Cambodian Saints in Southern California

“Cambodian Saints in Southern California,” Ensign, June 1995, 75

Cambodian Saints in Southern California

It is a clear, sunny Sunday morning in the southern California suburb of Santa Ana. Along apartment-lined Minnie Street, Cambodian children gather expectantly. The girls wear colorful sarongs, wraparound skirts patterned with painted fish or flowers and knotted at the hip. The boys play in the parking lot as leaders of the Irvine Eighth (Cambodian) Branch drive up, and missionaries briskly organize carpools to carry these Cambodian members to church.

“We are engaged in a great work,” says recently released branch president Ralph Ellsworth Jr. He and other local leaders have felt blessed to help prepare a people who one day may help take the gospel to their ancestral homeland. The branch members share that sense of mission.

“I know that Heavenly Father brought the Cambodians here for a purpose,” says Sarith Niev, a Cambodian refugee from Florida who served a full-time mission among the three thousand Cambodians living in the Minnie Street vicinity. “Getting the gospel was one of the greatest things that happened to us.”

The branch was created in 1983 after Sister Sokcheat Lee (now Lee-Stewart), a Cambodian refugee living in Salt Lake City, moved with her family to California and began bringing her Cambodian friends to the Irvine Second Ward. Before long, three dozen Cambodian members were holding Sunday meetings at a warehouse on Minnie Street. Since 1985, the growing body of Cambodian Saints has met at the stake center.

By 9:30 A.M. the chapel has filled with about 150 Cambodian Saints, the vast majority of them under age eighteen. Most of their parents embrace the Buddhist culture, though they permit their children to join the Church because of its wholesome influence in an area of gang and drug activity.

“The Church teaches them the principles they need in order to get out of the ghetto,” says Irvine stake president Edward W. Griffith. “As they learn the gospel, they progress tremendously.”

Branch youth who as toddlers fled war-torn Cambodia in their parents’ arms or were born in communist labor camps or Thai refugee camps are now enjoying Scout or girls’ camps, serving two-week minimissions, and helping the homeless. Two young people from the branch attend Brigham Young University, and three are currently serving full-time missions.

The youth do not lack for older adult role models. James Tran and Sister Lee-Stewart, who have successfully adjusted to new lives in a new land, inspire young Cambodian Saints to put the gospel first in their lives.

“If we are strong in the Spirit and have faith in the Lord, we can overcome all,” says Brother Tran, who was baptized in 1975 while on military duty in Bangkok, Thailand.

“I feel I was saved for a purpose of doing something good for the Church,” says Brother Tran, who labored “with all my heart to translate the Book of Mormon” into Khmer, the language of Cambodia. Sealed to his wife and five children and called to serve on the stake high council, he is an appeals-hearing specialist representing Los Angeles County in welfare matters.

After coming to the United States, Sister Lee-Stewart became a certified respiratory therapist in California. “Without the gospel, I would not have come this far,” she says. “Now I’m able to help other people. I learn something new every day that helps me raise my children.” Since her recent temple marriage in the San Diego Temple, her outlook has brightened even more: “Now I have no worries and feel happy and at peace.”

The stake provides the branch with leaders who soon become attached to those they serve. Primary teacher Owen Kimball no longer misses his own ward. “I love these little children,” he explains.

“You feel the Spirit here because the members give back to you everything you give to them, tenfold,” says former Primary president Teresa Alleman.

Signs of increasing levels of trust and love in the branch abound. On Minnie Street a missionary pauses to swing a giggling boy through the air, while his companion plays Chinese jump rope with a group of young girls. Elsewhere a member of the branch presidency joins young men in a game of toth sai (similar to the American game Hacky Sack). Church meetings over, the children timidly hug their teachers while their mothers, members or not, put oranges or egg rolls into leaders’ pockets.

Asked why they go to church, Merrie Miss girls on Minnie Street grin and shyly turn away. Asked again, Sohkin Kong, a beautiful girl with natural curls and deep-brown eyes, looks up and states frankly, “I love church because it’s a house of God. I feel good when I go there.”

On Minnie Street, young Cambodian Church members and their friends pose for a photo with a full-time missionary.