Som Rasmei didn’t need to wear suspenders and a necktie to separate himself from the crowd of Buddhist monks and villagers at Wat San Sam Kosal on Thursday morning. Being Mormon was enough.
Out of respect for his mother, who was among the Buddhist worshippers that day, and in honor of the Pchum Ben holiday, 50-year-old Som Rasmei removed his shoes at the entrance to the pagoda, which was teeming full. He tiptoed carefully around colorful bowls of curry and rice, and made his way slowly, smiling, over to his mother.
“I am friendly to all of them, but I don’t partake of any ordinances,” he said in nearly perfect English.
By contrast, his 69-year-old mother Lok Sip looked the model Buddhist. Crouched with several other older women, she had her head shaved and was dressed in white to signify devout religiosity. She looked peaceful on the pagoda floor, sitting effortlessly on folded legs.
“I come to be with family, to show love to my mother,” said Som Rasmei, who converted to Mormonism in 2000. “I don’t want them to feel that they lost someone while I am still alive,” he said referring to the beliefs of his new faith and the Buddhist practices of his family.
Robert Winegar, president of the Mormon mission in Phnom Penh, said by telephone last week that he had no problem with Cambodian Mormons attending the pagoda with their Buddhist families.
“We do not prohibit them. We encourage them to be close to their families—we always encourage them to be close to their families,” he said, adding that some of the roughly 7,000 Mormons in Cambodia choose to return the generosity and include their extended families in annual Christmas celebrations.
“There is more harmony than is perceived,” Winegar said of the relationship between Mormon converts and the country’s majority Buddhists.
It wasn’t always easy for Som Rasmei to go with his family to the pagoda, which is located near his Boeng Tompun commune home in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district.
For the first few years after he was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormon Church, he didn’t go near the pagoda, he said.
“For two, three years, I didn’t come. I felt rebellious,” he said.
His relationship with his mother suffered during that time, and Som Rasmei said he felt like somewhat of a black sheep among friends and neighbors.
“They didn’t feel good about me,” he said. “Then I prayed and got a reason. I realized I could come in a different way.”
Som Rasmei started reaching out more to his mother and offered to accompany her to the pagoda for religious festivals, so long as she excused the fact that he would not participate in the lighting of incense or the giving of alms.
“I feel good now,” he said, standing outside Wat San Sam Kosal, with colorful flags overhead and the smell of incense in the air. “I don’t want to live with grudges.”
Like many Cambodian Mormons, Som Rasmei’s story of conversion begins with the desire to learn English.
When he was a teenager in the early 1970s, during the Lon Nol years, he saw US military men walking around speaking English. Som Rasmei already spoke French, but wanted badly to learn English.
He started taking classes run by the Evangelical Church, a Protestant denomination, where he eventually started reading the Bible and became interested in the concept of original sin.
“My teachers told me that coming to church would get rid of sin,” Som Rasmei said.
Although he felt committed to Christianity from that time forward, it was not a quick road to Mormonism, he said.
Som Rasmei was deterred by the corruption of church officials around him, and, though he continued to read the Bible in the comfort of his own home, he didn’t affiliate himself with any church after the early 1990s.
The first Mormon missionaries that showed up on his doorstep in 2000, he accused of being US spies.
But after talking at length with missionaries and learning of the opportunity to obtain the priesthood within Mormonism, Som Rasmei was finally baptized. His wife and their four children are now members of the Mormon church.
“I knew the gospel to be true… but I waited 27 years to get baptized,” he said.
Som Rasmei’s mother Lok Sip, who hadn’t moved in one hour from her position on the pagoda floor, said she was happy her son came to the pagoda for Pchum Ben, but there remain inconsistencies she hasn’t adapted to.
“He didn’t offer food to the monks, so I am not happy still,” she said.
It saddened her when Som Rasmei converted to Mormonism, but she said she has come to understand his decision as something he did of his own accord that is entirely separate from herself.
“In the beginning, I was very worried, but then I stopped thinking,” Lok Sip said. “I am not upset because I only gave birth to his body, not the mind. He joined alone and I still have five more children.”
“Even if I stop him, I still cannot because it is what he already wanted…. He is still my son,” she said.
“We walk on two roads…. Mother and son should walk on one road, but the mother cannot walk with the son because I am already Buddhist,” Lok Sip added over the sound of monks praying, her hands together in prayer.
Outside the pagoda Thursday morning, Som Rasmei spoke under the watchful eye of two American Mormons, John and Jean Lyman, who have been posted in Cambodia for more than one year.
Som Rasmei confessed the challenge it is to reconcile the two parts of his life. “Sometimes, it’s hard to take,” he said.
“It’s hard to get away from this culture,” he said. “I was born to this country. I grew up in a Buddhist way.”
“We have different walks…. I am looking for a moderate way, one that doesn’t hurt them and doesn’t hurt me,” Som Rasmei said, exemplifying—however unintentionally—the Buddhist quest for balance and a middle path.