This former center of American missionary activity appears to be undergoing a religious revival that elderly Chinese church leaders say surpasses their experience before the Communists came to power 30 years ago.
At the flower-lined Protestant church hidden at the end of an alley in this southeastern Chinese provincial capital, a group of Chinese clergy in the usual faded blue worker's clothes were printing hymns and church notices and practicing choir selections for what will be the first Easter service they have had in at least 14 years and perhaps the largest ever.
Moses P. Xie, 77, the Protestant bishop here, said about 1,200 to 1,400 people have been jamming the church every Sunday since it reopened Oct. 28 but that he had 1,600 last Sunday and expects even more for Easter.
"People are thirsting for something spiritual," Xie said, pointing out that his parishioners have been demanding longer sermons than he used to give before the Communists took control.
Xie said at least one-third of his congregation consists of young people. He has conducted one wedding in the church recently and plans by summer to begin performing baptisms of anyone older than age 18 who wants to accept the faith.
The religious revival, which also affects a newly reopened Roman Catholic church here and churces in several other Chinese cities, has been made possible by the decision of the Communist Party authorities to relax political restraints to improve morale. Granting renewed freedom to Christians, Buddhists and other believers here also helps Peking win support from overseas Chinese who are important to its economic plans. But Bishop Xie agreed in a chat with visiting foreign journalists today that there might be even deeper benefits for the current government.
The official communist press has been full of letters and articles by young people recently complaining that the political turbulence of the last several years has left them cynical and wondering if there are any ideals left worth pursuing. Allowing those few youths with contacts with former religions to pursue their beliefs as a moral code may serve to help bring about the social order and morale that the Chinese authorities seem to want.
"We should do something for the peace and security of our situation," Xie said. "People do look to the church as one place they can get help. The thirst is intense now."
Xie is an Episcopalian who was educated in seminaries in China and spent two years in Britain before returning to lead the churches in Fujian Province in the early 1950s. The Communist authorities in the 1950s -- as they have today -- allowed the church to continue with the understanding that it preferred Chinese to be atheist and would not tolerate attempts to proselytize among young people or outside the church buildings. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, however, Red Guards closed all the churches and often destroyed bibles and religious artifacts. Xie and other clergymen in his group, a mix of Methodists, Congregationalists, and other denominations, generally stayed home during that time and conducted private services while they took jobs in factories or farms.
A recent meeting of church leaders in Shanghai decided, with government approval, to begin printing bibles in Chinese again and training clergy at a revived seminary in Nanjing. Xie estimates that Christians number at least 20,000 of this coastal province's 24 million people and says they will be allowed soon to reopen several other churches in the area. In the meantime, the government requires the factories and other organizations using the former church buildings to pay rent to Xie's Protestant church, which brings in about $650 a month.
Inside the Protestant church here a blackboard behind the rear pew totaled the collections from Wednesday evening, Saturday and Sunday services the pervious week. The total came to about $200, which Xie said was more than enough to cover their expenses. He said his church received no contributions from overseas and pointed out that it had decided soon after the Communist takeover to sever all ties with affiliated churches abroad. Xie added he thought something was missing from the ministry of the foreign missionairies who had been here.
He said, "Many of them did not think the Chinese were their equals."
There were no services today, Good Friday, or any Friday for that matter because, Xie said, his parishoners have to work on Friday. But in the church one of the senior church staff, Ye Zhude, was at the piano practicing "Christ Our Lord Is Risen Today" in a strong baritone voice. The words for this hymn in Chinese, complete with the Chinese characters that make the sound "alleluiah," were printed in the church program prepared for the Easter service and posted on the wall of the church, for few of the hundreds attending church each Sunday have hymnals and the church has none at all.