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'Hearts of gold': How the rising generation has strengthened the Church in Cambodia

When it comes to loving and serving his neighbors, Keom Chhoeun Hul doesn’t hesitate. As the elders quorum president in his local branch, Hul has taken it upon himself to see that one of the most common challenges facing Church members is overcome with relative ease, every Sunday morning.

In the rural and green landscape of Cambodia’s Kampong Thom province, getting to the meetinghouse for Church isn’t an easy task. Especially for members who live far from the building or have limited to no means of transportation.

Missionaries with Keom Chhoeun Hul from Kampong Thom who uses his Tuk Tuk every Sunday to pick up members who live far from the Church building to get them to the Church for services.
Missionaries with Keom Chhoeun Hul from Kampong Thom who uses his Tuk Tuk every Sunday to pick up members who live far from the Church building to get them to the Church for services. Photo: Courtesy of John Lewis

So, rising with the sun, Hul spends his Sunday mornings before Church driving his Tuk Tuk — a Cambodian motorcycle with an attached carriage — and pulling an extra trailer. Hul goes from house to house, picking up members of his congregation and taking them to the meetinghouse in time for their 8 a.m. sacrament meeting. Nearly 20 members and families are blessed by his service each week.

“He’s very dedicated in helping people get to Church,” said President John Lewis, president of the Cambodia Phnom Penh Mission.

One of the biggest reasons Church members in Cambodia become inactive after baptism is due to the difficulty and cost of getting to Church. Issues of transportation are a common factor, President Lewis said, but as the country slowly improves its infrastructure and as members learn to serve one another, the Church will only continue to grow.

He added, “It’s amazing to see what people can load on a Tuk Tuk."

Challenges of faith

Cambodia's climate, like that of the rest of Southeast Asia, is dominated by monsoons. The rainy season is generally accompanied by high humidity. During the dry season, temperatures can reach up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Theary Leng, a native Cambodian from the Kampong Cham province, remembers the difficulty of getting to Church when she was younger. Unable to afford a motor bike or a car, her family would bike to Church every Sunday, despite the weather.

“It took us like 30 or 40 minutes,” Leng said. “Sometimes it was raining and sometimes it was really hot.”

Cows rest near the Kampong Thom Branch in Cambodia on April 28, 2018.
Cows rest near the Kampong Thom Branch in Cambodia on April 28, 2018. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Leng said she remembers often questioning to herself why they went through the trouble.

Noting that there are many families who don’t even have bikes, Leng described how some people take taxi-like Tuk Tuks to church, which means not only are they not working and earning money, but they have to spend money to get to Church. It is a great sacrifice for them, Leng said.

“But everything has to come on your own,” she said. “Once you understand (the gospel) and you know it, when you have a true conversion, most likely you will stay strong in the Church.”

And for the rising generation of Church members in Cambodia, making the sacrifices necessary for true conversion is all part of their learning curve.

Looking back

Hul is an example of how Church members in Cambodia are beginning to own the idea of ministering to one another, President Lewis said. It was only 24 years ago that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially established and recognized by the government of Cambodia, so the Church is still considered very young there.

“(The members) have hearts of gold in wanting to care for each other, but they’re young in the Church so they’re still learning how to do their duties … how to support one another,” President Lewis said.

Despite its youth, the Church has grown remarkably fast, and it doesn’t seem likely to slow down anytime soon.

The first convert in Cambodia was baptized in May 1994. Now, in 2018, Church membership in the country stands at 14,256 and is steadily growing. In 2014, the first two stakes were established in the country, and, President Lewis said, it won’t be long before there is a third.

“The growth continues and the strength of the membership continues,” President Lewis said. “It’s quite an exciting place to be.”

Excitement for a temple

The excitement for Church growth in Cambodia increased on Monday, Oct. 8, when members in Cambodia woke to news that a temple will soon be built in Phnom Penh.

During his Sunday afternoon address of the 188th Semiannual General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson announced 12 new temples, including one in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“I just couldn’t stop crying when I heard the news,” Leng said. ”I was watching conference with my host family and I just could not believe it." Leng currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah while she attends graduate school. "I texted everyone back home because I am just so grateful. Finally we are going to have a temple in Cambodia!”

One of the people Leng messaged was her older brother Pheak Leng.

“I woke up at 4:30 am, took a bath and turned to my phone. My sister texted me and told me about the new temple in Cambodia. To my joy, I almost jumped off the ground and hit my room ceiling," Pheak Leng said. "I then texted my bishop and other bishops in my stake and my friends, as many as I could. I know some of them might still in bed sleeping but I hope the first thing they saw when they woke up was my text.”

