When I left Brazil to serve as a missionary in China in the late 90’s, all I wanted was to share the Gospel of Jesus. I knew a few things about missions and even about China and communism, but I did not know much about the church in that nation. One day, as my college ministry team had a day off in the city where we were serving on the Southwest of the country, I walked by a wire art craft store. I could see the beautiful displayed artwork, mostly framed aluminum wire ornaments, Chinese characters and such. Among those, I saw a fish. Actually, “THE” fish – that very one that in the West we refer to as an important symbol of the Christian faith. That’s how the primitive church would identify themselves, by drawing a fish in the sand. There I was, looking through the window, when I was approached by this old Chinese art worker who asked, “Are you a part of the fish?”
Even in my broken Mandarin I could understand totally what he said. Obviously, his question was based on the impression that many in China have – that every Westerner is a Christian. But I confirmed right away. “Yes, sir, I am part of the fish.” He responded with a beautiful smile, saying that he also was part of the fish. He invited me into the store, then called for his daughter, who spoke some English. Using her as an interpreter, he asked if I would like to go to church with them next day. Foreigners were not supposed to visit the underground church, I was told. We could be followed by the police and they would be in trouble. But I was too excited and too curious. The next day I was there at the time he told me to arrive.
We drove for about 40 minutes. He parked his car behind a bush just outside of the highway shoulder and made sure no one could see it from the road. We then walked through a difficult trail for another 30 minutes or more. I didn’t see any houses or anyone on our way. Then we came to a big old grey building that appeared to be an abandoned factory. As we went in, I was shocked! There were more than 200 people there and worship had just started. There was no sound system, no electricity, and not enough seats for everyone. But they were all happy as they sang and worshipped God.
At one time during the service, the pastor called two families up to the front. The first family was composed of a man on his 50’s, his wife, his college-age son and his teenage daughter. He and his whole family looked very sad. In fact, they were devastated. The second family, a young couple carrying a baby, was smiling. I was intrigued, trying to understand what was happening. Was this a moment when the pastor would pray for specific needs of the families? Did the first family just lose a loved one? Was the second family about to dedicate the baby? Since the daughter of the store owner was serving as my translator, I turned to her and asked what was happening. “It’s the Bible ceremony,” she said.
I then noticed that the first family had a Bible, but I was still too naïve to understand what she meant and what was going on. The father of the first family started talking, and said, “This week was the best week of the history of our family.” That made me really confused! “Because the Word of God dwelled in our house,” he continued. I started to get it. “None of us went to work, and my kids did not go to school. My son is the best reader, and he would read out loud to us most of the time. We would read from sunrise to sunset, as much as we had strength. We read the whole New Testament, and the Old Testament from Genesis to Joshua. We are happy that we could have it but sad at the same time. We know that, until every family at the church gets their turn, it will take us at least a year to host the Bible again.”
I was in tears and pain, heart-broken. In my mind I counted the 9 Bibles sitting in my house in Hong Kong, mostly study Bibles that I would use to prepare sermons. It was not fair that these amazing Christians didn’t have even one of their own. I cried, I felt desperate. I told myself and God that I would do whatever it took so that the Christians of China could have access to the Scriptures.
When Nehemiah was told about how broken down the city of Jerusalem was, he was hit. “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” (Neh. 1:4). That was his calling, out of that specific feeling of injustice and desperation. A calling is when a problem in the world keeps you up at night. And that was the day, in China, 17 years ago, when God called me to serve the suffering church. May this passion and holy desperation continue to burn in my heart, and may the Spirit reveal to all of God’s church in America that we can be a blessing to our brothers and sisters out there. The stable church and the suffering church are all part of the same Fish.