Faith in Every Footstep 1847–1997

The Gospel Takes Hold in Cambodia

By Leland D. and Joyce B. White

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    “The Church has a great future here,” declared President Gordon B. Hinckley, speaking in Cambodia at a fireside attended by some 439 local Latter-day Saints and their nonmember guests.

    The following day, 29 May 1996, in the capital city of Phnom Penh, on the banks of the Mekong River, President Hinckley dedicated this Asian nation of some 9.6 million people for the preaching of the gospel. “May the little handful of members now become a great army of converts to Thy Church with hundreds and then thousands and beyond that, tens of thousands as the years pass,” he prayed.

    The “little handful of members” includes pioneers like Vichit Ith, a convert who was instrumental in helping the Church gain official recognition in Cambodia.

    “The Church provides Cambodians with a way to seek spirituality, which for many Cambodians has been nearly absent for the past 20 years,” says Brother Ith: “The teachings of the Church help me more than anything else. I am more focused on my family life, and I am striving to keep the commandments.”

    Though Cambodian refugees have been joining the Church around the world since the 1970s—in fact, several cities throughout the world have Cambodian-speaking units—the gospel did not officially enter their homeland until January 1993. Larry R. White, who was serving as Thailand Bangkok Mission president, heard a favorable report about religious progress in Cambodia. Elder John K. Carmack of the Seventy (then a member of the Asia Area Presidency), Brother Ith (who was then living in Thailand), and President White entered Cambodia to ask government representatives about the possibility of establishing humanitarian projects. They received a positive reception.

    The time seemed right for their visit. Cambodia’s political and social situation has been extremely volatile—even brutal at times—since the nation became independent from France in 1953. Nevertheless, a United Nations-sponsored peace treaty was signed in 1991. Elections held soon after the first visit of Church representatives in 1993 went smoothly, allowing Cambodia to make much progress toward democracy and rebuilding. At that time, Brother Ith received an appointment as a special adviser to the new prime minister. (Today he is employed as president of Cambodia’s national airline and as secretary-general of the Cambodian Investment Board.) His influence was invaluable in helping Church leaders present their case.

    Elder Carmack and President White soon returned to Cambodia to submit the Church’s formal application for legal recognition and to arrange for couple missionaries to assist the Cambodian people by teaching English, distributing clothing donated by Church members, participating in technical university projects, and sharing the gospel.

    Legal recognition was granted to the Church in March 1994, and before the month ended, Donald C. and Scharlene Dobson of Logan, Utah, were transferred from their missionary labors in Madras, India, to Phnom Penh as Cambodia’s first missionaries. The first Church meeting was held at a hotel on 27 March 1994, with six members and nine investigators in attendance. On 9 May 1994, Sister Pahl Mao became the first member baptized in Cambodia.

    Other humanitarian-service couples soon arrived, and four young proselyting elders were transferred to Cambodia from Cambodian-speaking missions in the United States of America.

    Now, three years later, the Church in Cambodia has more than 400 members in four Phnom Penh branches—three Cambodian and one Vietnamese. The branches are under local leadership, with support provided when needed by couple missionaries. Four couples from the United States are advisers to the Royal University of Agriculture—two teaching English and two assisting in the university’s agricultural business operations. They, with 15 proselyting missionaries, serve in the Cambodia Phnom Penh Mission, which was created this year. In addition, the first native-born Cambodian missionary has been called. Elder Leang Chhay Suy now serves in the Idaho Pocatello Mission in the United States.

    Prior to the creation of the new mission, Cambodia was part of the Thailand Bangkok Mission. Mission president Troy Lee Corriveau, who completed his assignment in Thailand in July, says that in the months following President Hinckley’s visit to Cambodia, there was a marked increase in converts. “We had approximately 40 converts a month for the next couple of months. Although many were single, we also had whole families baptized. It was a joy to see the happy faces of fathers and mothers coming to church with their children.

    “The Saints here are excited about the gospel and the blessings it brings into their lives, especially the promise of eternal blessings in the temple. It’s a financial challenge for the Saints to get to the Manila Philippines Temple, but we hope to see the first Cambodian members making the trip this year.”

