Secret Worshippers

by Lesley on April 5, 2007 · 2 comments

in china,christianity,writing

This is my article that will be featured in the May/June issue of Relevant Magazine:

Xu Hong smiles as we wrestle through the front door of his tiny apartment. Jonathan and I are both hunched over from the weight of our backpacks. I’m trying to act like my suitcase isn’t as heavy as it looks, but the beads of sweat forming on my face give me away. When Xu thinks I’m not watching him anymore I catch him exchange wide eyes with his wife, Ming. I don’t need an interpreter to understand. The glance wonders why we have so many things for a brief few months. What are inside these stuffed suitcases and backpacks? I know. Besides the overabundance of the usual clothes and shoes, I have carelessly thrown in any and all items that we might possibly want over the course of our four months. This includes several deodorants, enough socks to make sure we don’t have to do laundry for three weeks minimum and, of course, medications, batteries, alarm clocks, a year’s worth of books, coats, bathing suits and a carbon monoxide monitor. Then I glance out onto their patio, 21 stories up above the ground, and I see Hong and Ming’s yesterday’s clothes hanging to dry. Today’s clothes will be there tomorrow.

From the moment we returned from our honeymoon, Jonathan and I wanted to pick up and travel. We sought the big adventure; a place free from our 8-5 jobs, paying bills, being grownups. But, even more so, we felt a tugging responsibility to a world with great needs; a world where we had been given so much. In us, the Gospel of Luke resonated strongly, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

So, we started praying the big prayers. And it seems like often times, big prayers lead to wild answers. Our wild answer was China, where we learned that more than 70 million Christians worship in secret because the government has imposed stipulations on what churches can teach and how their members should view God and Jesus. Known as house churches, these believers meet underground, in caves, or in rural homes and fields. Because house churches disregard the government’s restrictions, members and leaders are subject to fines, prison time, heavy beatings, and reeducation through labor if they are discovered. Freedom House, an independent non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C., reports that China has imprisoned more Christians for their faith than any other country in the world.

Several months after our wedding we were connected with Paul, a pastor who travels all over China’s rural countryside, setting up and managing groups of churches. Paul is an integral figure to a network of rural believers; providing monetary assistance to pastors, preaching at churches, setting up seminaries and starting illegal underground bible presses. Paul warned us that the Chinese government doesn’t want Western visitors seeing persecution with their own eyes. We took the warning as the number one reason to go.

It’s not until I was packing up all of our barely used Pottery Barn Sausalito dinnerware that I began realizing what I was doing. I was walking out on Sunday morning breakfast burritos and 500 count thread sheets; our first little apartment and a steady salary. I was walking out on a comfortable and predictable existence. And, even though the trip was for a short time only, I panicked. In an attempt to avoid the unpredictable and uncomfortable living conditions we might encounter, I tried to take it all with me.

I cautiously told my mom about our big plans but skimmed over the part about visiting illegal churches that are often raided by police. Instead, I told a mini lie: “The Chinese government doesn’t want to throw a young American couple in prison for being Christians. How bad would that look? We’ll be fine. We’ll be safe.” And in that moment, I also convinced myself we would be. Because even though I was ready for an adventure, I only knew how to be safe and comfortable. I believed in a God who had not only provided my every need, but a lot of my wants too.

Early on in our trip we travel by overnight train and bus to a remote apartment church in the southern Guangxi province. On all of our travels we have a pastor or seminary student leading and translating for us. The bus ride is long and eerily quiet considering how many people are packed into every corner. Brother Jiang stares out the window at endless rock formations that jet out of the wet rice fields. When we arrive and step out of the bus, he walks quickly, motioning for us to hang back and wait. I fumble through my bag, pretending to look for a map. Jonathan kicks a small stone while furtively watching Brother Jiang pace at the corner, constantly looking over his shoulder. Soon, a small rickshaw sputters to the corner and Jiang hops in the back. We quickly follow and pull the cotton curtain closed. “I saw a man eyeing you both on the bus. I waited to see if we were being followed.”

