“Bob and Lori Thurston—Cambodia Phnom Penh Mission,” Liahona, April 2019
On their first mission together, Bob and Lori Thurston learned that meaningful ministering can happen despite language barriers and cultural differences because we are all children of God.
Leslie Nilsson, photographer
Before Lori and I were married, we talked about serving missions when we retired. We had both served missions before. Lori served in Kobe, Japan, and I served in Brisbane, Australia. When we finally got around to getting ready to retire, we told our kids we wanted to serve lots of missions.
We were fortunate to be able to retire young. When we had heard that some senior couples are unable to serve in some places like third world countries because of health issues and other concerns, we thought, “We’re not even 60 yet. We’re healthy, so use us!”
I retired just two days after my 56th birthday. We actually received our mission call when I was still working. When we opened our call and found out that we were called to serve in the Cambodia Phnom Penh Mission, we wept. We were excited!
Cambodia wasn’t really on our radar. I figured we’d go to Africa or something. We started asking ourselves, “OK, what adventures await us?” We wouldn’t have picked Cambodia, but what a gift! What a blessing! The Lord is smarter than we are. He sent us where we needed to be.
We served a humanitarian mission. We worked on projects for LDS Charities, filled out reports, and asked for new projects. We also checked on past projects such as wells that had been drilled two years before. We ended up serving in other ways too.
We attended stake and district conferences to help train leaders and missionaries, we inspected missionary apartments and visited members in their homes. We did all sorts of things to help the mission run smoothly.
No two days were the same on our mission. Some days we were out in the bush, knee-deep in water or mud. Other days were spent in the mission office. With Public Affairs missionaries, we visited the Ministry of Cults and Religion. In Cambodia, the term “cult” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The official religion is Buddhism—everything else is considered a cult. We visited the Ministry to help set the precedent that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a good organization and can be trusted.
We developed a good rapport with them, and they were quick to call for help. They’d call and say, “We’ve had a flood, and we need food for 200 families who have been displaced.” They knew they could rely on the Church to get stuff to where it was needed fast and supplement the things they didn’t have.
What did we experience in Cambodia? You name it, we probably experienced it! We have sat on the most humble floors—usually just dirt or bamboo—in the most humble homes. We’ve also been to the palatial homes of government officials. Bob even served in a branch presidency for a while.
The mission president called me and said, “Hey, I want you to be the second counselor in a branch.” A year and a half later, I was in the sealing room of the Hong Kong China Temple with the branch president I served with. He was going through the temple for the first time! He and his family had saved money and tried seven times to get to the temple, but there would be an accident, or someone would get sick. Something always came up. After seven years, they had saved only 40 dollars.
Three times on our mission, we were able to help Latter-day Saints in Cambodia attend the temple. We took lots of branch presidents who had been doing interviews for temple recommends but had never been to the temple themselves. At least in Cambodia, a senior couple would assist these families on their way to the temple. They need to have someone with them because they don’t know how to fly on a plane. Many haven’t even ridden on a bus! And now they’ve got to fly to Hong Kong and make their way to the temple. It was difficult for them to do that on their own. We are grateful for the Temple Patron Assistance Fund that helped take care of them.
Being a member of the Church in Cambodia can be challenging. As a country, Cambodia doesn’t have a Sabbath mentality. Everybody who comes to church has to make sacrifices to be there.
Also, Cambodia is six percent Muslim and only two percent Christian—the rest are Buddhists. Shifting from a Buddhist lifestyle to a Christian lifestyle is very difficult. Some people still lose their jobs, and a lot of times they are shunned by others in the neighborhood.
Tithing is also a big deal. Buddhist monks will come around every morning and ask for rice or some money, and people are used to that. But to take your paycheck and take a slice of that for tithing is a big deal.
Many have had real trauma in their lives. Because of the Khmer Rouge, a communist regime that ruled Cambodia in the late ’70s, everyone over 40 has a personal horror story. I didn’t meet anyone who hadn’t been affected by it. Everyone had family members who were murdered. Even though they’ve been through so much, I couldn’t believe how resilient they were, how willing to try they were. But behind their resilience, many still have low self-esteem. Many don’t feel like they’re important or worth anything.
It was amazing to see how the gospel of Jesus Christ helped them bloom. When they’d find out that they are not only wonderful but also a child of God, they’d say, “You’re kidding? Now I have something to contribute.”
The Church is really going to blossom in Cambodia. Incredible people have been led to the Church. The Saints there are pioneers, and those who really embrace the gospel are blessed in so many ways because they get to know the Savior. It is really amazing.
We have a lot of members and very strong wards around a place called “Trash Mountain,” which is an open dump where people live. Members there are pickers and collectors. They make their money off of recycling plastic and aluminum that they get out of the dump. They live in teeny little houses that we have been to dozens of times.
One day we could hear music blaring, and we noticed a tent was being set up. In Cambodia, that either means somebody is getting married or somebody has died.
We found out that a mother of five or six kids had just died. There was no husband to speak of. The children just woke up and realized their mom was dead.
One daughter was just sobbing. Through a translator, she said, “I’m the oldest. I’ve got all these siblings. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I just scooped her up in my arms. How could I not? This girl just lost her mother. I spoke to her in English and said, “I know you don’t understand me, but I promise you will see your mother again. You are going to be OK. You are not going to be left alone.”
So many experiences like this have given us a special connection with the people of Cambodia.
We felt that love back. The people in Cambodia showed us great kindness. We love them because they are children of God. They are our brothers and sisters.
With some people, I remember thinking, “I can’t wait until I see you in the next life, then I’ll really be able to tell you all the things I feel for you and the love I have for you, and what I admire about you, because I can’t say it now.”
Our mission has blessed us in so many ways. Some people say, “I don’t know if I can serve a mission. I can’t leave my grandkids.” We had five little grandsons when we left, ages five, four, three, two, one. Two granddaughters were born while we were gone. I’m going to save two of my Cambodian missionary name tags and give them to my baby girls so they will know that Grandma wasn’t there because Grandma was doing what the Lord needed her to do.
There are many ways to serve the Lord as missionaries. We take to heart what Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said about senior missionary service. He said, “I promise you will do things for [your family] in the service of the Lord that, worlds without end, you could never do if you stayed home to hover over them. What greater gift could grandparents give their posterity than to say by deed as well as word, “In this family we serve missions!’ [“We Are All Enlisted,” Liahona, Nov. 2011, 46.]”