JESSICA Laidler’s life changed when she journeyed to the war-weary nation of Timor Leste on a school trip.
At the time she was a teenager from the Gold Coast and remembers it as an eye-opening experience, not just to see a developing nation up-close but to be with the people and to engage with them.
“And really from that, that’s where the passion within me grew,” Ms Laidler said.
This passion eventually led her to her role as multicultural projects and research officer at Evangelisation Brisbane, where she sees the power of evangelisation firsthand.
Ms Laidler’s idea of evangelisation was simple.
“Evangelisation to me is sharing the Word of God and acting in the way God wants us to,” she said.
While it was rare to encounter any big conversion moments in her work, the gradual step-by-step witness and encounter of the Church worked wonders in itself.
The slow pace of evangelisation was because often refugee communities could be private and wary of outsiders, she said.
“It does take a while to get through to them and build that trust with them but, once they do, it just means so much more to you,” Ms Laidler said.
“When they start to trust, you can feel that relationship building and suddenly they come to you when they have issues – that’s really beautiful.
“It’s just … – showing what the Church is – and that welcoming community, that sense of belonging, that helping of others and helping those within your community, and then slowly, step by step, that person will then see that’s also Jesus Christ.”
This step-by-step pattern characterised more than her job.
“For me, myself, and my own faith journey, it’s been a step-by-step process as well,” she said.
“Sometimes you take two steps back and one step forward.”
But she loves her work and loves earning the trust of the communities.
“They come with a whole different set of needs and issues, so it’s interesting from my background working with them,” she said.
Her background was formed by her time in Cambodia. Finishing secondary school at Assisi Catholic College, on the Gold Coast, and pursuing a Bachelors of International Relations, she found herself working for Catholic Mission as a donor relations officer.
There she learned about Evangelisation Brisbane director Clyde Consentino’s work in Cambodia, and Mr Consentino learned about Ms Laidler’s passion for social justice work.
Mr Consentino put her in touch with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, which offered Ms Laidler a one-year position in Siem Reap – a resort town and home to the popular Angkor temples.
There she worked under Mercy Sister Denise Coghlan, who Ms Laidler said was “amazing”.
“She’s kind of famous around here, they – she and her team – won the Nobel Peace Prize back in ’97,” she said.
Sr Coghlan has been working in Cambodia refugee camps since Pol Pot’s regime.
“(I was a) bit intimidated going over there, and she was my direct boss and everything, but I mean I just learned so much from her in that time,” Ms Laidler said.
“That whole year over there was the biggest – not life-changing because I was already in that direction – but really formed me as the person that I am now.”
Ms Laidler said no two days in Cambodia were ever the same.
But her overriding focus was on researching into migrant workers – people who leave their children with grandparents and extended family to pursue work predominantly in Thailand.
Her research centred on the psychosocial and psychological effects on the children and carers, and the financial implications of the loans the parents took to work abroad.
“It was a lot of interviewing processes but in the meantime when we found those children and found they needed assistance, we would help them,” Ms Laidler said.
She said JRS helped the families to generate income, provided scholarships to the children, and helped them access medical treatment.
Much of her work was dealing with refugees who were fleeing from Myanmar, which was still reeling from its own civil war.
It was fulfilling work, she said, but difficult.
It was in Cambodia where Ms Laidler learned the healing power of evangelisation.
She said the whole country was still trying to repair after the impact of the Khmer Rouge but was firmly on the path of reconciliation.
“You can very clearly see how evangelising has shaped that process of reconciliation for individuals who have turned to Catholicism and also for the country in general in that process,” she said.
“I saw many people in my time, just in that one year, of how they’ve changed and get through what they’ve been through.”
Returning home from Cambodia at Christmas time last year, Ms Laidler took up her job with Evangelisation Brisbane.
She said she thought it would be a good fit considering what she had learned in Cambodia.
“Which is funny though, because I speak a bit of the language over in Cambodia now … but there’s not any Catholic cultural community here from Cambodia,” she said.
“So the one language I know is the one that’s useless,” she said with a laugh.
Her work overseas and at home has taught her to value the life she has and not take it for granted.
“And if I can’t be in Cambodia all the time – and I can’t be there – then I’ll make sure I live the best life I can here because if someone from a developing country like that could have my life they would live it to the best they can,” she said.
“They would be so grateful for it.”