Finding the local meetinghouse was the last thing on my mind.
Things like 95 degree weather, 90 percent humidity, and learning Cantonese were much more important.
Yet there I was, a dejected, three-week-long missionary, thanking a man for giving me an address I already had and really didn’t need. And all this because I couldn’t learn Cantonese.
I hadn’t meant for things to turn out that way. My district was doing a street display at Hong Kong’s Star Ferry just when the commuters were coming home. I wanted to get referrals and talk with people—and I tried to—but I was having little success.
My inexperience in speaking Cantonese—the second-most common Chinese dialect—was painfully evident. Speaking to Chinese people seemed an impossibility, and understanding what people said to me seemed about as easy as walking on water. And because I could neither speak nor understand, I began to doubt my worth to the Lord.
I spotted Mr. Wong just as he was coming down the steps of the ferry. He looked like such a nice man. He wore a blue suit and black shoes. His eyeglasses were slipping down his nose. His tie was still tight around his neck—something that looked very out of place in the humid air.
I mustered up as much self-confidence as I could in the few seconds I had. With a quick prayer in my heart and a deep breath, I started toward him.
The instructors at the Missionary Training Center had prepared me well for situations like this. I had practiced asking golden questions and getting referrals dozens of times. But all the preparation in the world couldn’t have taught me what I was about to learn.
“Neih hou ma?” I asked.
“Good,” he replied in a language I knew was Chinese but bore little resemblance to what I had learned in the MTC.
“I’m a representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Have you ever heard of this church before?”
Mr. Wong gave his reply, but—as usual—I couldn’t understand.
“My name is Gong Jeunglouh,” I said. “May I ask your honorable name?”
I didn’t understand much of what he said back to me, but I did understand his last name was Wong. He drew the Chinese Wong character on his hand and raised it to my eyes. His etchings meant nothing to me, but I pretended they did.
“May I tell you a little about our church?” I asked.
“I don’t understand,” he said. That was one of the few things I could understand. I had used that phrase myself several times during the past three weeks.
I showed Mr. Wong my name tag so he could read the name of the Church in Chinese.
“Oh—a church!” he said.
I smiled. “Yes—I am a missionary from this church,” I said, pointing to my name tag. “May I tell you a little about it?”
His reply was long and difficult for a new missionary to understand.
“What is your address?” I asked. I figured I might as well go all out and try to get a referral.
“Address? You want address?” he asked.
“Yes. What is your address?” I got my pen and notebook ready to write—or at least to ask him to write—the address down.
“You wait here. I will return in a few minutes,” he said. I barely made out what he was trying to tell me, thanks to his hand gestures.
“You stay right here,” he insisted.
“I will,” I assured him. Off he went, leaving me no clue as to where he was going or why he wanted me to wait.
Mr. Wong reappeared from among the sea of Chinese commuters a full 15 minutes later. He walked briskly—almost at a trot—with a paper in his hand.
He smiled and waved as he approached. I walked to meet him.
“Here,” he said. He handed me a page of an English phone book. The address of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was circled.
“Here is your church’s address,” he said.
Now I understood. Mr. Wong had thought I was a lost foreigner looking for my church. My self-confidence sank as I thanked him for his trouble.
Mr. Wong offered his hand with a smile of pride and friendliness.
“Thank you very much,” I said.
“No problem,” he replied, and began to walk away.
“See you later,” I said. And then, as an afterthought, “May I give you this?”
I reached into my suit pocket and handed him a Joseph Smith pamphlet. I gave it to him with two hands, and he accepted the gift in the same manner, a Chinese custom.
“At least I learned something in the MTC,” I thought to myself, remembering our classes on cultural customs. Mr. Wong faded away into the crowd.
I went to sleep that night praying for strength and success. I wanted to preach the gospel with all my heart, but I felt great frustration in learning to speak the language.
The months passed, and as they passed my confidence grew. I was soon transferred out of that area, and new investigators, new companions, and new street displays occupied my mind.
A year later I was a zone leader in another part of Hong Kong. One Sunday I was back in my first area taking care of some mission business. Being in that first meetinghouse brought back both good and bad memories. I rejoiced in seeing my old friends from the local ward.
The halls of the church had cleared after all the meetings were over, and my companion and I were the only ones in the foyer. I was hoping to see more of my former friends.
As we were about to leave, a classroom door opened. My eyes widened as I saw Mr. Wong—the commuter at Star Ferry—emerge from the dark hall!
“Mr. Wong! How are you?” I asked with excitement.
“I’m Brother Wong now, Elder Call,” he said in perfect Mandarin.
“You speak Mandarin? No wonder I couldn’t understand you at the ferry!”
“And you were speaking Cantonese—that is why I couldn’t understand you,” he said.
We sat and talked for several minutes. Brother Wong explained to me that after our encounter at the ferry a year before, he went home and read the Joseph Smith pamphlet. He said he read it out of curiosity more than anything else. The Spirit touched his soul. He telephoned the mission home to ask for more information and two sisters began teaching him the gospel. He gained a testimony and was baptized.
Our reunion was sweet and joyous, even though we had seen each other only once before. My heart was touched and the Spirit bore record to me of the true meaning of Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
“I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6).