Clara Mridula Biswas serves as the director of a the Street Children Ministry and Community Outreach in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Throughout her career as a missionary, she has developed children's ministries in a variety of places. As you might imagine, her passion for children and education connects her with families who may be struggling with overwhelming poverty, domestic violence, and family members with HIV/AIDS – among other things.
One of the beautiful aspects of Clara's ministry, is she intentionally works to equip and empower people to be in service to others. Those who have been blessed through her ministry are encouraged to bless others. For example, children who have been taught music and dance, return as teachers. People she helps get the care and medicine they need, then guide others through the process. "I just help them from the back," she says modestly, "but I let them do. So now they can do by themselves."
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Clara Mridula Biswas
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This episode posted on February 6, 2020.
Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
You may remember from our Christmas series that I was unable schedule a time to record with Clara Biswas, one of the missionaries we had scheduled. Clara and I finally were able to chat, and it was worth the wait!
Clara is a missionary in Cambodia with a passion for children and education. In our conversation, she talks about developing and directing children’s ministries in several locations. That, of course, has led her to caring for families – including overwhelming poverty, domestic violence, and people with HIV/AIDS – among other things.
A couple of things that might be helpful. One, Clara and I were talking across a 13-hour time difference. It was 8pm in Cambodia when the call started, and 7 am here in Nashville, Tennessee. Not only was Clara fascinating, but as you may be aware with international calls, there was a delay, so I tried hard not to interrupt.
Second, Clara talks a couple of times about working with NGOs – that is an acronym for Non-Government Organization. One of the great things about her work is how she seeks out ways to partner with local people and other agencies doing similar work in the area.
And one last thing, some of the place names she describes were unfamiliar to my American ears. If you want to learn more, or seek clarification, be sure to look for our page for this episode at UMC.org/podcasts. As always, we have included a transcript on the page.
I think you will really enjoy learning more about Clara Biswas and her ministry.
Joe: Clara, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape!
Clara: Thank you.
Joe: You are a missionary serving in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as the director of a program called Street Children Ministry and Community Outreach. Can you tell me about your ministry there?
Clara: I came to Cambodia as the GBGM missionary since 2001. Then I started working with one of the orphanages named Cambodia Light Children Association. That orphanage is inside the community and the children were vulnerable children – all kinds of single parents, orphans… they were living there. So I started working with that orphanage.
It was started by locals but we were working as a partner for sustainable development. Then that community, named Bording and the next community separated by the road is Basac. Two communities separated by a road.
I was working with those two communities. Basac community was 22-thousand people, and Bording community about 15-thousand people were living there. All poor. They cannot send their children to school because the children have to work, and parents go to work and they need to take care of the youngest ones and do the household work.
So then I started visiting the projects and building relationships with parents. We worked with the orphanage and side-by-side with the other community, we started another school for the community children that is a preschool. Then, when the children are ready, we send them to public school.
We have after-school programs for children like drawing, art, music, dance, Sunday school. They do Sunday School every Sunday. And every year, Christmas and Easter, children perform the songs, drama, and dance they learned from the after school program.
But what happened was the Basac community burned, and the whole community, about 22-thousand people lost their houses and property. Luckily, the children were in school during the day and no one died, but they lost…
So, the government moved them 22 kilometers away to New Phnom Penh. That was a huge number of children, difficult to take admission in the school. So we helped them in resettling in New Phnom Penh to find a school and put them in a different school.
Later on, the Bording community were about 15-thousand children, so that community the government also wanted to move there. So they separated only the orphanage where we were working, and moved to about 15 kilometers away from where they used to be. We continue to work with them until today.
This is how our project started expanding little by little.
Then we began to work with the local church in the city. There is one dumpsite area where children and parents – whole families – are collecting garbage to make a living. The whole city, municipality cars put all the garbage there and all the people from the community go to collect garbage. Some children never go to school because they have to work with the parents.
So there was a series of meetings with parents and children to motivate them. At least they can send the children for half a day to the school, and half a day they can work with their parents. We motivate parents so that they would agree to send their children to school.
