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Chinese Christians are filling vital roles in their communities (and a rant)

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.

Deaf School

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.

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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.

AIDS Education

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).

“They monitor our phones and email” – talking with a provincial church leader

Continued from yesterday

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

Talking with Christians in rural China

A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit a very small village. The villagers there told me this story of how they converted to Christianity and I thought it was an interesting account that gave a glimpse of their relationship with God and a few of the practical challenges of being a rural Christian. The following is a fairly close retelling of what I overheard from their congregation-

Villager #1 – Before we became Christians, our village was known for quarreling with our neighbors. Outsiders said that you could hear us fighting even before you entered. Neighbors would fight from sun up to sun down. We were really terrible then (congregation nods in agreement).

Another villager later told us that she had been one of the absolute worst, and raised her hands to show her ability to fight. The other villagers found this hilarious, but it seemed pretty obvious that she was one tough old lady.

Then one of our villagers met the minister from the nearby town and became a Christian (this minister was Chinese, he had been converted by another Chinese minister in the 80’s). When the others saw how happy she was, they wanted to become Christian too. Now almost the whole village has become Christian, and we no longer fight with each other. Things are much better now. We even received an award from the local gov’t for being a harmonious village.

The Lord has blessed our village in many other ways as well. For instance, because we are located high on the cliff, and we only recently had a road built, we used to have to lower caskets down by rope for burial. From time to time, the casket would tip over and the body would come tumbling out, it was a terrible misfortune for the family. Since we became Christians though, this has not happened a single time.

The congregation in their sanctuary

Minister from the nearby town – When the villagers from this place first started coming to my church, it took them nearly 6 hours to get to the chapel. This was because there was no road to the village, and so the trip was not only difficult but dangerous. When I learned about this I contacted a Christian charity for help. The charity then worked with the local gov’t to secure the funding for the project, but to keeps costs low, the villagers had to work together.

Even though they weren’t fighting with each other as much during that time, they were still too busy farming to work on this project. One day though, this woman (a woman missing one arm comes to the front of the church), picked up a bucket and started working on the road. When the others saw that even this disabled person was willing to work, they knew they had no valid excuses (at this point, most of the people in the church were crying, including the woman). Now that the road has been built it is not only much easier for them to come to the city for church, but they can also reach emergency medical services and sell their goods in the market. This is truly a precious gift from God.

the road

Lay Leader responding to a question about literacy – In our village we have very few people who can read. Most of the young people have left (the ones who could read), and so it can be difficult for new believers to understand the Bible’s teachings.

One of our members was so determined to learn the lessons, that she had her husband read her passages from the Bible every night until she memorized most of the important texts. Even though she can’t read, the others in the church know that if there is ever a question about the scripture, she can always recall the whole verse.

Another woman’s husband decided that he could teach his wife to read while she worked. So every night he would copy a verse in large characters for her. Then when she was plowing the fields, she would attach the verse to the back of the cow and study the characters one by one. Now she is one of our church leaders.

So even though most of the members can’t read, all of the members can access the Bible in one way or another. We also spend time before each church service learning all the songs for the day.

Minister from nearby town answering a question about whether or not he’d ever had trouble from the local gov’t for being a Christian- One time in the late 80’s, shortly after I became a Christian, I saw many young people on a motorcycle and they seemed to be prostitutes. I thought this was something that the gov’t should control, and so I made several large-character posters encouraging them to take action.

A few days later the Public Security Bureau came and took me to the police station for questioning. They asked, “Did you write the signs near the gov’t buildings?”

“I did,” I said.

“Who told you to do this?” they said.

“I did it by myself,” I replied.

“Why are you against the Party?” they asked.

I was very confused though, because I had never said anything against the Party, I was just encouraging them to uphold the laws. After several more rounds of questioning, I finally realized that these officers had never even seen the posters. Someone had simply reported to them that I was putting up signs by the gov’t buildings, and that I had never done this before I was a Christian. In those days, that was enough to get you into a lot of trouble.

