The next Mormon crusade: Cambodia

The next Mormon crusade: Cambodia

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Dennis James, pictured with his wife Kandi. Photograph: Claire Knox/7Days

The James' are an alarmingly charming pair.

Dennis, a broad, silver-haired and dapper former marine and commercial pilot from Pleasant Grove, Utah and his wife Kandi, an ash-blonde bob soccer mum in a figure-hugging suit, have lived in Phnom Penh sans their six children for seven months now.

“You can call me Dennis, or Chip, or Elder James,” he turns around and says with a wink and hearty chortle.
The pin drops.

There’s the reference that has seen many doors slammed in the couple’s faces.

The couple are missionaries. Proselyters. “Teachers,” they say. They are part of a group of 140 Latter-day Saints – or LDS as Dennis declares – Mormons currently preaching in Cambodia.

Forty of those are local Cambodians recruited to the “mission”, while around 60 are young, predominantly American men in their early twenties. (A total of 28 of these are young women – men are expected to go on a mission before marriage while women are not, yet with many delaying marriage, there has been a increase, the James’ say.)

The James’ are joined by a further 38 “more senior” missionaries in the Kingdom, promoting the church and its programs and keeping an eye on the youngsters.

“We do get called in to inspect the young missionaries’ rooms – they’re just a bunch a guys after all,” Kandi laughs, “we hate doing it but we can’t have them getting sick from the mess.”

Dennis and Kandi say they have been “called” by Jesus to work in the Kingdom for 18 months as Public Affairs officers for the church. They are PR naturals, although neither has had any experience.

“The cool thing about being a missionary is that these young people know how to be turned down… you learn about rejection and how to do business… it’s hard and sure is good for character… our church isn’t one that’s just a Sunday religion, it’s an all-consuming one, one that you practice everyday,” Kandi says.

The membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Cambodia peaked this year at over 14,000, with a steady stream of members recruited to the church each year, according to Cambodia Mission President David Moon. In 2009, there were 432 new Mormons in Cambodia, and since then the figure has risen to 600 new members per year.

All members of the church pay a tithing: 10 per cent of their income.

“The poorest of Khmers still do pay it and it pays for them to make that sacrifice – you hear of all the blessings and miracles that happen – we’ve seen people get jobs or come into money, it’s so fun to see them work,” Kandi says.

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Moon maintains the Mormons are contributing significantly to the development of the country. According to LDS Cambodia figures, the church has injected over $9 million in aid and humanitarian projects since their arrival in the Kindgom in 1994.

They’ve worked with USAID on water purification projects in Siem Reap, shipped 35 pallets of child and maternal health supplies, including thousands of medical kits, on the US Navy’s Mercy, a floating surgical ship with over 1000 practitioners aboard, and donated aid to NGOs such as the Somaly Mam Foundation, the Cambodian Childrens’ Fund and Reproductive and Child Health Alliance.

Yet proselyting remains the main gig.

Softly spoken Elder Anh Ca Kim, from Utah but with Vietnamese heritage, is 20 years old and has spent the last year splitting his time working as a missionary in Phnom Penh and in Hanoi – where he cannot legally preach but can be active within the church walls.

Like his fellow proselyters Elder Nelson, 20, from Seattle and Elder Pearson, 21 and from California, he effectively works seven days a week – waking at 5am, before even the noodle vendors set up shop on the street below, and working until 8pm.

He saved $10,000 to go on the two year mission and survives on a $35 allowance from the church for food, “mainly plain rice,” with one day off a week to clean, wash and press clothes, go grocery shopping and study.

They live and work with the one partner, of the same sex.

“There’s sometimes friction, we’re human, I don’t think any relationship doesn’t have problems,  it’s a really good life lessons – you learn how to talk things out…” Pearson says.

Missionaries are sheltered from much of their old life – “to concentrate on their work and spreading the gospel,” – they cannot read any literature other than that the church provides, watch films, surf the internet, much less partake in Phnom Penh’s more debauched activities, and can only call their families at home on a couple of occasions per year.

That includes election coverage from home, at a time when a Mormon looks to be a serious contender for the US Presidency for the very first time. Do they think Mitt Romney is an accurate representation of the Mormon church, and how could they vote accurately without knowledge of the current political landscape?

“Yes, I hope he gets in,” says Elder Anh Ca Kim. “Well, Romney ran for the Republican nomination four years ago and your parents can write you with information, so you can kinda tell,” he added.

“We watched all the debates,” Dennis says, as senior members are not under the same constraints as the younger missionaries. “I think he is an excellent representation of our religion – what he’s done, what LDS people are, he’s a good man, a stake president [head of a congregation], he was a bishop, he’s given thousands of hours to other people.”

