of love from God for His people, Israel. The discomfort came from the fact that God was compared to a faithful husband who loves his unfaithful wife. The exact opposite of Aunt Pet’s experience. I then tried to explain the meaning of that image but, whether because of the time (6 am when half of my already meagre Cambodian vocabulary is still in bed snoring), or because of Aunt Pet’s inattentive look, I quickly desisted.
As I continued to think about these things, my attention shifted to the others present, each with their own marital experience.
Aunt Sokha and her husband Phan had an arranged marriage when she was still very young. Grandma So, separated from her husband since time immemorial, has four grandkids at home. Grandma Niang lost her husband at the time of the Khmer Rouge (40 years ago), and she too is responsible for four grandchildren. Katherine and Jonathan have been married for 20 years but have no children. Finally, young Brieuc, the only bachelor along with yours truly and the altar boys.
But there is another family, whose life is just as strange, which comes to mind: that of Nazareth. Mary, a young virgin with a child, Jesus, who is to say the least special; Joseph, a humble carpenter, called to take care of that child, who is not his. The list of strange things goes on and on. Yet, this is the family the Lord chose for himself, and which has consequently become a model for all others. But if on one hand I see how easy it fits with Sokha and Phan, who from this model received so much strength in the arduous task of building a family reconstituted with others (to the point that they can say: "I hated him, but now I love him "); on the other, it is harder to see it in Grandma So who has been separated from her husband for years, and even more for Aunt Pet who is on the run from her husband!
What does the family of Nazareth tell them? In their life, Mary and Joseph showed a willingness to change their plans, to walk on new unexpected paths, and did so out of love for each other and for God. They did it without the bitterness and sadness that comes when one feels dispossessed of one’s dreams, especially those deemed most honest and legitimate. None of this has been painless.
Grandma So knows these things well because her heart bled, and continues to do bleed in taking care of the grandchildren. Aunt Pet can understand it too. In her flight from her husband’s violence, she is walking with Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, who too fled Herod’s violence. Of course if she could know it, I think this would change things a lot, because we all experienced this. When you have someone you love close to you and share his or her suffering, they become more bearable and are less frightening. In fact, they might even become a gateway to a life more capable of loving and therefore fuller.
Unfortunately, Aunt Pet had to go on the run again last Saturday. Kdol Leu is too close to her husband's village. It was therefore necessary to look for a safer place, and thanks to the availability of another special family we found it. That family is Bora and Rose, whose house over the years has become a centre for people in need. Aunt Pet and her children will stay with them for a few months until she finds a job and accommodation, for the last time, we hope.
As I said, Bora and Rose are a special family as well. They don’t have any children but their home garden is full of them. One building has a kindergarten and another is home to a community for HIV positive orphans. Their wedding was one of those events that villagers talk about for months; certainly not for the glitz but for the originality of the bride: Rosa is 20 years older than Bora, and she comes from Hong Kong, which she left as a volunteer. Bora instead is the second son of Sokha and Phan.
They too are an "extraordinary" family like that of Nazareth, and perhaps because of this at the end of the entrance path they placed a statue of Joseph and Mary with the Infant Jesus.
May the Family of Nazareth, the model for all "extraordinary" families . . . walk with us! Once again a big thanks to all of you. May the Lord give the world and to each of us a lot of peace and serenity.