My husband tells me stories of his family history that are filled with such adventure that the pictures and emotions they conjure up in me linger for hours. In 2007, his grandparents sent us a letter that recounted the details of their expulsion from China in their own words. They spoke of gold strips carried in their shoes, books buried for for their possible return, and a communist officer carefully stepping over their vomit on the deck of the ship. Their descriptions piqued my interest in a time and place I couldn’t quite imagine. Their experiences were so far removed from the world I know.
As reluctant as I was to come to China, its place in our family’s history gave it a special intrigue. A Bible study I completed this morning states that “the future is not whole without the past,” meaning that our experiences, both grievous and euphoric, shape what comes next in our lives; you cannot have one experience without what came before it (197). My husband’s missionary grandparents left a legacy that made him who he is—a man of integrity who loves God, values education, and can’t sit still.
I like reading books about China. The knowledge usually opens my eyes to what I’m observing and has changed my experience in the country. Prompted by my need to understand the country I am living in, but also by my need to understand our family history, I read Liao Yiwo’s book God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China. There were seven hundred thousand Christians in China when foreign missionaries were expelled in 1949. By the time the missionaries were forced to leave, they had already planted seeds, and many Chinese had developed a genuine faith in Christ that they would not renounce despite the persecution they endured.
Liao Yiwo, a non-Christian dissident, interviewed a number of Chinese citizens who shared their experiences with Christianity. The book contains eighteen chapters, each with an introduction and then a transcribed interview. Some of the interviewees talk about the effect that the Christian missionaries had on them; others talk about the persecution they endured under Mao when the government tried to eradicate religion and replace it with Communist ideology, essentially making the government into the people’s god. The age of the interviewees ranges from a centenarian who cannot bring herself to forgive those who persecuted her to a young Beijing Christian whose interview gives the impression that he believes Christianity is the hip thing of today and flippantly dismisses China’s history of religious persecution.
Liao Yiwo explains that before Mao’s death in 1976, many Chinese Christians were imprisoned or executed. In recent years, as the government has eased its restriction over religion, Christianity has undergone explosive growth. However the author describes a contrast between the Christianity in the villages which he sees as “indigenous” and “life-sustaining” and the Christianity in the cities which he describes as having a “foreign identity” where the converts embrace Christianity “the way they do Coca-Cola or a Volkswagen—believing that a foreign faith, like foreign-made products, has better quality. Many younger urban Christians have been throwing themselves at the feet of Jesus because it is considered hip to wear a cross and sing a foreign-sounding hymn.”
Liao Yiwo is a non-Christian who simply recorded his own observations. As a Christian myself, I have to remember that we can never see inside someone’s heart. Right now I thank God for the times when we can hear Christ’s message without persecution, when we can nurture faith and grow it and come to see who God is as much as we can before we face such trials. Sometimes we don’t know the strength Christ can give us until we are tested. Perhaps that is the case with young Christians in China’s cities.
Whatever the differences between Christianity in the cities and villages, like it or not, the persecution in China is part of the legacy Chinese citizens have received. Remember, “the future is not whole without the past.” Just as my husband’s missionary grandparents shaped who he became, China’s history will shape its people. Just like Chinese missionaries never knew how the seeds they planted would grow, the Chinese government will never know how its choices affected the individuals in their society. Fortunately, God is sovereign and can even turn evil around and use it for good.
I recently met a woman who told me that the government response to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 prompted her to seek Jesus. She was a Chinese student studying abroad, and as she watched the actions the government chose to take against protesting students, she realized the image of government that she had had in her mind was a lie. The Communist Party was not infallible like she had always been taught, and she realized she wanted something different.
Christ is at work even in the darkest places.
Though religious restrictions in China have waned, there are certainly still restrictions. Every religious body I have joined has required a foreign passport in order to participate. But even if that were not the case, my inability to speak Mandarin prevents me from speaking to any Chinese Christians to get their own perspective of faith in China. My observations of Christ at work in China have been among the expat population here.
It may seem odd to think of someone coming to Communist China and finding Christ, but I’ve seen it happen. The expatriate population in China, most of them coming from countries with vast religious freedom, need Christ desperately, just like everyone else. And God is at work here.
I left a Christian school in a country with religious freedom, where there was a very robust community of Christians among my host country nationals and among the expatriate community I was a part of. But it’s not difficult to be a Christian while knowing that everyone around me also claimed to love Christ. It wasn’t hard to grow in my knowledge of the Word when it was part of my job. As a Christian studies teacher, I opened up my Bible every day. I had to. The expectation of my employer was to talk to kids about Christ. To challenge them to ask hard questions. I thought my relationship with God would suffer in coming here and becoming part of a liberal secular school system.
And yet, I’ve found the opposite is true. We found a church here in China, where every time we go, I feel the Holy Spirit moving in a way that I had forgotten He could. I’m moved to tears almost every Sunday. My personal study and prayer time has become more alive than it ever was in Korea. The Bible study I joined has challenged me to look at God more deeply and has allowed me to have a greater understanding of His holiness. And a new group that I have joined has given me an opportunity to minister to seekers, allowing them to ask questions and have honest and frank conversations about Christianity. Rather than being drowned in a sea of secular humanism, God provided me with a church and small group to fellowship with, and then pushed me out to become salt and light, and in the process, He used my fears to help me grow even closer to Him.
Last week at church, the power went out. The amps and electric guitars and microphones and projectors were useless (as was the heat). The worship leader invited everyone to come closer and gather up at the front so we could hear him call out the words of the song, line by line, as we sang so that we could continue worshipping. This was the second time this had happened at church (the first was at a Bible study class, and we did the same—gathered in close to continue hearing the speaker). I watched the singing continue and listened to the a cappella music and felt so wonderfully blessed that God can work no matter what the circumstances—that God is sovereign and cannot be limited. That when we seek Him, He will grab hold of us no matter where we are.