NANPING, China—Some 140 years ago, a Methodist missionary with a flowing beard stepped aboard a sampan in coastal China and held on firmly as boatmen steered up the Min River, poling and rowing past rapids that almost splintered the vessel.
On arrival in this outpost, the missionary set up a chapel, effectively bringing Christianity to a lawless, disease-ridden corner of southern China.
For the next five decades, more Methodist missionaries followed, establishing a hospital, clinics, primary schools and numerous churches across the inland regions of coastal Fujian province. Among them were Karl and Ada Scheufler, a couple from Sandusky, Ohio, my maternal grandparents.
"We are here! It is wonderful!" my grandfather wrote in a letter to his parents upon arrival in September 1922. "We look down upon the Min as it passes between pagoda-crowned hills."
Not only Methodists came to Nanping. Roman Catholic priests from Spain began arriving in 1897. By the time communists came to power in China in 1949, Methodists and Catholics were operating dozens of schools. Christians in the area numbered in the many thousands. Christianity appeared to have taken root, despite chaotic conditions.
It almost perished in the tumultuous first decades under Mao Zedong, who established atheism as the national norm and expelled foreign clergy. During the decade-long Cultural Revolution, begun in 1966, mobs humiliated preachers and priests, condemning all believers.
"Church activity completely stopped in Nanping in 1966. They burned Bibles, and the church was closed. The pastors were detained in ox sheds. They had to wear dunce caps and signs hanging from their chests that read, `Cow ghost snake spirit' (a popular taunt in the Cultural Revolution), and clean the streets," said the Rev. Sun Renfu, the 43-year-old pastor of Nanping's Meishan Christian Church.
Religion didn't die, however. While the Communist Party still controls China firmly, it's partially relaxed its grip on religious activity. In pockets of China, such as here, religion thrives. Groups loosely aligned with different Protestant denominations battle for the hearts of followers, again operating social services such as kindergartens and retirement homes. A state-controlled Catholic Church draws new members, as does a parallel but underground Catholic Church that's loyal to the Vatican. Word is that Oriental Lightning, a quasi-Christian cult, also has moved into the area.
The situation here mirrors what's happening in other areas of China. The seeds planted by foreign missionaries took root, surviving only barely through the early years of communism. Now Christianity is spreading again, even flourishing. Many Chinese Christians say they feel relatively free to practice their faith. Only this time, almost no foreigners spread the Gospel.
The steeple of Meishan Christian Church rises 130 feet above Nanping, nearly as tall as the high rises that dot this city of 270,000 residents. Since the party handed back church property in 1980 and permitted religious activity, church membership has expanded.
Today, Sun, two other pastors and three associate pastors work with 5,000 members at 26 churches around Nanping.
While Chinese law prohibits the Meishan church from affiliation with overseas denominations, Sun identifies himself as Methodist and heartily praises the Methodist missionaries, such as Nathan Sites, who came up the Min River 140 years ago.
"They laid a good foundation for Nanping," he said. "They brought modern education and modern medicine. ... Most importantly, they brought the Gospel. In China, we have traditional culture, but we don't have unselfish love and forgiveness. There is no element in Chinese culture of loving your enemy. In China, it is never too late to take revenge on your enemies, even after 10 years."
Only a few elderly residents recall the era of missionaries. Among them is Su Baixin, the spritely 93-year-old daughter of the first Chinese Christian in Nanping. She chortled in delight as she gazed at a batch of photos from the 1920s that were brought to her home.
"This one looks like my father," she said as she peered at a photo of Chinese men with silk skullcaps standing beside a missionary.
Early missionaries taught basic hygiene, condemned the foot-binding of girls—a practice meant to make them submissive and attractive to husbands—and offered elementary and middle school to the poor.
Several women said the schooling had changed their lives.
"They didn't charge any money for female students. I was among them," said Gao Jing'e, a retired teacher.
Early in the last century, Nanping had no electricity and no roads. Roving gunmen attacked constantly, siphoning off tribute. It was gnat-ridden and muddy. Leprosy abounded. The missionaries lived in compounds.
Su recalled how one Methodist physician traveled to work.
"Every day, he was carried in a sedan chair to the hospital," she said.
Accounts from that period, including letters from my grandparents, relate tales of lawlessness.
"Soldiers! Brigands! Taxes!" begins the Methodist report from the surrounding Yenping district for the year 1926. "There is war and rumors of war."
