In China , Christianity rises again
BY TIM JOHNSON
ICC Note: Here is a brief history of how Christianity came to China
1/13/07 China For Full Story .(Miami Herald) On arrival in this outpost, the missionary set up a chapel, effectively bringing Christianity to a lawless, disease-ridden corner of southern China .
For the next five decades, more Methodist missionaries followed, establishing a hospital, clinics, primary schools and numerous churches across the inland regions of coastal Fujian province. Among them: Karl and Ada Scheufler, a couple from Sandusky , Ohio , my maternal grandparents.
”We are here! It is wonderful!” my grandfather wrote to his parents upon arrival in September 1922. “We look down upon the Min as it passes between pagoda-crowned hills.”
Not only Methodists came to Nanping. Roman Catholic priests from Spain began arriving in 1897. By the time communists came to power in China in 1949, Methodists and Catholics were operating dozens of schools. Christians in the area numbered in the many thousands. Christianity appeared to have taken root, despite chaotic conditions.
It almost perished in the tumultuous first decades under Mao Zedong, who established atheism as the national norm and expelled the foreign clergy. During the decade-long Cultural Revolution, begun in 1966, mobs humiliated preachers and priests, condemning all believers.
‘Church activity completely stopped in Nanping in 1966. They burned Bibles, and the church was closed. The pastors were detained in ox sheds. They had to wear dunce caps and signs hanging from their chests that read, `Cow ghost snake spirit’ (a popular taunt in the Cultural Revolution), and clean the streets,” said the Rev. Sun Renfu, the 43-year-old pastor of Nanping’s Meishan Christian Church.
Religion didn’t die, however. While the Communist Party still controls China firmly, it partially relaxed its grip on religious activity. In pockets of China , such as here, religion thrives. Groups loosely aligned with different Protestant denominations battle for the hearts of followers, again operating social services such as kindergartens and retirement homes. A state-controlled Catholic Church draws new members, as does a parallel but underground Catholic Church that’s loyal to the Vatican . Word is that Oriental Lightning, a quasi-Christian cult, also has moved into the area.
The steeple of Meishan Christian Church rises 130 feet above Nanping, nearly as tall as the high-rises that dot this city of 270,000 residents. Since the party handed back church property in 1980 and permitted religious activity, church membership has expanded. Today, Sun, two other pastors and three associate pastors work with 5,000 members at 26 churches around Nanping.
While Chinese law prohibits the Meishan church from affiliation with overseas denominations, Sun identifies himself as Methodist and heartily praises the Methodist missionaries, such as Nathan Sites, who came up the Min River 140 years ago.
”They laid a good foundation for Nanping,” he said. “They brought modern education and modern medicine. . . . Most importantly, they brought the Gospel. In China , we have traditional culture, but we don’t have unselfish love and forgiveness. There is no element in Chinese culture of loving your enemy. In China , it is never too late to take revenge on your enemies, even after 10 years.”
China still prohibits anyone younger than 18 from receiving religious training. Yet the church forges ahead quietly, feeling its way for government resistance.
”During Christmastime, we ask the children to do paper-cutting related to religious themes, and the government doesn’t mind,” Zheng said.
Asked whether the church would like to open and operate primary and high schools, Zheng lit up: “It’s what we want to do badly. If we could start up schools from kindergarten all the way to seminary, that would be great.”
The church publishes a free newsletter, Ark , and it set up a social service organization in 2001 to build and operate a seven-story retirement center, with capacity for 117 retirees. The center sits on a knoll where U.S. missionaries once lived.
”We are spreading the Gospel in a silent way,” said Xiao Weiping, the director.
Xiao reflected on the hospital, schools and clinics that missionaries once operated, and said the church’s dream was to “offer social services like those in the past. . . . When the government sees that you do good things, it allows you to develop.”
Sun said that more social services, such as a hospital, might come slowly. Only a few Christians in Nanping have specialized graduate or professional training, he said.
Under Chinese law, foreign missionaries are banned from religious work, although Christians can work in other jobs, such as teaching English. Sun encourages them to come to Fujian province.
Some clerics, usually overseas Chinese, have arrived in Fujian from Singapore and the United States , and one worshiper said it had done the congregation good.
”Our understanding improves,” said Xu Jiashan, a retired teacher. “We didn’t have a very good understanding before. We’d pray but we’d also curse people. Now we know we have to believe with all of our hearts.”