EDITOR’S NOTE: The volunteers identified in this story will leave China on Aug. 15 and some of them have future plans to do mission work in other sensitive locations. For security purposes, Baptist Press is using only their first names or pseudonyms.
BEIJING (BP)–Partially secluded from the bustling metropolis around them, eight Americans seemed an oddity to the Chinese people visiting one of the city’s serene parks.
The differences in appearance and language didn’t squelch interaction. The Americans gave away multi-colored soccer balls, painted the Olympic rings onto the hands of children, handed out water bottles and chatted willingly with the Chinese people they encountered.
Seven of the volunteers are from Baptist churches in Florida -– four from First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland and three from First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach. The final member of the group hails from a non-denominational church in Maryland.
They came to Beijing during the Olympics, but not for the Olympics. Instead, they hoped to take advantage of the atmosphere generated by the games to share with new friends the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Steven, from Daytona Beach, said his purposes in coming to China are twofold. First, he wanted to come to help energize others from his church for more long-term mission projects. His second reason was evangelistically strategic in nature. “The Olympics provide probably the most strategic opportunity for non-Chinese to work among the Chinese,” Steven said. “The eyes of people who would seek to prevent what we’re doing are elsewhere.”
So the team members strive to strike up conversations and make new friendships with the people they encounter. That’s not hard to do. Brittany, a 20-something from Lakeland, said she was regularly approached as she sat on a park bench by Chinese people who wanted to practice their English. She gladly obliged.
“China’s a place that you don’t get the opportunity to come too often,” Brittany said. “And when you pair that with the Olympics, it’s too good to be true. You can’t pass it up.
“It’s been wonderful to see the people and to really build relationships with them, and figure out what their desires are, and what they really enjoy in life,” she continued. “They’re searching for a lot, and that’s why we’re here. It’s good to have conversations with them. We’ve met several great friends.”
One of those friends was a Chinese man whose English name is Eddie. The team members met Eddie on their first day in Beijing. They ended up watching the opening ceremony with him on TV, as well as the men’s basketball game between the United States and China.
“They’re trying to build a relationship with him to be able to share the hope that’s within us, and perhaps continue that relationship via e-mail,” said John, of Lakeland, the team’s leader.
Another encounter took place as the team was visiting the Temple of Heaven. A Chinese woman named Mary, during her lunch break, came up to talk to them and spent an hour in their company. Brittany said she got to share the entire Gospel message with her. She explained to Mary the historical and biblical significance of her name.
Mary has an 8-year-old daughter who has not been given an English name yet.
“We suggested that she name her daughter ‘Grace,'” Brittany said. “And that opened up the door for us to explain how grace and Mary actually related to each other. She was very receptive.”
One of the team members also is named Mary. In her 70s, Mary is the oldest of the group. She first visited China 23 years ago and she wanted to come back.
“We have been able to talk to the people and them not be afraid of talking to us,” Mary said. “We have been, in a roundabout way, expressing our love to them.”
That expression of love leads to many open doors for the team members to talk about their faith in the Lord, John said. One of the ways that do that is through the “ball of many colors” -– the soccer balls that are given to children visiting the park. Each of the colors on the ball represents a different component to the Gospel story.
When they give out the balls, they try to explain the meaning.
“It’s a natural tool,” John said. “It’s just creative evangelism. It’s relationship-oriented.”
Sometimes they have the opportunity to present the Gospel when they distribute the balls, and sometimes they don’t. But John said even for the times when they can’t talk about the ball’s meaning, he hopes that God will one day use someone else to do so.
“You’ve got to trust God,” he said. “We’re just envisioning that little ball of many colors helping somebody, because there are believers everywhere here. I’m just trusting that God’s going to put the right person at the right place at the right time to interpret those colors.”
In addition to items like the soccer balls that they’re handing out openly, the team members also have other resources to hand out, such as copies of Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” in English and Chinese, various cassettes, CDs and DVDs that contain the Gospel message.
The work John and his team members are doing isn’t the safest. At any time they could be accosted by Chinese authorities and expelled from the country for proselytizing.
“We try to be very cautious, and very sensitive to the culture,” John said. “We don’t want to come over here and give America a bad name, or Christians a bad name.”
Despite the dangers, John said he and his team are fueled by something greater than the fear of man. He describes a meeting he hopes to have with someone in heaven 10,000 years from now.
“You came to my park when I was little, and you gave me this ball of many colors,” someone might tell him. “A friend came to my house one day and knew the meaning of the colors, and they shared with me, and I accepted Jesus as my Savior, and I’m here today.”
Tim Ellsworth, director of news and media relations at Union University, is covering the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing for Baptist Press.