Leng said she feels more grateful than ever to know that her home country will be getting a temple and that she will be able to go there when she returns home.

Centered on family

The first time Elder Michael Smith and Sister Janis Smith, public affairs missionaries for the Church in Cambodia and Thailand, traveled to that corner of Southeast Asia they said they were impressed by two things.

First was the beauty of the countryside.

Trees grow around a temple at Angkor Wat in Cambodia on April 28, 2018. Angkor Wat is a 12th century temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world.
Trees grow around a temple at Angkor Wat in Cambodia on April 28, 2018. Angkor Wat is a 12th century temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I wish I could describe the color of the rice fields and the palm oil palms and the banana palms that separate the farmers’ land out there,” Elder Smith said. “Every time I drive out there I try to fill my eyes. Photos are nice, but they don’t reflect the beauty and the pastoral peace that you feel out there.”

But while the landscape is rugged and breathtaking, he said, there is also immense poverty among those whose entire livelihoods depend on the work of the rice paddy fields.

Second, they were impressed by the family-centric nature of Cambodian society.

“The men are nurturing just as much as the mothers are,” Sister Smith said. “They just love their little kids.”

Kampong Thom Branch member Somnang Pat holds her baby, Dana, after church in Cambodia on April 28, 2018.
Kampong Thom Branch member Somnang Pat holds her baby, Dana, after church in Cambodia on April 28, 2018. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“All the culture is centered on the family," Leng agreed. "We really praise the family, and we think that bond is really important.”

As many families now begin to reach their third generation of membership in the Church, their dedication to the gospel principles is growing with their knowledge of the eternal importance of families.

President Lewis noted that many families are making it a priority to hold current temple recommends, and the number of couples and families making trips to the Hong Kong China Temple to be sealed is increasing steadily as well.

An entrepreneurial spirit

With the majority of its population working as farmers, merchants, and laborers, Cambodia has worked to improve its economy.

And although many lives are still focused on finding where their next meal will come from, President Lewis said, “The entrepreneurial spirit of life is very much alive.”

Leng’s parents grew up during the genocide, when the Khmer Rouge were in power and, as she described, both her mother and father received little more than the education required to teach them the basics of reading and writing. With no more than three or four years of education each, Leng said her parents experienced the true hardships of war but have always been able to find a way to provide.

A sculptor works on a statue in Cambodia on April 28, 2018.
A sculptor works on a statue in Cambodia on April 28, 2018. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Currently, Leng’s father, Leng Hun, works as a security guard for the Church. “He also makes and sells soy milk,” Leng said, explaining that her father has found various means over the years of generating extra income as needed.

“The average income he makes is about $10 a day,” Leng said. “It’s pretty good income for over there, but not really good.”

The average daily wage is around $3 to $4 for many and as a result people will often prioritize work and money over education to meet their basic needs.

Reflecting on where she grew up, Leng said most of her neighbors didn’t seem to value education.

“I’m grateful that my parents, especially my dad, understands the value of education,” Leng said.

Although she and her older brother were both able to graduate from high school, Leng said she remembers her father worrying often that he wouldn’t be able to support her finishing. But she was a dedicated student who worked hard, and her parents did all they could to help her reach her goal of graduating.

Following high school, Leng set her sights on the idea of college. She applied for loans through the Church's Perpetual Education Fund as well as scholarships.

After landing a full scholarship to a local college in her province, Leng said she felt lucky to have had all four years of college paid for. And she said she feels even more blessed for her current schooling opportunities. She is studying for a masters of public administration at Brigham Young University.

Recognizing the importance of education for her country, Leng said she intends to return to Cambodia and work with NGOs and non-profit organizations to help provide more opportunities for young people to receive education there.

The growth of the Church

Sophornn C. Touch was first introduced to the Church in Cambodia in 1994 when he began attending English classes taught by the missionaries.

"My motive was not to learn the gospel, but to learn English," he said.

However, in the process he discovered something he could not deny. He was baptized March 22, 1998. A year later he received a call to serve in the California Sacramento Mission.

“We are on a bright path.”

"When I went to my mission, I had been thinking about my future," Touch said. "I kept thinking about 'what I am going to do?' I had no education. The jobs in Cambodia were meager and payment was not that much."

He consulted his mission president who suggested he enroll in BYU-Hawaii. After graduating from BYU-Hawaii, Touch received a graduate degree from the University of Hawaii and found work with the Church.

