The Culture of Christ (In Cambodia)
The missionary showed me where the Gospel Doctrine class room was, “Relief Society meets in here, too, so you’re good.” I thanked her, did one last check on my children in Primary, then returned to the adult classroom and sat down. I was happy to listen to the lesson in Cambodian, though I knew not a word. The gospel doctrine teacher didn’t seem to have the same manual as what western wards in North America, Australia and New Zealand used, but I still sat and tried to surmise which gospel doctrine lesson it might be. I soon learned that they were using the gospel essentials handbook in all of the adult Sunday school classes; Christianity was new to the area, and sticking to basics was appropriate.
“Do you want me to translate?” asked the missionary when she returned after the Gospel Doctrine class, for the start of Relief Society. I said, no, mostly because I didn’t want to be disruptive. In the past five years, my husband and I have moved four times. It is nice sometimes to have someone to talk to in church, and this missionary was from the US, and likely has little contact with westerners, especially western women. In recognizing we were both probably lonely, I gave in. We spent the entire lesson quietly chatting in English.
At first, I sat and listened to her. She told me how she had helped her current companion fill out her mission papers in a previous area, and now, she spent much of her time teaching her native companion mission rules. This idea bothered me, and for a moment, I struggled to table it. But I did place the thought aside to just listen as best as I could with openness. I learned that the American missionary’s companion did not know how to work a washing machine, or practice other standard missionary grooming and cleanliness policies in place for this mission, such as wearing shoes as often as possible. I appreciated the cultural shock that the American missionaries were sure to go through when arriving in the Far East, but had not considered the cultural shock of a Cambodian church member within her own country based on mission policy.
But before I could become too distracted with that thought, my mind was redirected as the American missionary shared with me a story. A story about how one evening, when she and her companion had gone to visit the woman sitting a few spaces from me on that Sunday in Relief Society. How that beautiful, local woman, with wise eyes, and hands dried stiff from hard work– was in a panic because her dog was missing. The woman had never married, and this dog was like her child.
As someone who had a dog who I loved as much as of he were my son, and who was my companion when I went through so many infertility treatments… and failures, who licked my tears and cuddled with me at night– I felt passionate about the relationship of person and pet. I was guarded—the missionary seemed slightly incredulous when she said this woman thought of her dog as her child, but then her words firmed, and she testified, “her dog was her family.” She then continued, “And one night, he did not come home. Her son did not come home.” I eased, sensing that she understood how important this pet was.
She continued her story: The emotional confusion and language barriers proved too cumbersome, and the American missionary could not understand why the woman was so inconsolably upset, or what the woman was saying. The woman knew the dog was old, and she knew the dog would likely not live much longer. His death was not unexpected, yet any scriptures or reassurances of seeing the dog were lost. To be clear, it wasn’t the possibility of his death that disturbed her, but his disappearance. His disappearance left her utterly panic-ridden. The American missionary was at a loss when finally the native companion stepped in. It was she who was able to explain: the woman thought that because the dog had not come home to die, that he had been eaten. By people. Either killed or died and his fresh remains scavengered for meat, she thought he may have been eaten. And because the dog was consumed by humans, there was no way for him to be reincarnated.
The woman had been taught that the plan of redemption was for her… and she applied this understanding in addition to her cultural background in Hinduism. Thus, she believed that she was allowed to hope for the celestial kingdom because she had evolved into a human. Her dog would yet be lost because he had not yet been reincarnated as a human. Now, I do not mean to debate the concept of animals going to heaven, I have my own belief in that. I mean to draw attention to the newness of Christian understanding in non-western cultures. This was a good Mormon woman. In Cambodia. And that night, the American Mormon missionary taught her the simple truth, that there was every chance that her dog would be in heaven to greet her. That Christ loves animals and would never abandon a soul because of a poverty-based cultural inclination. But mostly, that Christ knew what this dog meant to her, and that He would protect the dog’s spirit, and the atonement could heal the pain and loss in her heart.
In other words, the missionary had the opportunity to teach Christianity to a Mormon.
Listening to this story was a moment perfectly absent of national tradition or custom for me; it was a moment where the church handbook and mission rules suddenly seemed like antiquated guidebooks written in a dead language, only intended for use within a limited moment in time. It was a moment that made me long for home—real home, where I could shed my conscious and subconscious flags of patriotism, my native tongue and my customary beliefs — all so that could rest ~truly rest~ in the culture of Christ. It was a moment when I learned why the core basics of Christianity were yet global, revolutionary concepts. And for that, I was grateful. Because sometimes, sticking to basics is beautiful, and basic truth is that we are all one in Christ Jesus.
Thus, I suddenly became glad that the American missionary had a washing machine. Because sometimes, it is the simple comforts that bring so, so much peace when we are so far from home. Just as the simple truth that Christ saves all of us is yet a revolutionary concept even among Mormons. And when we are reminded of Christ’s truth, it still brings copious amounts of peace to us wherever it is that we sojourn— all of us, so very far from our Heavenly Parents’ home.
Have you ever been so far far from home that the smallest reminder could bring you peace?