PENGLAI, China (BP) — China has changed radically since the death of famed missionary Lottie Moon in 1912. Denominations and evangelism are illegal and the government is officially atheistic. But do the Christians in Penglai, the city where Lottie Moon once served, remember her?
I learned the answer at the Penglai Christian Church this summer. Amid the singing, dancing and preaching in an auditorium filled with teams of men and women in colored polo and T-shirts along with a choir in white robes and a group of women in flowing fluorescent purple dresses, I repeatedly heard, “mu la di xiong di jie mei.”
Translated, “xiong di jie mei” means “older brothers, younger brothers, older sisters, younger sisters”; it is a familiar phrase in Mandarin-speaking Chinese churches.
It took a few minutes for me to understand “mu la di.” In Chinese, the family name comes first — “Mu La Di” was Lottie Moon’s Chinese name. Understanding the words brought tears to my eyes. How could I, a distant relative of Lottie Moon, be in the church in Penglai in China’s Shandong province on the very morning the congregation was celebrating her service and sacrifice in the coastal city?
The words projected onto a large screen said it was a “100th anniversary celebration of Lottie’s Moon’s heavenly journey,” but the actual anniversary was three years ago, on Dec. 12, 2012. Not only was it a mystery why the Penglai Christian Church was celebrating Lottie Moon on Aug. 8, 2015, but also how I even got there; until that morning, I could only guess where it was located.
The idea of seeing places where Lottie Moon had ministered in China started with my wife Terrie back in 2005. I had made four short-term mission trips to teach English in China in a small city in southern China in the province of Guangdong. Later, my wife’s amateur genealogical research found that our family had a link to Lottie Moon; we had a common ancestor in the 1700s, making me a fourth cousin “twice removed.” The short-terms where I had served were thousands of miles from Penglai, which also has been known as Tengchow. It wouldn’t be easy to get there. City and county names have changed and China’s growth has radically changed most places. I put the idea out of my mind.
Since 2010, my annual trips to China have involved arriving in Beijing, which connects to most of the country’s major cities, including those in Shandong where Lottie Moon did most of her missionary work. As my Chinese has improved, travel to Shandong became a possibility via plane, train and bus. This year a friend from Shandong invited me for a visit when she would be visiting her son in Longkou, a city neighboring Penglai. I was teaching at a Beijing university and had three-day weekends and planned to see them in July. But a delay in receiving the university stipend delayed my plan. I let my friend know but received no reply. When the money from the university came a week later, there was still no reply. After 10 days with no word, I went to see another friend in Henan, a province south of Beijing, and decided to see Shandong after finishing my Beijing teaching.
I purchased train tickets for my Henan and Shandong journeys and made hotel reservations. Then I received an email from my friend explaining she had been hospitalized in Longkou and was home recuperating in Binzhou with the assistance of her son. She wouldn’t be able to see me, and her son wouldn’t be available to guide me in Yantai, the prefecture city, and Penglai and Longkou. I would be on my own in Shandong province.
The Friday after the term ended, I took the subway to the Beijing South train terminal for the six-hour trip to Yantai. I thought Penglai was a local bus trip from Yantai but it was a “local” city that took another two hours. In Penglai, the taxicab driver readily recognized the hotel name and I was there in about 15 minutes.
I had chosen the hotel after finding it on the online itinerary of a tour group led by two Woman’s Missionary Union leaders. I figured it was probably near the Penglai church and might cater to foreigners. I had no address for the church and walked the streets that night to get a feel for the city.
On Saturday morning, the idea of finding the monument stone for Lottie Moon at the church seemed like a crazy idea. Rick Boyne, pastor of Immanuel Southern Baptist Church in Wagoner, Okla., once visited the Penglai church and had sent me two photos. One was of the church building and the other of a memorial arch for the park/estate of a famous general next to the church. Rick told me to just show the pictures to any cab driver. I had saved the pictures to my phone and showed them to the hotel’s front desk staff. The first person recognized them and called another clerk over. The two agreed and said a name I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t Mu La Di or “jiao hui” (church teaching meeting) or “jiao tang” (church teaching building). It was Ji Qi Guang, the name of the famous hero/general. The clerks took me outside and pointed down the main street, telling me to walk straight and cross two intersections.
Just as the clerks said, at the third street I looked to the right and saw both the old church building and the memorial arch of General Ji Qi Guang. The path that led to the arch passed the churchyard. I saw the Lottie Moon memorial, but there was a wrought iron fence and a gate that locked from the inside. I saw two people in the churchyard and asked them to open the gate.
The characters on the monument are difficult to read; it was defaced during the Cultural Revolution when everything old, religious and foreign were targets. What was visible were traditional characters that are sometimes different from the simplified characters I have studied. I nodded in appreciation to the pair who had let me in, taking pictures of all sides of the monument with my cellphone.
I heard music that sounded like a children’s choir but since it was Saturday morning I thought it was a rehearsal for Sunday. My new friends asked me to follow them to the newer sanctuary building.
When I entered the auditorium, I didn’t find a children’s choir. Instead, there were 300-400 people, mostly adults, almost all seated in groups, with those wearing the same color seated together. Later, I learned that the service — a blending of Chinese and Western influences — was about half over when I entered. The first group I saw was a choir wearing white choir robes with blue sashes who sang two hymns translated into Chinese.
The pastor preached a short sermon, repeatedly calling the congregation, “Lottie Moon’s brothers and sisters.” He ended by singing “Jesus Loves Me,” with the congregation joining in. A women’s group used their hands and arms while singing a couple of songs, just like the women you see exercising in China’s parks and city squares. And in Chinese opera style, two women walked about the stage singing to God, telling Him of their love for Him and asking Him to mold them. The finale was Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” sung by the massed choirs.
Everyone leaving was given a bag of flat bread with a filling common in the area. As I left and was given my bread, the preacher greeted me and I had my picture taken with him. I tried to explain that I was related to Mu La Di. I took out my passport and pointed to my last name. The pastor then took me into the office and showed me a display case. Two shelves had familiar pictures of Lottie Moon that one sees in articles and books, along with one of her home in Virginia. I took pictures, thanked the pastor and made my way out.
As I left, I wondered how I had come to be at the Penglai Christian Church on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. If I had come when I had originally planned, I would have missed the service in Lottie Moon’s memory. I might not have found someone to open the gates to the church. In other years, my Chinese wouldn’t have been good enough to even make it to the church site.
So many details and decisions converged that day to lead me to believe God had allowed me to experience something very special that day.