Threads – Seek program unites young adults in culture and faith in Cambodia

Insights from Seek co-founder James Alty and Seekers Nadia Thiessen and Audenne Derksen

The 2024 Seek cohort in front of the Banteay Srey temple in northern Siem Reap province, Cambodia.

Manitoba Cambodia — Jun 2024

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Kyle Rudge (00:02):

It begins with a single thread woven through other thread and then another and another until we have a single piece of fabric. That fabric is stretched, cut and stitched together with another just like it. This process is repeated over and over and over until we have a beautiful tapestry that all began with a single thread. Welcome to an MCC Threads, where we look closely at how our stories in Manitoba weave together with the stories of MCC and its partners around the world.

Nadia Thiessen (00:50):

I would say going home, I am really looking forward to my mom's food again. I am super excited to have some perogies with schmaundt fat and farmer sausage.

Kyle Rudge (01:01):

If it's one thing I've learned about Mennonites over all these years, is their food is something truly sacred. <laugh> For threads this month, we managed to connect with a couple of young women in Cambodia and reconnected with some old friends and MCC alum here in Winnipeg to discuss a unique opportunity for young adults in Manitoba.

James Alty (01:19):

My name is James Alty, and for the past 15 years, along with my wife Joan, we have been representatives for MCC in Southern Africa and then area directors. And in the most recent four years, we've been the representatives for Palestine, Israel and Jordan, and now we're home in Canada after 15 years, retired.

Kyle Rudge (01:41):

James and his wife, Joan were gracious enough to take time away from getting their garden ready to recount their experiences with MCC and involvement with an intentional discipleship program for young adults aged between 18 and 20 years called Seek.

James Alty (01:55):

The genesis of it was actually at a rep area director meeting here in Winnipeg at St. Benedict's Monastery. There was myself and Joan and Chris Landes from, Global Service and Learning program in a very, very small workshop. And we all had similar ideas about what we would like to see happening in the field because one of the challenges is teenagers were applying for the SALT program, but often not being selected because of their age. But what we saw in our SALT program in southern Africa, young people were very keen on service, but also very much in a formative part of their life in terms of how do they work out their Anabaptist faith in the real world outside of their home and take ownership of it. 

Kyle Rudge (02:44):

And thus, the Seek program was born. Fast forward several years to today and we meet Nadia Thiessen and Audenne Derksen, two young women from Manitoba currently in Cambodia with the Seek program.

Nadia Thiessen (02:57):

So for me, I graduated from high school just last year.

Kyle Rudge (03:01):

That's Nadia.

Nadia Thiessen (03:02):

And I was looking to take a gap year this year and was looking into some different programs. I really wanted to do something that involved travel and also something that would maybe grow my faith a bit. So I was looking into some like YWAM or like Capernwray, and I actually had a friend last year who was on this program and she started telling me about it and kind of what was happening this year. And she was like, I really think you should try applying to this. So I did. I was like, you know what, what's the harm in applying? And then I ended up getting in. Yeah, this program is completely funded by MCC, so that was also a massive factor, like the financial part.

Audenne Derksen (03:42):

Well, my story's sort of similar — 

Kyle Rudge (03:44):

And that's Audenne.

Audenne Derksen (03:45):

I got into architecture school this year, but then close to the end of the summer, I realized that it really wasn't for me and that I didn't think it would be very good for me to go into architecture, so I decided to drop out of it. And I had a little bit of a panic at that time, but then I decided after talking to my dad, who's familiar with MCC, I decided that I wanted to do something meaningful with my gap year. And I wanted to travel and get a broader perspective.

Kyle Rudge (04:13):

So what got them first interested, and what are they hoping to get out of the program they're currently in?

Nadia Thiessen (04:18):

So I was super excited about kind of the community aspect. I'm very much an extrovert, and the last two years of my life, I've lived in a dorm. So I really like the idea of living in close proximity with kind of a close group of people. So that was one thing that really drew me in. As well the aspect of getting to know more about my faith and kind of being surrounded by people who also wanted that as well as the service aspect. Yeah, getting to be in a new place, learn a new culture, kind of broaden my worldview and have opportunities to do service for others.

