Weldon Kitchen and the baptismal waters of Taiwan's Wu-lai Canyon
Trent Toone, Deseret News
Weldon Kitchen figured it was lost forever.
While he was serving as one of the first Mormon missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, in the 1950s, pollution forced the elders to find a clean river in a mountain paradise to use as the location for their first baptismal service.
But the picturesque setting, which seemed like the "waters of Mormon" (see Mosiah 18:5) to the missionaries, was only a temporary solution, and the location was eventually forgotten.
Returning to Taiwan more than 50 years later, Kitchen and his wife, Donna, used old photos to eventually find the historic site. The discovery not only brought Kitchen's missionary service full circle but also inspired an increase in missionary efforts and a renewed appreciation of LDS Church history among the Saints in the area.
Knowing what their efforts have meant to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Taiwan has meant everything to the Kitchens.
“It brings me a feeling of emotional happiness,” Kitchen said in a recent interview from their Highland, Utah, home. “I’m so thrilled to be able to be a part of it, to be an instrument in the missionary work in Taiwan. ... They love hearing the story.”
Opening up Taiwan
The 21-year-old Kitchen had just finished his junior year at Brigham Young University when he received a three-year call to the Southern Far East mission in 1955. He and five other missionaries received their passenger ship tickets and some words of counsel from a young Gordon B. Hinckley of the church’s missionary department in Salt Lake City before traveling to San Francisco.
Once there, they boarded a boat for a monthlong ride to the mission headquarters in Hong Kong. The mission president, 26-year-old Grant Heaton, and eight other missionaries greeted the new missionaries upon their arrival.
Shortly thereafter, four elders, including Kitchen, were assigned to open up missionary work in Taiwan.
Unfortunately, Kitchen said, it took eight months to secure visas. Some of that time was spent learning Mandarin Chinese while everyone in Hong Kong spoke Cantonese. At one point, the missionaries hired students at a local university to tutor them. One of the tutors later joined the church.
“(Learning the language) was a challenge,” Kitchen said. “When we asked how do we learn the language, they told us to get out on the street and learn it.”
In 1956, President Heaton visited Taiwan and met Stanley Simiskey, a Latter-day Saint convert stationed with the U.S. military in Taipei. Simiskey and a few other LDS servicemen began holding church meetings. When the four missionaries arrived in June of that year, a branch was established in Taipei with Simiskey as president.
Even with two serviceman-taught convert baptisms in the Taipei branch in 1956, missionary work was slow and challenging for most of the first year, Kitchen said.
Most Taiwanese practiced Buddhism or Taoism and the country would not be dedicated for the preaching of the gospel until Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve did it in June 1959. Investigators were unable to read the Book of Mormon in their language until 1965. The American missionaries struggled without senior companions to turn to.
“It was not an easy mission; it was very difficult,” Kitchen said. “But that made it interesting.”
Then a missionary died.
On Dec. 31, 1956, the missionaries were riding their bikes when Elder Keith A. Madsen hit a rut, was thrown from his bike and fell unconscious (there were no bike helmets in those days, Kitchen said). Elder Madsen died two days later in the hospital.
“He never did regain consciousness,” Kitchen said. “We were devastated by this tragedy.”
President Heaton came to Taipei to make arrangements to fly Madsen’s body back to Hong Kong. He was discouraged by the elder’s death and the lack of convert baptisms. The work in Hong Kong was productive, and the president considered pulling the small missionary force back to mission headquarters, according to Kitchen.
“We pleaded with him to let us stay. We didn’t want to go back. Finally he consented,” Kitchen said. “He said, ‘I will give you a little more time. If you don’t have any success in the next three months, you are all coming back to Hong Kong.’ It was shortly after that we found two golden investigators ... and continued to have success. The Taiwan missionaries would not be going back to Hong Kong.”
The waters of Wu-lai
The three-month deadline was just enough time for the Taiwan missionaries. Nine months after coming to Taipei, they had their first missionary-taught converts.
But there was another problem: where to hold the baptism. Pollution contaminated most of Taipei’s waterways. They couldn’t imagine holding a baptismal service in a sewer ditch or foul-smelling pond.
President Simiskey told the elders his family had found a beautiful spot in a nearby canyon, about 15 miles outside the city, where the water was clean and clear.
The mountain paradise, located in Wu-lai Canyon, became the location of the first missionary-taught convert baptisms. Kitchen baptized Tseng I-chang and then Elder Duane W. Degn baptized Chiu Hung-hsiung on April 27, 1957. The confirmations were performed at the water’s edge. The missionaries took photos and captured the historic moment in the majestic setting.
