A new rock band called “Muk” is capturing the hearts of Cambodians everywhere, and experiencing unexpected fame. What makes this unique, is that each member of the musical group are four average, white Mormon boys from Utah and New Jersey. It is the story “behind the band”, however, which is most unexpected, rewarding and inspiring.
Between 2003-2004 the lives of nineteen-year-old Trevor Wright, A. Todd Smith, Jordan Augustine and Joseph Peterson would be changed forever when each received a letter from headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints signed by then-president Gordon B. Hinckley extending a call to voluntary service at their own expense for two years in the growing Cambodia, Phnom Penh Latter-day Saint Mission, organized in 1994. None of them knew each other yet, nor what their futures held.
Each man accepted this call to serve with excitement and a bit of trepidation. They would be leaving their family, friends and schooling behind and traveling to the other side of the globe to help a developing nation of over 14 million people. Their destination would be a country which has suffered great hardship, brutal conflict, and devastating poverty.
For many, Cambodia still invokes images of the Khmer Rouge holocaust which happened between 1975-79, vividly depicted in the movie The Killing Fields. At least 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives directly or indirectly at the hands of this genocidal regime. Many were taken out of their villages and murdered in fields or forests, sometimes after being made to dig their own graves. Even today, human remains are being unearthed in the fields of Cambodia.
But for a younger and rising generation, thirty years places these horrors in a distant past, and Cambodia extends a beautiful, exotic invitation to the world, filled with adventure and bright opportunities. These young men would first undergo an intensive 12 week “crash course” in the Khmer language and culture at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Then they would travel thousands of miles away, to an unfamiliar land, with foreign food, customs and culture.
Perhaps they were a bit overwhelmed with the task, but eager to befriend, serve, and help. Motivated by their deep religious belief and Christian values, the missionaries would perform humanitarian serviceand share their message of hope and peace. After two years of service, each of these young men were fluent in the Khmer language, and made a tremendous difference in the lives of the Cambodian people. They also found that Cambodia had made an equally tremendous difference in their own lives.
“After living in Cambodia from 2004-2006 we came to learn about, understand, and love the people there”
For most young Latter-day Saints, after completing a term of missionary service they return to their homes and respective countries and resume ‘life as usual’. Pursuit of education, employment, marriage and family life are par for the course. Their mission experiences become treasured yet distant memories. And although some may return to visit their areas of service, for most that chapter of their life story remains closed.
However, for Smith, Wright, Augustine and Peterson, this would only be the beginning of their Cambodian experience and service. It would not be long before their paths would lead them back together. All men returned to the USA and began their formal college education. Smith, Wright and Augustine each excel in the art of photography and film, and within two years were accepted to Brigham Young University’s Media Arts program. Peterson was already at BYU pursuing a degree in Anthropology.
Reunited, these young men enjoyed their camaraderie, shared interests and second language. They talked often about returning to their mission field, and in 2007 they went as humanitarian volunteers with the CCF (Cambodian Children’s Fund).
It was during this experience that they met the vibrant children who had been rescued from terrible poverty, and they witnessed first hand the waste pickers who lived in the largest garbage dump outside Phnom Penh.
With no other skills to help them make a living in the city, hundreds of families live in and around a dump outside of Cambodia’s capital city, called “Steung Mian Chey” (which ironically means “River of Victory”).
In summer of 2007 the team also met former head of Sony International, Scott Neeson.
A truly remarkable man, Mr. Neeson forsook his extremely wealthy and comfortable Western lifestyle after touring Southern Asia, and used his own resources to establish the CCF to begin making a difference one child at a time. It did not take long before Todd, Trevor, and Jordan were inspired to team together and form the Steung Mian Chey Documentary project.
During the 2007-08 school year the team not only had to work hard on their demanding schoolwork, but also were diligently seeking monetary backing in order to return to Cambodia for the summer of 2008 to complete the filming for the documentary. Despite many setbacks, they finally succeeded in securing enough funds to return in June of this year. Preparations began in earnest, and Director/Producer Trevor Wright carefully mapped out each moment of their filming schedule in advance, to ensure success. However, there is an old truism which says “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men Go Oft Astray…” The adventure was just getting started for this ambitious troupe!…
READ NEXT: Part 2: The Band Muk; Talented American Mormons Helping Cambodia