MANHATTAN, N.Y. In 1978, John R. Stone felt he should learn Chinese after hearing President Spencer W. Kimball's clarion call to members to learn new languages that new doors to nations might be opened for the preaching of the gospel.
"I love languages," he thought to himself, "and with that one language I could speak to a quarter of the world's population."
He began studying Chinese, but it wasn't until 23 years later, in 2001, when he retired and planned to serve a mission with his wife that he "decided to finish learning Chinese."
He was studying with Chinese members living in Queens, N.Y., when President Noel G. Stoker, with whom he served as a counselor in the mission presidency, asked why he wasn't learning in Chinatown in Lower Manhattan.
"He gave me a companion who spoke Mandarin and we started talking to people in Chinatown," he said. "I knew enough to say, 'Can you speak Chinese' in Mandarin."
His halting accent gained their attention, while his companion completed the discussion.
"We met many people and had many appointments of which a surprising number held up," he said.
He remembers knocking on the apartment of Fen Song Chen one evening and how Mr. Chen opened the door with a big grin that exposed several missing teeth. He had come to America from Fuzhou, China, with the hope of earning passage for his wife and two teenage children.
In this two-bedroom apartment he shared with 11 other men, Mr. Chen invited Brother Stone and his companion to come in. "I still remember that discussion," said Brother Stone, who is now the Manhattan New York Temple president. "He looked us in the eyes and smiled and nodded his head. I started giving the discussion. He was the first man tracted out."
Following a dream that left a deep impression, Brother Chen was baptized with his family's support. "I definitely feel that as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I have received so much more happiness and peace in my life," he said.
Brother Chen was among the earliest members in Chinatown. Over the next years, he witnessed a number of changes, including the creation of the Chinese-speaking Canal Street Branch on March 31, 2002. The branch met at 401 Broadway in a "ridiculously tiny" room, he said.
"Through the efforts of the branch president and diligent missionaries," he said, "we have been able to grow and now have a nice facility on Elizabeth Street."
Brother Chen, who serves as first counselor in the Canal Street Branch presidency, remembers being shy at first. With only a second grade education he received in China, he relied on the goodness of the missionaries to help him read the Book of Mormon.
"Their culture is good," said President Stone, "because they are so family-oriented. But it is so hard to learn Chinese and to learn their ways. The cultural gap is big, but the Chinese are hungry for religion. The light of Christ doesn't burn out in their hearts. They want to know the truth. Many of them respond."
"Before long, we had 25 to 30 people attending," remembered President Brent J. Belnap of the New York New York Stake.
"On June 26, 2004, about two weeks after the dedication of the Manhattan temple, a renovated existing building on Elizabeth Street, closer to the heart of Chinatown and the East River, was dedicated."
Since then, said President Belnap, "we have had a significant increase in the number of baptisms. This is the largest concentration of Chinese diaspora in the world," he continued. "It is almost as if the Lord is accelerating this work and making preparations to do a greater work. It is almost as if people are being led here to receive the gospel so that someday they, or their children, can take the gospel to their home country."
Now numbering about 50 members, the Canal Street Branch participated in the recent Chinese New Year celebrations by helping sponsor an activity in the New York stake center. Attendance estimates indicated that more Chinese guests attended than stake members.
Visitors were impressed with an ornately decorated cultural hall that featured row after row of Chinese-style hand-cut paper lanterns strung from side to side.
The highlight of the evening was the dance of the two elaborately designed dragons.
"I know this is a very special branch," said Kai Huang, a Sunday School teacher in the branch. "The first time I came here I had a feeling this Church was good. My heart was very peaceful."
After joining the Church, Brother Huang quit his part-time job that required working on Sundays so he could attend meetings. "I have my wife and child with me. I really wanted to be an eternal family," he said.
"There are some amazing things in store for this branch and its members," added President Belnap. "It is here for a reason."