I suspect I will spend years mulling over my experience during a recent trip to China. One of the most poignant moments in China came during a break from meetings in Hangzhou. I walked intimately and slowly along the river with a seminary professor. Eventually I asked how she became a Christian. Like so many others we asked, she replied, “Through my family.” Guessing her age to be about my own, I then asked her how her family had survived as Christians during “difficult times” (e.g., the Communist takeover, especially the Cultural Revolution). She told me a tale of faithfulness and hardship.
I cannot do justice to her story in this short space. I heard about a mother and father who were both intellectuals and Christians—and were thus doubly persecuted. Both her parents remained faithful despite their exile to work camps, with her father almost dying due to neglect of medical care. Eventually the family was reunited, but as punishment for their faith and education were banished from their apartment to live in a warehouse closet. Her mother was a nurse, who over time earned an honored reputation. She traveled throughout China under that medical banner, an itinerant preacher and teacher—a minister to soul and body. She brought her children along with her, who witnessed what her daughter now calls “heavenly joys” that attend a life well-lived for God and for others, in spite of persecution.
Now this daughter—who has surely experienced the underside of Communism—works as a teacher in a government-approved seminary. Yet her convictions about the gospel and Christ remain steadfast. Her concerns about the church and Christ’s mission in China are unwavering. Like so much of what I experienced in China, her story raises as many questions as it answers and presses me to reassess my understanding of China, of church. As a Mennonite, I realize that I need to learn from her and her family who have sacrificed so much in order to make Christ known there. The intricate interplay of culture and history, of personal belief and social realities challenge abstract, neat theories about the separation of church and state.
In our quiet walk along the river, we also talked about our children, our ministries, our families, as well as our shared confidence that great saints like her mother will one day be publically honored by the Christ of whom they were not ashamed. We are indeed different or “other”; our vastly divergent experiences as well as our cultures make it so. Yet we are also linked by mutual concerns for our families, for our students, for Christ’s kingdom come-yet-coming; we are connected by bonds constructed of shared, overlapping loves.
This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2011, “Where In the World Are We? Reflections on Fuller’s Expanding Global Reach.”