Once I recognized this and explained to them what the signs had actually said, they were very embarrassed that they had questioned me about them, and assured me the gov’t would look into this case.

Poisoned By Propaganda

Yesterday Yaxue posted a piece entitled “An Angry Father,” in which she asked the question – How can a parent protect their child from the poison of the Party’s propaganda? Yaxue also mentioned the feeling of guilt and anger that she experienced as she told a friend not to interfere with the system for the sake of his child. These two ideas I think deserve closer examination.

Poisoned By Propaganda

This last week as I visited rural villages in central China, I was struck by the pervasive nature of propaganda. In the countryside slogans were either neatly stenciled on the sides of buildings, or simply scrawled with a paintbrush in the poorest areas. The campaigns seemed relatively harmless, encouraging parents to accept boys and girls as equals, and informing them of the value of education. In the cities bright red banners and bus stop billboards though told me to “Learn from Lei Feng” and develop a harmonious society. At times it reminded me of the pictures I had seen from the Cultural Revolution when China was ruled by hollow mottoes, and made me question if it still is. Then I stepped into the churches that eek out a space in China’s crowded urban areas, each greeted me with the slogan “爱国爱教” (aiguo aijiao – Love the Country, Love Religion), with religion always second to the state.

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Even in China today, State propaganda is pervasive, intruding in every aspect of life. From the number of children you have to where their loyalties should lay. But propaganda does not silence opposition, it aims simply to yell the loudest and drown out competing voices. To Yaxue’s friend though I say, let them shout. Consider the fact that even with the resources of the State, an untold number of Party backed supporters, and complete control of the media, they are still unable to counter the rumors that people spread in their spare time out of a desire for freedom or maybe just entertainment. Even with Party offices in every school, every public institution, and even in some hotels the Party cannot convince netizens that the system is really as transparent and democratic as they claim.

As we are seeing with outspoken dissidents like Yu Jie, Ai Weiwei, Murong Xuecun and dozens of other authors and artists, being poisoned by propaganda does not guarantee death, in some cases after long term exposure it makes one more capable of stomaching its ill effects in ever larger doses.

Cowardice or Patience?

Yaxue regretted writing her friend to tell him, “Please don’t get into an argument, I’m so afraid that they will mistreat your child in school as a result.” I know this feeling as well; I wrote Yaxue months ago asking whether or not she still had family in China to consider after publishing one of her posts. I still feel ashamed of that message, but it felt like something that needed to be said (As you can see though, it didn’t cause her to back down and I’m thankful for that). I would guess that many of those active in human rights in China have experienced this same sickening feeling that comes from cautioning friends before they cross too far over the line.

From one view point though, Yaxue’s advice was probably the best advice. If her friend W. had complained to the higher authorities, at worst it would have resulted in some very negative effects for his child, and in the best case would have come to an interesting conversation. In all likelihood, these school programs are probably scheduled by those even higher up than W. can reach.

However, W. did not simply remain silent on the issue. He confronted a teacher and then reached out to Yaxue, who in turn reached out to us, and created a conversation on a problem that requires further reflection. Yaxue’s mother warned her “Beware of people—you never know what a complicated web exists among people and what trap you might step into,” but at the same time we never know who might secretly agree with us unless we occasionally bring up uncomfortable conversations with friends as well as strangers.

I’ll leave you with this story from my recent trip- In the ’80s there was a mid-ranking party member who had secretly become a Christian. While at work one day, a minister came in and asked if Mr. Wang was there (not his real name).  The man said he was. The minister then whispered, “Is it true that he is a Christian?” To which the man loudly proclaimed, “Yes, I heard Mr. Wang is a Christian.”

“Shh!” the minister said, “You’ll get him in trouble.” The man however said he didn’t care if anyone else heard him. “Things aren’t so safe now for Christians,” the minister urged, “you should be careful.” To which the man replied “I don’t care who knows Mr. Wang is a Christian because I am Mr. Wang.” The minister was simply looking for a fellow Christian to converse with, but that day started something bigger.

