Through the front door of the modest, but neat, row house at 50 Rock Street in Lowell, Massachusetts, comes the exotic aroma of Asian food. Two little Cambodian girls sit on the front steps flashing smiles that are even more inviting than the wonderful fragrance that fills the warm, humid midafternoon air. Step into the living room and you are immediately impressed with the strong sense of family community. The walls are lined with poster-size photographs of relatives: exquisite Cambodian brides in ceremonial costumes juxtaposed among Americanized Asian youth proudly standing by their Trans Am automobiles. A dozen friends, neighbors, and cousins are comfortably seated on well-worn sofas and the floor, happily talking as they watch a Cambodian video. Children seem to outnumber adults three to one but play contentedly among themselves.
The kitchen is a bustle of activity. Fifteen-year-old Savy is at the table grinding a small mountain of garlic and curry with an oversize mortar and pestle. Nineteen-year-old Soph is mixing a crowd-size pot of prohok (seasoned fish) and squash soup. Others chat and laugh while working among boxes of Thai noodles, limes, and all sorts of exotic spices.
This could be the home of any one of thousands of southeast Asian families that have settled in this melting pot city of 100,000. But 50 Rock Street is the home of Chea Touch (pronounced Cheea Tooch), a 12-year-old Cambodian boy and recent convert to the Church. Although a member of the Billerica (Massachusetts) Ward for less than a year, and the only member of his family to join the Church, this remarkable young man has been directly responsible for the baptisms of 15 other Asian friends.
“It has not been easy for my family and me to come to a new country. There are many things we don’t understand, and we have many struggles. The elders have shown us that they care about us and they want us to be happy,” relates Chea. He adds, “I’ve always known I have a Heavenly Father who loves me. It’s been wonderful to learn more about him and know what I must do to return to him. I want my friends to know the truth so they can have the happiness I do.”
Chea’s efforts, combined with those of the stake and full-time elders assigned to this area, have resulted in a total of 150 convert baptisms in eight months.
Our story begins in 1987 when two elders, Paul Gooch and Garrett Black, were assigned to the Massachusetts Boston Mission. Since there had not been elders in Lowell for a number of years, they felt it was appropriate to seek special help from Heavenly Father on the missionary effort. At that time there were only two Cambodian families who were members of the Church in that area.
Elder Gooch’s journal entry of April 11, 1987, reads: “On this beautiful, clear, spring day, Elder Black and I went upon the top of Fort Hill overlooking the city. We asked that Lowell be blessed as a place of refuge for the Asian people where they could rest in peace and safety, where the Spirit could dwell amidst them in their homes.” Both elders felt inspired. The entry continues, “We asked that Lowell be blessed as a place where the Asians might come to know Jesus as their Savior.”
The elders’ first meeting with Chea was quite accidental. Looking for another family, they happened to knock on his door. Chea was the only family member who spoke English. In the course of their conversation, he told them that he loved Jesus, wanted to find a church, and made them promise to take him to church the next Sunday. Elder Gooch recalls, “I was very impressed with Chea. He was extremely mature and seemed like a 25-year-old in an 11-year-old body.” Chea’s parents told the elders that their son visited several Christian churches on his own, but “didn’t feel right in any of them.”
Chea’s maturity is no doubt a result of many of the things he has experienced in his young life. Like many Cambodians who have found refuge in the United States, Chea and his family are survivors. He was four and his sister Soph was ten when they escaped with their parents from Cambodia after suffering through long days of fear and hard work on a rice farm. The Touch family does not like to speak about the events in their past life. It is painful to recall the tortures and brutal slayings. Seven of their children died in Cambodia.
Chea and his remaining family were able to escape one night in 1979 after the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese forces. They trekked through the mountains and made their way to the Kavidan refugee camp in Thailand.
They lived in the refugee camp until 1984, when relief organizations sponsored their relocation to the United States. They’ve been in Lowell, Massachusetts, since then. Chea now has two younger sisters: Lundi, who is six, and Dani, age four.
After hearing the discussions and attending sacrament meeting, Chea knew he had found what he was looking for. “The people are so nice. I feel I belong. As I learn the scriptures and read the Book of Mormon, I can feel Heavenly Father’s love for me.” Chea loves to sing and adds, “The music makes me very happy.” Although his parents have taken the missionary lessons, attend church often, and fully support Chea, they have not joined.
