Eva Grumbine visits a remote, impoverished village in Cambodia where Catholic missionaries built a school several years ago. (Submitted photo)
Eva Grumbine had an itch to see the world.
Which part of the world? She wasn’t sure, and she wasn’t picky. The only criteria the 24-year-old had were these: “Not the United States, and not Europe.”
“I have a strong passion for other cultures and other languages, and I wanted to understand how humans live and move and breathe outside the developed world,” said Grumbine, a parishioner at St. Casimir, Milwaukee.
Grumbine has lived in the Milwaukee area for two years working with the Kinship Community Food Center following her graduation from Virginia Tech. As her term of service was drawing to a close this year, she set her sights on future endeavors and mobilized her network of contacts to find an international mission experience that could deepen her understanding of the human experience.
“I think we, as 21st-century Americans, have all of our comforts met — physical, material comforts — and I think that there is a lack of the human experience that we might be having because of that,” she said. “There’s a lack of struggle, a lack of want, a lack of discomfort that I think is innate to the human experience for however long we have existed. I wanted to see how other humans are living, not to romanticize them but to truly understand more about the human family.”
Eventually, Grumbine connected with Fr. Will Conquer, a member of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, a group that has been evangelizing in Asia for almost 400 years. Fr. Conquer ministers in Cambodia, where Catholics comprise less than 1 percent of the country’s population.
After speaking with Fr. Conquer on the phone and corresponding by email, Grumbine said she realized participating in an immersive mission experience in Cambodia would be “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that she had to pursue.
“This really seemed like an opportunity to go be with the Church in a completely foreign place,” she said. “We have a distinct worship style and a distinct way that parishes work and a distinct way that the family operates here (in the Western Church). I know that this isn’t the whole story, and I know that there are more pieces to the puzzle out there. I know that the Lord called us to go to the ends of the earth. I know that the Church is universal. I just wanted to see what the rest of the Catholic Church looked like. I wanted to go to see the differences, but I also wanted to see the similarities — because I think by seeing the similarities, it brings us closer together.”
Grumbine departed for Cambodia on Aug. 7. Her trip was sponsored in part by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Office for World Mission, Inc., which is a separately incorporated entity that supports the global mission initiatives of the archdiocese and its parishioners.
“Short-term mission experiences allow an individual to step outside of the comfort zone and connect with the universal Church,” said Dr. Antoinette Mensah, Director of World Mission Ministries and the Office for World Mission and Society for the Propagation of the Faith. “Our office has supported young adults through pilgrimages to La Sagrada Familia, Bolivia and Columbia. We have also provided sponsorships to individuals serving internationally in Ecuador and Cuba.”
Individuals who embark on these pilgrimages and missionary experiences gain “insight into the lived experiences of others as they share their faith,” Mensah added. “Each encounter allows an individual to experience Christ and be Christ-like to everyone.”
During her seven-week stay in the country, Grumbine experienced life among Cambodia’s fledgling Catholic community, describing the experience as a profound lesson in humility, reverence and the power of lay witness.
“The Church (in Cambodia) is really young — honestly, it reminded me of the early Church of St. Paul’s letters,” she said.
Spending time at St. Michael Church in Sihanoukville on the country’s southwestern coast and St. Matthew’s Church in Kohkong, along the border with Thailand, Grumbine observed the ministry of Fr. Conquer and did whatever she could to support it.
“Fr. Will is the only priest in a 100-kilometer radius at minimum in this one province. (His flock) is spread out from random fishing villages on the coastline to islands to more inland villages amongst the rice paddies, over this whole province,” she said.
The parish in Kohkong made a particular impact on her.
“It’s a really struggling parish (and) Fr. Will doesn’t get up there every Sunday; he’s lucky if he gets up there once a week,” said Grumbine. “The road there is really dangerous and is at least a six-hour drive one way. It’s this parish with a family who attends faithfully and a couple of old ladies and other people who come when Fr. Will calls them. There was something so humble about the church that really took my heart.”
She also spent time in a northern village called Taom, where she befriended some of the local youth who flocked to the church as a sort of community center. “It was really cool because the village is super small and the church is kind of the place to be,” she said.
Grumbine said she is “still figuring out” exactly how this experience will shape her future discipleship, but she knows it will, and in a big way.
“I was really impacted by the witness of priests and religious. They are really responding to the Great Commission by going out and making disciples of every nation,” she said. “But I think the lack of the laity was really profound to me, and I’m really convinced we need more Catholics doing foreign missions. Our Protestant brothers and sisters really blow us out of the water on that. Every young Protestant kid thinks about being a foreign missionary from time to time, but I wasn’t really exposed to that as a child. I definitely think it’s something that needs to be talked about more in the American church.”
To read Grumbine’s reflections on her time in Cambodia, visit archmil.org/offices/world-mission/Missionary-in-Cambodia.htm.