I know it has been a few weeks with no posts, and I don’t think I posted on this blog what I was doing- I just returned from an incredible trip to China on the 19th and have been processing for a few days. I was there for about 20 days, traveling from Shanghai, to Beijing, to Xi’an, to Hangzhou, and back to Shanghai. It was a long trip, and after all the train and plane and metro rides I felt like my trip could have been shorter and with fewer stops, but really only because I didn’t like the traveling part of travel. (Silly, I know. I should have prepared for it better.)
It was a spiritual journey for sure. I went on this journey without friends or family, as God intended for me to take it alone to trust Him more. There were definitely times when I was glad that I went alone, I certainly had more freedom to listen to God and practice obedience. I admit there were days when I was afraid- Afraid of being in an unknown place where I didn’t speak the language and wasn’t sure I would be able to take care of myself so I didn’t want to leave where I was staying because it was safe. Yet every day I actively made the decision to go out, trust God, get on the metro to anywhere to see what God had planned, and not a single day was I left truly alone. There were days I went out and people who spoke English, whether Chinese or another foreigner, would come talk to me and recommend places and take me out to eat, and I was so thankful for God’s provision and the new friendships I was able to create through this! And there were days when I went out and didn’t meet anyone, couldn’t communicate well, but was still so thankful to be in this place that I had wanted to visit since I was a child.
Only a few days after arriving in Shanghai (which had been a bumpy start as I got very sick from being sprayed with insecticide on the flight) it was recommended to me that I not spend six days in Xi’an, and add in Hangzhou as a stop. It sounded nice, but of course all this doubt on whether I could manage doing that came in, and of course there was fear of adding another location and maybe missing my flight or a train or something…so I knew I had to do it. Because I know how the enemy like to try to tell me that I am not capable, or that it would be easier to leave things as they are, but I KNEW that God wanted to grow me on this trip. So I stepped out of my comfort zone, and when I got to the train station to head to Beijing, I adjusted my tickets to add in this extra stop. The extra hesitation I had with doing this was that the people I had met in Shanghai told me that compared to my other stops, Shanghai spoke English.
Shanghai was really lovely. It only rained once while I was there. My lungs took a bit to adjust to the pollution- mostly you feel extra gross at the end of the day and just want to live in a swimming pool. It has its own smell too, so everything I took there came back smelling like pollution of some sort. Lots of people spit to get the pollution out of their throats. The toughest part for me was figuring out breakfast. Rice is actually not the main dish in China- noodles are ready for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! I am not ready for noodles at 6am… and many places that sold pastries or sweeter things didn’t open until 10 or 11am! My first day there I braved a hot bowl of noodles for breakfast, mostly because there was a nice girl who tried to speak English to me to get me to come eat there. It was delicious! But not for me, not for breakfast. Quickly I learned to look for any cafe that opened earlier than 10am. And this is a great tip for travelers- a cafe is more likely to have people who speak some English just because it would be a popular spot for tourists during the season (I was there in the off-season, but still had luck!) and also great to meet other travelers!
Beijing was a whole different experience. For the first two nights I stayed pretty far outside the 3rd ring, so I got some funny looks and some rude attitudes for being a foreigner at the first hostel I stayed at. Once I’d settled in, learned that of the 6 days I had planned there the hostel I had booked could only host me for two nights so I had to book another place, and had a bad experience buying some water at a store, I was ready to leave Beijing. One day. But I truly believed God had me there for a reason, so instead of having a pity party, I put my focus on finding a church to attend as Sunday was approaching. I looked up some churches, emailed some people to see if I could ask questions regarding church in China, and located a cafe to visit (it was attached to a church as a meeting location or something).
The next morning I headed out to the cafe I had found. It was pretty hidden. In the many cities I have visited, I seldom find that the location I need to be is located on the second floor of a business complex- most stores are clearly marked for their entrance and location, but this isn’t how it is in China. Especially when your journey isn’t about going to all the popular tourist spots! Luckily, I found the cafe hidden upstairs in what appeared to be, from the outside, an insurance building? Well, the cafe was closed for another hour or so, so I headed back out, not sure what I would do instead. Then someone called out to me. I was so happy to meet someone who spoke English! And he was Chinese. And he was a Christian! He told me he was also waiting because ‘English Corner’ happened up in the cafe. So we got to chatting, he was also excited to learn that I was Christian. He and his daughter were learning English, he also taught English, but asked me to speak slowly so he could understand me. Soon ‘English Corner’ started and I got to join in!