So we put them in a local school that was run by another NGO. We put those children there and we started networking with them, and nearby the dumpsite, there was one UMC church, Crestwell(?) United Methodist Church. We started working with the pastor and little by little we introduced children to the church.
Pastor and me and our staff worked together as a team. We continue to do the after school programs and children also learned vocational training there – sewing, hair cutting, salon (manicure, pedicure). When they finish their vocational training, we provide them with the tools so they can begin their business of their own. Or, also, there is a garment factory and hair salon and we try to help them find jobs.
After several years of working there it was a beautiful ministry, but the government moved them far away from the city. Then we continued to support children, but the parents had to go far away to work. Those who came to our United Methodist church we help them until now and they are almost graduating from college and university.
Joe: Wow, that sounds exciting.
Clara: Yes. Then what happened… The pastor from the United Methodist church who was working with me for outreach, he moved to a new area by the railway station. When he moved there he invited me, “Clara, here are many children. You can come and we can do something for our church.”
So, me and pastor visited there several times and then we invited the children to come to our church. They started coming for Sunday School and after-school program – learning songs and games and Bible study. So the church began with 10 people, but later on it was about 60.
We worked there for many years, so many of them were baptized also. Through our work until today about 65 have been baptized through our ministry, through our work. Still I work with that community, but the church has been closed. But the pastor is helping the community outreach for the group.
So from each project we have parents of our children that we support and who used to come to our church. Some of them have HIV AIDS, or domestic violence victim, or trafficking, all those. So we started helping them also just to introduce them to the hospital if there’s violence… where to go. The organization who we work with for HIV medicine. I am not a doctor or nurse buy I do the networking for them. What is existing in the country that we can find the resource here that our community people can benefit from.
So I introduce several to the hospital, an NGO, get them the medicine, but I do the networking with them and try to find out the situation about their health. I do house visiting. It’s not just me. We have a team working together.
And children, those who don’t want to study, we help them get vocational training. Then Cambodia has one organization training, so we send them get there. They have a variety of training. They interview them and show them around. What is their interest? There is sewing, tailoring, wait staff in a restaurant, cooking, working as a group to open a small business when the graduate. Some of our kids after graduation, together with other trained students open businesses – small ones and big ones – and they’re doing well.
Joe: That’s wonderful.
Clara: Also, those who learn dance and music? Some of our kids are now working with other NGOs as music teachers and dance teachers. That’s also good.
And in the community, when I find them when I visit, I find out pregnant woman delivered a baby in the house and the environment is not very clean and is a danger for mother and baby. So I talked with several hospitals and doctors and asked them how we can help these people. One doctor said this to me, “You can bring them. We can have a health card for them. They can come for regular checkups and deliver the baby in the hospital.” We pay a little bit and the doctor also helps them.
In the beginning, by track I took them – the whole community’s pregnant women. But later on, after a couple of years, those who experience delivering a baby in the hospital, I made them leaders in their communities and give them the responsibility if new pregnant mothers, I ask the old ones to take them to the hospital and help them. The same, like pregnant women I don’t need to take them anymore, the local mother they are the ones helping them.
HIV patients also. If there is a new HIV patient in the community, they also know where to go. I’ve been to take them to the hospital, open the health card, and they can go there. I just help them from the back, but I let them do. So now they can do by themselves.
Joe: That’s an important part of ministry, isn’t it? Your teaching people and modeling for people how they can not only be receivers of the help, but also be those who then give help to others and grow the ministry. That’s exciting.
Clara: Yes, because we don’t just give them fish to eat but we help them learn how to catch the fish. So now they can do.
Joe: I heard you say that with some of the children who learned music are now the music teachers. Some of the moms who received help when they were pregnant then becomes the ones who help. Some of the ones who are sick help others who are sick. That’s an amazing ministry that you know then will grow and last for a really long time. That just sounds very exciting.
Clara: Yes. From the beginning I worked in Bangladesh at the same job in a different community and we did similar activities. Now it’s running by itself.
