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Mormons pedal the Word to Khmers

Mormons pedal the Word to Khmers

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

for distribution.

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

preach outside.

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."

He said

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

bad friends."

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

Investment Board.

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

own life."

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.

As Vichit

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.


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