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“And I love his wife,” says Kandi, “Everything she says I am in 100 percent agreement with, she’s a good, wholesome woman, a good mum.”

“He is a good practicing Mormon – I’ve checked,” says Dennis.

Missionaries are chosen, Moon says, by the church’s “prophet”, its 16th and current president Thomas Spencer Monson, who posts the preachers on assignments based on “inspiration, revelation and prayer.”

 “He has some information on them - a photo and their height,” he says. “These are pretty amazing young men and women…  at their age following those rules and following the conduct, they’re very obedient…  it is best for them to not have any distraction from home,” he adds.

“We’re very proud of them – we’re not perfect and they’re not perfect, every once in a while we need to give them a talking to – perhaps they are not getting up in time, waking up in time.”

When asked whether they were affected by the sometimes hedonistic expat culture they were surrounded by in Phnom Penh, the three men said it was difficult not to notice.

“We see it, we see it all the time – perhaps not as much as we’re in at 8pm, the sisters are in by 6pm. One thing is we try to avoid the appearance of evils – we don’t want to be in places where people think we could be part of that, in the sense that we believe the teaching of our church are true and very important and if people follow them they will have a lot of blessings – we try to stay away from those things, we really don’t want people to think we’re involved,” Elder Nelson said.

“We’d love to talk to these people about the church,” Elder Pearson added.

According to a 2011 UNHCR report on International Religious Freedom, around 96 per cent of the population in Cambodia is Theravada Buddhist, and intrinsic ties between Buddhism, cultural traditions, identity and daily life existed. A total of 2.4 per cent of the population are Muslim, and the remaining 1.6 per cent Jewish, Vietnamese Cao Dai, Baha’i and various Christian denominations, including LDS.

Door-knocking in Cambodia remains illegal, so missionaries spent most of their day cycling to and from “appointments” with people investigating LDS and talking to people on the street, Moon says.

“They will do some ‘contacting’ work if there are no teaching appointments – they will talk to people and find people interested, if they have time they conduct English classes. These are held in the chapel and are open to anyone,” Moon says, but admitted the classes had religious undertones.

Moon said Cambodia was an ideal place to bring the faith. “It can be a challenge all over the world, some would say even more so in a culture that doesn’t have Christian foundations. However the people here are a good hearted people, respectful people, a humble people,” he says.

Elder Nelson said he believed missionaries have a more authentic experience of the ‘real Cambodia’ than other expats and tourists.

“We have a lot of native missionaries with us and although we may not be able to do a lot of sightseeing, we get to know Cambodia as the real Cambodia, a different Cambodia, visiting families in their homes, all different types, it’s important to understand these people before giving them our message, we respect their lifestyle, they really are amazing,” he said.

“You are visiting them every day in their homes and you love them and you feel for them, especially when things happen to them, it’s a very personal experience,” says Nelson.

“Also native Khmers in the mission sacrifice a lot more than us – it’s an eye opener, hearing them talk about how $35 for them is a luxury yet for us it’s hard and tough – he will go back and have a lot less than that,” says Pearson.

“That’s why we want to tell them there is something better – Jesus Christ. The Khmers who have converted are happier,” Nelson says.

Oeun Sam Art is the personal assistant to the Great Supreme Patriarch of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the deputy chief officer of administration and finance at Preah Sohanouk Raja Buddhist University, part of the Ministry of Cult and Religion.

While accepting of different faiths existing in Cambodia, he believes missionaries have no place in the country.

“What are the purposes of missionaries, where is their morality? If they are purely coming out of love and kindness and giving aid after the suffering of our war that is okay, but trying to coerce someone to convert is immoral,” he says.

“This could cause further religious conflict, between families. Look at history! In the Angkor periods, we had conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism, it destroyed them… later on, we had no conflict between Buddhism in this country… conflicts between religions can destroy cultures.

“In Cambodia, various religions can live harmoniously, we have laws for missionaries but many times they are crossed – they can only practice their faith in their chapel or church or mosque but they cannot go outside to try to persuade to convert people.”

“The age of consent in Cambodia is 18 and I worry about young children being baptised into other religions when they are not old enough to make such a serious decision.”

Twenty one people were baptised as LDS last week, according to Moon – a woman in her 60s, a group of families, a nine and a 10-year-old. “We will not baptise anyone under eight though.”

When asked whether it would be more beneficial and important in a country like Cambodia to have missionaries working on the ground on aid projects, Moon argues missionary work constituted community service.

“They have their call and it is very specific and it is to teach the gospel,” he says.

“Sometimes they go to villages and plant rice, clean, help with building,” he said, but admitted work would take place at villages which included converts.

“I think churches rightly should help their members and others they serve – if we follow the example of Jesus Christ we should be serving and blessing and helping those that we interact with – so I don’t think there is necessarily a problem with that.”

 To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]