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Barred from Proselytizing in China, Mormons Try a Chinatown

One of many sects aiming to convert new immigrants

Email icon  patty.lee@nyu.edu

As people rush in and out of butcher shops and bakeries on Brooklyn’s Eighth Avenue, He Zhanglao tries to get their attention. He speaks in clear Mandarin, and listens carefully to their replies. But he’s tall and blond, and sticks out in this part of Sunset Park, home to many Chinese immigrants.

His real name is Trevor Hess, and he’s a Mormon missionary. Though he’s studying Chinese, he has no plans to visit China, which bars Mormons from doing missionary work. He’s instead been sent 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 the Mormons opened here five years ago has grown noticeably.

“It started with no more than 20 members, and now has 80 to 100 weekly attendants,” said Hess, who has worked here for about two years.

Getting those results wasn’t easy. Hess works the street for at least 20 hours a week.

He grew up in a Mormon family in Tremonton City, a tiny town in northern Utah. He studied microbiology and anatomy, and in a pre-dental program at Weber State University in nearby Ogden, Utah. At 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 (Asians are exceedingly scarce 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 immigrants who have lived in the United States longer.

“It 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,” said Hess.

Residents said they were surprised to see Hess and other Mormons around the neighborhood, but had grown used to them.

“At first, to see these tall white people speaking in Chinese was a bit of a surprise,” said Hui Guan, a mother of two and 20-year neighborhood resident, in a conversation in Chinese. “After some time, though, I stopped paying attention, because I wasn’t interested.”

That doesn’t mean some residents haven’t absorbed the Mormon message. “A lot of Chinese people know about Christianity,” Hess said.

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.”

Rapid changes in the Chinese economy have opened the country up to different religious ideologies. Though China bans Mormon missionaries, the Mormons maintain American churches in China, and have followers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

After Hess finishes his assignment in Brooklyn, he hopes to travel, then to resume his pre-dental university studies. But he doesn’t plan to do business in China.

“I have no interest in business,” Hess said. “I’ll probably become an orthodontist. Maybe an orthodontist for Chinese people.”

Mormon missionaries have maintained this church in Brooklyn’s heavily Chinese Sunset Park neighborhood for five years.
Photo by Patty Lee

A religious sign near a Mormon church in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood.
Photo by Patty Lee