Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Women journeying in mission

By Esther Karimi Gitobu*

What does the Lord require of you?—Micah 6:8

When Pol Pot seized the country of Cambodia in 1975, his goal was to create a classless peasant community. Pol Pot abolished civil rights and destroyed schools, other institutions of higher learning, and hospitals. Doctors, teachers, and other professionals—anyone not from the peasant class—were slaughtered. Within four years (1975 to 1979), Pol Pot’s regime had wiped out 2 million Cambodians. Yet, it is into these dark and difficult places the Lord wants to shine light, to pour out love onto the unloved, to bring hope to the hopeless and peace to the restless. It is in these places that Jesus longs to release compassion, justice, mercy, and grace upon lives that have experienced so much pain and suffering.

The United Methodist Church began its ministry in Cambodia in the late 1990s and has been involved in different ministries of giving hope and healing to these communities. It is in these places that Volunteer-In-Mission teams have witnessed the power of the gospel and the outrageous promises of Isaiah 61 being fulfilled as the brokenhearted are comforted, the oppressed are liberated, and the downtrodden are lifted up. Jesus transforms and heals their hearts and sets them free from all that entangles them. Volunteer-in-Mission teams have been able to reach out to these communities through leadership development for pastors and laity, women’s empowerment, youth leadership development and coaching, and Vacation Bible School for children.

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Prayer necklaces made by Cambodia youth at a workshop with the Volunteers-in-Mission from Virginia and North Carolina. PHOTO: ESTHER GITOBU

It has been a blessing for me to be involved with United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) for the past 17 years and witness firsthand the transforming power of the gospel. I thank God every day for the incredible honor God has given me—to love those who are precious to him and who have now become so dear to me; they have become part of my family.

Strengthening Relationships

Early in 2018, a volunteer team from the Virginia Conference spent three weeks in Cambodia. Nancy Yarborough, York River District lay leader and former president for the York River United Methodist Women, has the people of Cambodia at heart. She has visited the country on several occasions. Her passion to serve, particularly with women and youth, is so contagious that, this time around, she came with her two friends, Martha Dodson and Sally Spreder, to share similar experiences. Martha is also from the York River District, and Sally, a former Virginia resident, is now a member of Englewood UMC in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. They experienced an unforgettable three weeks of engaging with women, children, and youth in the Methodist Church in Cambodia.

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Martha Dodson, Nancy Yarborough, and missionary Esther Gitobu at a training they conducted for Cambodia clergy women and clergy wives at the Methodist college in Phnom Penh. PHOTO: NICK RUXTON/VIRGINIA CONFERENCE

The purpose of their visit was to strengthen the relationship between the Cambodian Methodist Church and the Virginia Annual Conference. The visiting team facilitated seminars with women and young adults on servant leadership to build their capacities as potential and current leaders in their communities, churches, and families. Sixty-nine women leaders represented the 11 districts of the Methodist Church in Cambodia. The sessions involved contextual learning and teachings, including Bible studies, role playing, and workshops. A contextual approach provides learning and networking experiences for all participants.

Generally, Cambodian women are not thought of as assertive. But it was enlightening to discover how they could exchange knowledge and solve problems together. In addition, our sisters from Virginia conducted another three-day seminar and retreat in Sihanoukville (coastal city of Cambodia) with 120 clergy wives and clergy women. The theme was on servant leadership and the platform gave women an opportunity to air out their challenges as Christians in Cambodia.

Servant Leadership

Nancy Yarborough gave the opening message. In her keynote address, based on Isaiah 43:19, she shared: “God has already started a new thing for us. We American sisters have come to get to know you, to learn from each other, to share the journey of faith, and to build a partnering relationship for God’s mission...I have already felt that I am part of your family….We have found out that we have so much in common...the most important of our commonalities is that all of us are God’s precious children....This journey has special meaning for all of us. We are in God’s mission and mission is Love in Action...getting involved in a relationship of mutuality.”

Women are vulnerable in the society and because of that, they share somewhat similar challenges. The retreat gave them a rare opportunity to meet together from different provinces across Cambodia to exchange ideas and knowledge on how to embrace and overcome some of the problems they face. Most importantly, this was a time of redirecting their efforts—to serve with God in mind and to continue to carry the biblical perspective. It was also relaxing to spend time at the beach listening to the sound of the sea.

During the closing worship, our sisters from Virginia washed the feet of the participants, a symbolic experience of servant leadership. It was a humbling and emotional moment for everyone. As local women take an assertive stance to serve the Lord as leaders in their respective communities with humility and compassion, they will live out the message of servant leadership.

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The foot washing service at the end of the trip was an emotional and spiritual experience for all. Esther said there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. PHOTOS: COURTESY ESTHER GITOBU

Micah 6:8 wrapped up the message of the day; “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (New International Version)

Every woman participant left the event singing with joy and feeling more accepted, loved, empowered, and confident to share the good news.


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Esther Karimi Gitobu* is a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. Originally from Meru, Kenya, Esther currently serves in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with the Methodist Mission of Cambodia (MMC). Among her responsibilities are grant writing and coordinating United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM).

Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Summer 2018 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.