Melvin C. Fish and Weldon Kitchen will be surrounded by a throng of Church members in Taipei, Taiwan, as they join the celebration in June of the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first missionaries in this Asian nation.
When they landed on this island nation as two of those first four missionaries the first week of June, 1956, the Church was practically nonexistent there.
Receiving their passenger ship tickets and some words of counsel in Salt Lake City from a young Gordon B. Hinckley of the Church's Missionary Department, they didn't fully comprehend the adventures ahead of them in the Southern Far East Mission. But in a recent Church News interview, they sat for more than an hour reminiscing, leaving the impression the experience remains crystal clear in their minds. Elder Fish and wife, Gwena, now living in Cedar City, Utah, and Elder Kitchen and wife, Donna, who live in Highland, Utah, can't resist traveling back to Taiwan for the celebration.
Elders Fish and Kitchen were in a group of six missionaries who arrived in Hong Kong to join eight others already there serving under mission president H. Grant Heaton. President Heaton, himself not much older than the missionaries, held a mission conference and announced that four in the group would be the first missionaries in Taiwan while the rest remained in Hong Kong.
Elder Kitchen and Elder Fish were joined on the assignment by Elder Keith A. Madsen, who died in a tragic bicycle accident while serving in Taiwan, and Elder Duane W. Degn, who has since died.
When they arrived by ship in Taiwan, they were met by LDS servicemen, including Stanley Simiskey whom they hold in high regard for the care and kindness he and his family showed them. He, with the help of some of his friends who were missionaries of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, had rented and prepared a house for the missionaries. The servicemen, Elder Kitchen remembered, filled the cupboards with food so they had everything they needed to go right to work.
There were huge challenges. Taiwan was not a Christian land, the Book of Mormon hadn't yet been translated into Chinese and the American missionaries didn't know the language.
On the passage to Hong Kong, a cleric of another faith was surprised the LDS missionaries would be serving in Chinese-language Asia for only three years. Elder Fish said, "He laughed and laughed. He said, 'You won't learn the language well enough to do one bit of good in three years. I've been studying the Chinese language for six years and I still can't converse very well. What makes you think you can learn the language well enough to teach somebody?' "
Elder Fish answered, "We believe in the gift of tongues." He added, "I really believe that we all had help."
There were 19 discussions to learn in Chinese, and the challenge, according to Elder Fish, was to learn the vocabulary for each succeeding discussion as quickly as the investigators progressed.
Chinese is a language of memorization, Elder Kitchen said. "It's like learning an alphabet with 10,000 characters." So those who speak it do well with memorization.
During one discussion, Elder Fish said the man being taught would recite the New Testament scriptures after seeing their references placed on a flannel board. "Toward the end, I put up a reference from the Old Testament and he said, 'You'll have to quote that one for me because I haven't memorized the Old Testament yet.' "
For the missionaries, the Spirit was important. Elder Kitchen said, "I had several experiences where I was blessed. As I would give a lesson, I knew I was going into an area that I did not have vocabulary to speak. . . . The words came and the communication was presented, the concept was covered. It just came to me when I needed it. That happened more than once. I can't deny that I had some special help. It wasn't just me."
Nevertheless, he did learn the language well enough to teach it in high school for many years after returning home and graduating from BYU, and he and his wife recently served a Chinese-speaking mission in Vancouver, Canada.
Elder Fish not only learned Mandarin Chinese, but also Taiwanese which was spoken by many of the older people.
Elder Fish laughed about being called by President Heaton to be Taiwan's first Relief Society president. President Heaton's words, he recalled, were, "I know this will motivate you to train someone to take your place."
That wasn't a problem. The people they worked with were extremely receptive. Elder Fish, who taught high school math for many years, said his interest in statistics led him to calculate that missionaries were able to teach the first discussion in 95 percent of the homes they tracted. Discussions were scheduled 45 minutes apart every day; tracting filled in the time on the rare occasion that a discussion fell through.
"Sometimes when we would go tracting, our calendar would be so full that we didn't have any time to schedule a new meeting, so the people who were interested were just invited to come to Church."
The beginnings of Church for the missionaries was the servicemen's branch. Then they started meeting with Taiwanese members in their house. Finally, they had to rent a mansion in Taipei, converting the garage into a meeting room that could accommodate about 150 people. The mansion provided plenty of classroom space. Attendance was regularly about 120 percent, with members joined by many investigators each week.
The first missionary-taught convert was Tseng I-Chang, baptized by Elder Kitchen in what they called a mountain paradise. A waterfall was the backdrop for a stream of pure water high above the rice paddies. The water below wasn't clean enough for the ordinance, they said.
Membership didn't begin building for several months because there were so many discussions that it took some investigators a year to get through them, Elder Fish said.
After about five months, as the original missionaries had sufficient understanding of the discussions and language, they were given junior companions. Then the junior companions were also given junior companions as they mastered the language, building up the missionary force.
Toward the end of their missions, Elder Fish and Elder Kitchen were asked by President Heaton to take a week and travel around the island, identifying new areas for missionary work. While on the journey, which included living through a sizeable earthquake, they visited cities that are now centers of three missions and Church membership of about 50,000 in eight stakes.
When they were released from the Southern Far East Mission, there were about 250 members. The continued growth doesn't surprise them.
"We had such success there," Elder Fish said. "I'm not surprised at all."
Elder Kitchen added, "They were wonderful people to work with. You couldn't find a better group of people. We learned to love them dearly, and we still do."
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