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
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
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
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