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Sheri Dew: From humble beginnings have come stakes in Cambodia — and now the promise of a temple

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shows an artist rendering of the Phnom Penh Cambodia temple during a devotional in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, wave to attendees after a devotional in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Youth wipe away tears after meeting President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Attendees listen during a devotional for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Davy Monlong poses for a photo with her children, Rebecca, Roniya and Rachel, prior to a devotional for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

It has been exactly 20 years since Sister Sharon Larsen and I were assigned to visit Asia. We were two second counselors — she serving in the Young Women general presidency and I in the Relief Society — and we headed to Asia to participate in leadership training meetings under the direction of Elder Cree-L Kofford, the area president.

One of the countries we visited was Cambodia, and I have never forgotten what we experienced there. The Church was in its infancy in Phnom Penh, where the first convert had been baptized just five years earlier (in May 1994) and the members still met in a house.

The first day in Phnom Penh, we met with Young Women, Relief Society and priesthood leaders. As I looked into their faces from the front of the room, I was struck with how young they were. But they were eager to learn and proved to be quick studies. After the meeting, the district Relief Society president rode away on the back of a scooter. My memory is that she was 21 years old.  

Youth wipe away tears after meeting President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019.
Youth wipe away tears after meeting President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019. | Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The next day we spoke at a devotional for youth and young adults. I’ll never forget standing at the door and greeting everyone as they entered. It was the same group we’d met with the day before! Leaders and young adults were one and the same. The pioneering in Cambodia — as in many parts of the world, I would come to understand — was being led by young adults.

At the beginning of Sister Larson’s message to them, she asked how many had parents who were members of the Church. In a group of perhaps 125, just four raised their hands — and two of them were siblings. So in that gathering of the youth of Phnom Penh, just three households had parents who were members. Tragically, many of the households didn’t have parents at all — the result of the disastrous aftermath of the Khmer Rouge.

As we left Cambodia, I could not stop thinking about those young members of the Church. Somehow, in a non-Christian country where 97 percent of the population were Buddhists, they had recognized Jesus Christ as their Savior and gained a witness that the Restoration of the gospel was the vehicle for His power on the earth.

For 20 years I’ve thought about that experience.  

Imagine, then, my joy to visit Cambodia again a couple of weeks ago as part of the media team covering the ministry of President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson and his wife, Sister Kathy Christofferson. I felt a wave of emotion when I walked into a large convention hall and found 2,800 Cambodian Saints gathered to hear two prophets — one of them the senior Apostle — testify of the Risen Lord and His gospel.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, wave to attendees after a devotional in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, wave to attendees after a devotional in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019. | Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

I was standing in the back of the hall when President Nelson stood to speak. As he asked if the Saints would like to know more about the temple that had been announced for their land, you could feel excitement fill the room. Then when President Nelson asked if they’d like to see what it would look like and a picture of the proposed Phnom Penh Temple flashed on large screens, gasps and a rush of the Spirit filled the hall.

I had quick tears. There may have been nearly 3,000 Saints seated in front of me, but what I could see was a hundred or so youth — new converts, every one of them — crowded into a small home learning how to be leaders. From those humble beginnings have come wards and stakes and now the promise of a temple.

Those youth of 20 years ago are now seasoned leaders of the Church, parents and grandparents of children growing in the gospel, and anchors to the Church in their corner of Southeast Asia.

Davy Monlong poses for a photo with her children, Rebecca, Roniya and Rachel, prior to a devotional for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019.
Davy Monlong poses for a photo with her children, Rebecca, Roniya and Rachel, prior to a devotional for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019. | Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As the Book of Mormon makes clear, the Lord is able to do His own work. Even in parts of the world where the very idea of a Savior is foreign to most, His Spirit is touching hearts and changing lives.

The gathering is real and its impact in nearly every corner of this earth is tangible. The Apostle Peter spoke of being an eyewitness to the majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we witness the fruits of the gospel of Jesus Christ, each of us has a similar privilege. Two weeks ago in Phnom Penh, I gratefully witnessed the majesty of what happens when the power and love of Jesus Christ fills hearts and homes, transforms lives and blesses countries.

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