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Simple reading program leads 2,000-plus Cambodians to Christ

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (BP)–Some days, 74 Cambodian children cram into a simple 15-by-20-foot hut, built on stilts with a palm-leaf roof, to learn to read and write their own language. On this particular humid, cloudy day, while thunder rumbles in the distance, only 58 children and seven adults crowd in to learn about words — and to learn the Jesus.
A breeze cuts the thick air, but more refreshing is the sound of dozens of young voices reading and singing.
They are just a handful of the almost 4,000 Cambodians enrolled in 176 rural Cambodia Adult Literacy Program classes nationwide who are learning to read and write the Khmer (pronounced KMERE) language using curriculum that emphasizes Bible stories.
More than 2,000 students have taken to heart the simple stories about Jesus’ life and have accepted him as their personal Lord and Savior.
The teacher of this class, 19-year-old Som Nang, teaches the many children and few adults during the day in her parents’ home while most of the village adults eke out an existence in nearby fields. The children who attend the day classes want to learn because either there are no schools in their areas or they can’t afford to go to school.
Come nightfall, 54 adults will fight fatigue and sometimes hunger in this same hut to learn the same lessons by candlelight. In a few huts scattered across the countryside, evening CALP classes will be privileged to learn by a single fluorescent bulb powered by a car battery.
The literacy program was developed and implemented in 1998 by Southern Baptist workers in Southeast Asia, the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Cambodia and Literacy Evangelism International in Tulsa, Okla. The team developed three primers to be used in Cambodian communities to teach local people how to read and write the Khmer language — meeting the overwhelming literacy needs of 40 percent of rural Cambodians and 15 percent of the city dwellers.
A Southern Baptist worker trained Sin Maneth, the Cambodian national Baptist coordinator, and several regional coordinators to use the literacy resources. He meets with CALP leaders about twice a year to help them upgrade their knowledge, discuss the development of new resources, hear reports from regional leaders and map areas of work in the country.
The leaders hope to have 5,000 students enrolled in CALP in all of Cambodia’s 21 provinces by January 2000 — but the number could be much higher, depending on fiscal resources. Many of the teachers volunteer their services, but resources still are limited for the program, which is supported mostly by outside donations.
Resources also directly affect Cambodians’ participation in the program. Many students must quit the program because they frequently must travel to new locations to find work so they can support their families. Som Nang prays for rain, because when there is no rain, there is no food. But if people can eat, they can study.
“When families are starving, it is hard for them to focus on anything else,” the Southern Baptist worker said.
Lack of lighting also hinders the classes.
“It’s very difficult to get people to come study, because it’s dark when they come,” Som Nang explained. “They’ve been working all day and they are tired.
“For $17 you can get lights and a battery. People could study much better, and they could see to study. It is difficult to read by candlelight, and it gets hot with everyone crowding around to read.”
Despite the obstacles, CALP leaders and teachers press on toward their program goals, rejoicing in each soul who accepts Christ as Savior through their studies. For Sin Maneth, the possibilities reach beyond each person to the entire nation.
“If we want people to come to Jesus, they’ve got to be able to read,” she said. “This is the time for Christians in Cambodia. This is our time to make Cambodia a Christian place. And if people can read and write, this is the way to peace for this country. It is also the way to better health.”

    About the Author

  • Julie McGowan