Kelsey Wilson ’11

By Emily Christensen | Photos Julie Pagel Drewes ’90

Kelsey Wilson ’11 was in middle school the first time she told her mother she wanted to be a missionary when she grew up. 

As she grew older, her passion for mission work never waned. In high school, the Loveland, Colo., native sought colleges that would foster her sense of service and wanderlust. Her youth group director was a Luther College graduate, which piqued Wilson’s interest in Northeast Iowa schools. Wartburg’s study abroad program and the opportunity to continue her musical pursuits—she’s a flutist and guitarist—sold her on her mentor’s rival school. 

Despite graduating with a degree in elementary education and Spanish and spending six months in Argentina, Wilson now calls the Cambodian Christian Arts Ministry in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, home.

Called in a different direction

Wilson happened upon the opportunity in Cambodia almost by accident. A friend encouraged her to take a course at a Cedar Falls church that explored the history of missions. It was there she was invited on a two-year mission trip to Cambodia.

“I knew I wanted to do missions work, but I still didn’t know where. I always thought it would be a Spanish-speaking country because of my degree,” Wilson said. “After praying about it, I just felt like that was what God really wanted me to do.” 

During her two-year stay, Wilson found the Cambodian Christian Arts Ministry, a school that takes in children who have been abandoned or abused and provides them with a general Christian-based education, training in basic vocational skills, and opportunities to grow in five art forms (music, dance, drama, visual arts, and creative writing). 

These books were created by the children at the Cambodian Christian Arts Ministry in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
These books were created by the children at the Cambodian Christian Arts Ministry in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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Though most of the children practice Christianity—the country is predominantly Buddhist—the ministry also “preserves the culture God has created in their country,” Wilson said. 

“It’s so beautiful and wonderful; we put the Christian message of hope and new life into those art forms and then go out into the community to bless others and share our faith,” Wilson said. “People appreciate that we care about their culture and want to preserve and respect it.” 

The students, who range in age from 4 to early 20s, also produce children’s books with spiritual lessons that are distributed during their performances. 

Education in action

Wilson, who is a volunteer staff member, teaches English and basic computer skills, helps with the preschool students, offers flute lessons, and oversees special projects. 

“We are like a large family that homeschools the kids so they each get their own individualized education. I live on campus and do whatever needs to be done,” she said.  

Though she’s not teaching in a traditional school setting, Wilson said she’s using what she learned at Wartburg, both in the classroom and in her personal life. Her young students are learning to read and write in Khmer (the language of Cambodia) and English thanks to the tips and tricks her Wartburg professors taught her. 

And her own eyes have been opened in the last five years as she’s learned to assimilate into another culture. 

“It was fun to learn a new language and culture. I took language classes when I first got there. It takes time to get acclimated, but if you are purposeful about it and seek out local people who can help you, it isn’t too hard,” she said. 

Her classroom work isn’t the only Wartburg connection Wilson is finding in Cambodia. 

“Wartburg is all about service and learning and using your gifts to go out into the world and serve,” she said. “Wartburg has such an international community. Its arts program is so strong, and everyone wants to be involved. That is what the Cambodian Christian Arts Ministry is doing by offering training in five art forms for serving God’s kingdom. It amazes me when I think about the parallels.”