Audenne Derksen (04:58):

Yeah, I didn't quite know what to expect coming to Seek, and I decided to not really set my expectations and let the program be what it was. But I was looking forward to being independent and really, I suppose getting to know myself better and growing in my faith and also growing in my relationship with myself just because I've never really been in an unfamiliar circumstance before and I've never really had to be alone or be away from what's familiar and be away from the people I know before in my life. And so I decided this would be a big moment of personal growth for me, and also being able to grow with a group of people as well and make new connections. And especially making Christian connections and being a part of a community and getting to see what MCC does around the world.

Kyle Rudge (05:49):

Discipleship training can mean so many things to so many different people and organizations. So what does it mean in this context with the Seek program?

James Alty (05:57):

Yeah, the program in terms of a weekly sort of cycle: There was bible studies, there was worship, there was quiet time, there was invited speakers coming in and talking about different aspects of the Christian faith and, of course, service was a big part of it as well and what it means to be in service, not for our own sake, but as followers of Jesus. And really digging in to see what does it mean to be a disciple? What does that mean in terms of any one individual? How do we follow Jesus in everyday life?

Audenne Derksen (06:35):

We usually wake up around 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., And then we go to the office at 8 a.m. and we take a tuk-tuk to get to the office.

Kyle Rudge (06:44):

I had to ask, what is it tuk-tuk?

Audenne Derksen (06:47):

A tuk-tuk. Oh, it's a little motor vehicle. It's almost like Uber, but southeast Asia Uber. So you have an app and you can call a tuk-tuk to come pick you up. And it doesn't usually have doors or windows. So it's open to the air and you can seat three people in the back. And so you hop into one of those, and they drive around pretty speedily and weave through traffic. And traffic gets pretty chaotic in Cambodia just because there aren't many traffic laws. So yeah, it's pretty exciting to get around one of those. So then we get to the office and we usually start sessions at around 8:30 a.m.

Kyle Rudge (07:25):

Sessions include things like discussions on vulnerability, prayer and spiritual growth. Then it's a prepared communal lunch together and more sessions or visitations of projects in the afternoon.

Audenne Derksen (07:36):

And then afterwards at around 4 p.m. we head back to our house and we're free to do what we like during the evening. So sometimes people go to the gym, sometimes we go to the stadium to walk around. Sometimes we go to the mall or go out to cafes to hang out and get drinks. So yeah, it really depends, but we have a lot of freedom in the evenings to explore and get to know the city.

Kyle Rudge (07:56):

And as with any cross-cultural experience, there's bound to be some cross-cultural differences.

Nadia Thiessen (08:01):

I would say definitely the traffic is a massive, I was like shocked when I kind of got out of the airport. Like no one listens to red lights. It's crazy. People are constantly honking, swerving around. I think that was probably the first big one. Also I remember the first few, Khmer people I met, I went and I tried to shake their hand.

Audenne Derksen (08:24):

Me too. Me too.

Nadia Thiessen (08:25):

And they were so confused. Here no one shake hands, kind of just like bow to each other.

Audenne Derksen (08:30):

Yeah. I think the first cultural difference that stood out to me was how in close proximity everybody is, because coming from North America, there's quite a bit of a sprawl and you don't feel as connected to other people, especially driving around the city during the winter. But here everybody lives in such close proximity and the city's very dense, and there are lots of shops by the sides of the road and food stands and everybody goes to the market on the weekends. So it's very busy and there's fresh fruit, fresh vegetables everywhere. Yeah, fresh produce. And that was really special for me coming in. That was a culture shock that I really enjoyed. Just how many people there are and all the conversations going on around you and people walking around. It was really exciting to be in such a lively city.

Kyle Rudge (09:12):

But there were also heartfelt spiritual moments that stuck out.