“The weather was calm that day. The water, our baptismal font, was warm,” Kitchen said. “That was a very special occasion.”
The missionaries continued to have success and returned to Wu-lai Canyon for other baptismal services until they built their own baptismal font.
“Over the years, that particular spot in Wu-lai Canyon was forgotten,” Kitchen said. “We remembered it but never had occasion to go there.”
Over the next several months, more than 50 people joined the church in Taiwan. Missionary work branched out to Taichung and Tainan as more missionaries arrived. When Kitchen was released from his mission in 1958, there were about 250 members.
In 2006, Kitchen and his wife, Donna, returned to Taiwan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the missionaries’ arrival in the country. While there, Chin Tan Shu-hui, an early convert, and her oldest son, Steve Chin, offered to take the couple up the canyon to try to find the Wu-lai baptismal site. They searched and explored, comparing various locations with two photos from the original baptisms, but much of the land had been developed for homes and buildings, and they failed to find the original spot.
Five years later, in 2011, the Kitchens returned to serve in the Taiwan Taipei Temple. For fun one day, they looked again for the baptismal site but were unsuccessful.
“We kind of gave up," Kitchen said. "We thought we'd never find it."
Five days before they went home, Steve Chin prevailed upon the Kitchens to go back one more time. This time as they drove up the canyon, observing their surroundings, the Kitchens both felt an impression as they turned a corner. They felt they should check out a place they had just passed. There was something strangely familiar about it, Kitchen said.
“We went down to the water’s edge and took out the pictures to look at the rock formations,” Kitchen said. “There it was, the same formation from 50 years earlier. The water was still crystal clear. The water looked exactly the way it did in 1957 when I walked out into the middle of the stream to perform my first baptism. We were absolutely able to 100 percent confirm that was the spot.”
Donna Kitchen said the Spirit led the way.
“I felt like one of the reasons we were called to Taiwan was to bring back the history and share with the people. Weldon had the opportunity to go all over the island and tell his early experiences,” Donna Kitchen said. “Finding it was the last thing Heavenly Father wanted us to do.”
Double 10 Day
In Taiwan, Oct. 10 (10-10) is a national holiday. In 2013, the date became more significant to church members for another reason.
As a convert, Bishop Arnie Chen of the Taoyuan 3rd Ward, just west of Taipei, has always admired and respected those pioneers who helped to build the church in Taiwan. He was thrilled to learn the Kitchens had finally located the Wu-lai Canyon baptismal site.
While planning a ward activity last year, the bishopric thought it would be meaningful for the members to visit the special area. But the other leaders of the ward took the idea a step further — why not set a goal and hold a baptismal service there? The idea was accepted, and Oct. 10 — “Double 10 Day” — was circled on the calendar.
The missionaries were alerted, and excited about the plan and goal, the entire ward began inviting non-member family and friends to church meetings. As the date drew closer, positive things began to happen.
One young woman had attended church for many years with her aunt’s family, but her mother would not allow her to be baptized. The ward reached out to the mother and invited her to a barbecue activity, where she was able to observe how much the ward members cared about her daughter. This softened her heart, and she eventually consented to let her daughter be baptized.
As Oct. 10 drew closer, it rained for several days and there were concerns about an approaching typhoon. Bishop Chen said the ward members and missionaries prayed fervently for good weather. On the morning of the baptism service, the weather was beautiful.
Nearly 130 members and investigators, along with Taipei Taiwan Mission President David Day and 15 brand-new missionaries and their trainers, participated in a baptismal service for six converts.
President Day said the missionaries were thrilled to be part of such a remarkable event. It was not only historic but also an incredible way for several young elders and sisters to start their missions.
Because of recent rains, the river was high and the current swift. For safety, a rope was tied around the elders and new converts as they entered the water.
“Each baptism was a sweet experience,” President Day wrote in an email.
One baptism in particular touched many, President Day said, as a recent convert was able to baptize his fiancee.
With such a large crowd standing next to a rural river, many vehicles passing by stopped to see what was going on. The new missionaries, “full of gospel zeal,” mustered their best Mandarin Chinese as they spoke to the onlookers and handed out missionary tracts, President Day said.
“This was a day not soon to be forgotten by those who made their first covenants and by those of us who experienced it with them," President Day said.
Bishop Chen said the experience was special and the ward is looking forward to returning in 2017 to mark the 60th anniversary of the first baptisms.
“All of the attendees felt it was a sacred and unforgettable experience for them to be at this site with its historical value,” Bishop Chen wrote in an email. “We all feel that it is a holy place to the Saints in Taiwan.”
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