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Finding a house church leader in Beijing

BEIJING (BP)–Sitting in Yu Jie’s home in Beijing as he talked about his church and about the growth of Christianity in China, I pondered the events that had brought me to this place.

To provide some background, house churches are illegal in China, such as the Ark Church, of which Yu Jie is one of three founding elders. The Chinese government has an organization called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, whose job it is to “ensure that all the activities of China’s officially approved Protestant churches conformed to Beijing’s political and social objectives,” according to journalist and author David Aikman in his book, “Jesus in Beijing.”

In short, the TSPM is an arm of China’s atheistic, communist government.

The Ark Church operates openly and unashamedly but refuses to submit to the government’s demands. The church began with three couples in 2001; now it consists of more than 40 people, most of them young professionals.

Three-Self churches in China also operate openly, but with the government’s blessing and under the government’s oversight. Pastors are appointed and approved by the government. One of the criticisms many Christians in China have about the organization, Yu said in an interview with Baptist Press, is that its leaders are often not even believers.

Imagine that -– a communist government appointing unregenerate pastors to lead Protestant churches. What’s next? Using an attractive 9-year-old girl to lip-synch during the opening ceremony of the Olympics instead of letting the homely girl sing for herself? Oh, wait.

So rather than submit to what they consider to be an unbiblical structure for the church, some churches in China have chosen to operate independently of Three-Self oversight. This is illegal in China, and the cause of great consternation for a government intent on power and control. To combat the growing number of these family churches, the government often has imprisoned and persecuted pastors and other leaders of this movement.

The result of this persecution? More validation of Tertullian’s claim that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church. Christianity in China is growing massively (some estimates put the number of Christians in China at more than 100 million), and the government can’t stop it.

Before leaving for China to cover the Olympics, my editor at Baptist Press suggested that I try to interview a house church leader during my stay in Beijing.

My first reaction to this suggestion was a negative one. I had been credentialed by the U.S. Olympic Committee to cover the Olympics. Would making contact with a house church leader jeopardize my credentialed status? If I was found out, I figured I might be asked to leave the country –- or worse.

Paranoia on my part? Perhaps a little. But the Chinese government is not a body with which to trifle.

The more I thought about it, however, and the more I read, the more intrigued I became. This would be an incredible opportunity to tell the story of one of my brothers in China, and help inform other people about how God is working in that nation. I decided to give it a shot.

But how does one go about making contact with a house church leader in Beijing without attracting the attention of the government? How would I know whom to interview? Would he even speak English? How could I initiate communication with him without relying upon someone in Beijing to help me arrange a meeting?

I began to research. One of the names I noticed early in the process was Yu Jie, a Christian writer in Beijing whose work had been banned by the government. Yu Jie also was a leader in a family church. Several things attracted me to this man. We shared a common trade as writers. He was my age, and he had a newborn son. My wife and I are expecting our third child.

So I began making some inquiries with some of my contacts in the United States. It didn’t take long for me to come across an American reporter, formerly based in Beijing, who was friends with Yu Jie and his wife. This reporter offered to contact him and set up a meeting.

The connection with this reporter was even more providential than I could have hoped. I found out that she had a suitcase of baby items -– formula, diapers, clothes, etc. — that actually belonged to Yu and his wife. The reporter was supposed to have traveled to China earlier this year to take them the suitcase, but a back ailment had prevented her from making the trip. She asked if I’d be willing to take the suitcase to them.

I decided that delivering the suitcase to Yu would be helpful if I encountered any overly inquisitive Chinese officials: “Why am I going to meet Yu Jie? We have a mutual friend who asked me to return this suitcase to him. Here, you can take it to him if you’d like.”

In setting up my meeting, my reporter friend discovered from Yu that as of late July, he was under a form of house arrest. Police were watching his home around the clock. Anywhere he went, he had to go in a police car. He was expressly forbidden to go anywhere near the Olympic sites.

But the good news was that other foreign reporters had visited him at his house without incident. I began to feel more at ease. We decided that I’d take the suitcase to Yu and interview him on my last day in Beijing. That way, if the Chinese government wanted to expel me from the country for doing so, I could simply reply, “No problem. My plane leaves in four hours.”

With a suitcase full of baby items in tow, I made it through the Beijing airport without incident. That actually surprised me, as I was fully expecting to get at least a question about the contents of the suitcase. I mean, why would a foreign journalist, accredited to cover the Olympics and traveling by himself, be bringing diapers and baby formula with him to Beijing? But the Chinese said nary a word about it.

(As a side note, shortly before leaving for China I began reading Aikman’s book, Jesus in Beijing. I highly recommend it. I picked up a damaged copy of the book really cheap, and that also proved to be providential. I was told by someone familiar with the situation in China that I probably shouldn’t carry that book with me into the country, but I wasn’t quite finished with it by the time I had to leave. So I completed reading it on my flight from Nashville to Toronto, then dumped it in a trash can in the Toronto airport before I departed for Beijing.)

The suitcase sat in my hotel room for 10 days, until my last day in Beijing arrived. My translator drove me and a photographer to Yu’s house on the southern outskirts of the city. Yu met us on the street and led us up to his apartment, wheeling his suitcase as we walked. We entered his apartment and he introduced us to his wife Liu Min and his 5-month-old son Justin (his English name), who was born in the United States in March.

Liu Min served us some tea, and I sat down on the couch. I quickly noticed the children’s book “Goodnight Moon” sitting on the coffee table. I’ve read that book to my children dozens of times.

We then got down to business, with Yu telling me about the situation with his church and the broader circumstances for Christians in China.

Communicating with Yu was difficult. He doesn’t speak English. I don’t speak Chinese. A translator certainly helped, but even she was hard for me to understand at times. When the interview with Yu was over, I took my leave so I could catch a plane back home.

Chances are I’ll never see him again in this life. But my encounter with him was one I’ll always remember. Here is a man who faces an uncertain future, and who could endure struggles I could never imagine, all because of his devotion to Jesus Christ. To me, he and thousands of other Christians in China are heroes in every sense of the word.

Yu and his family will be a regular part of my prayers for some time. And I look forward to the day when I will see him in heaven, when language barriers will no longer be an issue. We will in one tongue talk about the grace and faithfulness of the Lord Jesus Christ and sing praises to the One who redeemed us.

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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