The People Connection: Reflections on Two Years in China

by Shelley Ritchie

It was not romantic. In my head I knew it would not be romantic. However, after a lifetime of missionary stories, a senior high school year in Japan, a graduate degree in East Asian history, and seven more-recent years of living and teaching in Asia, my bones expected China to be a land of romance.

The first morning that my husband, Andrew, and I woke up in Shanghai where we'd come to teach in a university, the rubble, dirt, and generally dismal grayness everywhere dispelled the notion of romance. Well, I thought, now I can get down to reality. "Reality" proved to be as mythical a concept as romance, Two years in a country where you don't speak the language, where you are working with only the educated and in only one small institution, do not qualify you to understand or speak authoritatively on the reality of a culture so different from your own. How can you make sense of the experience then? Where do you make connections that have meaning? One way that was direct for m e was through the church.

Nearly every Sunday for two years, we pedaled our bikes half an hour to the 7:30 a.m. service at the church nearest us. Our first Sunday we were a little late and hardly knew what to expect. As foreigners, we were ushered up to the balcony. A lady who was to become a close friend welcomed us and asked us to sign the guest book. Before we left the U.S., we had been warned not to sign our names at church because the government had access to those records. Miss Li's friendliness and my wish not to be ungracious settled the issue in the other direction. (As it turned out, our university and the Shanghai Security Bureau were fully aware that we were Christians, and the fact that we attended the Chinese church and a foreign fellowship group weekly was duly noted in our files.)

As I looked down over those in the packed congregation, all dressed in the somber browns, grays, and blues of the older generation, I saw several people kneeling at the front rail praying. The music was all familiar that Sunday. The choir sang Frank's "O Lord Most Holy" and the hymns were mostly nineteenth-century ones I knew from my childhood. The enthusiastic singing of "There's A Fountain Filled With Blood" was more moving than incongruous in that setting.

Miss Li translated the sermon for us, as she did faithfully every Sunday. As a third-generation Christian and teacher of English at the seminary, she was completely at ease with English religious language. It was largely through her that we came to feel so at home at the Community Church. She told us the church had six pastors — one a woman — and after the service she introduced us to the senior pastor, Shen Yifan. He welcomed us and told us to make the church our home while we were in Shanghai.

We discovered later that he had been sent to work in a clock factory during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when the churches were ransacked and closed to worship. Our church had been used by a Beijing opera troupe for housing and rehearsal. The hymn books and Bibles had been thrown out on the street and burned, and the pipe organ was destroyed along with the pews. The church was allowed to reopen as a church in 1979, and, from the members' widow's mites and their own labor, it is again a place of beauty and worship.

I think we must have come during a time of increasing confidence on the part of the church leadership. The first year there, communion and a Sunday evening music worship were held once a quarter. The second year, each was done monthly. The music worship was an important time for evangelism. Many non-Christians came to hear the music, so the sermon was geared to them. Andrew and I were the first foreigners invited to sing at art evening music worship. We sang "Children of the Heavenly Father." I had brought my Covenant Hymnal along. Several months later, an all-foreign music worship service was held. Most of us who sang were teachers who gave blanket invitations to our students to attend. The sanctuary, which holds about 700, was jammed because foreigners are still a great attraction.

Another indication of increased confidence was the announcement on Easter that, starting in July, the church would begin a Sunday School program for the first time in many years. They were quite candid in saying that the government had never told them they couldn't have a Sunday School but they had been too cautious to start one. Now they felt that the time was right. I do not know if the events of June have affected that decision or not.

The familiarity of worship style, then, was one point of connection with the church. It was clear from the order of worship and the music that the church had been founded by American missionaries. The conservative, orthodox messages we heard each Sunday were reminiscent of those of my childhood forty years ago — simple and rock solid.

The church was also sensitive to the needs of its regular foreign worshippers. At Christmas, Easter, and June when people were leaving, they had "Tea Parties" for us. A number of the elders, having graduated from Shanghai's St. John' s University in the 1930s and 40s, spoke very good English. They attended in order to provide us with fellowship.

