Petersville parishioner takes Gospel to the peripheries

Barbara Smith teaches English to underprivileged girls in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Barbara Smith)

While not always easy, our duties as Christians are at least usually fairly obvious.

“The Bible tells Christians to spread the Good News and make disciples of all the nations,” said Barbara Smith, 66, who is currently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as a Salesian Lay Missioner, teaching English at the Don Bosco Vocational Training Center for Girls.

Her analysis matches that of Pope Francis, who two years ago declared October 2019 as Extraordinary Missionary Month, with the theme “Baptized and Sent: The Church of Christ on Mission in the World.”

The matter-of-fact tenor of her email communications with the Review suggests that Smith, a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi-St. Mary, Petersville, is mostly interested in fulfilling her mission, and less concerned about noise.

“Missionary work is really a mandate, and not something special or unusual for us to be doing!” Smith wrote.

She has long been interested in overseas missionary work, and, when conditions were right, she was ready.

“My children are both college graduates now and have jobs but no children of their own, so this was a good time to go,” she wrote.

The young women learning English under her care would agree.

“The girls are learning computer and business skills,” Smith said. “English is the official business language in Cambodia, and these women need English to both learn and work successfully here.”

In addition to her zeal, Smith brings to her students a hearty business background in market research and project management for various companies, as well as precise English skills developed as a technical writer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

At St. Mary, which is part of a pastorate with Holy Family Catholic Community in Middletown, she has taught religious education classes, sung in the choir, served as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, and volunteered in other capacities in southern Frederick County.

The Salesian Lay Missioners work specifically for the benefit of poor youth, sharing in, according to their website (salesianlaymissioners.org), “the tradition, prayer, work, family spirit, community life and educational method of the Salesians of Don Bosco, while living in community with Salesians and other missioners.”

In addition to Cambodia, the missioners serve at various locations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Smith connected with the Salesians via the Catholic Volunteer Network publication.

In Phnom Penh, she lives in community with the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco, who established the school in 1993.

Her typical day has as much emphasis on spirituality as service; she arises before 6 a.m. for morning prayer, the rosary and Mass before breakfast with the sisters. She describes the meals as “very Asian,” and notes that she is also teaching English to the cook.

Then, the work begins – two classes of about 40 girls each. Smith teaches conversational English, which covers speaking, listening, reading and pronunciation.

“It is very challenging and requires a great deal of patience,” Smith wrote. “I have a lot of responsibility for their learning English.”

Furthermore, Smith is most of the young women’s first experience with an American and American English, she wrote.

She describes her students as “very kind and respectful” and “interested in learning.”

“They are also more innocent than American girls at the same age,” she wrote.

They come from poor families in the countryside. For many, their stay at the school is their first time away from their villages and families, Smith added.

Most are Buddhist.

“All are taught ‘values’ education, but overtly Catholic teaching cannot be used,” Smith explained.

Smith grew up a Methodist in Bethesda and Potomac, in Montgomery County. Her first exposure to Catholicism was in college.

“I attended Georgetown University as a Protestant and was exposed to Catholics and Catholic theology there,” she wrote. “I converted shortly after graduating.”

Smith arrived in Phnom Penh Sept. 4. She will stay for at least one year.

Erik Zygmont

Erik Zygmont

A journalist since 2005, Erik wrote for small-town publications in New Hampshire before he left for Germany, where he taught English for two years, starting in 2009. He moved to Baltimore and served as editor of the Baltimore Guide from 2012 to 2015. He then served as a staff writer for Catholic Review until August 2017 when his family made plans to relocate from Maryland. He currently serves as a freelance contributor.

Erik is grateful for the richness of the Catholic faith he has experienced since, owing both to his access as a journalist and the Baltimore Archdiocese being the Premier See.