It was run by some Christians, they actually had a large group that day, I was told that was unusual. I was so impressed with the program, as it not only taught English, but they also offered helpful way to teach kids English in school since most of the adults there were teachers, AND it included Christian teachings. I began the introductions, just saying my name and where I was from, and then we went around the room and each person looked right at me and invited me to visit their hometown. Oh, I would have loved to visit these small villages that had brought out these amazing people who wanted to better education in China! I later sang a children’s church song with them, dancing and laughing with about 30 others. But before that, I sat in a group with 3 other ladies and we spoke in English about what ‘self-talk’ was, and how it changes us. Remember, I did not plan this day. I said to myself ‘I’ll go visit this cafe and see if some Christians show up’. I didn’t know it would be closed, I didn’t know of ‘English Corner’, and never did I expect that God would put me in a situation where I could speak with some people about self-talk. About how it can be good or bad, about how it can change our attitude about life or just a day, the impact positive self-talk can have on us and those around us… how God can use it to point out flaws in ourselves and also our greatest strengths. And I was encouraged to hear that each of the ladies I sat with say they mostly engage in positive forms of self-talk!
One of the people organizing ‘English Corner’ introduced herself and said she was from the area where I grew up. So after the meeting I asked her where she was from, and after a few exchanges we learned that we had been neighbors for most of my childhood in that city! She moved away shortly before my family moved to the country. I used to play with her children since we were about the same age….it was truly a Big God moment! We were both so excited to reconnect and catch-up! We made plans to talk a little later in the week. Which worked out great. Again, I didn’t know she was there. I really didn’t expect that I would run into an old neighbor from my childhood outside of the United States, and I was so grateful that we did meet!
My new English speaking Chinese friend took me to lunch with his family. It was a great treat! I met his wife and his mom. And I prayed over the meal, holding hands with his family members and praying loudly in a busy restaurant. Another experience I wasn’t sure I’d have, but God was breaking through all my expectations for this trip! His mom took me to the Summer Palace after lunch. Now, after all these things had happened, and my new friend told me he told his mom to just bring me to the gardens and not go through them with me, I was looking forward to some alone time with God. But his mom decided to take me through the gardens. She didn’t speak English, so I couldn’t tell her I would be fine alone, so I had to go along with it. Plus, she had a hold on my hand that I think I would have offended her if I’d tried to take my hand back…but I had this rather unpleasant experience where she dragged me into the public bathroom and then didn’t wash her hands…so I really didn’t want to keep holding her hand. And I really wanted my alone time. Call me what you want- spoiled, first-world, uncultured American- I know that I am not. I’ve let homeless people kiss me on the cheek and not flinched, I have no issue with uncleanliness, and I have visited 3rd-world countries and understand different cultures believe different things and have other ideals. I did go along with this wonderful lady through the gardens. Her son had introduced her to me as one who’d been a Christian for 40+ years in China. And I realized, during the years I’d grown up- learning and studying about Christianity in China, the persecution, the missionary martyrs, and everything else I had brought with me that I thought I’d see in China now- this woman had lived through, been shaped by, and still continued on in her faith. And as I prayed to God about it, telling Him that I really wanted to be alone to process everything from the morning and be alone with Him, I realized I was being selfish. Here was this wonderful woman that God was using to show me how He was working in China and He was giving me the chance to spend time with her. She had greeted me so nicely, she felt like one of those people I knew in my soul, one from the Holy Spirit who I’d never met but I’d always known…and I was being stubborn and selfish and accepting of this opportunity.
Holding hands with this woman, I happily went through the Palace. No, I didn’t get many pictures, at least not as many as I would have like to take. And I did enjoy it. I couldn’t communicate with her, we couldn’t talk about all that she had been through or share our faith verbally, but as I held her hand (and this is far from my love language) and let her lead me through the gardens I felt peace and joy. It wasn’t what I expected, but I’m glad I did it. I do wish I could have talked with her and learned more, but I was glad I was obedient in this.
I managed to speak with one pastor of an online church- I asked why they met through Skype, and he explained that in order to have a building and reach out how they wanted, they would have had to go along with the Three-Self ruling, or close to Chinese (becoming a church only open to those with a foreign passport not from China) and neither of these things appealed to them, so they took the following they had and moved it to the internet. (NOTE: I am not mentioning names or churches in order to protect any who attend ‘Illegally’, which I did encounter.) I asked how the congregation kept together and if the following grew often- I was informed that those who attended were encouraged and did actively hold Bible studies in their own towns with friends. This church had people from all over the world, they just logged in to skype and were able to participate in the teaching. They spent most the morning in fellowship and even had people who led worship sometimes. They believed in active teaching, so there was a lesson and theme but a chance for questions and back and forth conversation. They focused heavily on growth. I asked about how the teaching went, how sermons were put together for such a diverse group, especially with so many coming together in different time zones- the leader believed in meat and milk teachings, but certainly didn’t exclude those new in faith from hearing the meat portions so that their growth wasn’t prohibited by the idea that they couldn’t handle it or it would be beyond them. He encouraged them to learn to have that strong faith, to learn it from others, similar to how the first church would have operated. Not under the idea that any one was above another, but that all were capable of being on the same ‘level’. I also asked what they needed that could be met by help outside- He said that missionaries were needed. I should have asked for more about this, but as I understand it he meant that they needed people who were willing to go out and actively seek to convert people and send them to this church and were devoted to doing this. The current attendees are not trained in mission work, and it would take special training. Their church was started by missionaries, but some recent changes have left them without any missionaries. (If you are interested in more information on this, I can at least connect you to him.)
