It was my first July 4 in the United States. That weekend I attended a church service imbued with thankful sentiments for freedom of religion. Church members from different countries together sang a special “liturgical song.” As we raised our voices to intone “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust,’” I burst into tears. Although I am not a U.S. citizen yet, I can’t help being enormously proud of this country, the “land of the free and the home of the brave” over which that Star-Spangled Banner is waving.
This emotional celebration of freedom, however, evoked painful recollections of the hardships fellow Christians in my native China are enduring in their pursuit to have a true Christian church in my home city of Beijing. On June 2, 2011, Time magazine reported on the China story. I know the reality of what they reported. Early in the morning of the day of worship, skinny young girls dressed in jeans and wearing ponytails, elegant couples in their 40s, and distinguished men who look like retired teachers all gather, with a funny mix of hesitation and bravery on their faces, at an unwelcoming square in the middle of the university neighborhood in Beijing. Minutes later antiriot police intervene and arrest them without encountering any resistance. On the bus that takes them to the police station, they open their prayer books and start singing liturgical songs.
Those Chinese Christians belong to a nongovernment Protestant church in Beijing. The name of the church is Shouwang, meaning “keeping watch.” The church leaders’ aim is for their church to be “a city upon a hill,” as Jesus said in His sermon on the mount. The light of the world and a city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.
Members of the Shouwang have been detained more than 1,600 times; 60 members have been evicted from their homes; and more than 10 have lost their jobs because they attended the church’s outdoor worship services or simply because they refused to change their membership to a government-sanctioned church. Many others were sent back to their hometowns, and some were confined to their homes during the weekends. Every time the church members were arrested, the police recorded their phone numbers and addresses. Then they were tracked, blocked at home by the police from Friday evening to Sunday night, and prevented from attending church service. The church members and their families were constantly intimidated and harassed so that they would give up their true Christian faith. Some of them were tortured and forced to sign a disavowal of their spiritual guide before being released.
Why can’t the church have a specific building to house its congregation and hold services? Chinese law does not explicitly state that churches cannot own property and land, but the Communist Party rules that all land belongs to the country and the “people,” and the government gives itself the arbitrary right to give land to or take it away from anyone without due process.
Shouwang started meeting at the founder pastor’s home. With more and more members joining the church, they had to rent larger places, such as a restaurant or office building, to hold services. By 2011 the church had more than 1,000 members, and rejected the government’s demand to segregate members into smaller groups deciding instead to congregate together. After paying $4 million for meeting space in a Beijing office building, the church could not get access to the building because the authorities pressured the sellers who were afraid and refused to hand over the keys. Meanwhile, the government threatened other landlords into not leasing any space to the church, leaving the congregation with no place to meet and worship.
Determined to be that “city on a hill” of which Jesus spoke, the church leaders continue preaching in a public park. They said, “We want only one thing: to practice freely our religion.” Becoming a government-sanctioned church means that the pastor has to be chosen by the government, what the pastor preaches must be censored by the government, and evangelism is completely banned. As the worshippers at the church said: “We take only Jesus Christ as the head of the church and the Bible as the only moral standard.” This is fundamentally against the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.
Even before coming to the United States, I knew this country aspired to be a ‘Shining City Upon a Hill,’ just as Puritan John Winthrop preached to the first wave of migrants to America in 1630. I fled from the grip of the Chinese Communist regime and joined a church here where I can attend every service freely and joyfully.
In the twentieth century at least two American presidents have quoted the “city upon a hill” passage to remind us of our spiritual obligations, not just to each other, but to the whole world. That sense of spiritual obligation is encouraged by the example of the Shouwang church, an example that moves Chinese Christians and should move Christians all over the world to serve only God as our one and only Master, not the Communist Party or any other anti-Christian form of government.
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