    In the early days of the Church in Cambodia, one of the first converts was 18-year-old Vietnam native Phuong Hong Hanh. She first attended church in July 1994 because she was interested in learning English but she was soon converted to the gospel. “I knew it was right,” she said.

    Another early convert, An Chea Maline, a Cambodian who joined the Church in May 1995 and served as a branch Primary president before emigrating to Australia, recalls that for a long time she knew nothing about God. “But now I know this Church is true,” she says. “It is a bright sun for me.”

    Seng Suon, a convert of nearly a year, was a university student when missionaries met him. “I prayed to know if the Book of Mormon and the Church were true and if Joseph Smith was a prophet,” he says. “The answer came around midnight. I awoke, and everything seemed bright. I had the feeling that it all was true.”

    When Theany Reath, a young adult in Cambodia, was investigating the Church two years ago, she worried that her family would be offended when she stopped praying to their deceased ancestors. To her relief, her parents have been tolerant of her new beliefs and behaviors. “I feel the love of my parents a great deal,” she says. “They respect my new practices, such as fasting, and they no longer expect me to drink tea with them.” Today she serves as a branch Young Women president.

    Oum Borin, Cambodia’s first native branch president, along with his wife, Samay, joined the Church more than two years ago. “One night, my wife had a dream of two stars that fell into the house,” he recalls. “Then two missionaries came to our house, and we felt the stars symbolized the elders. I know this Church is the true Church of Christ.”

    Ha Phuoc Thach and his wife, Nguyen Thi Hong, are Vietnamese converts of nearly three years. In 1990 all three of their teenage children were lost at sea in a boat filled with Vietnamese refugees. Despite—or perhaps because of—this tragedy, the couple embraced the gospel when they heard it. Speaking about their baptism, Ha Phuoc Thach says: “Our lives changed. It was a spiritual change.” His wife adds, “I want everyone to pray, because God does answer prayers.” He serves as a counselor in the branch presidency of the Vietnamese-speaking branch. His wife is the Relief Society president. When asked why with all they have suffered they are always smiling, the couple respond, “Because now we are happy.”

    Their sentiments doubtless will be echoed in the years ahead by numerous other Asians as they embrace the gospel. In the dedicatory prayer, President Hinckley asked the Lord’s blessing upon “this land and this people that there may be peace, that there may be prosperity, that there may be harmony, and that Thy work may succeed.”

    Photography by Robert E. and Carol P. Warnick, except as noted

    Above: President Gordon B. Hinckley (center) with a newly baptized Cambodian member. At right are Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder John H. Groberg of the Seventy. (Photograph by Lowell Hardy.) Left: Phnom Penh at sunset. Right: Vichit Ith helped open the doors to the Church in Cambodia.

    Young Women president, Theany Reath, helps young women make decorations for their branch Christmas tree.

    Right: Cambodian Saints concentrate on the message of a prophet during President Hinckley’s visit. (Photograph by Lowell Hardy.) Far right: Young women ride a manpowered cyclo to church.

    Above: Convert Seng Suon is a student at the Royal University of Agriculture, where four Latter-day Saint couples serve as advisers. Right: Phuong Hong Hanh directs a congregational hymn.

    Top: A typical scene in Phnom Penh—houses built around a tranquil lily pond. Above, left: Phnom Penh First and Third Branch meetinghouse. Above, center: Modern-day pioneers in Cambodia commemorate the 1847 arrival of Latter-day Saints into the Salt Lake Valley. Above, right: The Church is a “bright sun” to Cambodian convert An Chea Maline, who served as a branch Primary president in Phnom Penh.

    Theany Reath, Young Women president in the Phnom Penh First Branch.

    Above, left: Elder Leang Chhay Suy, Cambodia’s first native-born missionary. Above, right: Independence Monument in Phnom Penh. Right: Vietnamese converts Ha Phuoc Thach and his wife, Nguyen Thi Hong (right), visit with branch members.