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In Houston’s ‘tunnel,’ he shines God’s light

HOUSTON (BP) — Lee Hsia is proof that the most effective evangelism tool ever created is God’s Word. A native of Communist China who immigrated to the United States with his family as a child, Hsia found a Bible as a teenager that had been left at the house.

“To this day I don’t know who put it there,” Hsia (pronounced “Shaw”) said.

“I read it right away. It took me from passage to passage of Scripture and explained the Gospel. I chose to pray the sinner’s prayer and follow Christ as my Lord and Savior from that day forward.”

Today, Hsia pastors an underground church, not in China but in downtown Houston, 20 feet below the city’s streets. And for many, the downtown church has literally become the light at the end of the tunnel.

Already serving as minister of evangelism and new initiatives at Houston’s First Baptist Church, Hsia was named last fall as campus pastor for its new downtown church plant, located in the city’s six-mile tunnel system under the downtown business district.

Houston’s First Baptist — with 24,000 members, founded in 1841 — was itself located downtown until the 1970s when it moved to a new suburban campus just off the Katy Freeway (I-10), about nine miles to the northwest.

Houston’s downtown tunnel system links office buildings, restaurants, shops, convenience stores and residences under downtown streets. Some 280,000 Houstonians have access to the tunnels and on any given day, 180,000 “go underground,” as Hsia put it.

“People hate to walk in downtown Houston in the summertime because of the heat and humidity,” Hsia said. “The tunnels are self-contained and cool.”

Hsia’s life reflects an incredible personal journey as a Buddhist living with his parents in Shanghai, China; moving to the Houston suburb of Sugarland at age 7; accepting Christ through what may have been a house-to-house Bible distribution campaign; graduating from Rice University; going on to success in business; losing his parents and grandmother in a fatal car accident; entering the ministry; and joining First Baptist’s staff.

His parents’ and grandmother’s tragic death along I-45 between Houston and Dallas in 2002 forever changed Hsia and his priorities. They were on their way to Dallas to see Hsia, who, at the time, was riding the Internet technology wave as a successful entrepreneur.

“God spared me,” he said. “My parents and I used to take a lot of road trips together and I could have been in that car. It made me realize how fragile life was, and I just decided I wanted to make good use of the time I have left on earth.”

Already a Christian, Hsia took a half-year sabbatical, traveled, did some soul-searching and felt God calling him into the ministry.

The tunnel church plant that Hsia leads has been meeting in the basement of a 19-story building since October. It is one of only 10 houses of worship in downtown Houston, most of which Hsia said are not Christian.

“We’re now running about 230 a week,” he said. “Our members and visitors are a diverse, eclectic group. Some people come during their Sunday walks downtown. Some come in with their dogs. Some are homeless, who we always welcome.” Yet others are longtime First Baptist members who choose to leave the ‘burbs every Sunday and drive downtown to support Hsia and the new church plant.

“When we launched last fall, I thought we’d have mainly young people in their 20s and 30s. As it turned out, we have people of all age groups and all kinds of ethnicities. At last count, 33 nations are represented,” Hsia said.

“Houston is renowned as a medical center, so we draw a lot of downtown medical professionals, along with people in the energy field. We also attract college students, artists and musicians.”

Most Sundays, First Baptist senior pastor Gregg Matte preaches not only to the “live” congregation at the Katy Freeway site but also the smaller downtown tunnel church via video.

Although the downtown church is supported by a large mega-church, Hsia said help from other churches also is needed — “to cooperate as one church of Jesus Christ to be able to handle Houston’s future growth.”

The tunnel church was launched “for the sake of outreach,” Hsia said. “Many folks in downtown Houston are unsaved and unreached who wouldn’t step foot in a traditional church like Houston’s First or any other church building to consider the claims of Christ.”

In his transition from a Buddhist to a Christian, Hsai said he has a unique opportunity “to talk to a traditional Muslim or Buddhist and go right into telling them about the Gospel and how Christ has changed my life.”
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board, on the Web at www.namb.net. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Mickey Noah