Learning to Listen

Learning to Listen

By Anita Colombara, Assistant Coordinator for Global and Urban Involvement.


When I was a missionary in Cambodia, I taught a class at the Phnom Penh Bible School on “The Biblical View of Poverty and Our Response.” The class consisted of about 20 students who were already serving as pastors and leaders in the community.


My initial goal was to train these emerging Christian leaders to understand what God says about poverty in order to strategically mobilize their churches in response to the poor. Our class discussions were arranged around related questions: “What is poverty?” “Why are people poor?” “What does God’s love for the poor look like?” “How do you address poverty?” and “How can the church respond?”

I went into the course well aware that I was not the best person to teach on this topic. After all, I was a “wealthy” American who’d come to Cambodia to tell them how they should address issues I had only read and studied about — but have never personally experienced. On what ground would I teach these students?

An unexpected lesson

So I approached teaching this course with a goal of organizing our lessons around discussions that would allow me to learn together with my students. Alas, I soon discovered that each time I asked the students to discuss a topic, instead of giving their input, they kept saying, “Teacher, just tell us the answer.” I was frustrated that they were either unwilling or unable to think for themselves.

Exasperated by the end of the second class, I told them, “Stop looking to me to tell you what to think! Once you begin arguing with me, and disagreeing with each other, I will begin to believe you are learning something.” They were shocked. Nevertheless, that interaction birthed a remarkable change in the class. They started questioning me and challenging each other.

For instance, the very next lesson was on “How can we use money to help the poor?” We looked at examples in Scripture as well as real examples in Cambodia. I asked them how they have seen money used to help the poor in their own context. Many students said that they have seen missionaries give away money, food, English, computer lessons, etc., to attract people to go to their churches. Logically, the poor go to church and “convert” to Christianity in order to get the goods. Unfortunately, their heart and lives are often left unchanged. These people are often called “rice Christians.”

“Is it just the poor who are rice Christians?” I asked. “How about people here in this school? How many students choose to study here because they know if they graduated from this school they could land a good job with a Christian NGO or a foreign funded church? Could it be that here in this school there are also rice Christians?” An uncomfortable silence fell on the room.

Then one student asked me, “Teacher, why don’t you do a workshop among the foreign community and let them know a better way to use money to help Cambodians?”

“I’m not Cambodian,” I reminded them. “Why don’t you do it?”

“Foreigners don’t want to listen to us!” one responded “They come with their own agendas on how they want to help.” Added another student, “Besides, foreigners are tied to money too. They have to report what they are doing to their funders and have to do what their funders want.”


A lesson learned

This exchange was sobering to say the least. I had challenged them to check their hearts if they were being controlled more by money and opportunity than by God. They then called me (and my foreign community) out in the same vein. They were right.

We missionaries, who think we know it all, are often controlled by money as well. We, too, need to check our hearts to be sure we are really doing what God wants, regardless of how our funders might respond.
I learned a great lesson from my students that day. When I started teaching the class, I thought that the students did not know how to think for themselves. Now I know better. They have understanding and insight into their own context that I could never have. I now realize that they just need an audience they could trust would listen to them.

From that day on, I viewed missions differently. It is not about figuring out what to teach and how to contextualize it. It is about learning to listen.



Professor Sharon HartnettAnita Colombara received her M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In 2004, she joined InnerCHANGE and taught “Holistic Ministry” and “Poverty and Our Response” at the Phnom Penh Bible College. She now works for the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.


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