Interview - Louise Barker
Louise Barker is a truly inspirational woman - she has worked with women on the fringes of society in Thailand and Cambodia, and now serves as a UK Director of OMF International.
Thanks for meeting me, Louise. Could you give me some background about you and what you do?
I’m working with OMF International as a Director for Candidates, which means I help facilitate people in the UK go and work with us in East Asia, which is where as a Christian charity we have our work based. So it’s a process of selection and screening and mentoring and encouraging, being a cheerleader. Yes, there are many different components to this job.
It came about because since I was a teenager I’ve had an interest in different parts of the world, particularly East Asia, that grew in me, and when I had qualified as a nurse I went to work in a refugee camp on the border between Cambodia and Thailand: I was there for three years until the camp closed. During that time, I had the opportunity to meet people, from Cambodia in this instance, learn about their own history, learn about their culture and that is something that excited me and drew me into learning more, and led me eventually to work in Cambodia for 12 years. And this was very exciting for me. I believed that’s what God had asked me to do as well. I went in obedience to serve the people of Cambodia as opportunities came up in ways that I could, but also to learn more about them as a people group and to walk alongside them in their own journeys, in seeing their country develop and good things happening in their country.
Were you working as a nurse for those 12 years or were you involved in other projects?
I worked in some health projects. So I worked with women at risk, young girls who’d come out of prostitution and they had an opportunity with us to learn new skills, to receive counselling and my role was to run through a health curriculum with them.
Later, I worked with people with HIV/Aids, and we set up a small hospice and encouraged the local church to reach out with us to people in the community who felt rather marginalised, discriminated against. And finally, I worked with Cambodians who were working with prisoners, and I helped debrief these Cambodian social workers on a regular basis and encouraged them in their case management.
Looking back at that time what would have been the most rewarding bit, and also the most challenging bit of that work?
Yes, it’s always a challenge, but most of the time it’s an exciting challenge, learning to relate in a cross-cultural situation. So Cambodians have a very different worldview from us in the UK, so my going over there helped me appreciate my own worldview, which I hadn’t really known I had before, and then to seek to be understood by them. Things I wanted to communicate: how do I communicate it to them in a way that they can grasp? So particularly with those women, those young girls, who had no education, actually, and I wanted to help them stay healthy. How best can I present this teaching to them in a way that will enable them to take it onboard in their lives? Yes, that’s always a challenge. And learning to speak the language in order to be able to communicate well, also is a challenge. So I guess I probably cried a few times over vocabulary lists, thinking, “It’s not going in. How am I ever going to be able to communicate in Khmer?” which is a local language. But as for challenges – it’s a very, very hot place and that becomes very tiring after a while. Observing people having to live in extreme poverty and with limited access to either education or health was sometimes very difficult, actually, and being helpless and yet wanting good things for these people who I had got to know personally.
Yes. How did you look after yourself in that time? How did you find the right balance to keep yourself healthy?
Yeah, staying healthy, that is a challenge. I think as an organisation, OMF, we committed ourselves to remind each other of the importance of staying healthy and we were accountable to one another for taking days off, going on holiday, having fun together. In fact, we had a lovely sense of community amongst us and we did many fun things together, and I think that prevented a lot of us from becoming either far too serious or becoming ill, unhealthy physically or emotionally.
Has anyone inspired you along the way?
Many, many people have inspired me. I can remember talking with many OMF missionaries in Thailand. When I lived there I was working in the refugee camp. Often I would meet them when I was on holiday. They were much older than I was. I was mid-twenties, but I was inspired by them because they took an interest in me as a very young person and that involved sharing with me, personally from their own lives, sharing their stories of working cross-culturally, of the challenges and the highlights for them and they made it sound exciting. They made it... they allowed me to see how worthwhile it was, going long term into something like this. And they challenged me in my own faith, to step out in faith and believe that this is something that perhaps God had for me as well.
Looking at what you’re doing now, how did you make that transition back, how did you end up in this job?
It’s very, very different, yes. I had begun to feel a little bit restless in Cambodia, not knowing what the next step for me was. I wasn’t unhappy there and yet I felt there was something different coming up. In fact, my coming back here was through an invitation by OMF to return to the UK and it felt very right. Since then, I’ve seen how right that decision was because I’ve had the opportunity to support my mum who’s not been very well. And also I have seen that with my experience in Asia for 12 years, I do have something to offer people who are interested and enquiring, and then later on, preparing to go, I have things I can offer them. So although the role is part administration and yes, there is process involved, there is a lot of relationship still and encouraging others and I believe I have gifts of encouragement. And so I enjoy very much the relational aspect of the work.
Excellent. What do you do to kickback and have fun?
Well, one of the things that I love about being back in England is returning again to the beauty of the English countryside. Based in Kent now, it’s a new county for me and I’ve loved exploring it through rambling, through walks. I love to sing and only last week I was finding out about local choirs and I’m hoping to get involved in “Sevenoaks Sings”.
What kind of music do they sing?
I gather there is a real variety of genre that they use and it’s a choir that’s open to anybody who just enjoys singing and that fits me entirely.
Just to finish off, two very simple questions. What’s your greatest vice and your greatest virtue?
What is my weakness? Sometimes getting a little bit too involved in work here and not switching off. So for me, actually, getting a life and work balance was easier in Cambodia than it is here, which is really strange.
What’s my greatest virtue? I laugh a lot, I think. I like a place which has the sound of laughter and I think that’s something I can bring to a place of work or any situation.
Thank you very much Louise.