In my visits to rural villages in China I have been impressed by the ability of local churches to identify needs, and design projects to meet them. Often these projects rely solely on volunteers and donations from believers. Today I want to share a few examples of projects undertaken by Chinese churches and the impact they are having on their communities.
It is worth noting that these are initiatives begun by local TSPM churches, and represent just a small amount of the “good fruit*” that seems abundant in many of the churches I have visited.
Hospice and Counseling
One of the churches we visited had created a hospice program which met with terminally ill patients. Some of these patients were Christian, but many were not. The goal of the program was not to tell people about Jesus, but instead to show Christ’s love. This has been a theme in many of the projects I have seen.
For most of the patients, their families were either unable or unwilling to be with them (AIDS patients were generally abandoned by their families). In rural areas, discussing death is a major taboo, this means that those who have fallen ill are often lacking a person willing to listen to their fears. This group of dedicated volunteers fills a gaping void in end of life care.
After a few months of hospice work, many of the volunteers felt that their service wasn’t as professional as it should be. To better serve the hospice patients and others, they began a 1-year counseling course and invited psychology professors from the provincial university to help in the training. So far nearly 100 people have completed this lengthy course, and though the training offers them no career advantages, they commit themselves to the work as a part of their Christian compassion.
Another project supported by the local church was a school for deaf children. Since its inception they have been able to secure some funding from the gov’t, but the amount given per student is only 10,000rmb per year which is also supposed to cover the cost of hearing aids for each child. Because of this the deaf school relies heavily on volunteers and additional funding from the church and other organizations.
The school now boards nearly 100 students, with many coming from rural villages and other impoverished provinces. Some were as young as 2 or 3, which was sad to see knowing that they had limited contact with their parents. The school still suffers from a shortage of properly trained teachers who can communicate fluently in sign language (which are incredibly rare in China), but are working to develop a more complete school. They are also hoping that the gov’t will revise their funding so that they can provide a better learning environment for the children.
In one of the small cities we attended a presentation on AIDS education projects started by one church that was supported by the local CDC. The CDC leader proudly said, “We have always had a policy of being open about the scale of the challenge when it comes to AIDS in this city.” He also made sure to point out that the first case of AIDS diagnosed in the city was in 1994, it was a middle aged man who had worked for a foreign company (AIDS initially was viewed in China as a symbol of contamination from the West and a symptom of opening up).
Then the church leader stood up and said, “In the early 2000’s when we approached the CDC about creating an AIDS education program we were told that there were no cases of AIDS in our city and that we should focus on something else. But, they have always supported our work.” Despite the apparent contradiction, at the moment it did seem that the local CDC was supporting the efforts of the local church.
The AIDS education project consisted of running a hotline for questions about the disease, training community educators, and distributing tissue packets with information about how AIDS spreads. They also worked with the local infectious disease hospital, and visited AIDS patients. The church said that there had been a few setbacks along the way, most notably that the CDC had forbade them from discussing the link between prostitution and drug use and AIDS in materials meant for the general public (talk of needle sharing and sex were allowed). In their workshops for community educators, there were several description of how people get AIDS that included the story of a Party official contracting the disease from a mistress.
Another challenge was that initially a few church members had vocally opposed the project, since it might give the impression to the community that the church was full of prostitutes and drug users. Fortunately, reason prevailed, and church members saw that ministering to these marginalized groups was exactly what the church should be involved with.
These represent just a few of the community outreach projects started by Chinese Christians. Others include charity sales, support for the disabled and their families, English classes taught by local Chinese professors, and many others. The foreign ministers that accompanied me on this trip said over and over that they wished they could spark this kind of enthusiasm for volunteer work in their home congregations.
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at a few questionable types of projects the Chinese church is involved with.
*To me Matthew 7:15-20 seems to be saying that we should guard ourselves from false prophets and teachings, and that the way to judge these is by examining the fruits of those teachings. If rural TSPM churches are overflowing with new believers, and those believers in turn are reaching out to the neediest in society and working towards a vision of a just and equitable society, I find it hard to call that false.
I think too many Christians in the US are overly concerned with whether or not Chinese TSPM churches are teaching a “true” version of Christianity, with “true” usually meaning that it agrees with their exact ideology. It should be noted that missionaries in the 1900’s were keen to see Chinese Christians develop a native theology that met the needs of the local population, and the projects discussed in today’s post are very similar to what was done by “real” Christians at the turn of the century.
From what I have seen in my dozens of church visits, TSPM churches are often the most visible source of social good in their communities. They offer everything from medical treatment to agricultural education, from caring for orphans to helping those with terminal illnesses face death knowing that they are loved. They boldly proclaim Christ’s love not only in words but in deeds as well. These churches exist in a questionable space, a space that many of them would like to see reformed, but I have not seen a church anywhere in the world completely immune from politics and policies (many of whom are the ones pointing their fingers at TSPM churches).
I propose that instead of quarreling over TSPM church teachings, which have not been standardized or sanitized by the gov’t or the TSPM itself, we should instead be focusing on the restrictions placed on all religious groups within China. TSPM churches are also demolished and closed without explanation, and their ministers have been detained. As Christians we should be united in solidarity with our brothers and sisters (just one of dozens of verses warning early Christians about division within the movement).