Missionaries target Chinese immigrants in Brooklyn

Inter Press Service from NYU Livewire/May 23, 2008

New York - As people rush in and out of butcher shops and bakeries on Brooklyn's Eighth Avenue, He Zhanglao tries to get their attention. The tall, blond missionary speaks in clear Mandarin and listens carefully to their replies.

The Mormon missionary, whose real name is Trevor Hess, sticks out in this part of Sunset Park, which is home to many Chinese immigrants. Though he's studying Chinese, he has no plans to visit China, which bars Mormons from doing missionary work. So his church instead sent him to proselytize in a Chinatown.

Hess, whose Chinese name means "Elder He," is one of several Mormon missionaries assigned to Sunset Park. Dressed in black or gray suits with small nametags pinned to their jackets, they are easy to spot in a neighborhood where a quarter of the population is Asian. Chinese attendance at the church that the Mormons opened here five years ago has grown.

"It started with - 20 members and now has 80 to 100 weekly attendants," said Hess, who has worked here for about two years. He works the street for at least 20 hours a week to get those results.

Hess grew up in a Mormon family in tiny Tremonton City, Utah. He studied microbiology and anatomy and entered a predental program at Weber State University in nearby Ogden. At age 19, he decided to become a Mormon "elder" and missionary.

"I grew up as a member of the church and saw others go away as missionaries and saw how it changed their lives," Hess said.

To prepare, he studied at the church's Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. For three months, he attended workshops on how to teach the gospel and learned Chinese. Everything else he had to learn on his own.

"They give you enough so you can start. You go out and speak it every day," Hess said.

Then he had to deal with culture shock, seeing as there is no real Asian community in Tremonton. "I think, 'Wow, I would have never seen that if I was back in Utah,'" said Hess' partner, Mont Toronto.

The men have found that newer immigrants, mostly from China's Fujian province, are more willing to listen to them than are immigrants who have lived in the United States longer. "[The reaction] varies, from shock that this White guy's talking to them, to the hand in the face if they don't want to talk to you," Hess said.

The Mormon Church purports to have some 50,000 full-time missionaries worldwide, most of them under age 25. In the United States, it has churches that cater specifically to Chinese Americans in California, New York, Texas, and Washington, D.C.

Missionary work by various churches and outreach groups in U.S. Chinese communities is increasing.

"I've lived here for 11 years, and I think most of the churches already had programs for the Chinese when I first moved here," said Shao Mei Liang, whose daughter takes part in the children's activities offered by the 2nd Evangelical Free Church near her home.

The New Life Gospel Church has been working with the Chinese community in Sunset Park since 1994.

"We have English classes given twice a week. An American teacher teaches it, and we currently average 25 students," said Siu Pik Lau, a member of the New Life Gospel Church's committee.

Lau has also noticed a significant change in her church's constituency as the Sunset Park Chinese community changes.

"Before it was mixed with Cantonese and some mainland Mandarin-speaking people, but now it's primarily Fujianese," Lau said. "A big part of the Cantonese has moved away."

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