Missionaries ached for an end to the chaos so work would progress. They also longed to turn over their schools and hospital to the Chinese.
"The Chinese will not support an institution such as this, to any extent, as long as there are foreigners in charge of it," the 1926 Methodist district report said, referring to the hospital.
Upon eviction of foreign clergy, the wish for Chinese control of the institutions became a reality. But rather than Christians, Communist Party cadres took the reins.
It's been only in the past decade or so that the Protestant and Catholic churches have grown enough to return to social service work.
Xiadao is a small town about a half-hour's drive from Nanping. The crackle of firecrackers greets a visitor to the church, just as grandfather's letters say was common in his era.
"With the help of other Christians, we have expanded the church," caretaker Yang Aijing said. She said that several elderly people lived in rooms to the side of the church hall, the first step in creating a formal retirement home.
It's modest compared with the drive into social services in Nanping under the direction of Sun, the pastor. He's pushing the envelope of what churches in China are permitted to do. A decade ago, the Meishan Church began a day-care center. Now it has 380 children each day.
"Our purpose is to serve the general public and spread our love," said Zheng Jianping, the day-care director.
China still prohibits anyone younger than 18 from receiving religious training. Yet the church forges ahead quietly, feeling its way for government resistance.
"During Christmastime, we ask the children to do paper-cutting related to religious themes, and the government doesn't mind," Zheng said.
Asked whether the church would like to open and operate primary and high schools, Zheng lit up: "It's what we want to do badly. If we could start up schools from kindergarten all the way to seminary, that would be great."
The church publishes a free newsletter, Ark, and it set up a social service organization in 2001 to build and operate a seven-story retirement center, with capacity for 117 retirees. The center sits on a knoll where U.S. missionaries once lived.
"We are spreading the Gospel in a silent way," said Xiao Weiping, the director.
Xiao reflected on the hospital, schools and clinics that missionaries once operated, and said the church's dream was to "offer social services like those in the past. ... When the government sees that you do good things, it allows you to develop."
Sun said that more social services, such as a hospital, might come slowly. Only a few Christians in Nanping have specialized graduate or professional training, he said.
Under Chinese law, foreign missionaries are banned from religious work, although Christians can work in other jobs, such as teaching English. Sun encourages them to come to Fujian province.
Some clergy, usually overseas Chinese, have arrived in Fujian from Singapore and the United States, and one worshipper said it had done the congregation good.
"Our understanding improves," said Xu Jiashan, a retired teacher. "We didn't have a very good understanding before. We'd pray but we'd also curse people. Now we know we have to believe with all of our hearts."
Su, the 93-year-old Christian, offered a different view, saying she's happy about what missionaries once did but noting that the local church does fine on its own.
"We Chinese became the masters," she said. "The church is rich now. It has money of its own. It doesn't rely on the government or the foreigners. The Christians here are helping each other now."
A LOOK AT RELIGION IN CHINA TODAY:
Accepted religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism.
Religious freedom: China's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in theory, but the state controls all financial, leadership and doctrinal decisions by the five religions.
Believers: China says it has more than 100 million religious believers—18 million Muslims, 10 million Protestants, 4 million Catholics and tens of millions of Buddhists and Taoists. The official numbers don't include millions of believers who reject the government-controlled religious bodies. Religious belief is spreading quickly.
The Vatican: Catholicism in China is regulated by the Catholic Patriotic Association, which disavows the Holy See and is considered schismatic by other Roman Catholics worldwide.
Protestantism: China views Catholics and Protestants as belonging to separate religions rather than different expressions of Christianity. Government-regulated Protestant churches are nondenominational.
Unregistered activity: Believers who don't like government control have formed illegal Protestant "house churches" that meet privately. Catholics who belong to "underground" churches loyal to the Vatican are reportedly more numerous than those at registered churches.
Repression: Numerous religious believers, clerics and monks are jailed in China. Repression of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims is particularly severe, because government officials suspect that they're trying to separate their regions from China. Dozens of Protestant and Catholic clergy are imprisoned or in labor camps on charges of violating security laws.
What Washington says: The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom charged in a report in May that China "continues to engage in systematic and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief."
For more information, check out these Web sites:
For a Chinese government white paper on religion, go to www.china-embassy.org/eng/zt/zjxy/t36492.htm
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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