Parkersburg resident helps purify water, and spirits, during trip to Cambodia

Photo Provided Lori Frees with a pair of Cambodian villagers.

PARKERSBURG –When is a missionary in Cambodia, not really a missionary but a geologist?

When Lori Frees of Parkersburg was involved.

“It was against the law to be a missionary,” she said. “I was a geologist, a geologist with Resource Development International, which is located in Louisville.”

Frees has a bachelor’s of science in geology from Morehead State University.

“The primary listed purpose was assistance with water purification and hygiene education,” she said. Frees worked for RDI from November 2009 to March of this year. The whole story of Cambodia began shortly after graduation when she was part of a six-week trip to Cambodia with the school’s Baptist Student Union. She and nine other students made the journey.

Photo Provided Lori Frees distributes items to Cambodian school children during a visit with Alongsiders International, a children’s mentoring group of which Frees was a part.

“I didn’t know I wanted to make the journey to Cambodia until I visited,” Frees said.

The first visit was to Kien Svay, about seven kilometers south of Phnom Penh. Then it happened.

“That small, still voice said I had to go back. I couldn’t shake it. I just fell in love with Cambodia,” she said. “But I came back and went to work with the Kentucky EPA. I saved up vacation time and went back whenever I could.”

Eventually came the time when Frees made the decision to stay in Cambodia. Six years had passed since the first visit. “But to go back you had to get a tourist VISA. Tourist nothing. You got the VISA and you went to work. With RDI, we dug toilets, delivered toilets, repaired toilets, taught hygiene education, tested water and purification.”

The 1998 Parkersburg South High School graduate boarded a plane with another friend. Frees had three suitcases with clothes and books. It’s all she took to Cambodia.

Photo Provided Lori Frees walks with friends as they make their way through a Cambodian village.

“Anything else I needed I could buy there,” she said. “Things were relatively inexpensive.”

Among the books was a biography of James Fraser.

“He was a missionary to China,” Frees said. “He did basically what I was doing. I had to know about his journey.”

The distance from Parkersburg to Phnom Penh is 8,901 miles, which flying in a jet at 700 kilometers an hour was 20.5 hours, give or take a minute. The 700 kilometers translates to 434 miles an hour.

Home was to be Peri-Urban.

Photo Provided Young Cambodian boys haul a bucket of water from a well while other school children watch.

“It was a village which was used to having foreigners present,” she said. “Sweetness and smiles greeted me.”

The warm greetings had expectations. “They expected you to make a difference in their village. They expected you to learn their language and teach English.”

She did learn to read and write Cambodian. Trying to shake off Cambodia hasn’t happened 100 percent.

“I still catch myself talking to myself in Cambodian,” she said. “I still dream in Cambodian. I still catch myself singing a hymn in Cambodian.”

Frees was not the typical missionary arriving in town.

“I did not preach on the street corners and start building a church,” she said. “I was there to work and I worked. But whenever the opportunity presented itself, I spoke to people about the Lord.”

Her message was well received.

“It was strange at first as to how much they wanted to hear about God. They had a thirst for it,” she said.

“Here in America, you’re so used to the defensive front of others not wanting to hear about God. But there,” she continued, “once you started talking to one, if you weren’t watching, you could end up with more than a few people listening.

“There was great opportunity in Cambodia,” she added. “I believe Jesus could have/would have addressed spiritual, geological, social and financial poverty. I thought with my degree in geology and Christian faith, I could/would hit on two of those.”

Frees was not part of an organized missionary society.

“No,” she said, “I only had support from Emmanuel Baptist and Mt. Zion Baptist of Mineral Wells. Most books say a person needs a break after seven years or else burnout starts to kick in. The books were right. I was close to it.

“The hardest thing was not having any feedback,” she said. “There was no feedback from anyone. There was no partnership.”

But Frees said it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; far from it.

“You went where you were led to go,” she said. “So I was very heavily into prayer as to where God would direct me where to go and what to do. And I listened.

“There is no rush here,” she said. “For me, it was be still and listen. God answered very quickly.” Her prayer was usually ‘who can I be a blessing to today?’ Her answer: “When you feel something in your heart, you go with it. You never know when you are the answer to someone’s prayer. That happened all the time.”

She very quickly learned to recognize the heart tug. “Once you recognize when God pokes you and you act on it, that poke becomes much easier to recognize.”

In the six months Frees has been home, she has “had to relearn the American way of life again and shake the Cambodian habits. Like driving for instance, the driving laws are more like suggestions. People really don’t pay attention to them. Like people do with traffic lights at certain parts of Parkersburg. Driving was the most organized chaos I’d ever seen.”

During the six months “God has constantly provided peace, clarity, odd jobs, material things like a car given to me. Not brand new, far from it, about 15 years old, and has some dents and dings. But it gets me where I need to go and I didn’t have to pay for it.”

Frees said she figured it would take the six months for her to be ready “for a real job. I have been doing the odd jobs like cleaning houses for whatever someone wanted to or could pay, washing clothes, washing cars. I’ve been home for six months but I haven’t been sitting around for six months.”

The real job begins Oct. 2 in Charleston where she begins a job as a geologist in the West Virginia Tax Department, “assessing and auditing property taxes based on geological factors,” she said.

Frees said she doesn’t know whether she will return to Cambodia. It’s not that she doesn’t want to, it’s that she might not be able to. “It’s starting to get real political over there again.

“The prime minister Hun-Sen has been in power for 31 years,” she continued. “He has been voted out twice and has refused to vacate the office. He has said he won’t leave office without a war.

“He just had the leader of the main opposition party, Kem Sokha, arrested last Sunday and accused him of treason,” she said.

“Relations with America are getting worse. I may have been led to get out while I could still get out,” she said, “before I got kicked out.”

Frees maintains her blog,