After his baptism, Chea and the elders became very good friends. “Almost every day Chea would hop over the back fence and climb the stairs to our apartment,” recalls Elder Gooch. “After fixing himself a piece of unbuttered toast, he would tell us about friends and relatives he wanted us to visit. Sometimes we had a hard time keeping up!”
With a twinkle in his eye, Chea recalls the first person he told the elders about. “Sothom Chea was in my class at school. At first I was afraid of him. I thought he didn’t like me. I asked him if he would like to meet my friends, Elder Black and Elder Gooch. When Sothom said yes I was surprised but very, very happy.” Chea accompanied the elders to all of Sothom’s discussions. He says, “I enjoyed translating the lessons. I learned so much. I could feel the Holy Spirit. Besides, it was fun.”
Old as well as young have benefited from Chea’s desire to share his newfound knowledge. His neighbor, Sophon Heng, a mother of four, and her elderly mother Hong Heng were baptized as a result of Chea’s efforts. Sophon recalls, “Chea was so kind to us. He asked us if we would like to meet two men who would teach us and make us happy. When we said yes, Chea and the elders came to our home each week and taught us the gospel.”
For Chea it is not a sacrifice but a real joy to share Heavenly Father’s message. “Each time I go with the elders I seem to learn something new. I enjoy learning about how to return to Heavenly Father—what I must do and what I must avoid.”
Irene Danjou, Chea’s former Primary president, beams as she remembers, “Each Sunday he would bring a different friend to church. He’d introduce them to me, spell their names, tell me their ages, and sit with them until they felt comfortable. Then he would go to his own class. He did this every week for a whole year!”
One example of Chea’s diligence and enthusiasm as a young missionary is recorded in Elder Gooch’s journal: “I was home for lunch, sitting on my hardwood rocking chair, trying to prepare a talk for zone conference. Somehow I just couldn’t get my thoughts gathered. The telephone rang. It was Chea. He told me that he wanted Elder Black and me to visit the Vongs, a Cambodian family that had been in Lowell for a year. They were praying and fasting to find a church they could attend.”
Saveth Vong and her three children, Chetena, Chendra, and Tola, had narrowly escaped execution. Her husband, a pilot in the Cambodian Army, had been captured. Saveth and her children managed to get out of prison three days before they were scheduled to be shot.
Chea smiles as he recalls his and the elder’s first visit to the Vong home. “Everyone seemed so eager to learn. There were many questions. The Spirit was very strong.” Although the Vongs used a Book of Mormon printed in Cambodian, they needed help with gospel principles. Chea played an important role, assisting the elders as he translated discussions and shared his own experiences in the Church. Elder Gooch’s journal entry continues, “Day after day, Chea sat quietly by Saveth helping her understand the things we taught. He never seemed to tire of the message of the gospel.”
Indeed, as Chea taught the gospel his testimony grew. He recalls, “I remember reading 3 Nephi 27:7: ‘Therefore, whatsoever ye shall do, ye shall do it in my name; therefore ye shall call the church in my name; and ye shall call upon the Father in my name that he will bless the church for my sake.’ [3 Ne. 27:7] I thought, how could it be that I’ve never seen this scripture before? It makes so much sense. Heavenly Father’s true church must be named after his Son!”
This scripture also confirmed for Chea what he knew in his heart was true—that if he prayed to Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus and asked for help to share the gospel message, Heavenly Father would bless his efforts.
When the Vongs made the decision to be baptized, Chea was delighted. Elder Gooch recalls that evening, “While we were driving home, Chea asked Elder Black and me to stop by a grove of trees in a nearby park so that we could thank Heavenly Father. We took turns giving thanks and expressing our joy. When we were finished, Chea climbed on my shoulders. After a few quiet moments Chea lovingly looked down, flashed his million dollar smile and said, “The Holy Ghost is with us, Gooch, isn’t it?”
“Yep, Chea, sure is.”
“I know—I felt it!”
The Vongs were baptized a week later.
Chea will be entering the sixth grade this fall. He loves to fish and play basketball and enjoys video games. Like other Cambodian youth in America, he plays an important role in helping his parents learn their new language and culture. The adults spend long hours working to make ends meet and don’t have much free time to learn English. The youth, on the other hand, pick up the language quickly and bring it home. Chea’s been particularly fortunate. Along with his regular public school classes, he’s in a special program at the Sylvan Learning Center in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Director Joan O’Brien sees Chea as a unique child. “I think he’s a youngster who will be a real leader in the Cambodian culture. He’s like a pitcher that cannot be filled.”