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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

God is Red – Book review

Liao Yiwu’s book, God Is Red, is one of the best I have ever read.

Liao Yiwu’s work concerning Tian’anmen Square cost him 4-years in prison. His work with the currently imprisoned Nobel prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, caused further restrictions on his freedom in China and led to regular visits from the police. He was told that the publishing of God is Red would be considered a criminal offense. On July 2nd, 2011, he crossed the border into Vietnam, knowing that he would have to sacrifice his connection with his homeland in order to tell the stories of the people who lived there.

It started a few years earlier while Liao was working on other projects. He met a number of Chinese Christians and became interested in their various histories. Even though he was not a Christian himself, Liao became intrigued by the parallels he saw between the past repression of religious peoples in the 60’s and the ongoing human rights abuses in the present.Through his contacts he met believers in rural Yunnan, Beijing, and Chengdu, and the resulting book exposes past abuses and uncovers incredible stories of faith, strength, and integrity.

Liao’s style is somewhat unique; he interviews 18 Chinese Christians, and then adds his own short introduction of the person and tacks on follow-up information. This approach allows him to give a voice to those who may otherwise not be heard, and helps coax stories from those who would otherwise remain silent (Liao used the same method in his highly praised book, The Corpse Walker).

The majority of this book focuses on the question “How did Christianity (and Christians) survive the Cultural Revolution?” Many of the interviewees knew other believers who were executed by blood thirsty mobs and government officials trying to fill execution quotas. They endured harsh physical labor and public scorn for a God they had only recently come to know. Whether or not you are religious, I think it would be hard not to admire the integrity of these early Christians. I found inspiration every time I opened this book.

The story of the Blind Musician in Chengdu was one that stuck out in particular to me. As a child, this individual slowly lost his sight and the Chinese doctors were unable to diagnose the problem. His parents and grandparents became convinced that it was simply his destiny, but a missionary doctor prescribed the child a medicine that started to restore his sight. Unfortunately for the boy, the Communists had just ordered the foreigners to leave the country, and the boy’s sight faded once again to complete darkness. His vision was never restored, but he never forgot the healing the missionary had brought.

One of the minor stories that appears throughout the book that I think is important to highlight, is that many of the mission cemeteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. From other sources, I know that the large mission cemetery in Nanjing was also desecrated during this time (one of the hospital’s founders was buried there). It is painful and embarrassing for the local gov’t to tell foreign families, whose relatives sacrificed much of their lives for the poor of China, that we do not know what happened to the remains of their loved ones.  Sadly, the gov’t continues to allow these resting places to be plundered and destroyed, but foreign churches are struggling to protect these memories.

The only thing I would have liked to have seen in this book would be accounts from members of the churches that joined the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. As it stands, the book gives the impression that the groups that didn’t join suffered disproportionately compared to other Christians in China, or that those who joined did it out of cowardice and fear. I know from Chinese friends, that all Christians shared in misfortune during the Cultural Revolution. To the Red Guard it didn’t matter which church you went to, you believed in something mightier than Chairman Mao.

I highly recommend God Is Red ($12.99 Kindle, $16.25 hardcover) not only for those interested in the continuing story of Christianity in China, but also for those interested in learning, from a variety of sources, more about one of modern China’s darkest periods. (I’ve also given this book as a gift, and urged friends and visitors to read this prior to visiting me).

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.

What’s a House Church? – The difference between registered/unregistered churches in China

Yesterday I answered some of the questions I get most often about Christianity in China (if you have more please post them below). Today we’ll be looking mostly at the differences between a registered and unregistered church.

Registered Church/Official Church

Chinese protestant churches must be registered with two groups in order to be considered legal; these groups are the China Christian Council (CCC), and the Three-self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). These two groups work so closely together that at this level of understanding, it is not so important to differentiate.

Church in Dali, Yunnan

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement was formed in 1951 as a way of placating the new Communist gov’t that there would be no direct foreign involvement in the Chinese church. The ideals highlighted by this movement though were actually established in the late 1800’s as a guide for establishing an indigenous Chinese church (more on mission in China coming later this week). The three principals are self-support, self-governance, and self-propagation. While these principals might sound like they are reinforcing the party line, I think they are the best hope for creating a Chinese church that truly addresses the needs of the Chinese people.

Church in Longzhou

Church in Longzhou

These two organizations also run China’s 13 seminaries as well as provide oversight for the Amity Printing Press and the Amity Foundation.

For a church to become registered it needs to have 50 core members, a seminary trained minister, and a fixed location for worship.

Underground church/Unregistered church

My understanding of this kind of church is somewhat limited because I have never actually attended any of their services. The reason for this is not that I think they are not true Christians or anything like that, but because I worry that a foreigner attending worship with them might attract unwanted attention from local authorities.

These churches often refuse to register with the TSPM and CCC because they believe they are too tightly controlled by the gov’t, or are not fully conveying the message of the Bible. Other times they do not register because they do not meet the requirements for registration.

Many of these underground churches receive funding and training from Christians outside of China. This can lead to some strange interpretations of the Bible, since the trainings are often short, and not held in Chinese (If you are thinking this is only Evangelical American missionaries, you might be surprised to know that there are also scores of Korean missionaries in China promoting this kind of church). For example one of my colleagues noticed that a student was suddenly far too serious and had stopped smiling. He asked her if something was wrong to which she replied, “Christians should never smile because Jesus has died.”

However it is important to remember that these churches vary widely in their teachings, and it is my understand that many of them are theologically sound.

Laws Effecting Churches in China

While people have freedom of belief in China, this is vastly different from freedom of religion.

For example churches are not to advertise, or publicly try to attract new believers. I learned this from a student who had tried to make a sign to put outside of the church in Longzhou, only to find out that it was not allowed. She was incredibly disappointed to learn about this and the other ways the gov’t restricts proselytizing.

These laws are in place because China also technically has freedom from religion. Essentially this means that a person should have to seek religion, and should not have to encounter it outside of church.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the rapidly growing church in China