Mormon missionary spreads 'light'
Growing up an atheist in China, Dairong Li never imagined that one day he'd be standing on the street corner of an American city proclaiming the truth of Mormonism.
Elder Li, as he is now called, recently found himself explaining the finer points of Joseph Smith's biography to a woman and her two children sitting in front of the Westmoreland County Courthouse in downtown Greensburg.
“So when Joseph Smith had a question, he read from the Bible where it says, ‘He who lacks wisdom, let him ask of God,' ” Li said. “He was guided under the direction of Jesus Christ and brought back the original church.”
Li, 23, and his fellow missionary, Elder Dane Williams, 19, of Spanish Fork, Utah, did not gain a convert that day, but they made arrangements to follow up with the woman on Facebook.
It was a similar encounter three years ago in Los Angeles that started Li on his journey to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Two female missionaries had approached Li's mother in a bookstore and soon were in their home, explaining Mormon doctrine.
Li liked the fact that the missionaries were close to his age and was taken with their teaching that families could be together forever. A year later, he was baptized into the church.
“I truly felt the love (of God) when I learned from the missionaries. I also can feel that when they come to my house, they brought the light into my house,” he said.
In the span of four years, Li went from teenage atheist, to seeker, to convert, to missionary himself.
‘I can understand their feelings'
Li has spent the last 21 months living and working in Greensburg and is nearing the end of his two-year missionary term. His time in Westmoreland County has been an education not only in American pluralism but also in English as a second language, in missionary methods and in Western Pennsylvania ways.
“It was a great experience for me. I have learned so much,” he said. “From a nonreligion background, to go on mission and be able to help other people to know about God, they also strengthen myself a lot. I got super close to people in Pennsylvania.”
Mormon mission work is open to church members between the ages of 18 to 25. Although voluntary, the service is strongly encouraged and can result in an assignment in one of 421 missions worldwide.
“It's kind of like our obligation to go and share this message with other people. I actually had a desire to go after I got baptized,” he said.
Despite barriers of language and culture, Li found that his background helped him relate to people and made him a better missionary.
“My experience helps me to understand what they stand for, their belief. It also helps me when I invite them to do something — to pray, to read the Scriptures. I can understand their feelings,” he said.
Li grew up as an only child in Qingdao, China, a port city of 9 million people in the eastern Shandong province. He identified as an atheist in a country where 61 percent described themselves as a “convinced atheist” in 2015.
“We learned some in school, about there's no higher being in life. We learned a little, but they didn't force me to believe that,” he said. “We just believe life is life. You live and then you go.”
Li started to notice that some people in his home city went to a Catholic church. “I would wonder, ‘What are they doing?' ” he said.
China recognizes five religious groups — Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims and Taoists — but not the Latter-day Saints . Although some Chinese nationals identify as Mormon, the Church does not send missionaries to China or conduct proselytizing activities there.
Li moved to the Los Angeles area with his mother in 2014, his father preceding them and obtaining green cards for them.
His attraction to Mormonism was to its teachings and to the attitude of the missionaries. They seemed “super happy,” he said.
“At the beginning, for me it was a bit different because I didn't have a religion before. The missionaries started teaching me about the gospel of Jesus Christ and that he could bring peace and happiness in our life. For me, in my heart, I wasn't quite sure if the Scriptures are true, or if there is a God, or who is Jesus Christ,” he said.
The family's acceptance of Mormonism brought a sense of peace that he hadn't felt before. “That made me interested in learning more,” he said.
After deciding to become a missionary, Li spent three weeks at the LDS missionary training center in Provo, Utah. LDS authorities accepted his application and sent him to the Pittsburgh mission, which covers everything from Jamestown, N.Y., to Harrisburg to Wheeling, W.Va.
While living in Greensburg, Li and Williams have served the Greensburg ward, which includes New Alexandria, Jeannette, Irwin, South Greensburg, Youngwood, New Stanton, Mt. Pleasant, Ligonier and Latrobe.
Although missionaries pay their own way, their financial affairs are handled through the Church, Williams said. They get a monthly stipend to cover routine expenses such as groceries and haircuts.
A typical day begins with personal study at 6:30 a.m. and is taken up with proselytizing activities until 10:30 p.m.
Monday before 6 p.m. is set aside for personal activities and email correspondence with family. Phone calls to family members are permitted only on Christmas and Mother's Day, Williams said.
Some proselytizing is done by appointment, while some is done by going door-to-door and meeting people on the street. Li has learned that not everyone is open to hearing about Mormon theology and history.
“For some people, they might just struggle with some doctrine problem. They don't want to believe. They just reject us,” he said.
‘People need God more'
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, however, Li and Williams found a receptive audience with Sheila Cole of Mt. Pleasant and her children Destiny, 18, and James, 12.
The family was sitting on a bench outside the Westmoreland County Courthouse, and Williams seemed to connect with James when he expressed interest in the ministry.
“Why do you want to be a preacher?” Williams said.
“I feel like people need God more,” James said.
Williams continued, “In the 1800s, there was a young boy. He was 2 years older than you. He lived in New York. His name was Joseph Smith. He had a question because there were so many different religions. He wanted to know which one was right.”
Williams spoke with the confidence of someone who was raised in the church and was baptized at age 8.
The pair, wearing the trademark white shirts, dark ties and name tags, ended the five-minute exchange by asking to follow up with Cole on Facebook. She gave them her information, and they moved on.
Afterward, Cole said she has been visited by Mormon missionaries before but that she has never invited them in.
“I talk to them. Stuff like that don't bother me,” she said.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, email@example.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.