More than 1,200 members packed into two stake centers as Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Seventy and Asia Area president, along with Elder Randy D. Funk, second counselor in the Asia Area presidency and also of the Seventy, organized the first two stakes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cambodia on May 25.
On that historic occasion, Eng Bun Houch was called to be president of the Cambodia Phnom Penh North Stake and Ouk Sophal was called as president of the Cambodia Phnom Penh South Stake.
“It is wonderful to see the growth of the church in this land,” Ouk told the LDS Church News. “The Lord loves us and is greatly blessing us.”
Four of the five former Cambodia mission presidents and their wives were in attendance that day, including David and Myrna Towers, who relished the moment.
“We were excited to get word about those stakes,” said David Towers, who presided over the Cambodia Phnom Penh Mission from 2003-2006. “It was a grand time, a huge celebration of the church being in Cambodia for 20 years.”
The Cambodian government granted legal recognition to the LDS Church on March 4, 1994. Since then, LDS Church membership in Cambodia has ballooned to more than 12,200 members, according to mormonnewsroom.org.
While marveling at the growth of the church in Cambodia, the Towers, former missionaries and others are sharing meaningful stories and experiences of their time in this unique country in Southeastern Asia.
The 1970s were a time of great political unrest and tragedy in Cambodia. Communist dictator Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers killed close to 2 million Cambodians (more than 21 percent of the population) from 1975 to 1979, according to a NationalGeographic.com article.
During this time, many families were driven from homes and torn apart. Loy Bunseak, who was 9 years old in 1975, was one of millions taken and forced to work in the rice fields. He lost both of his parents and five of his eight siblings. Loy survived by having “hope,” he said in a 2010 church magazines article by Chad E. Phares.
More than 15 years later, Loy’s hope helped him find the LDS Church. He and his family were baptized in 2001. He was eventually called to serve as president of the Siem Reap Branch.
“The missionaries helped me learn from the Book of Mormon, but I received my testimony of its truthfulness from God,” Loy said in the article. “I could see how living the teachings of the Book of Mormon made my family happier.”
Chun Chanthy was 7 years old when her parents were taken to what were later named “the killing fields,” she told Paul Richard Sullivan in an LDS Church News article. She also found healing in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Although I didn’t have an opportunity to serve my parents while they were on the earth, I am preparing to serve them through ordinances of the temple so we can all live together in heaven,” Chun said in the article.
In the early 1990s, three senior couples with agricultural backgrounds operated a small feed mill and cannery. They also taught English. When asked, they could talk about the gospel, according to a 2004 LDS Church News article by Shaun D. Stahle.
Within a few years, the first proselyting missionaries gained permission to come from Cambodian-speaking missions in the United States. But even as Elder John H. Groberg of the Seventy and Area Presidency arrived in 1994 to meet the first four missionaries, he saw Cambodian teenagers with guns and wondered if it were safe, the article said.
On that occasion, Elder Groberg said, he was talking with the missionaries when he received a call from a Cambodian military official saying a general wanted to meet him. The military leader soon arrived, accompanied by vehicles with mounted machine guns.
Things were tense for a few minutes until the general understood the church's purpose in sending missionaries. Instead of guns, the missionaries carried books, the general said in the article.
"Word must have traveled quickly that the missionaries had the general's approval and protection," Elder Groberg said in the article, "because the missionaries were welcomed and didn't need to fear for their lives.
"It's amazing to me what the Lord has accomplished in Cambodia," he continued. "To me it is verification that the Lord wants to be there and has people in Cambodia ready for the gospel. From that tense moment with the general when dark suddenly turned to light has come strong roots of the church that will someday become a stake. It's absolutely amazing."
Another turning point for the church in Cambodia came when President Gordon B. Hinckley visited and left his blessing in May 1996. Following Pol Pot's death in 1998, the political turmoil began to subside.
The Towers described the Cambodian people as humble and faithful. They told of one older woman who invited them to her home for family home evening. The Towers accepted but told the woman not to prepare a meal because they knew she lived in humble circumstances and didn’t have a job.
When the Towers arrived at the appointed time, the woman greeted them with a big pot of fish soup, rice, vegetables and fruit. When they asked why she had prepared the meal, the woman related a story.
