My pleasant chat with the happy rural Christians was almost the complete opposite from my chat with one of the ministers of that province’s Christian Council (the governing branch of the officially recognized church). Perhaps that was because she could speak English, and wasn’t constrained by the officials that had come along with us; perhaps it was because she’d been pushed too far.
In the city where she worked, the gov’t had big plans for the downtown areas, and the plans required the bulldozing of a historic church and a Bible training center. While the groups were being more than fairly compensated for the land, this minister was adamant that gov’t should not interfere with the church and that these place were sacred (she was also very vocal about the inadequate compensation for the villagers that were being displaced by the new buildings).
When she explained the proposal from the gov’t, it was easy to understand why she was so upset. Not only was the Bible school to be moved from the downtown area to a distant suburb, but the gov’t had also maintained control over the design of the new school and church. The design the gov’t had selected was reminiscent of the Crystal Cathedral, and the minister was well aware of the fact that upkeep would likely be far more than the church could afford. The church wanted something practical, and the local gov’t wanted a centerpiece; by the time we arrived the church had already lost.
Later that day she pointed to a series of buildings next to a lake and explained that it was where the retired provincial officials lived. When the current gov’t tried to build a bridge over the lake, the cadres complained it would obstruct their view. As a result, there is now an incredibly expensive tunnel. To her, these two cases were one in the same.
During a dinner one evening with provincial gov’t officials (who were busy toasting others with very expensive baijiu, this fact was explained in a very very long speech), the minister shared something even more surprising – even though she was a life long member of the registered church, she supported her son’s decision to join an underground congregation. “The underground church,” she whispered, “is closer to the Bible.*”
She continued, “You know, I just returned from a conference overseas, and there everything about Bo Xilai was exposed on the internet. When I returned to China, we couldn’t see anything.” She was getting louder and had switched to Chinese, so I scooted closer and reminded her that the officials might hear her. “You know they monitor our (ministers’) emails and phones? One of my friends was taken away for meeting with foreign ministers. We work for the official church, but they still have no trust in us.”
“One man,” she said, “even built a school for the children of one very poor village. He had permission from the gov’t and everything. He had been very careful to do everything in accordance with the laws. One day, he was found visiting an underground church, so to punish him they said he could never return to his village and they closed the school.”
At this point she was pulled back into the conversation with the officials and I never had the chance to follow up with her for more stories.
For the next several days I traveled with this minister, and was thoroughly impressed by her ability to navigate through the system that was, while quietly encouraging something new. I was overwhelmed by her compassion; even in the smallest villages congregants would rush to hug her when we would step out of the car. If you’ve spent much time in China, you know how rare these displays of affection are. She shared an intimate connection with thousands of believers. She knew their challenges and concerns and also shared in their joys. This outspoken minister is one of the people that I will never forget.
Despite these problems with the local authorities, Christianity was flourishing in the communities we visited (the most commonly cited problem was overcrowding at services). Tomorrow I’ll be sharing some of the projects currently led by Chinese Christians that have a profound impact in their cities.
*This hasn’t been my experience in Chinese churches