He also informed me that the church I was thinking of attending later was a foreigner church, so it is only open to those with a foreign passport and so I asked what all these differences were. He explained that his church wasn’t technically ‘illegal’ because the government is aware of it (I believe it is registered), and the church I was going to was going to be similar to worship in America because as a church only open to foreigners, it wasn’t under the Three-self laws, but was closed to Chinese. So they could teach right from the Bible, un-filtered, with whatever worship music, etc. And the Three-self church has to submit teachings before each Sunday to be approved, and also had to occasionally teach just good morals lessons (I’m simplifying a bit). He told me they aren’t bad churches, but that (I think I understood him right) the Three-self church sort of came about because some missionaries had tried to distort the government, and the government of course panicked, and it resulted in these highly regulated churches. The Three-self churches and foreigner churches require that attendance be taken of attendees. There were times I read specific instructions for no evangelism in some places I visited, but I learned some new truths.
My talk with my old neighbor further expanded my new knowledge on Christianity in China, as did my experiences and observations. She attended the foreigner church (sadly, I actually missed the service I wanted to attend, so I missed that experience) and she said that it is different from any other church she’d attended. She also told me some of her experiences of attending a three-self church- they have some good messages, maybe not deep, just the surface of the Bible, but they also throw in teachings of being a good person. And I feel like I learned something because of the amazing faith that I saw in the people that I was meeting. I was questioning how their faith was so strong, what had created in those I’d met who were persecuted so much such a deep desire to pursue God- I mean those I met were HUNGRY. They couldn’t get enough of God. Maybe this was just my experience from the few that I met and was able to talk to, but I realized that because their access to the Truth was so regulated and withheld, it built in them a desire to have it that much more. And those who shared it wanted so badly to share it purely and openly. My old neighbor even spoke of handing out Bible on the metro. All these things I had come to China believing about Christianity were being shattered…
I thought: I wouldn’t be allowed to pull out my Bible in public or even bring my larger Bible on the airplane so I took a small NT Bible. The truth: Bring your Bible, read it in public, it is fine. People aren’t going to report you, in fact, they may ask you about it, and even want it for themselves.
I thought: Expressing my faith in public would get me arrested. The truth: Maybe in certain circumstances. But I prayed out-loud in public, and believe me, I was loud and proud with it because I was so excited for the chance! You should be aware that in certain places outwardly preaching in public is illegal, but if someone is willing to listen to you, like my friend who shared on the metro, then you are fine to talk with them.
I thought: The faith of Christians in China would be weak, very basic, and very restricted. The Truth: Those who can participate in a ‘Family church’ (an illegal church held secretly usually in someone’s house and with no logging of participants to report to the government) are so hungry for the Word, I witnessed stronger faith in China then I see in most churches in America.
I thought: Christians would be heavily persecuted and really were looked at as martyrs in China. The Truth: While persecution is really anywhere you go, I would say it doesn’t happen more in China than in other countries. I’d even say that most of China ‘appeared faithless’, so the judgement of Christians wasn’t prevalent. It wasn’t really obvious if any one I sat with on the metro or walked next to was really part of any religious belief system, in fact. And I even learned of a city along the coast of China which had a statue of Christian martyrs who gave their lives protecting some Chinese people when Japan tried to invade.
Beijing was really amazing, God put many new people in my life there. Each day I went out, I made a new friend. Each day I testified to God providing for me in ways that I had never expected. Each day I also had time to watch Him use me in the lives of others. I was blessed to have a day alone where I just walked the streets and was able to hand things out to random strangers- just to be a blessing to others in a foreign place where I didn’t speak the language. And there were days I would sit down to draw and I attracted crowds of people who wanted to watch me draw and some tried to talk to me. Some wrote me notes in my notebook, and some even drew me some pictures. Experiences I never would have thought to ask for, more blessings then I expected. And I was able to spend those few days in beautiful Hangzhou in solitude and reflection.
I learned each day to wake up with no expectations for myself, which is really why I am glad I took this journey alone. I had written up an itinerary for my trip and I didn’t look at it a single day that I was there. I got up, went out, headed for where I thought God was leading me. Some days I struggled to feel like God was taking care of me, days when I walked many miles and didn’t find a single restaurant with a picture menu (makes ordering food easier!) and wondered how I would make it if I passed out from low blood sugar or something. Shanghai had Gatorade- Beijing didn’t- and I wondered how I would stay hydrated. I didn’t meet anyone in Hangzhou who spoke English so I wondered how I would find my way back if I got lost. I got lost in Xi’an and wondered what the purpose was… And during my reflections in Hangzhou, I read of Elijiah and watched him wander to a place where God had not called him and God reminded him that not a day had gone by that Elijiah had done anything to deserve it, yet God had still provided for him. Not a day went by where Elijiah was left alone. I was nearing the end of my trip and I felt refreshed and ready to head home. I have learned so much, and I am glad for the experiences I had.
Be blessed friends! I will hopefully post more of this trip as I process it, it was really amazing and I do have more stories!