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Leaders Stepping into Uncertainty and meeting God in Nature


Retreat Theme: Leaders Stepping into Uncertainty and meeting God in Nature.

After coming off a great but exhausting retreat at our farm with Dove’s Leadership club teens, 3 days later I accompanied Ms Serey, the ONYX Leadership Training Cohort 7 Coordinator, on an adventure retreat to a rustic campsite on the side of Kep mountain in coastal Cambodia. We left a day early to set up camp and scope out the area. With me behind the wheel, we left Phnom Penh at 8 am and our vehicle broke down an hour out the town and wasn’t fixed until 3:30 pm. The CRV had plenty of gas, but my own tank was flirting with ‘E’ and breaking down wasn’t helping. Serey’s husband, Makara was very helpful in assisting us to find a nearby repair shop. After waiting for 6 hours, we finally hit the road and arrived at our campsite on the coast at 8:30 pm. I was extra exhausted and my energy gauge was hovering close to the edge of E. Wanting to push our students a bit out of their comfort zone we planned for them to up hike up Kep Mountain, but we wanted to see where the trail went our selves before sending them out on their own. First thing next morning, a few hours before the students arrived, the 4 of us pioneers, Ms Serey, Makara her husband, me and Ms Sok Mei hiked up the trail at the back of the campsite. It was an extremely steep, rocky, and slippery incline winding up by switch back to the maintained trail. Our steep little incline even had a rope tied to a log for pulling oneself up. We hiked 6 kilometres, round trip and enjoyed the views and vistas, seeing the wide expanse of the Gulf of Thailand and the little houses, roads, and shops of the town of Kep.

We made it back just in time to greet our campers. Some slept in thatch bungalows and some slept in tents. After the hike, my needle was definitely into ‘E.’ Right after lunch, Serey’s husband, Makara made a contest out of pitching their tents. None of the campers ever slept in a tent, let alone knew how to erect one. Mr Poya, former ONYX Student and DOVE volunteer par excellence for many years now, was the guide and final judge. They did well for city slicker students. Tent above, Bungalow below:

Mr Poya’s new wife and newly minted DOVE staff were 4 kilometres away at Shalom Valley Retreat centre – you could feel the love vibes flowing back and forth. She was there helping to lead a team-building retreat for our ONYX Alumni Community. Both retreats were happening at the same time but had different objectives: The ONYX 1 adventure retreat I attended was designed to open the eyes of the hearts of the students and awaken their 5 senses to feel God in nature, learning to see in a new way, rather than always living in their heads, and to push them out of their comfort zone so they can know each other under pressure and learn to trust each other. The ONYX 1 retreat is foundational for building a learning community of trust, safety and vulnerability so students can freely share the good bad and ugly of their lives, which is part of our goal of helping them heal from direct and Vicarious Trauma as they are collateral damage of genocide. ONYX Alumni at Shalom Valley are all former ONYX students from the last seven years, and their retreat was brainstorming about building a new community together in order to sustain the growth they experienced in OYNX 1.

Team Building Game

After setting up the tents and getting their things squared away, they had some rest, and Makara led some team building and leadership games on the value of failure in leadership development. This led to some good discussion.

Then, the students were sent out to get firewood for the campfire and then had dinner while I built the campfire. Ms Serey and Mr Poya led the worship service. Mr Poya gave a devotional on the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, how they met Jesus again after their struggle with disillusionment and uncertainty and were encouraged and revived. A few students shared their life stories, and that always reminds me of why I am here.

*One note here: The residual damage from

genocide 40 years ago does not go away unless the government intentionally sets up a structure on the macro level and encourages grassroots organizations like AA, Al-Anon or churches (churches do not go there) to directly address these issues on a micro-level. A few NGOs and a few counsellors cannot address this on a national level effectively without the government’s structural support. They use the people’s trauma or mental illness as a weapon to keep them subjugated in fear in order to control them. DOVE’s vision is to see a Cambodia have a pool of emotionally healthy, mature and humble leaders in all of society’s contexts. What we are trying to do is truly good news to the poor.

“I have listened to hundreds of these stories since 2013, and rarely have I found a student with a ‘normal life.’ I cannot think anything more important or timely to do in Cambodia with my life.”

