I F you've ever wondered just who are those people in white shirts and dark ties,
wearing helmets and riding bicycles, then wonder no more.
Head south on
Norodom Blvd, take a right past the Ministry of the Interior, and there, at the
back of a cul-de-sac, a little haven of middle-class gentility amidst the chaos
and poverty of Phnom Penh, is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day
Saints. Here, in regimented, white-shirted silence, new Cambodian converts
attend services each Sunday, then sing hymns, and leave smiling, for they have
found the Word of God.
More commonly known as the Mormons, after the
book of the same name which they revere along with the bible, this Christian
religion is based in Salt Lake City, Utah. They see themselves, however, in
international terms, and can be found as missionaries in most countries round
the world, staving off acculturation to maintain the same pristine image as can
be found in their American homeland.
In Phnom Penh, Elder Johnson said
the Church had a humanitarian mission, combined with their proselytizing. The
Cambodian Mormon Church was founded a year ago with just two members, and has
now grown to 120, the Cambodian converts coming from all social
Some Cambodians were"good in heart," Elder Johnson said, and it
was these who were interested in the "message of Jesus Christ."
Church works with the Royal University and the Ministry of Agriculture and
through their NGO, Deseret International Charities, they teach English, food
processing and poultry science, and are setting up a fertilizer analysis unit.
In addition, rice and second-hand clothes have been shipped over from America
The Church also has a fast, of two meals, on the first
Sunday of each month, and the savings are donated to assist the needy. Elder
Johnson said that the Church maintained a strong welfare system for its members,
which was administered in such a way that the recipients "keep their moral
integrity. We provide help in times of great need, but they must work in
In America, Newt Gingrich is rumored to be studying this system
for wider use.
The Mormons' main mission, however, is "to bring people
unto Christ." Elder Johnson is part of a group of three older couples who do
humanitarian work, while the task of spreading the Word is left to the younger
Young men, between 19 and 21, take time off from college,
and come at their own expense. About half of the young Mormon men become
missionaries; the percentage of women is much smaller as women are generally
encouraged to get married if they can.
They are already fluent in Khmer
by the time they step off the plane.
Elder Henderson, from North
Carolina, became a missionary in Sept 1993, working with the Cambodian
population in southern California, before coming out here last year. He said he
"didn't know why" he wanted to be a missionary, but "felt it was something I
should do for my church, and my parents wanted me to do it." Since arriving in
Cambodia, Elder Henderson has gained "experience working with people, and seeing
the Commandments put into action." Perhaps his biggest gain, he said, with the
remorseless earnestness which characterized most of the Elders, was "learning
how to love people."
Elder Johnson explained that their mission was aimed
at helping the Cambodian people "follow moral and honest principles, and to
build up moral fiber."
The younger Elders travel about the city, giving
talks at any house where interest is expressed.
They are not allowed to
enter any house, however, where only women are present, in which case they
Elder Henderson said that while some other Christian
churches gave out lots of money, almost paying people to come to church, the
Mormons did not, putting much emphasis on hard work and
While Mormonism might at first seem culturally unusual to
Cambodians, Elder Johnson said there were similarities between the religion and
Buddhism, which made the task of conversion easier; the Mormons believe that
people maintain their identities after death, and place much emphasis on the
continuity of family relationships and dealings in this life.
is an easy foundation" on which to build though sometimes there are "conflicts,
even hard feelings."
New converts are asked to stop worshipping their
ancestors, and it is sometimes difficult for the missionaries to explain that
although "we don't pray to our ancestors, we still love them."
In a way
similar to doing good deeds for one's ancestors in Buddhism, Mormons could "do
things to help dead relatives go to heaven," Elder Henderson said, such as
baptism after death. The Mormons take a vow of health, which means they cannot
drink coffee or alcohol, nor smoke cigarettes.
Unembarrassed in their
role as public spectacle, the Mormons seem almost to revel in the notoriety
their appearance provides.
Elder Smith, a veteran of two years in
Cambodia, said that the Mormons' distinctively different dress was definitely
not a hindrance. "It gets people interested when they see us."
that "Cambodians like cleanliness," and the Elders are to a man clean-cut and
well-dressed, and never even seem to sweat.
Elder Henderson said that
most of the interest was among the middle classes. "The upper class are really
busy with their work, and don't have much time for us. We have a lot of people
who work for the government, and a lot of students."
The recent mission
by Mike Evans in Cambodia had not been entirely negative. "Some of it was bad,
but some was good," Elder Smith said. "It piqued their interest in Christianity.
People ask us if we are with Mike Evans, and when we say no, they want to know
what we are." Mike Evans came to Cambodia promising to heal the sick; when he
failed to deliver on his promises he was chased out of the country.
Elder Smith said that no-one had yet asked him to heal the sick, though
he did say that some Cambodians still thought Christian ministers had that
Now that he has been here for two years, Smith is much more
experienced. "If I stayed one more year, I would be more effective than in the
last two," he said. Missionaries must return to America once their two years are
Tiani Reat is a Cambodian woman who converted eight months ago.
Dressed demurely in a dark skirt and white shirt, she talked about how the
Church had changed her life.
She can speak English, but prefers to talk
in Khmer. Reat said that as a Buddhist she had "wanted to turn to God, but did
not know what to do." She met a teacher at the School of Economics who was a
Since joining she has felt the Holy Spirit working through her,
and has become more successful, and is now working at the Cambodian Development
Reat said that her parents were no longer hostile to the
religion, but they would not convert. She hoped, however, to guide her little
brothers into Mormonism.
Reat's parents are pleased with some of the
changes: "They have more confidence in me. They used to worry that I would have
She admitted that since converting she had lost all her old
friends, but had made new ones.
Perhaps the most prominent Cambodian
Mormon is Vichit Ith, president of Royal Air Cambodge and head of the Cambodian
He said that "spirituality and the Church's consistent
focus on obeying principles [and] universal values" attracted him to the
He has not found any stigma attached to his conversion. "What
may make me different," he said, "is that I do not drink alcohol, do not smoke,
do not womanize, do not gamble and do not visit fortune tellers. But this is the
way I live my life and I am in no position to judge how others may conduct their
Vichit feels that the Church has "definitely" changed his
"It has helped me become a better person, a better husband and
father, by focusing my life on spiritual goals and [fulfilling] fundamental
roles rather than pursuing after material ones."
He said that "the growth
of the Church in Cambodia is a very positive sign... the philosophy of hard work
and self-reliance is very crucial for Cambodia today."
Founded in the
difficult times of the early nineteenth century in America, this philosophy is
perhaps particularly suited to Cambodia's present situation.
said, "Cambodia is not exempt from going through the test of the 'survival of
the fittest,'" and to compete it would need to present a unified front. "Strong
and successful countries have a strong culture with shared principles and
values, (the same applies to companies as well). The Church belief in simple and
frugal life, hard work and community service is all important for
What the future may hold for the Church in Cambodia, Vichit
can only speak for himself; as a late convert, he had not yet been a missionary,
but he "may be going on a mission in the future."
Elder Johnson, however,
is optimistic of the Church's growth.
The missionaries cannot yet travel
to other districts of Cambodia, because it is dangerous and the health
facilities are poor, but a security detail has been sent out to look at the
They are expanding in Phnom Penh and Elder Johnson feels that
they are succeeding in creating a "strong moral foundation" in their new
The Elders intend to set up a cannery as an educational tool and
hope soon to market their home-made mango jam. He said, however, that he was
looking forward to getting back to Salt Lake City.