Despite their request that she not make a meal, the woman wanted to provide one anyway. Inspired by a Book of Mormon scripture verse, she prayed fervently to be able to find food for her guests. Two days before the appointment, she was walking down the street and came upon a pair of green pants with $5 in the pocket. No one was around, so she claimed the $5 (a “huge fortune,” the Towers said) as answer to her prayers. She bought a fish, rice and vegetables, and a neighbor shared some jackfruit.
“She told us that if you believe in the teachings of the Book of Mormon you will be blessed. She had no idea how it would happen, but it did,” Myrna Towers said. “I told David I’m not a big fish soup lover, but fish soup never tasted so good as it did that night. That woman was amazing. She had such faith.”
During the Pol Pot era, many records were destroyed, presenting a great challenge for Cambodians interested in researching their family history. Cambodian genealogy is also somewhat complicated because each person has a different last name; women don’t take a husband’s name, and children are named after their mothers. Last names are also listed first, the Towers said.
Even so, the Towers were inspired by the faith of one church member who was determined to at least have his four generations recorded. When he failed to find any documents, the man went into a room and prayed for guidance.
“A little while later, he came out with his four generations, received by pure inspiration,” David Towers said. “He was able to do his genealogy because he had faith.”
Another precious memory for the Towers came one spring when a senior missionary composed an Easter cantata to help the Cambodian people understand Easter and Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
During one of the evening performances, an adult was standing near the choir of Primary children and overheard two boys talking. One boy related that when he was singing “I Am a Child of God,” he was overcome by a happy feeling that he described as “My heart opened and water came out of my eyes.”
“The man told the boy that’s how you feel when you feel the Spirit,” Myrna Towers said. “ ‘My heart opened and water came out of my eyes.’ What a tender and sweet expression from a child.”
Kory Stevens served as a full-time missionary in Cambodia from 2008-2010.
Because of the Pol Pot regime, Cambodia's economy and education systems continue to struggle and most of its people live in poverty. As a result, Stevens said, it's difficult to get people to sacrifice a day of work to attend LDS Church meetings.
"Not working on Sundays can literally mean not having any money to feed your family," Stevens said. "Church attendance requires a lot of faith there."
Another challenge is illiteracy. Many of the older generation never learned to read, so the missionaries have had to find unique ways to help investigators be immersed in the Book of Mormon, Stevens said.
One of the highlights of Stevens' mission came when he and his companion baptized half of the members of a family. The mother was called as the Relief Society president and became a strong leader, which energized the branch. Stevens learned recently that the other members of the family were later baptized, and the entire family was sealed in the Manila Philippines Temple last week.
"My heart was so full, and I felt something I had never felt before. I was overcome with joy for this family," said Stevens, who is now married, attending Brigham Young University and teaching Cambodian at the Provo Missionary Training Center. "That's what it is all about."
Nathan Egan served in the same mission as Stevens from 2009-2011. Once he was able to understand the language and digest the food, he came to love the people and their unique culture.
Egan said the best part about serving in Cambodia was seeing how living the gospel changed lives. He and his companion were able to help a family hurt by abuse become a tight-knit family that walked miles to church each Sunday. He was also deeply moved when a newlywed couple prayed with genuine gratitude for their small shack and the scanty meal they shared.
"They were able to become stronger and happier because they allowed Christ to enter their lives," Egan said. "I knew it was only a matter of time until the faithful members would receive the blessings of having stakes in their country."
For the Towers, one exciting aspect of the two new stakes is that of the six new stake leaders, three served under them as missionaries, including President Ouk. The Towers have also been delighted to learn that several former elders and sisters from their mission have married and started families.
“It’s a very nice feeling for us,” David Towers said. “Maybe we did something right and helped them.”
“It’s so fun to see their little families,” Myrna Towers said.
The Towers were also thrilled recently when their grandson Weston Monson received his mission call to Cambodia.
“I’m looking forward to going there. I’ve seen the photos and heard the stories. I’m looking forward to trying the weird foods, walking in the flooded streets and learning the language,” said Monson, who departs Aug. 6. “It’s an honor to carry on the family legacy.”
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