Because I know that as a missionary we are not permanently living lifelong here. Today or tomorrow, we could leave the country. So the local people will continue. So, I did not build any orphanage or school. I work with the locals just as a partner and help them toward sustainable development.
Joe: You just mentioned that you are originally from Bangladesh. How did you come to be a missionary in Cambodia?
Clara: Actually, before Cambodia, I was in Japan with the United Church of Japan where all denominations work together. So I worked with children for two years in the Sendai Student Center. Later on, I moved to Ibaraki where there is also a Student Center and had international school there. One year I was there.
Before that I was a graduate from the Asian Rural Institute in Japan, with a degree in international law before becoming a missionary.
Joe: Were you always interested in working with children?
Clara: Japan was a different type because Japan in 100% educated and Bangladesh I was working with rural and urban people in the slums. It is very, very different.
But the Student Center opened for the students who came from the province and came to the city and had no place to go. So the Student Center was similar to the YMCA/YWCA. We provided them with different courses. Students came. We had music class, Bible class, English study. We had different languages, like Korean language, German language, English language, and cooking and drama, study tools. So all kids of… According to their interest they took membership and we invited volunteer teachers. It was after college and after university program.
When I was there over 100 students were there. Few Christians. More Buddhists and Shinto are there. And we really enjoyed together. Still I communicate with them. Some of them visit me in Cambodia. They are doing well, and I am very happy that we have still communication with them.
Joe: Sure. It sounds really nice that you maintain those friendships.
Clara: We take them for a study tours in Bangladesh, India, and we organize them visiting the projects, those who are graduates from Asian Rural Institute. So when they go back to their country – they do their developmental work – so we encourage the young people in how to get involved with social work.
They used to go to Bangladesh to learn about the community development work that I was working with the community school, loan program, adult literacy, and group savings, all those. I had several projects for a low caste Hindu society, and people looked down on them because they work as sweeper cleaning the streets, the roads, drain and toilet – government and public toilets, so their children had never been to school. So I set up several schools for them. And now when I go home, those children are graduates from college and university and have jobs and now they are responsible for their own children.
So whenever I go home, they organize a get-together and it is such a joy! To meet them. To see that we planted a seed and now it’s blooming. And they are such good leaders for the community.
Joe: Wow. That’s exciting.
We’ve talked about some of the exciting things that happen in your ministry. What are some of the challenges that you have today?
Clara: Because of city development, the community is moving little by little farther away. The slum has been sold to a company that built a high-rise building for the city development, and the people moved to farther down where it’s difficult to find schools for so many children, and the toilets and house. So we are in contact with other NGOs to help and try to put our children in different schools.
Joe: The final question I ask everyone who appears on Get Your Spirit in Shape is, How do you keep your spirit in shape?
Clara: Living in a foreign country itself is challenging. And the work I do with street children ministry, with people who have a different background, so sometimes it is very stressful. Sometimes children die, parents die, HIV people, domestic violence, trafficking, so many things we’re facing. So we need to really recharge ourselves.
I have a different group of missionaries who are good friends. We get together. Bible study. I go to church. Also, I network with the Christian groups and I join with them also. Like the Sisters of Charity, sometimes I put our children if they need help, longtime help, then we can get help from them. Many know that they have an HIV program. So we also recommend our HIV patients to go there. They have a hospice. So I also attend the prayers with them.
Friends are a really good support, and prayer. Those things help me.
Joe: That’s so good. Thank you, Clara. It has been really fun learning about your work, your ministry and a little about you today.
Clara: Thank you so much. I really enjoy my work in Bangladesh, in Japan, and in Cambodia. I am really enjoying community outreach with the children and adults and youth. I enjoy it so much.
I also thank the Lord and GBGM for this opportunity. And thank you!
Joe: That was Clara Biswas, United Methodist missionary from Bangladesh serving in Cambodia. To learn more about her and her ministries, or to support her important work, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. On the page there are links that you will find helpful, and a transcript of our conversation.
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Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.