PHNOM PENH – The last time 22-year-old Sister Timbrel Essma spoke to her mother was on Mother’s Day, the one day each year other than Christmas when she is allowed to phone her parents.
Essma, a confident young woman who studied ballroom dancing in America, is one of 76 Mormon missionaries now living and proselytizing in Cambodia. To fully immerse the missionaries in the local culture, she is not allowed to communicate with friends or family back home.
“If we allow that more often, they would not be able to work,” explains Scott Smedley, the president of the Cambodian Mission. “They’d be constantly calling their friends and family at home.”
The Mormon church is focusing more of its considerable resources on Southeast and South Asia, regions which were first exposed to the faith only after World War II. According to Smedley, 40 years ago Mormon Southeast Asian missions were present only in Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Since then, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has established itself in Mongolia, India, Indonesia, Cambodia and, most recently, Vietnam. There are also Mormon charities working in Laos.
“We call Asia the frontier of the church,” Smedley said. “There is a drive to dedicate more resources to Asia because it’s new; 52% of the world’s population lives here – in China, India and Indonesia.”
Mormon missionaries take a decidedly grassroots approach to their proselytizing. Essma wakes up at 5:30 every morning and spends most of her time travelling around on her bicycle seeking out potential converts. Every day, she tries to talk to at least 10 new people, she says.
“If we stop to get our bike tire pumped, we talk to the guy who is pumping up our tire. If we go to the market, we talk to the lady who’s selling us vegetables,” she says. “Because we believe that everybody needs to hear the message.”
She does this seven days a week until 6 pm – except for Wednesday morning – her half-day of rest. That’s when the Mormon sisters and elders (male missionaries) do laundry, clean their apartments and go grocery shopping. Her dedication is paying off.
The membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cambodia, where the religion was first established in 1995, passed the 10,000 mark in March, according to Smedley. Last year, there were 432 new Mormons in Cambodia; this year, the church is projecting double that number.
To serve the increasing number of Mormons in Cambodia – who, in accordance with Mormon tradition give 10% of their income to the church – a growing number of expensive new temples are being built. The first Mormon church in Cambodia opened its doors in 2004 and cost more than US$2 million. This year, the Mormon church, which until now owns land only in Cambodia’s capital, started expanding into other parts of the country.
The first Mormon house of worship in Cambodia’s second-largest city, Battambang, will cost several million dollars and will be completed at the beginning of next year, according to Smedley. Mormons are also finalizing negotiations on a land purchase in Siem Reap, a tourist town near Angkor Wat, where they plan to build their next church.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently honored the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for its humanitarian work in the country. (Smedley keeps a framed photo of Hun Sen giving him a medal prominently displayed in his office.) The church regularly donates eyeglasses to Cambodians and gives away 1,500 wheelchairs per year in Cambodia and Vietnam, according to Smedley.
Mormon missionaries are also starting to focus more on neighboring Vietnam. However, the communist government there allows missionaries to operate only in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, requires them to be Vietnamese citizens, and forbids them from wearing nametags. Despite these restrictions, the first two Mormon churches in Vietnam opened a year ago. Around the same time, the church donated an $80,000 laser eye surgery machine, the only one of its kind in Vietnam, that treats cataracts.
“The church is very new in Vietnam, it hasn’t been given national recognition,” says Smedley. According to him, there are at present only 1,000 Mormons in Vietnam and only three Mormon missionaries who hold Vietnamese passports.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, government regulations also restrict the Mormon church’s activities; missionaries in these majority Muslim nations countries do not wear nametags to protect their safety.
Missionaries in Cambodia have to contend with the normal hazards of daily life in the tropics. In July, there were five cases of dengue fever and two cases of typhoid among the 76 missionaries, and one girl was hospitalized after a road accident. On top of such risks, they are often tired as the church dictates how they should spend every half hour of every day – down to the order in which they do their morning exercise, shower and study the Bible.
“They are here to teach about Jesus Christ and that’s it,” says Smedley. “It’s not a vacation.”
It’s a strict regiment. Missionaries may not drink tea, coffee or alcohol and are forbidden from attending movies, parties, weddings or concerts. The mission president also has to give his approval to every DVD they watch; sexual scenes, violence, murder and bad language are prohibited. They may not listen to music, except for church music. Young men and women may not invite members of the opposite sex to visit their homes, or have boyfriends or girlfriends.
While they are restricted to calling home only twice a year, missionaries must write weekly letters to the president of the mission. Other rules of the church state that missionaries may not ride motorcycles, wear flip-flops, have beards or mustaches, and that girls may not go out after dark without special permission.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requires men to serve on a mission overseas for two years before they get married; the sisters serve voluntarily. Of the 76 Cambodian missionaries, most of whom come from the United States, only 11 are women.
For their proselytizing work, missionaries receive no salary. To go on mission, they give the church $425 per month, from which the church takes care of their housing and allocates them $30 per week for food. To finance their mission, missionaries “start saving when they’re babies”, Smedley says.
On the $30 per week that she receives from the church for food and other expenses, Essma and her two roommates who share a small bedroom and eat every meal together can’t afford most Western foods. Most nights they have rice for dinner, but the girls are not complaining. “We’re religious people, so it’s a matter of prayer,” says Essma.
Smedley emphasizes the importance of leading by example. “The reward of their mission is to see [Cambodian] husbands stop drinking and bring food to their wives and children,” he said. “When you keep the commandments of God, you are blessed. That’s what makes people want to come on missions at their own expense.”