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Student from mainland China found open doors to U.S. seminary study

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–When Rachel Zhang stepped on to the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary campus this fall, she knew what God had done to get her there.
“There were a lot of miracles,” said Zhang, Southwestern’s first student from communist China. “God led me here step by step.”
Long before she faced the major hurdle of obtaining a visa from a communist country to study at a evangelical Christian seminary in the United States, even bigger hurdles had already been cleared.
Zhang was raised in the southern part of mainland China where many people are Buddhists. Although her parents were not Christians, members of Zhang’s family had been Christians for five generations.
At the end of the 19th century, her great-great-grandmother was the first member of her family to become a Christian, a direct result of the evangelism efforts of American missionaries in the province of Shandong. Baptist missionary Lottie Moon was ministering in the same province at that time, but Zhang said she is unsure what role, if any, Moon played in her great-great-grandmother’s conversion.
Zhang’s great-grandmother was martyred for her faith during the 1930s’ and 1940s’ liberation of China.
During the cultural revolution in the 1960s, Zhang’s grandfather was forced to burn his Bible. “He was scared,” she said, but after burning the Bible, “he regretted it so much.”
Later, when he was able to get a Bible again, he treasured it. “He hid it in his bed and read it everyday,” Zhang said. She also fondly recalled how her grandfather left her that Bible after his death in 1992.
Even after learning of the persecutions her family experienced, Zhang never felt Christianity was something to be ashamed of or a cause for fear. As a child, she grew up hearing Bible stories from her grandfather.
“They seemed like the fairy tales I read all the time, nothing different,” she admitted.
However, one day when she was 10 years old, the stories became more than make-believe. She went with her friends to a movie that had a Christian character in it, something rarely seen in Chinese movies.
“He was a very pure and kind, faithful Christian,” she said of the character, who always dressed in white to reflect purity. “I don’t know why we could have seen that kind of image in a movie, but I was really moved by that image. I wanted that purity. When I went home, I told my grandfather I believed in God.”
Her grandfather explained to her how to accept the gift of Jesus Christ.
“I confessed my sins and became a Christian,” she said.
As a new Christian, Zhang pictured herself becoming a nun, which, to her, symbolized someone who was totally devoted to the Lord.
“I just wanted to serve the Lord,” she said.
She hung on to that image as an adult when she questioned the idea of coming to America to prepare for the ministry.
Before coming to Southwestern, Zhang attended Hong Kong Baptist University and for the first time heard the word “Baptist.” After telling this to her older sister, her sister told her their grandfather was a Baptist.
“I was so excited,” she said.
Zhang has seen firsthand the impact of the Baptist witness in China. With that witness, her grandfather’s witness and her own, her parents both accepted Christ as their Savior in March.
This was an answer to many years of prayers by Zhang. After her parents’ conversion, they asked Zhang to help them find a Bible with large print, which is difficult in China. But Zhang knew where she could find one. She got the Bible that her grandfather had left her seven years before and gave it to her parents.
Zhang had planned to go to Europe to pursue a Ph.D. in communications, and her friends and family supported that plan. Coming to America was not something she had ever seriously considered.
“I did not want to take the TOFEL,” she said, referring to the test that international students must take to study in America.
But after a vivid dream, she felt she had no choice but to pursue her call to ministry in the United States. In her dream, she saw Jesus calling to her and asking her why she would not obey his command to study at Southwestern.
“Why not trust me?” she recalled Jesus asking her.
“Somehow, I was scared not to obey him,” she said.
To study at Southwestern, Zhang needed a visa and, since her home is in mainland China, she thought that she would have to return there from Hong Kong to apply for the visa.
Zhang said she learned that with God’s sovereign hand involved, traditional routes are not always followed.
Since she was studying in Hong Kong, she was able to apply through the U.S. embassy there.
“That made the application process a little easier because there was not the scrutiny by the government because Hong Kong is a little more free, even though it now is part of China,” said Jan Johnsonius, director of international student services at Southwestern.
There were still other concerns. One was that Zhang is a single woman. Such applicants, Johnsonius said, are often turned down for visas “because there is a concern that the person will not return to their country because the benefits of living in the United States are much greater with education, career, lifestyle and income.”
A second concern was the school’s name — Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Blatantly evangelical, blatantly Christian,” Johnsonius said.
Nevertheless, Zhang’s visa was granted, making her one of a few students from China to be accepted to an evangelical seminary in the United States.
“We consider it quite miraculous that she was granted a visa,” Johnsonius said.
Zhang said she can clearly see how God’s hand was at work in getting her to Southwestern.
“When I look back, I can see how powerful God is,” she said.
“Perhaps it is an indicator of some open doors that have not existed before for future students to come to us from mainland China,” Johnsonius said.
Since arriving in America, Zhang has been struck by the freedom she has expressing her faith.
“I can talk about God anywhere,” she said, noting how many Americans may not realize the value of that freedom.
Although Zhang does not know what God has in store for her after seminary, she knows working in Christian communications in Asia is a possibility.
“I am totally open to God,” she said. “Unless he has some other plan, I will stick to his calling.”

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  • Robyn Little