It’s been nearly 20 years since I finished my mission. During my 2 years of service I would categorize the work with the southeast asians as “struggling”. And if you are talking specifically about the cambodian people I’d say doubly so. The closest thing to a cambodian branch we had was one in West Seattle where we met in the branch president’s home. There were perhaps 5-10 people that would come and for the most part the elders took care of everything. Besides the branch president there was one other brother that held the priesthood and the majority of the “congregation” was women and children. We would hold sacrament meeting and have a short Sunday school lesson, then everyone would pack up and go over to the local ward building for primary/priesthood/relief society. It was the closest thing I knew to what it would be like to hold services entirely in cambodian. Don’t get me wrong, it was a wonderful time and we worked really hard and really loved the people. I have some precious memories of working in that area. But we always had a dream of having enough people come each week to the point where it could be self-sustaining, where there was enough men who held the priesthood and enough people who came each week to where we could function as a full branch.
Today I saw what this would look like. Here in Siam Reap they are still classified as a branch, but they were practically bursting out of the building that they rent to hold services. I was told that they are in the process of building a new chapel and in the next 3 or 4 months it should be done. Perhaps at that point they will become an official ward. Rosa’s nephew has attended the branch before so he knew where it was and what time it started (8am, by the way). We got there about 15 minutes early and it felt like an American ward back home. There were a few people there and folks were quietly mingling with each other. We took a seat towards the back and a couple of people came over to talk with us. One young man introduced himself and as we talked I learned that he had just returned from a mission here in Cambodia and was now working with the mission as a family history consultant. He was so excited for the work he was doing and I could tell that family history is something that was being really emphasized here. In fact, there were four elders and an older missionary couple there. The older couple were from Texas and didn’t speak a word of cambodian, but man did they show love for the people. They were called to work specifically with the people to help organize their family history and they were there yesterday to help answer questions about it. It sounded like they kind of roam the mission doing this kind of thing. And, just like our American wards, it seems like everyone showed up in the five minutes and when the branch president got up to welcome everyone the room was packed.
I think there were two highlights of the meeting for me. One was being able to hear the sacrament prayer in cambodian again and really feel the spirit as that sacred ordinance was performed by their Aaronic priesthood. The second highlight was singing the hymns! In all my past experiences with the Cambodian people, I have never heard over a hundred people all singing together in the Khmer language. It was incredible and nearly brought tears to my eyes. I even had fun being the only guy there who could sing the bass line. :-) The talks were wonderful, the people were so friendly, and I can’t express how much I loved being there with them and how happy it makes me to see how the gospel is touching the lives of the people that I love so very much. It really is a dream come true and I can’t wait for the day when Rosa and I can come back and be part of the work here too.