In the fall of 2011, Chicago was host to a China Bible exhibition titled “Thy Word is Truth”. With ecumenical and community partners, the Northern Illinois Conference played a leading role in hosting the exhibition and a delegation from China. This year the China Christian Council invited Reverend Arlene Christopherson (event coordinator) Reverend Phil Blackwell (host site pastor), Bishop Sally Dyck and their spouses to travel to China.
In mid-October, we traveled to Shanghai, Nanjing, and Beijing. It was an amazing trip offering a new perspective on the growing Christian population in China. Walking into the conference office from Union Station the day after our return, I was glad to be home but now realize what a small city Chicago having just navigated the streets of Beijing where 20 million people live – and we thought we had traffic problems!
During our trip, we met with the China Christian Council, the coordinating body for all Protestant believers in China. We learned of their joys and challenges; a fast growing Christian population in need of many more theologically educated leaders. We visited regional church officials, local churches, and government officials charged with protecting the freedom of religion and seminaries. Witnessing the growth of the church in China was deeply moving. The more we learned – the more we realize how little we really know about China and the church.
We met with an elderly pastor who spent 22 years in a labor camp because he refused to denounce his faith. Once released in the late 1970’s he returned to Beijing and helped to rebuild the Christian community. We saw dozens of people waiting outside the Gangwashi Church on Sunday morning for a seat at the 9:00 a.m. service, while the 7:00 a.m. worshippers filled the sanctuary and overflow seating in the courtyard. The church intentionally repeats sermons in Sunday morning services to discourage people from staying for more than one service so they can accommodate as many worshippers was possible. The hymn tunes were all familiar. The choir sang with joy. The sermon emphasized Bible stories. There was no offering during the service, just offering boxes at the door so as not to embarrass those who cannot contribute.
There are 90,000 believers in Beijing alone but only 21 church buildings, 500 meeting points, and only 137 pastors. Through the advocacy of the China Christian Council, the government is returning once-seized church properties and providing land for new church buildings.
We witnessed intense efforts to educate leadership for this growing context including Bible School (not unlike our local pastor's training) for laity, four year Bible Colleges in each Province, and a national seminary in Nanjing.
We heard stories of Christians who grew up in labor camps, another who renounced their communist party ties to become Christian, and a moving story of the family Bible buried in the garden during the Japanese invasion so it would be hidden from soldiers when owning a Bible was forbidden.
We visited the Amity printing press where the printing of 100 million Bibles will be celebrated in November. In addition to Bibles for China the press has printed 38 million Bibles for export in 78 other languages. Bibles are available in every local church book store at cost, and free Bibles are distributed in rural communities.
The Amity Foundation is just over 25 years old and is making a dynamic impact on healthcare, literacy, disaster response, NGO’s, HIV/AIDS and the quality of life for millions of Chinese, especially ethic minority populations in remote regions of China – even partnering with the government on some of these issues. Both the printing press and foundation have received support from the United Methodist Church.
New to China is the idea of senior care facilities. The church is leading the way in establishing these homes and networking the ministries, expanding their witness into the community.
Of course we ate many wonderful foods as well – we had Beijing, Nanjing, Tibetan and Shanghai cuisine – Peking duck in a 600 year old restaurant and a dumpling dinner! There was yak meat from Tibet, cow stomach, chicken paws and more. Climbing would be the best way to describe “walking” the Great Wall. We were in Tiananmen Square on a Sunday afternoon, visited the Forbidden City, a Buddhist Temple, the Temple of Heaven, the Olympic Village and the Pearl Tower in Shanghai.
There is a resiliency to our faith as Christianity experiences resurgence after many years of oppression. The church is offering a graciousness and grounding that fills a void in the lives of the Chinese people. While there are currently 25 to 30 million Christians in China this represents only three percent of the Chinese population, and as the movement continues Christianity is influencing the future of the country. We have many stories to share and much to reflect on as we celebrate God’s continued life-changing work in China.