Oct 1 2010

Spirituality as a Source of Sustainability

Each summer Candler students intern with International Relief and Development (IRD) along with graduate students from the Rollins School of Public Health.  This article is a “success story”  and reflection from one student’s time working with a grant to decrease infant mortality through increased education on nutrition.

To avoid the heat, the ceremony began early.  The rented red plastic chairs were full and the babies were pacified with dried noodles.  Rising to speak was the village chief; behind him a man in orange robes came into view.

Cambodian Health TrainingThe presence of a monk at a Child Survival Program event is uncommon.  The target of International Relief and Development’s USAID funded grant is to decrease the morbidity and mortality rates of children in the struggling Teuk Phos district of Kampong Chhnang province, Cambodia. IRD’s scope of work is not focused on the impact religious leaders have upon their communities.  But should it be?  The relationship between religious figures and the masses in Southeastern Asia has historically been strong and is currently one of the major elements keeping this rural region hopeful.

The pagoda, the road side shrines, and the daily chants all help to add color to the life of a Cambodian village.  And for most villages involved with the CS Project, this distinct religious atmosphere appears to be segregated from the work IRD is doing.  IRD hosts training meetings to help villagers care for their bodies; Buddhism offers blessing ceremonies to help villagers care for their souls. While it would seem that health and religion have separate aims, they are actually two sectors of the local economy that are beginning to become further integrated.

It may be true that health and religion are very distinct disciplines, but IRD’s work has been greatly strengthened by employing the help of local religious leaders.  Within this particular community, health and religion have one major thing in common: education.  IRD seeks to provide villagers with nutritional training so that they may become more healthy and self-sufficient.  Faith practitioners hope to see villagers gain an increased passion for study so that they may become more informed about and active within their own spirituality.   Partnering with the local religious community is a highly beneficial way to ensure that IRD continues to serve as a vehicle for education.

Cambodian PagodaVillagers themselves have voiced excitement over such a partnership.  In 22 interviews conducted with local villagers within the Teuk Phos district, it was nearly unanimous that the aid of monks, achars (village elders), and nuns would be a helpful addition to the work IRD is currently doing.  Sorn Chankoy, a 24 year old mother of one, lives too far from a pagoda to attend religious functions regularly.  When asked if involvement between IRD and the local religious community would be positive or negative, she claimed that “Monks have a lot of experience teaching. Monks are the model. They are respected.”

Thirty year old Pach Sopheap echoed Sorn’s sentiments, expressing enthusiasm over the connection between IRD’s education and the education provided by religious leaders.  Pach lives near a pagoda, so she is accustomed to receiving teaching from monks.  In fact, monks already “help educate about feeding and hygiene” in her community.  “They help to remind us,” she said.  By providing formal training on nutrition and health to local monks, their role of “reminding” is only fortified.

So far, IRD has provided training to 8 monks.  While the monks continue their religiously focused work such as performing blessing ceremonies and being present for village visitors at pagodas, they now incorporate health based messages within their work as well.  Since religious and nutritional messages are disseminated together by an educated and respected member of the community, IRD’s educational aims reach more people and are likely to be more widely adopted. The monks also submit monthly reports to IRD detailing the impact of their health messages.  According to IRD’s second quarter report from January – March of 2010, religious leaders have reached over 3,250 individuals at 56 ceremonies.  Ranging from weddings and funerals to birthday celebrations, religious leaders have been persistent in spreading health messages on immediate and exclusive breastfeeding, complementary feeding, diarrhea prevention, and the importance of clean water.

Mother and ChildBy providing local religious leaders with formal training in health, IRD taps into a source that is able to meet needs for sustainability.   Individuals who are already committed to meeting community needs are the perfect population to receive increased training.  While their technical skills may fall short of IRD’s health practitioners, their values and passions don’t.  Taking on the responsibility of ensuring that village health issues continue to be addressed is a fitting task for the religious community, for religious leaders are strongly committed to being advocates for the well-being of their villages.  The level of trust and confidence villagers place in religious leaders is high, so nutritional based messages are more likely to be positively received.  Also, because religious ceremonies are held year round, health messages will be heard year round.  The mobility of monks allows them to reach more individuals than IRD volunteers are able to reach, for they continually travel from village to village performing ceremonies.  Religious figures are more than qualified to teach and advise on nutrition and hygiene; their impact and influence is far reaching.

Religion in Cambodia is not going anywhere fast.  IRD’s Child Survival Grant, however, is. Ending in September of 2010, the project is phasing out and local volunteers will tackle the task of ensuring that what IRD begun is continued.  In an effort at being sustainable, what better than religion to take the reins?

The stitching of this country’s social fabric has been, at times, a little jagged.  Regimes have risen and fallen.  Dictators have invaded and evacuated.  Atrocities have hit and demolished.  But religion has been a uniting and encompassing thread, holding the broken pieces together.  Religion has provided a steady presence of peace and hope. In these times of sickness and disease and death, religion is capable of providing life; if not with the needle of a doctor, then with the word of a teacher.

-Sara LaDew

Sara is a 2nd year MTS student from Greensboro, NC and a Student Ambassador. Last summer, she spent two months in Cambodia as an intern with International Relief and Development through a partnership with Candler.