Except for the refreshments — steamed meat buns, noodles, and tea — it could have been Anychurch, U.S.A. We visited, saw videos describing the church in China, sang hymns together, and voiced prayer concerns. On Easter Sunday afternoon of this year, the Christian Council of the Shanghai churches had its first English language service for foreign business people and teachers. It was hoped that it would become a monthly service, but perhaps that will be affected by tightening of government controls.

At the at Seminary Sunday of our stay, the different cultural context of the church struck me with the force of a blow. I wrote to my family:

It was Seminary Sunday today — the offerings of all the churches in East China go to the seminary here in Shanghai. It takes about 1800 yuan (about $460) per student per year. The faculty are all volunteers, part time — can't afford anything else, and they don't have teachers other than pastors for the most part. Anyway, the sermon was a plea for young people to consider seminary. The need is tremendous — three million Christians in the East China Seminary area, 55 pastors (2000 in all of China), the oldest is 88, the youngest, the dean of the seminary, I'd guess is about 50. The seminary was closed during the Cultural Revolution, and didn't re-open until 1985, so the gap is huge. They only take the best students, between the ages of 18 and 25, and promise them a life of low status and pay. They must have been a Christian for several years, have a call and be willing to respond to that call. They will likely go to the countryside, even to very poof areas.

The sermon at Seminary Sunday this year hit me in the heart in quite another way. It was delivered by a young seminary student. She recalled the days, when as a small child, she went to church with her grandmother. Often they would kneel together at the rail, and her grandmother would pray, "Oh God, may my granddaughter be a living sacrifice to you, dedicated to your service and pleasing to you." She did not understand the words "living sacrifice." "But," she said, "today I understand that my grandmother's prayer has been answered."

Sunday by Sunday, Miss Li would give us little bits of stories about various members she would point out. The stories added up to tremendous faith and loyalty to God. "That woman' s husband was an elder in this church and head of a large teaching hospital in Shanghai. He was killed during the Cultural Revolution." "That man worked in the watch factory with Pastor Shen and became a Christian through his witness of gentleness and kindness." One Sunday, shortly after the service began, an old, tall, strong looking gentleman came in, Miss Li whispered that he had come 3,000 miles to be at the service that day. I do not know any more of the story behind his being there but it obviously was a pilgrimage of love. He just sat unobtrusively in the balcony with us.

In answer to my question once about what time she arrived at church, Miss Li answered that many of the old ladies at the service were waiting at the gate every Sunday before 6:30 a.m. "So I come at that time, too." Then she and the other helpers eat a light snack and stay for the 10 o' clock service, which the younger people also attend. The average attendance at these two services is 2,000.

I want to finish with a story of a woman who, for me, embodied the Biblical injunction to love God and one's neighbor, One Sunday I was feeling quite ill after the service, Mis Li thought some food might help, and took me to the place where the choir and helpers had their snack. As she sat me down and went to get some buns, an old lady sat by me and tried to commumcate with gestures. When Miss Li returned, she told me that Miss Ji was concerned about me and felt that if I practiced tai qi exercises, I would be in better health. To be polite, I said, "Yes, that's a good idea."

The next evening, there was a knock at our door. Miss Ji was there with her English-speaking son. (Women keep their maiden names). He explained to me that, as a service to God, his mother wanted to teach me tai qi. A qualified teacher, she gave lessons regularly, but because I was a foreigner who wouldn't be able to keep up with her classes, she would teach me alone. When could I start? We arranged to meet at church, which has beautiful, spacious grounds. As they were leaving, she looked at me, beaming, and folded her hands over her heart; then she took my hand in one of hers and raised her eyes to heaven. She was serving God by helping me.

As I reflect on my experiences in our church in Shanghai, I see that it was ultimately not familiar worship styles, nor hymns, nor even sermons where I made the most meaningful connections. It was the people connection with fellow believers who love the Lord.

See all articles by Shelley Ritchie