When we arrive at the apartment there is a huge lunch spread out for us. The women are still in the garage-like kitchen puttering around each other as they stir freshly picked vegetables in a huge wok. I peer out the back window, across the stretching rice fields, and notice where the chicken comes from in our lunch. That afternoon, we meet with a group of men and women in a dark basement of the apartment. My legs immediately cramp up from crouching on the bamboo rug. As light turns to darkness we listen to testimony after testimony. One man, Chang, tells us about 22 days he spent in a forced labor prison camp. Each day he received one small bowl of broth during his 20 hours at work. And yet, as he recalls the physical pain, his eyes still twinkle with hope as they gaze up towards heaven. He testifies that in those days of labor, he felt more sustained than he ever had before. Happiness, he learned, does not depend on material circumstances. Joy, however, comes in an unchanging God who has provided hope in the worst pains of persecution and poverty. I think about all the things I have packed, and how much I depend on these possessions rather than relying on God alone. They keep me entertained, keep me warm, keep me healthy, keep me comfortable. The next day, Jonathan and I walk to China Post in the rain, and spend $40.00 to mail home all the things we don’t need. I can’t yet fully give them up, but I want them out of my sight. They are a visual reminder that we longed for adventure but packed for safety.

Three months into our trip, we fly to central China to travel with Pastor Paul. The area is known for its intense persecution and Paul takes a risk in having us with him. But, he believes, the risk is worth it because the people in this area are in such need of encouragement. Many days we feel like experienced CIA agents. We learn to always give a quick over the shoulder glance as we jump out of our little bread box van with tinted windows. When we send e-mails home, we write in code, avoiding words such as “God,” “Christ,” or “Bible” so that China’s intricate search systems don’t pick up on what we are doing. In Hunan, we communicate with Paul by cell phone, even if we ride on the same bus. Often, we eat at the same restaurant but sit at different tables. We try never to be seen talking or acting like we know one another, just in case he is being followed.

One day we are on a six-hour drive to a rural city when suddenly Paul motions for the driver to stop as he abruptly jumps out. He darts inside a cell phone store and reemerges ten minutes later. In the back seat he dumps out the bag of new SIM cards and rummages through his bag for all three of his cell phones. Paul has been talking to a man that was recently released from prison. That morning he hears a clicking on the phone as he talks. It is not the first time his cell phone has been tapped, and certainly won’t be the last. We plug his new numbers into our phones and drive on. But, no matter how careful, my blond hair and 5’11’’ frame doesn’t exactly blend in to the small villages and rural communities where we travel. I still wonder if I was the one who gave us away.

We arrive for the meeting that night a few minutes late, in separate taxis that drop us off at different parts of the apartment complex. Three look outs are stationed at the three entrances of the facility to look for police. Once inside the tiny apartment, I crouch on a small stool in the front row. There are fifty or more people behind me filling every spare inch. As Pastor Paul opens his bible a shrill ring interrupts him. In this moment, I know. He answers his cell phone, and in one word, we shoot out of our seats, grabbing cameras, purses, bibles. I remember that morning’s instructions; don’t hesitate, don’t look back. Jonathan and I tear down the stairs, trying to retrace our steps out into the openness of the night. In the openness I feel even more vulnerable. I tighten in expectation of strong hands grabbing me from behind. As we run, I pray to become invisible. I pray for the innocent faces of all the church members that held back, letting us flee first. I pray the alarm is false, that there are no police in the area. I think it is in panic moments where I really believe that God makes miracles happen.

In this moment, I don’t think about Pottery Barn or my clothes. I don’t even think about how we are living the risky adventure we longed for as newlyweds. I run. I pray. And I realize, there is nothing in my heavy bags that could have prepared me for now. There is nothing in my bags that can keep me safe. In this moment, the only hope I can count on is that no matter what happens tonight, Christ is there with me. He does not promise I will fall asleep safe in my hotel room. But He does promise that if I find myself in a Chinese prison, He is just as much present there as anywhere else.

In those two heavy suitcases I carried a belief that I could ensure my own comfortable and happy existence. But God doesn’t promise an easy life. In fact, he says that for His sake, I should “delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 2:10). We made it out that night safely, but day after day as we meet with house church Christians, I hear their struggles in poverty and persecution without all that heavy baggage. I also see a radiant hope and confidence in a God that offers so much more than material possessions and safe living. This is the God I am trying to follow.
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Ann Sebek
Ann Sebek

What a great article, Lesley. I can't wait to see it in Relevant Magazine. I always knew you'd be an author one day. Congratulations!Love,Mom

Paige Kearin
Paige Kearin

So awesome! You rock. That is a great article!