Shortly after that exchange Mr. Wang quit his job and discarded his Party membership to start a church. After 7 years of hard work he had attracted fewer than 10 members. Today though, his congregation has nearly 1,500 members. It is the result of both a single conversation and thousands of other conversations that followed with strangers.

Our quiet conversations may prove to have results beyond our expectations.

An Epidemic in Lu Chow Fu – A glimpse of mission work in 1900’s China

Present day malaria map, Hefei is just west of Nanjing

I’ve been working on transcribing the diary of a missionary doctor who lived in Hefei (then called Lu Chow Fu) around the turn of the century. This passage, written by the doctor’s wife, struck me as particularly interesting for several reasons. Firstly, by the sheer number of people the doctor and his two assistants were able to treat in a year, and secondly by the fact that malaria had been such a major concern in central China. Last year there were only 24 deaths from the disease, and it has been eradicated in Hefei, this is a noteworthy achievement that is rarely mentioned. According to Wikipedia, the population of Hefei in 1930 was ~30,000. The following entry gives us an interesting glimpse of both the period, and the work done by missionaries in China.

While his surgical work alone was enough for one man with his surroundings, it constituted a very small part of his work. For every operation there were hundreds he treated medically. All sorts of diseases came to him, but malaria was the most common. Ordinarily this trouble was very easy to treat for it usually yielded to a few doses of quinine and did not give cause for much uneasiness.

One year (1907), though, while we were still in the mountains, word came to us that a dreadful malady had seized the people of Lu Chow Fu. Deaths were occurring on every hand. The fields were left unreaped because the well ones were all occupied in caring for the sick. Coffins could not be made fast enough to carry out the dead.

The Doctor hastened us all down that he might be there to see what he could do. He studied the trouble with microscope and found it to be a most virulent type of malaria. He went to the homes where he was called. Often he found the patient unconscious and had been for several days. Everything would be in readiness for the burial. The funeral clothes even already put on. Doctor would inject quinine hypodermically and leave. The next day he would call to see the patient and find him conscious and able to sit up. Though he might not be asked to come again by the friends, he went again and again of his own accord, without charging for his visit. So interested was he that he wanted to see his cases clear through until they were entirely recovered.

These words quoted from a written report by him show us his great concern, “Some of the cases were very sad, many having been starved by the native doctors till, when the disease ceased of itself, or was arrested by treatment, they were too weak to assimilate food and recuperate. One Chinese doctor of good reputation, who was the only support a large family died in this way. He had tasted no food for forty days.”

Well do I remember that busy year. Night and day, he was called out to save the dying. He became so tired, I felt quite alarmed. I expressed my fears to him. He said to me, “don’t worry, it will not always be this way. I will get a chance to rest after awhile.” So tired and so much in need of rest was he, that I would get up and answer the call. If it was an opium suicide (overdose), I would not awaken him, but ask the assistant to attend to the case. He had instructed the assistant to call him always, no matter what the case might be. They were trained however, to save opium cases and it was not necessary for himself to go. One night the assistant came to inform him of such a case, Doctor gave the usual orders and returned to his bed. The next morning the fee was handed to him. He was surprised and asked what it meant. He was told it was for the case in the night. He had no recollection of such a case, and would not believe it until I verified the statement. He had been so tired he had not realized he had arisen and given the orders.

The visits he made this year numbered between eleven and twelve hundred with thirty-three thousand treatments having been administered at the clinic held daily except on Sunday. Some days there were three hundred fifty.  To be sure he could not see all of these himself. He had two trained assistants who saw them as he would, and they were rushed almost to death. They put their shoulders bravely to the wheel and bore their share of the burden willingly. It was these two men who took care of the hospital work the year we went to America on furlough. They ran a large clinic and collected a creditable sum of money. The sick were cared for, which was a source of satisfaction to us while we were absent.

Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China

Part of a continuing series of journal article summaries. You can also read my summaries on The regulation of religion in China and Reconsidering the campaign to suppress counter-revolutionaries.  

Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China                         By: Joseph Tse-Hei Lee (full text PDF)

Tom’s Summary:

The Little Flock Movement or Christian Assembly, was a loosely connected church movement that was started by Watchman Nee in the 1920’s as a wholly Chinese form of Christianity. It strove to be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-funded in accordance with three-“self” principles that were popular at the time, and quickly grew as the Chinese public turned more strongly against foreign imperialism.

Fundamentally the Little Flock modeled itself after the church depicted in Acts; they would be united as a community of believers, and there would be no hierarchy beyond the local church. They strongly promoted the idea of the “priesthood of believers.” They urged their congregations to break cleanly from western missionary movements and rejected the idea of denominational ties. This is somewhat ironic given that the Little Flock benefited greatly from theological training from earlier missionaries. The movement also promoted the idea that there should only be one church in each geographical region, so that there would not be competition between believers.

The Little Flock movement spread in two distinct ways. One way was for travelling evangelists (“apostles”) to make connections in a new place, and train local leaders who would form the core of the new church. Once established the evangelist would move to another region. The other method was to move several families from an existing congregation to a new area, where they would reach out to non-believers. By 1949 the Little Flock movement made up roughly 25% of China’s Christian population.

When the Communist Party came to power they initially claimed that religious institutions would be tolerated, and created the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which followed the same ideas mentioned above, but was directly overseen by the Party.  Initially the Little Flock worked alongside the TSPM and eventually endorsed the “Christian Manifesto,” which stated Christians’ loyalty to the Communist Party. While Watchman Nee was concerned about Mao’s atheistic views, he convinced himself that the movement would not be affected because it was both indigenous and apolitical.

In 1950 the Korean War broke out and all foreign missionaries were forced to leave the country. This meant that many foreign funded churches were suddenly understaffed and underfunded. The Little Flock quickly made connections with these congregations, and helped them to continue worshiping in accordance with the three-self principles.

Initially the Little Flock congregations urged their members to sacrifice material comfort and help the Party rebuild China. Later though they would resist collectivization and conscription. This dangerous position and their recent connection with foreigners, meant that many Christians suffered during Mao’s various campaigns.

In 1951 some church leaders turned against each other and publicly denounced other Christians and Watchman Nee. This led to the excommunication of all believers who were explicitly pro-government in ’52. In ’53 Little Flock leaders began to openly encourage congregations to leave the TSPM, and reaffirm that Christ was the only authority over the church.

Watchman Nee’s insistence on ideological autonomy eventually led to his own denouncement. In 1956 he was arrested and charged with being a counter-revolutionary and undermining the power of the State. He died while serving a 15 year sentence in a labor camp.

Despite persecution the Little Flock continued to grow and spread to every corner of China. Many believers infiltrated the Party and used their positions to spread the Gospel. On university campuses many of the professors were also believers because they had been trained on Christian campuses prior to ’49. Youth groups were also organized in an effort to counter anti-religious teachings promoted by the Party.

By the time the Cultural Revolution began, the Little Flock movement had become adept at surviving persecution, their theological view of the world reinforced the idea that this was a time when their faith would be tested, and that God would eventually deliver them. Ironically, during this time the movement grew due to the lack of supervision from State agencies that had collapsed in the chaos.

When China allowed religion to reemerge in ’78, the Little Flock became the template for many of China’s house churches.

Tom’s reaction:

In the article there is a quote which states that throughout China’s history there has never been a gov’t that has promoted freedom of religion. The goal of the State has always been to regulate, control, and exploit religion. Just this week the Party issued a message once again warning about the dangers of religion.

In a country where “change” is a word that is usually followed by “undermines stability” it can be difficult to imagine that things could ever be different. Religion offers a radically different view of society, and encourages submission to an authority higher than the Party. In many cases throughout Chinese history, people of faith have been the instigators of change.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that the Party has tried to control those who exist outside of socialist ideology, but given the power of religious ideals, it also isn’t surprising that the Little Flock survived decades of persecution in an effort to maintain the ideological autonomy necessary to pursue their beliefs.