Next morning I led the students on a hike up Kep Mountain. Twice in two days for me and after the second trip up the mountain, every bone and muscle ached. I was totally depleted by then, my needle well past the midway of the E for empty. Seemed a few female students were a bit low on fuel due to being housebound city slickers and struggled to get up the steep incline. I was first to get to the access road, is the forest man that I am. I brought them halfway down the access road, and turned them over to their guru, Mr Poya, allowing them to make their own way to the destination and to find the way back. Mr Poya accompanied them but let them lead the way. At lunchtime, Serey and I heard them coming down the steep part of the mountain with shouts and hollers, then they silence! Just as we feared, they took a wrong turn at the only place you could take a wrong turn, as the girl leading was hurrying to get back to use the loo. They found their way back after a 20-minute detour. We debriefed the hike. It was hard but rewarding and they had many lessons and insights to share. While some took good care of each other, some group leaders neglected their charges to run ahead to reach the goal. This was discussed.

Below: Taking Five

At 3 pm we sent them in pairs on a gallery walk in the jungle. Each of the ten stations posted pithy sayings, proverbs, quotes, idioms, some scripture verses and an exercise to do with their partner. All stations had to do with the emotional health of leaders, and healthy leadership perspectives. Serey is an excellent leader and led them to share their thoughts, experiences and insights from the gallery walk. All the debriefing done is very therapeutic as the exercises were designed to address the emotional health of the leader, good leadership perspective, and good leadership habits.

That night, each small group presented skits and with Biblical characters who met God in nature and were called to step into uncertainty, and who hit the wall in a big way at mid-life like Jacob, Moses, Paul, Elijah, Joseph, Jesus, etc. Skits were entertaining but rather weak on meaning. It was my mistake. I have to work on not pushing them beyond their capacities to think critically or analytically.

After playing cultural games and card games up until the wee hours, they awoke for breakfast and went on a short tour to the Butterfly Garden next door. After their tour, Ms Serey had the students do a one-hour reflection alone in solitude at the Butterfly Garden, not praying to God, but listening for God in nature through the 5 senses. This is always tough at first for anyone trying to get out of his or her head. It is very hard work, but once you let your thoughts that have a life of their own go, and just observe or be, things come to you through your heart and soul. Many are tempted to quit too early, as it is painful, and takes time to learn how to settle down all the churning thoughts when faced with no distractions are available. Ms Serey, once again, debriefed the group and they all shared about this new experience of knowing God in a different way or feeling his presence in new ways. They confessed it was tough but many found it profitable and enjoyed it.

Dinan: In the city, I don’t spend time alone- too many things to distract me. When I get home from school I can waste hours and hours playing on my phone. In the butterfly garden, I dreaded an hour alone with myself but after getting past the hunger for distractions, the hour flew. I felt like I rested.

Retry: I am an introvert and this retreat has been packed with activity. Being around a lot of people all the time drains me. I like my time alone and we didn’t have any alone time and I am really glad this exercise was planned because in the quiet beauty and with God, I could recharge my energy and participate in the rest of the retreat without wanting to isolate.

After, Operation Butterfly Reflection, Ms Serey led us to reflect on what impacted the students the most about the trip. Most cited the hike very challenging, helping them to know their selves better and especially those whom they will journey together over the next year. Many of the ladies were hesitant to make the climb, as they knew they were out of shape. Some wanted to opt-out, but all decided they’d give it their best try. As hard as it was, there were many rewards and insights to be gathered. It was a bonding experience.

· They loved getting out of the city into nature away from distractions of the city into a quiet and beautiful place. We could see the ocean from our campsite on the side of the mountain

· They loved gelling into a new community that can only happen outside of the classroom with everyone being pushed outside of their comfort zone.

· They loved getting to each other on a deeper level.

· The loved sharing meals together and playing UNO and other games until late at night.

· They loved performing skits at the campfire

· The profited from seeing another side of their selves outside of their comfort box in the eyes of others.

Beginning the trip with no energy, and living outside for 4 days in the jungle just about zapped all the energy (I mean an ex-pat born in New England) I had at my disposal but I was determined to participate in as many activities as I could, even when a nap, like a drug calling an addict, kept beckoning me. I literally willed myself through the rest of the retreat. What kept me going was the commitment and quality of the retreat leaders like Ms Serey and Mr Poya, the helpers Ms Srey Oun, Ms Sok Mei, and Ms Sous Hoy, as well as the camper’s openness to be challenged, commitment to the do all the exercise fully and transparently, to face discomfort, and to grow and learn together in adversity.

Mr Poya navigated us home in 4 hours while the ONYX Alumni group had a 7-hour ride home. Poya, 33, is from humble means and is a humble man. He is an example to many.

I know this isn’t sexy stuff and doesn’t excite people like conversions or baptisms, but bit-by-bit we will de-weaponize these wounded young people and help turn them into wounded healers until the day we run out of gas.

Kudos to Ms Serey and Mr Poya for running an excellent retreat.

Respectfully, the fly on the wall.

By Brian Maher


Please make a donation toward DOVE or to the Maher family. Both could use a bit more to work with.


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