Praying for Maryknoll. This, Kim Mom says, is her current mission.
The returned lay missioner, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, says, “I pray for Maryknoll every day.”
While Kim’s commitment to Maryknoll remains constant, her missionary journey has evolved, taking her across borders — and back again.
Kim’s family is ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese, and she was born and raised in Cambodia. There, she was educated by the French-speaking Sisters of Providence of Portieux, who ran several large schools in the Southeast Asian country. Kim excelled in academics and received a Fulbright scholarship. She came to the United States in 1973 and earned a master of business administration degree, MBA, at Columbia University in New York.
“In the spring of 1975, just one semester before I completed my studies, a tragic event happened,” she recounts. The Khmer Rouge came to power when it overthrew the Cambodian government in a bloody civil war.
For four years, the regime decimated the country. A quarter of the population was lost to genocide and starvation. Urban and educated people, especially, were targeted: teachers, doctors, lawyers — even people who simply wore glasses. “Members of my family were among them,” Kim says. “My grief was intense. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.”
Remaining in the United States, Kim worked as an accountant and sought strength and solace in her growing Catholic faith. She attended daily Mass during her lunch hour. Eventually, Kim learned of Maryknoll’s work to rebuild her country of origin and became a Maryknoll lay missioner in 1998.
After an absence of 26 years, Kim returned to Cambodia. “It’s not the same society I once knew,” she said at the time of her sending. She was going, she said, “to help Cambodian people rebuild their spirit, their hope and their trust in government and each other.”
Maryknoll Sister Leonor Montiel, who served alongside the lay missioner, says, “One of Kim’s unique gifts was being fluent in the five languages used in Cambodia — Khmer, Vietnamese, French, English and Chinese.”
Since the Cambodia mission team followed a collaborative model, priests, brothers, sisters and lay missioners worked closely together. They organized Saturday evening English Masses and held regular gatherings on Wednesdays. “We called it the three Ms,” says Maryknoll Father John Barth, who also served in Phnom Penh at the time. “Meeting, Mass and meal.”
Maryknoll Sister Luise Ahrens, who served in Cambodia for 25 years, remembers well Kim’s work in a program for people with disabilities caused by polio, cerebral palsy or landmines. The Maryknoll skills training program, housed at the Wat Than Buddhist temple, taught weaving and woodworking to Cambodians with disabilities.
“It was started by the late Maryknoll Father William O’Leary to train landmine amputees to make a living, since they couldn’t work in the rice paddies anymore,” recalls Father Barth.
The project needed Kim’s help. Her managerial skill and marketing expertise were put to good use — as was her sharp eye. “She told them, ‘You have to use different colors and higher quality materials,’” Sister Ahrens recalls. “Kim found new buyers and earned the trust of clients and partners,” Sister Montiel says. “She turned Wat Than around.”
Even after Kim finished her commitment with the lay missioners in 2003, the project, by then known as Peace Handicrafts, continued. Kim served as a consultant, mentoring new leaders and guiding a transition for the project to become independent. “She was the driving force for them to be able to continue,” Sister Ahrens says. Wat Than Artisans continues to win awards and recognition, adds Sister Montiel, attributing its long-lived success to Kim’s firm foundation.
Back at home in Jersey City, Kim attends Mass at Saint Peter’s Church. She maintains communication with friends still serving in overseas mission, like Father Barth. She reads Maryknoll magazine avidly and contributes regularly. Limited mobility, aging and health challenges have not interrupted her commitment to mission. Nor have they dimmed her faith. If anything, her faith is stronger. “I have a better sense that I am loved,” she says.
“Before, I thought God would love me for what I do,” Kim explains. Now, she says, she understands God is telling her, “I love you the way you are.”
Featured Image: Kim Mom (far right) brings food and companionship to a Vietnamese refugee family living on a boat in the area of Phnom Penh in 1999. (Sean Sprague/Cambodia)