Missionaries Flock to China
and Lynette Clemetson
The children are dressed in their Sunday best when "Grandma Jane" arrives at the orphanage in rural Xinmi County. All 16 of them -- girls in summer dresses, boys in pressed shirts -- race out of their cramped apartments to meet her. Jane Marcum hugs and kisses each one, bantering in broken Mandarin about new haircuts and schoolwork. Together they enter the House of Hope. "When we found Wenwei, he had no smile, no joy," the orphanage's ebullient founder says about one of her charges. "His ears were frostbitten, and he had sores in his mouth." Now he has a home and a future.
When the United States and China established diplomatic relations in 1979, President Jimmy Carter asked Deng Xiaoping to reopen Christian churches, print Bibles and welcome back foreign missionaries. Deng granted the first two requests. China's state-approved "patriotic" churches (both Catholic and Protestant) have since opened more than 37,000 churches and "meeting places" and have printed more than 22 million Bibles. Underground "house churches," illegal congregations that refuse to register with the government, also thrive despite periodic crackdowns. Critics in the United States accuse China of persecuting Christians. But by some estimates, 50 million Chinese have been baptized since the late 1970s. Now it seems Beijing has quietly and unofficially granted Carter's third wish.
Behind this change is economics: Beijing's rules no longer count for much in the cash-strapped provinces. As reformers unravel the socialist safety net, local leaders must find new ways to finance basic services like schools and health clinics. "Few local authorities will put bureaucratic hurdles in the way of... Christians who appear with bags full of money," writes development expert Nicholas Young in the China Development Briefing, a bimonthly newsletter.
It's all a question of tactics. Hong Kong Christian Council member Philip Lam went to China in 1993 to propose Project Nehemiah, a plan to rebuild churches. At first, authorities bristled. "Nehemiah?" asked one official. "Is he a foreigner?" Lam explained that Nehemiah was an Old Testament prophet, but that didn't help. Finally, Lam dropped the name Nehemiah. Authorities gave the OK. "You have to understand their sensitivity," says Lam.
Even after a half century of official atheism, some of the old missionary links remain. The small town of Hequ, in Shanxi province, counts a missionary as one of its local heroes. Peter Torjesen, a Norwegian evangelist, sheltered wartime refugees until the Japanese dive-bombed his mission in 1939, killing him. For that sacrifice, local communists proclaimed Torjesen a "people's martyr." In 1990 they invited his American offspring back to Shanxi to unveil a monument to their patriarch. Grandson Finn Torjesen, then a missionary in Indonesia, attended with 15 relatives and met Shanxi's vice governor. "You are the picture of an old Chinese family, three generations gathered to honor an ancestor," the official said. "We want your kind of people back in China."
The family returned in 1993, establishing an outpost for the Colorado-based Evergreen Family Friendship Service, a nonprofit humanitarian group. Volunteer physicians and teachers train "barefoot" village doctors and screen rural children for illnesses. "We're here to live in the community, learn the language and do what the community wants us to do -- but as Christians," says Torjesen. David Vikner has a similar family story. The son and grandson of Lutheran missionaries, he fled the communist takeover as a toddler but later returned. Twice. In 1982 he taught English in Wuhan until suspicious officials asked him to leave. "They thought I was a spy," he says, laughing. Seven years later, he became president of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, a nonprofit established in 1922 to unify missionary colleges in China. Since re-establishing links with the mainland, the board has worked with more than 100 Chinese universities, spending nearly $15 million. "We do not evangelize," Vikner says.
Why the disclaimers? Traditional stereotypes portray missionaries as opportunists who rode in on foreign gunboats and turned famine victims into "rice Christians." Missionary health clinics and orphanages created a folklore about demons who "took blood from poor people and killed babies," says Zhuo Xinping, a religion specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Little wonder that although today's Christian charity work is without question a form of missionary activity, few Christians use the term. They stick to job descriptions like doctor, engineer, project director.
"Teacher" is the most popular. The majority of foreign teachers working in China today are sponsored by Christian organizations. The Amity Foundation, a nonprofit Christian charity established under the state-sanctioned China Christian Council in 1985, now has more than 150 American instructors spread across the country. Amity's guidelines admonish them to express their faith "through service rather than proselytization." Yet many teachers bend, or defy, the ban on evangelism by sharing the gospel with curious students on a one-on-one basis or inviting them home for Bible study. "When the group got too big for my apartment we started meeting in the fields," confides a teacher now living in China.
Christian teachers are having such success that religious groups are stepping up recruitment efforts. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, for example, runs an Internet ad seeking applicants for a program called TEAM (Teaching English as Ministry). The ad says the job is "the most 'hands on' type of ministry that is available for foreigners." Insists a church spokesman: "We don't permit overt evangelism."
Beijing isn't blind to evangelism, overt or otherwise, but its strategy is to regulate missionaries and tap them for resources. For that reason, many Christians outside the country worry that it is too easy for local authorities to skim money from donations and that cooperating solely with official religious organizations weakens the underground church. "Everyone must do what God tells them to do," says a Hong Kong Pentecostal minister whose followers smuggle Bibles into China and evangelize in rural areas. "I don't criticize those other efforts, but we're giving people the word of God in the way we feel is best."
Some Christian organizations are trying to have it both ways with "two track" China strategies. They advocate both official cooperation and clandestine assistance to unregistered house-church congregations. Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention faced a mutiny when missionary directors in East Asia proposed abandoning covert programs in China. After intense debate, the Baptists decided to keep their two-pronged approach. Beijing, which had followed the debate on a Baptist Web site, promptly cut all ties with the convention.
While Western Christians bicker over strategies, Chinese Christianity -- official and unofficial -- is growing rapidly as people search for spiritual meaning in a post-Marxist society. Down a winding dirt road on the banks of the Mekong River, the Jinghong Church in China's southern Yunnan province is bursting at the seams. "Jesus is all the world to me," the congregation sang at one recent service as latecomers crowded in. The church holds three services every Sunday to accommodate a flock that is fast approaching 2,000. With funding from the Hong Kong Christian Council, the congregation hopes to build a new church this year. Local authorities are happy about the plan, because the new building will double as a lay training facility and community-service center. Elder Yu Di, a spirited preacher who rebuilt the congregation from a five-member underground church that met in her home in 1987, says the church has grown by testing the limits. "Before, there was no freedom for us. [The government] said Christianity was a foreign religion," she says. "Now we can say our God is a universal God."
Chop by Chinatown Art Gallery
© 1998 by Newsweek, Inc.