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Learning of new Mormon Church leaders in Cambodia

Published: Monday, Sept. 26 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

John and Dianne Enslen as senior missionaries in Siem Reap,Cambodia. (John Enslen) John and Dianne Enslen as senior missionaries in Siem Reap,Cambodia. (John Enslen)

Editor's note: While thousands gather in the Conference Center for general conference, many more tune in around the globe via several types of technology. This week, Mormon Times shares experiences and memories of those who have participated in general conference outside of the United States.

The six-month mark of our senior mission to the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia was on Oct. 6, 2007. My wife, Dianne, and I had touched down at the Phnom Penh airport on April 6 of that year, the same day that the first box of triple combinations in the Khmer language had arrived to bless the beautiful brown-skinned, black-haired people of that foreign land.

Upon our arrival in that capitol city, our mission president, President Robert W. Winegar, wasted no time in appointing me to serve as branch president of a nonexistent branch that we were to help establish in Siem Reap, the city nearest the famous Angkor Wat ruins of the 11th-13th centuries A.D.

The first sacrament meeting of the Siem Reap Branch, Cambodia, in April of 2007. (John Enslen) The first sacrament meeting of the Siem Reap Branch, Cambodia, in April of 2007. (John Enslen)

Over the ensuing six months, four young elders, who all “cleared the bar” by at least three feet, labored diligently in Siem Reap to gather a small congregation of native Cambodians, all of whom formerly had been Buddhists. These converts had been reared in a religious tradition and culture that afforded no exposure to congregational meetings, congregational singing or public speaking.

On that special Saturday, Sister Enslen and I had returned to Siem Reap by commercial airline after an exhausting day of missionary training in Phnom Penh. We settled into our apartment to await the general conference broadcast over our Internet hookup. On the clock, Cambodia was 13 hours ahead of Salt Lake City, and we knew that it would be 11 p.m. Cambodian time when general conference commenced.

Sister Enslen and I attentively watched the opening session, anxious to know who would be called into the First Presidency and who would be called into the Quorum of the Twelve. President James E. Faust, the second counselor in the First Presidency, had died in August 2007, bringing to an end the longest-serving First Presidency without a personnel change in the history of the church.

Sister Dianne Enslen with two Cambodian investigators in 2007. (John Enslen) Sister Dianne Enslen with two Cambodian investigators in 2007. (John Enslen)

Having had limited personal associations with both, we were thrilled to learn that President Henry B. Eyring would fill the vacancy in the First Presidency and that Elder Quentin L. Cook would join the Quorum of the Twelve. We were blessed with powerful confirmations as the two of us joyfully raised our hands in sustaining support for these two devoted brethren. That single two-hour session of general conference crossed into a second calendar day in Cambodia.

With less than four hours of sleep that night, yet feeling renewed, we had arisen by 6 a.m. and arrived at our branch meetinghouse, a converted home, about 7:45 a.m. As had been our experience since the inception of the branch, when we drove our vehicle into the parking area at the meetinghouse, we were immediately surrounded almost celebrity-like by a throng of enthusiastic members and investigators who had preceded us.

Elder John Enslen and Elder Desmond Bennion with aaronic priesthood of the Siem Reap Branch, Cambodia. (John Enslen) Elder John Enslen and Elder Desmond Bennion with aaronic priesthood of the Siem Reap Branch, Cambodia. (John Enslen)

We were warmly received by all in the traditional way, with praying hands and bowed heads. We were greeted with the words “Loak Tah” and “Loak Yie,” which mean in Khmer “grandfather” and “grandmother,” respectively. Our greeters were totally unfamiliar with LDS protocol as it related to the use of priesthood titles. I was a fulltime missionary and a branch president, but never during our mission was I addressed as Elder Enslen or President Enslen by any of the members of the Siem Reap Branch. Instead, I was called “grandfather.”

I was honored and not bothered in the least by this unusual practice. I never attempted to correct the members, relying on the fact that Heavenly Father does not insist on being referred to by a priesthood title. My sole desire was to live up to the affectionate family title the people had chosen for me — to love them like a good grandfather would love his own bloodline grandchildren. Sister Enslen was my perfect example as she "grand-smothered" every member and missionary in the branch.

There were 57 attending sacrament meeting — a fast and testimony meeting — that Sunday morning. The countenances of those present had that radiating glow that new converts and progressing investigators come to acquire as they faithfully read and pray about the restored gospel.

I handed my first counselor, a native Cambodian named Loy Bunseak, a handwritten announcement to read to those in attendance.

The note read: “At approximately 11:10 p.m. Cambodian time last night, President Gordon B. Hinckley announced at the opening session of general conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, that Elder Henry B. Eyring had been called to serve as second counselor in the First Presidency and that Elder Quentin L. Cook had been called to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This action was unanimously sustained by the 21,000 members in attendance at the Conference Center and by millions of others who were watching or listening by way of internet, cable TV, BYU television, satellite dish, radio and other forms of media throughout the world.”

As Brother Loy(Cambodians use their surname first) reverently translated my handwritten note for the congregation, the Holy Ghost fell over me like a warm blanket on a cold night. I was blessed with the same powerful confirmation that I had experienced in the solitude of our temporary home-away-from-home nine hours earlier when Sister Enslen and I had raised our hands in sustaining support for President Eyring and Elder Cook.

As I listened to Brother Loy’s announcement to our Cambodian members, I was touched and fortified by the Spirit. The close attention that the members gave to the announcement was inspiring to me. Despite their limited church experience, I could clearly discern in their faces a strong allegiance to the prophet and a single set of church leaders, and the sense of worldwide unity that such allegiance brings to our members.

I told the congregation in my testimony that the gospel train keeps moving forward, traveling steadily down the track toward its decreed destiny, gaining passengers as it progressed. Every seat on the gospel train is a good seat, and Sister Enslen and I were grateful and honored to have a seat in the Cambodian compartment.

John Enslen is a small-town courtroom lawyer in Alabama who writes about Mormon history. He has been a history consultant for artist T. C. Christensen and authored the book "The Bible and The Book of Mormon — Connecting Links." Email: jeenslen@gmail

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