“We’re all done. We’ll clean up the classrooms tonight, and leave on the next train back to Chengdu.” With those words, I experienced something I had only read about.
My junior year of college began as most semesters do—by catching up with friends. We talked about jobs, camps, adventures, and boys; you know, the usual stuff. But a few of my friends had more to talk about. They’d been to China that summer and couldn’t stop gushing about their experience. I loved their stories and couldn’t help but think, “I wish I could have gone!” Later that fall, we had “China Chapel” during which members of the previous summer’s mission team gave testimonies and the next summer’s trip was advertised. Before I knew it, I was signed up; and the following July, after a year of raising money and preparing, I was on my way to Chengdu in central China.
The team from my school consisted of about 45 people, and we joined with another 100 or so from four other Christian colleges around the country to teach English to Chinese kids, teenagers, and adults. The students from my college were to teach at the Intensive Language Training Center (ILTC) on the campus of Sichuan University. Essentially, ILTC is a summer-school program for students to learn foreign languages from native speakers. Because of the governmental regulations in China, overtly sharing the Gospel is prohibited. However, since ILTC wanted their teachers to teach the culture of their countries as well as the language, teaching about Christmas and Easter was well within bounds. And that was just in the classroom. We planned to build friendships with our students as well and get to know them outside of class time. We would be free to answer any questions we were asked.
With that agenda in mind, I arrived, jet-lagged and greeted by a haze of smog and 100+ degree heat index, but ready for chopsticks, the big city, and high-school/college students. Little did I know that God had other plans for my month in Asia. Because of low enrollment in the ILTC program, the university did not need as many teachers as our school had brought. Therefore, we splintered into three groups. One group would stay in Chengdu to teach as they had originally planned; one would go up to a camp/resort on a mountain (to do what exactly, I’m not sure—and neither were they); and one would go to a small town about ten hours south to do some pioneering work for future teams. I was put in the last group.
Xide (pronounced she-DUH), a small town by China standards of only about 25,000 people, is largely populated by a Chinese minority, the Yi people. As with many minorities in our own country, the Yi have experienced prejudice from the majority people. Nestled in the mountains of the south-central region of China, Xide had no western food (and very few western toilets); no coffee (other than Nescafé, which is not the same); and if you didn’t know how to use chopsticks, you were going to be very hungry. Unlike cosmopolitan Chengdu (population at that time of roughly 7 million people, now many more), Xide rarely hosted white people; therefore, we were the celebrities in town. The townspeople were very excited to see us and talk to us, and most were very friendly. However, they weren’t the only ones who took notice of our team. Though we never saw them, the government officials in town also kept a close eye on us, keeping tabs on where we ate our meals and when, and maintaining frequent contact with our team leader to ensure he knew who was really in charge.
The reason we went to this small, out-of-the-way town was a young national named Tom. A native of Xide, Tom taught English during the school year and had attended classes at Sichuan University two summers earlier where he had an American teacher from Clearwater Christian College. Through the ministry of this teacher, Tom accepted Christ and became the only believer in his family—and his town. He maintained contact with his American teacher, and eventually paved the way for our team to come and host a school for kids, teaching them English and getting to know them, with the hope of eventually sharing the Gospel with them. Our plan was to teach for nine days in a local school building. We’d register the kids, run the classes, do it all. But there was one caveat. We had to be careful not to give any hint of proselytizing. We were instructed not to leave a Bible out in the hotel room, not to discard a tract in the trash, or try to strike up any conversations about Jesus. We were there to teach English and to pioneer relationships for future groups to return and do more Gospel-work.
After a few days of training as a group in Chengdu, Team Xide rode the train overnight and got settled in at the Xide Hotel the next day. After acclimating to our new surroundings a bit, we went to the school to get set up. We expected to register around 80 kids, and were surprised to register nearly 200! Though I had planned to teach older students (I was a secondary education major, after all!), I was assigned to teach the beginners, adorable kids around eight years old who knew absolutely no English. Thankfully, my team-teacher and I had a competent and kind translator, Vicky.
We fell into a rhythm pretty quickly, and things were normal (at least by China standards). We taught in the morning, went back to the hotel for lunch, taught an afternoon session, and then had dinner and time to ourselves to explore Xide and prepare for the next day’s classes. Since we ate all of our meals at the hotel, the kitchen staff there enjoyed spoiling us with our favorite Chinese dishes, such as scrambled eggs and tomatoes, caramel bananas, and shoestring French fries (greasy and fantastic!), as well as introducing us to a few Chinese “delicacies” (which weren’t quite as popular).
However, the normalcy was short-lived. About halfway through our time in Xide, I looked out the window as I was teaching and noticed a camouflage military vehicle just yards away from the school building. When I inquired about it, I learned that the Chinese military did annual communication drills on that site. They weren’t there because of us. Phew!
A couple days later our team leader informed us that the government wanted to shut down our school. Apparently, our visas were not valid for the type of work we were doing. Though we thought they might not even allow us to finish the day, we did get to wrap up in the afternoon. But that was it. We were to remove our things and leave the school as if we had never been there. So, under the cover of darkness, we went to the building to clean up and remove all evidence of our time in Xide. The government also “requested” that we leave on the next available train. As God would have it, that was the train that we already had tickets for. “Be sure to be on it,” was the message from the authorities.
We complied, and God did some amazing things in the intervening day. Devastated that their American teachers were leaving, our students showered us with presents and spent the free day with us before we boarded the train. Because our students were so young, my team-teacher and I didn’t spend the day with them; instead, we hung out with Vicky, our wonderful translator, and had the opportunity to share the good news of the Gospel with her—a chance we likely would not have had had our school continued the way we had planned.
I made it back to Chengdu (and eventually America) without a scratch, but not unchnaged. I could list many lessons God taught me that summer, but I want to share just one. Until that summer I had never been out of the country, and certainly never seen persecution. What I experienced in Xide was just the tiniest tip of a gigantic iceberg—but it was a taste of what millions of believers deal with on a regular basis. Remember Tom? That summer he had to decide whether to sign his teaching contract (so he would have a job to provide for his family), even though to do so would be to claim to espouse atheism. At the time, he knew no other Christians in the entire city; his own wife and daughter were yet unsaved. Would you sign? Or would you risk being black-balled and jobless? (I never did find out what he decided.)
While I have been blessed to live in a bubble of religious freedom, that bubble popped long ago in most parts of the world. I have met just a handful of brothers and sisters who live with this reality every day, and they have been some of the most joyful and peace-filled believers I have ever encountered. But their lives aren’t like mine. In China, as in many countries around the world, to accept Christ and renounce atheism/Islam/Buddhism is to embrace persecution, from the government or maybe a parent, spouse, friend, or employer.
This Sunday, November 3, is the International Day of Prayer. Will you join me in praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the globe? Eventually we will have the privilege of worshiping alongside them for all eternity. But this week please intercede on their behalf at the throne of grace, asking for endurance, for patience, for contentment, for the ability to love their enemies, for safety, and for opportunities to share the truth.