Audenne Derksen (09:16):

I'd say a moment for me on this trip that was really spiritually impactful was, we went on a province trip about a month and a half ago to Prey Veng and we went to a smaller village and stayed with John and Debbie, who are two people who have worked with MCC in the past. And we went to a couple of different schools there and hung out with the school children and played games with them and told them our testimonies. And one of the girls at one of the schools, her little sister had been very, very sick. And she had gone to the hospital and they had pretty much told her that she was going to die, but then in the following weeks, some Christians visited her and they prayed over her and every day they came to pray over her for hours and eventually she started to get better, which was a miracle honestly. And so this girl, she invited us to her house to pray over her sister. And so yeah after school that day, we went and we visited her house and we met her sister and we met her family. And then we all laid hands on her and began to pray at the same time. And I just felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in that moment and I felt very emotional and I felt like I could have cried. It was a moment that was really powerful for me to view.

Nadia Thiessen (10:33):

Some that have kind of stuck out to me at least is one called ODOV [Organization to Develop Our Villages] where they kind of work, it's kind of like a trade school. So they kind of fund people who are kind of, don't have enough money to get a second education and they can come here and they can learn a trade, so they have like one for like salons, like mechanics. They'll sponsor people to come and work in like a shop for a while and learn the trade and then they can go out and start their own business. We've also visited a few that are working a lot, trying to maintain peace here in Cambodia. As you know, there's been a lot of political unrest in the last while, and especially with the Khmer Rouge that happened about 30 years ago. There's a lot of trauma and that isn't really being addressed. So we've also met with a lot of partners who are exploring different ways to educate people and try and help and like free counselling and stuff like that, which we've heard some testimonies from people who it's really saved their life being able to receive this help because kind of in Cambodian culture, stuff like that is not talked about. It's kind of swept under the rug and people hear like they're always smiling and yeah, it's a very —

Audenne Derksen (11:54):

There's a lot of generational trauma that doesn't get talked about very often.

Nadia Thiessen (11:58):

And so MCC is doing a lot of work to work with people and especially working in schools with kids creating like peace clubs where they're kind of exploring like ways to deal with anger and conflict in healthy ways.

Kyle Rudge (12:13):

And are they excited, dreading going back home?

Nadia Thiessen (12:17):

Definitely a mix of both. I think I definitely am starting to miss like family and friends back home, but in general I have enjoyed this experience a lot more than I thought I would. And I'm definitely dreading going back to Winnipeg as a place. I will say I definitely enjoy the environment here a lot more, but yeah, I am starting to miss the people back home.

Audenne Derksen (12:45):

Yeah, I think it's a bit of an unfortunate time to go home. Because I feel like we've finally gotten into the rhythm of Cambodia and gotten into the rhythm of our province trips and yeah also being in the city. So I would say it's a bit of a shame that we have to go back now. I wouldn't say I'm super excited for it, but I wouldn't also say that I'm dreading it. I've more so accepted that I have to go back to Winnipeg at the end of this month.

James Alty (13:10):

I have a lot more confidence in the next generation than perhaps I did before. That we're okay. The next generation, they'll handle it. Maybe not the way we do or have, but they're sincere in their desire to be followers of Jesus.

Kyle Rudge (13:31):

Seek to grow, seek to love and seek the heart of Christ. Seek is a Christian discipleship program for you to explore, engage and reflect more deeply on what it means to be an Anabaptist follower of Jesus in a complicated world. During Seek, you'll grow by living in community, digging deep into the word of God with a small group of young adult Christians from around the world, while exploring the richness of the culture and the people of a new country. If you're interested, you can find out more information by searching Seek at 

MCC Threads is produced by KR words with story assistance from Jessica Burtnick. Big thank you to Nadia and Audenne for waking up super early to talk with us about their experience in Cambodia, as well as James and Joan Alty taking time out of your day to give us the context in the history of the Seek program. I'm Kyle Rudge, and this is MCC Threads.