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Latter-Day APAs

AsianWeek, Andrew Chow And Evan Kelley Posted: Mar 27, 2002


My roots in the church go back three generations, said Tong, who now lives in Provo, Utah. When the missionaries first came to the islands in Hawaii, my great-grandmother accepted the gospel there. And so my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and here, myself thats how far it goes. Now our children embrace it and our grandchildren, so we have six generations in our family life now.

Hawaii boasts one of the largest concentrations of Mormons outside Utah: some 60,000 live on the islands. A branch of Brigham Young University exists on Oahu, which is also home to the churchs vaunted Polynesian Cultural Center. There, in what is described as a cultural theme park, one can learn about traditions of peoples from across the Micronesian archipelago. Converts from those islands are the stars of the show and earn money that goes toward their tuition at the nearby university.

The emphasis on education and traditional family values appealed to Shirley Tong, a Japanese American who was born in Hawaii.

When I joined the Mormon church when I told my father I was going to join he was very disappointed, Tong said. But at the time I was 20, and he just shrugged his shoulders. He knew I was determined.
Tongs father had been a devout Buddhist. When Tong joined the church in 1956, the Japanese community in her hometown of Kohuku was tolerant, but they didnt think it was right, she said.

Tong, now a married mother of six, never felt the need to reconcile her newfound faith and lifestyle with the spiritual traditions of her Japanese community. I knew that when I joined the church, I was going to live a life that was different from that of ... a typical Buddhist, she said.

Tong left the islands for college in Indiana, where she became active in a small church branch. I knew that my purpose in life was there, Tong said, to get an education and to teach, and then to have a family and raise my children up as good Latter-day Saints. That was my goal.

Tongs choices enabled her to create a unique Mormon-APA identity, and she seems quite content with the stability of her life in Provo. For other Asian converts, however, joining the Latter-day Saints represented something greater than a personal religious choice it was an opportunity to come to the United States.
Moli Vaivaka, stake president of a Tongan ward in Salt Lake City, explained that he would never have had the opportunity to come to America or to even marry his Mormon wife had he not joined the church. I would be in New Zealand now, maybe, he replied when asked how his life would be different without the church, but I don't know.

Stories are similar in Salt Lake Citys Dai-Ichi branch for Japanese speakers, where three-quarters of branch congregants are of Asian ancestry.

These are active communities, where everyone knows each other and time is spent after services catching up on the gossip of the week with friends and family. This is an all-day affair.

Wang Dong, a post-doctoral fellow studying pharmacology at the University of Utah, discussed the status of the church in his native China and the nature of other underground Christian groups that have faced persecution by staunchly atheist Chinese authorities.
For Mormons, I dont think [the same persecution] will happen there, Wang said, because the church has to obey the laws of the country ... and [China] doesnt allow proselytizing at all.

Wang spoke briefly about his children, who have grown up in the United States, and about the solidarity among Chinese American Mormons in Salt Lake City. They help each other out a lot, you know, he said. Maybe youre surprised I can speak English so well after only two years? Its because they help me so much.

Wang expects he will return to China someday, but not as a Mormon missionary. When he returns, he will not be allowed to tell anyone publicly about his newfound faith, nor will he be allowed to worship in the Mormon church, which now exists in Beijing.

It is only for foreigners, he explained. You have to show your passport at the door. Or if youre white, thats your passport. But [Chinese nationals] cant go in.
Chinas religious laws have given rise to hundreds possibly thousands of underground churches, whose texts are mainly smuggled in through Hong Kong. Church president Gordon B. Hinckley has met with Chinese leaders, organizing English teaching exchange programs and coordinating the churchs humanitarian aid to China.

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