One year ago members of the Williamsburg and Jamestown wards had the opportunity to host 21 students from The University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, located in Chengdu, Sichuan Province in western China. The students were on a three-week exchange with a local Williamsburg college.
While I wasn’t directly involved in hosting the students, I did have the pleasure of interviewing the participants for a press release. A year later, the students and their host families remain tied together through an accidental exchange that continues toaffectthelives of those who participated in it:
“They say a large gate moves a great distance by the swing of a small hinge, and I believe we’ve started to move the large gate we call China,” said Brother William Stoner of the Williamsburg Ward, in Williamsburg, Virginia in a fast and testimony meeting shortly after the 21 students left Williamsburg on their way back home.
Rewind several weeks prior to his testimony and Brother Stoner was one of the host parents who stepped forward when the students’ plans for their Williamsburg stay were rearranged.
Initially, the students were scheduled to visit an American church as part of a cultural exchange. The two directors overseeing the exchange, who are not members of the LDS faith, had a long-time friend in Williamsburg Ward Bishop, Andrew Crookston.
In an effort to introduce the students to American religious culture, they asked Bishop Crookston if he could arrange a meeting for the students to visit and learn about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As often happens, things did not go as planned.
About three weeks before the students arrived in America, Bishop Crookston got a call from one of the directors explaining that the local college had a housing conflict during part of the students’ stay. She asked Bishop Crookston if any of the members of his church could hostthe students for the eight days when the dorms were not available.
The Bishop accepted and the following Sunday, he announced the need for host families. Ten families from the Williamsburg and Jamestown wards stepped forward and the gate was set in motion.
“I don’t think that it was a coincidence that the dorms were not available,“ commented Bishop Crookston, “because the students learned so much more about the gospel than they would have coming to church just once.”
The students stuck with their plans to visit the LDS Church for Sunday services. After the meetings were over, the students stayed for a fireside that the missionariesin the greater Williamsburg area coordinated.
As a result of the fireside, a number of students expressed a desire to meet with the missionaries. Out of all the students who took further missionary discussions, one was baptized, a number that belies the significance of the experience for all involved.
As Brother Pat Long, the ward mission leader for the Williamsburg Ward said, “It was a week of miracles.”
For many of these students, their experience at the Williamsburg Ward was the first time they hadheard about God, Jesus Christ,prayer and the language of the Spirit. Throughout the weeklong stay with their host families, the students participated in family and meal prayers and even offered prayers of their own.
One of the students commented, “When I heard that God loves me, the happiness came so fast. I learned I could pray what I want to God anywhere. I want to talk to Him.”
The spiritual growth wasn’t one-sided however. Many of the host families shared their testimony-building experiences.
Sister Audreynell Kelly, who joined the Church three years agosaid, “After meeting these wonderful young people who did not know Heavenly Father…my testimony has been enhanced by knowing that I do have a Father in heaven, who loves me.I know it sounds ridiculous but I feel that my involvement with this program, after belonging to the Church for such a short period was just for me.”
Sister Sarah Brock, said of her family’s experience hosting the students, “If nothing else it was a strength to our testimony... I hadn’t thought in a while as to why I need a testimony…it caused us to reflect a lot.”
The students were impressed with their experiences at Church and even more so with their host families. One of the students said, “It’s amazing…The way you treat each other as brothers and sisters. You are really very pious.”
Another student who went by the name Angela (some of the students adopted American names during their trip) remarked, “The people treat you like family and they love each other. It is hard to imagine that people who have no relationship can love each other and help each other so much. It really works in my heart.”
That familial love seemed to be a contagious and a common theme throughout the week.Kim and Jim Huber were one of the families who hosted three of the students. “When we picked up John,” said Kim, “he asked if we were a ‘Huber,’ I said yes and he said, ‘then I am in your family.’ It was interesting to all of us how quickly they did become a part of our family.”
“It’s so hard to think that in just one week you could become so attached and love a person as family,” said Clarence Ellis, of the two Chinese students who stayed with him and his wife, Shigeru.
“It has been very short,” said YoDoelling, whose family also hosted two of the students, “ but I have come to love them like my own kids. They left us a note on their beds thanking us. We were so touched by their manners and tender hearts. Their parents have taught them very well. I know their parents are very good people.”
At the end of the week, students and host families parted with difficulty. In a few short days, cultural differences were bridged and stereotypes on both sides were overcome.
“I expected them to be a little bit different, said Sister Megan Headley, “but they are warmand just normal people.”
Sister Doelling remarked, “We realized that no matter where people are from, they are all our brother and sisters.”
“I hope they will keep in touch with us,” continuedSister Doelling, “and let us know how they are doing. Of course I prefer they accept the gospel that is dear to my heart, but if they don’t, I will still care and love them like my own children.”
The students did stay in touch even after returning to China. During Hurricane Irene, which hit the east coast of America, some of the host families received emails from their students expressing their concern and efforts to pray on their behalf.