Then one day while reading his patriarchal blessing, Touch knew he needed to return to Cambodia. Now married to Ludy Ann Campo Touch, the couple decided to take their family home to Cambodia.

He said the gospel and membership are maturing in his country. Cambodian members "have strong faith in the Lord Jesus Christ," he said.

A high reputation

With nearly 97 percent of Cambodia’s population identifying as Buddhist, the culture of the country is steeped in Buddhist history and traditions.

“Because Buddhism is rooted deeply into the cultures and traditions, usually if you convert to Christianity it can be weird because some people may say you abandoned your own culture,” Leng said.

The Christian population is only 0.4 percent in Cambodia and, as such, it would be easy to assume that members of the Church might be seen as outsiders. But as Elder and Sister Smith explained, the Church holds a very positive standing among the people and government entities within Cambodia. It may even be the most prominent Christian religion there, they said.

Buddhist monks ride during a religious ceremony at Angkor Wat in Cambodia on Apr 28, 2018. Angkor Wat is a 12th century temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world.
Buddhist monks ride during a religious ceremony at Angkor Wat in Cambodia on Apr 28, 2018. Angkor Wat is a 12th century temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elder Smith described a recent instance where a Christian family from Thailand took a trip to Cambodia. After arriving, they hailed a cab and asked the driver if there was a Christian church anywhere nearby. Not a Christian himself, the cab driver took the family to the only Christian church he knew of.

“(The Church) is so prominent here, … he brought them to our building,” Elder Smith said. “They were not (members), but it was the most prominent Christian building in the city. So, we have a really good reputation.”

And despite the cultural differences of Buddhism and Christianity, President Lewis said that those who meet with the missionaries can usually accept the gospel message rather quickly. Pointing to the gospel’s focus on forgiveness, which in Buddhism it is believed a person cannot attain until the next life, President Lewis said, “So when a missionary teaches that we have a loving Heavenly Father that sent His Son to be our Savior and Redeemer, it immediately gives tremendous hope because it means they can be forgiven in this life. And that message resonates.”

A bright future

Another aspect that sustains the Church’s good standing is its many humanitarian efforts in the country. In addition to helping build wells for clean water, providing health and immunization care, and food and housing projects, the Church’s humanitarian efforts often help out during times of disaster.

This August brought major flooding to the Kampong Cham province. With hundreds of rice paddy fields flooded and ruined before harvest, the Church and LDS Charities responded to the needs of some of the devastated communities.

On a bright morning in late September, representatives from the Church, including President Lewis, arrived in the rural community of Maha Leap, where nearly 600 representatives of families from flooded areas sat next to rows of food donations from the Church.

Residents of the rural community of Maha Leap wait for the arrival of the governor with the donations they received from LDS Charities.
Residents of the rural community of Maha Leap wait for the arrival of the governor with the donations they received from LDS Charities. Photo: Courtesy of John Lewis

President Lewis said, “It was an emotional scene of ‘feeding the poor and needy’ whose homes had been flooded and crops washed away.”

Each representative was given bags of rice, cans of fish and boxes of noodles and soy sauce to help supply their families as they recover from the flood damages.

While members in Cambodia continue to face the challenges of their developing country, both Leng and President Lewis said their hope for the future of the Church there is bright and unwavering.

“The development of the Church here is certainly in front of us,” President Lewis said.

Their optimism for the growth of the Church was strengthened earlier this year when Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited Cambodia and referred to it as a “new Kirtland” based on the strength of its members.

Residents in Maha Leap receive LDS Charities donation bags of rice with cans of fish, boxes of noodles and soy sauce in late September following flooding in their rural community.
Residents in Maha Leap receive LDS Charities donation bags of rice with cans of fish, boxes of noodles and soy sauce in late September following flooding in their rural community. Photo: Courtesy of John Lewis

"We have a bright future," said Touch. "We are on a bright path."

“Faith is a principle of action and power,” Leng said, noting that the Cambodian people have great faith. “The only way you can overcome struggles and poverty is through faith in Christ.”

Leng said one of the lessons she has learned is that obedience and conversion to Christ is a lifelong process. “It took a long time for me to see that,” she said. “It’s not just a short period and then you can expect to see blessings afterward. … You can’t expect blessings without any work.”

So while the Church membership is still young, she said, Cambodia’s strength in the gospel is continually growing, just like her own.

“Because I am converted and I know it is true, it doesn’t matter what happens now,” Leng said. “I know it’s going to be OK in the end. Maybe right now it’s hard, but once we follow all the teachings, we will be OK at the end.”

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