Our reporter Omar Akhtar visits a Mormon church that uses English to reach out to Chinese immigrants.
Bing Ley asks me if I love English. The question takes me by surprise. I’ve been speaking English all my life and it never occurred to me that I could love the language. I tell him I think it’s alright. Ley looks down at his sneakers and takes his hands out of the pockets of his gray hoodie. He isn’t very tall but he hunches with apparent deference, making him look smaller. With an earnest smile, Ley tells me slowly and deliberately, “I…love…English.” With every word, he emphatically taps his chest and makes sure I understand him. He looks up at the two, tall, young Caucasian men, standing on either side of him. They nod their approval and one of them encouragingly puts his hand on Ley’s shoulder.
“How did you learn English?” I ask.
Ley once again looks at the two young men and with a broad grin and says “The church taught me.”
We are standing in a church in the heart of Sunset Park. The neighborhood is home to a large Chinese immigrant population and 22-year-old Bing Ley is a part of it. The neighborhood is filled with restaurants, bakeries, groceries and hair salons, almost every one of them has a sign in either Mandarin or Cantonese. The building we’re in is conspicuous with its white steeple and the neat, white lettering against a rust brown wall that says, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This church, known as the Dyker Heights 4th Branch, is a Mormon church. Bing Ley is a recent convert to the religion. The two young men standing by his side are the missionaries who not only brought him into the faith, but also taught him how to speak English.
The Dyker Heights, 4th Branch church has a congregation of about 100 people, and they have just ended their Sunday meeting. The two missionaries, Jordan Egbert and Christopher Hanson, stand out; the congregation is exclusively Chinese. The church conducts all its services in Mandarin and Cantonese, one of only three Mormon churches in New York City to do so; the other two are in Manhattan and Queens. The missionaries say that the Dyker Heights church has one of the fastest growing congregations in the city — Chinese immigrants are becoming a significant part of the Mormon church’s increasing presence in New York City. They come to the faith through many different avenues. Learning how to speak English is one of them.
I ask Bing Ley if he became a Mormon because the missionaries were teaching English. He doesn’t understand me, so Egbert and Hanson translate. He looks at me and shakes his head. Through the missionaries he tells me the church taught him how to improve himself and how to become a better person, not just the English language. I suspect there’s more to what he’s saying but I can only go by the missionaries’ word.
Egbert is from Utah and Hanson is from Idaho. They’re both tall and dressed impeccably in navy blue blazers and ties. They’re exceedingly well spoken, polite and affable. Four days a week, they teach a free English class at the church. They are also fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. Both Egbert and Hanson are only 20 years old, but each has been given the title of “Elder.” They were assigned to preach the Mormon faith to Chinese people right here in the United States, specifically in Brooklyn and Queens. While they are not required to, most young Mormon men between the ages of 19 and 25 are strongly encouraged to go on missions to preach the faith.
They speak in measured, relaxed tones, with very few “umms” and “aaahs.” They almost never use the word “like.” They are self assured and confident as they answer my questions about what they do and why Chinese immigrants are embracing what is quintessentially an American religion.
Egbert is an especially imposing presence. He’s well over six feet tall, blonde and broad shouldered. He speaks in a deep baritone. He tells me about the day he received his assignment , or “calling,” from the church. In fact, he doesn’t just tell me, he shows me a copy of the letter he received from the church when he turned 18. He still carries it with him. The “calling” assigned him a geographic location and a language he had to learn.
“To be honest, when I opened it up and I read ‘Cantonese’ I didn’t know what it was.” he says. “I started asking other people around ‘is that Chinese?’” He found out soon enough that Cantonese was the prevalent language spoken by people from Hong Kong, Macau and southern China. For the next 11 weeks, he received training in Cantonese and missionary work at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah before arriving in New York City.
His partner, Hanson is shorter and paler. Yet he seems to be the older, more introspective one. Hanson’s “calling” was to learn Mandarin, which is spoken by the majority of people from mainland China. The two were assigned to partner and work first in Flushing, Queens before coming to Sunset Park.
“When we go up to people and speak to them in Chinese, they are really surprised,” Hanson tells me. “When they find out we’ve been studying it for only about a year, it blows their mind.” Hanson and Egbert converse effortlessly with the church’s congregants, sometimes translating their answers for me and sometimes encouraging them to speak in whatever little English they know.
The missionaries’ interactions with Chinese people are not limited to the church or the neighborhood. “A lot of times we’ll be on the bus or the train and we’ll find a Chinese person, so we’ll go sit by them and try to strike up a conversation,” says Hanson. He says the novelty of seeing two white Americans speaking fluent Mandarin or Cantonese is usually enough to pique a listener’s interest. “We try to find out what’s important to them and then we talk about it and try to tie it into our message.”
Bing Ley is among those immigrants who take advantage of the church’s free English lessons. He came to America two years ago with his family from the Fujian province. Like most of the immigrants, he works in the family restaurant business. He tells me that learning to speak English was something he desperately wanted to do, a point Egbert underscores. “I can tell you now, that almost every Chinese person we meet here in America has a real need to learn how to speak English,” he says. “It’s very important for them.”
Still, I wonder whether the church’s English classes are simply a way to gain converts. Hanson does not dispute this. He is, in fact, surprisingly candid about his methods and intentions, “We also use the English class as an opportunity to find potentially interested people,” he says. “We like to tell people we’re first missionaries, not English teachers, so at the end of each English class, for five minutes or so, we share a gospel related message and then we talk with people to see who might be interested.
“They get to learn English and we get to try and fulfill our purpose.”
He and Egbert are so open, so affable and so eager to talk about their faith, I can see how they would appeal to poor immigrants who have just landed in a strange and often unwelcoming country. I’m not surprised when they tell me that most of the new additions to the church have arrived in America only recently, within the last five years.
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