A Remarkable Story from China 2003
Names and places have been changed or omitted for security purposes.
"I didn’t know it was impossible . . . so I did it!"
Tightrope walker between the Twin Towers, New York
Chen – his eyes occasionally smiled – but usually looked sad. I think they reflected his experience of life in China. Whatever his mood, however, they gave those who did not know him the idea that they had a permanent tired droop. At this moment they were no different. Or perhaps it was the way he held his body that gave this impression. Tall for a Chinese, though slightly stooped, his arms hanging loosely and his torso bent over a little to one side.
In the bright sun and clear air, his slender frame spiked a hard shadow across me as I lay on the wet rock slabs of a high mountain trail and considered the position of our vehicle. One rear wheel had come to rest just fractionally from a steep drop, while the other with daylight between it and the ground spun uselessly in the air. Stones we had clumsily dislodged from the cliff edge seemed to take an eternity to crash into the valley below adding to the feelings of nausea that our crisis evoked.
It had not been hard to come to terms with the fact that our large van was probably one of the most unlikely vehicles with which to negotiate a narrow rock and mud trail, worn into the steep side of a mountain - but we were actually doing it!
Chen– his unbothered self – spun the van through ruts and across gullies, seemingly unaware that the outer wheels had a hair’s breadth of track on which to cling. He seemed oblivious also to the white knuckles of his passengers gripping anything that gave the impression of being firm their eyes glued to the road ahead.
As we swung around the hundredth blind bend, a rock outcrop rose in greasy wet slabs which cambering towards the most direct route to the valley floor, blocked the trail. My mind said that Chen would not dare drive the van straight at the steep rock steps. The pleasure of that thought, however, seemed to have no place in Chen’s thinking for, in a mere second, we were half way up with the driving wheels searching for grip while slithering wildly towards the big drop. With stalled engine and the vehicle angled across the rocks, we lurched to a halt. Passengers as white as their knuckles edged through the side door while I, having scrambled out among the first, lay across the slabs, peering under the vehicle in an attempt to work out the next move.
The way forward, I guessed, would be to use up the precious inches that remained between the wheel and the drop and run the van backwards onto a carefully placed stone. This would have the effect of lifting the outside near wheel up slightly, so lowering the opposite one back into contact with the trail. We could then add another stone into the space vacated by the outside wheel, which would act as a rickety ramp onto the next slab. Then if Chen inched ahead carefully and everyone pushed, we might yet have a vehicle to take us home . . . . providing we could find the space to turn it around. Chen seemed unmoved by the plight. In his philosophy, life that consisted of disaster and near-disaster end to end was normal - a million miles away from the cushioned effect of Western lifestyle expectations.
With the vehicle turned around and parked atop of the rock outcrop, ready to slither down, Chen announced that we should walk. ‘About an hour to the village’, he said. An hour passed, we seemed to be no distance along the track. ‘About an hour to the village’, he announced again. This happened at least twice again, before the sight of a few villagers and animals hinted that we were reasonably near civilisation.
We were en route to Chen’s beloved Miao tribe of minority peoples who had failed even to register as a statistic in China’s population census. Poor beyond description, but openhearted and welcoming, with no mail service, no telephone, virtually no access in or out of the village, we saw where Chen spent most of the months of each year. We looked at his school, his feeding, clothing and water projects, and listened to an account of his Bible translation work, all paid for by himself. The people loved him and he them. Here was a truly remarkable man.
In the eventful weeks of travelling in China, I began to understand Chen and found appreciation for him growing by the day. Chen’s grandfather had been in high places, specialising in Chinese Classics. His father had been in government and so a ready target for the Red Guards. He saw his parents led away and killed, his house and belongings confiscated. In fear for their own lives, relatives refused friendship to this nine-year old. Hidden deep Christian faith caused an Asian Chinese from far away to befriend him. This man walked from village to village, repairing pots, pans and buckets for small amounts of money. With nowhere else to go, Chen joined him on his travels, learned his skill and slowly embraced his faith.
Later, for three years, Chen lived alone in a cave, leaving for local villages early each morning where he could employ himself. Sometimes waiting at the foot of a hill, helping to push up a heavy cart for a little money or food. A kindly old lady, expelled from her village had made her home in the next cave. She failed to notice Chen leave on several mornings and found him near death. Her care and cooking of what food she could find and herbs she gathered saved his life. A coal mine offered him more permanent employment. Like mining in Wales two centuries ago, it claimed his whole life. Excruciatingly hard work, impossibly long hours, in constant danger of gas, flood and roof fall. The engrained grime, the killer coal dust and to bind the worker to the master, the ultimate weapon, a pitiful small wage.
Twice Chen was imprisoned for his faith. Abused by prison staff and inmates alike, more than fifty prisoners crowded a small cell with room for just two to lay down at any one time. He never did speak of how he eventually escaped China to become a refugee overseas. Perhaps there were others involved who are best left nameless. He attended school, learned English, found good employment, bought a home. Then allowing his heart to rule his head returned to China as a lone missionary.
For some time, I walked through China’s towns and countryside with one of the most extraordinary men I have known. His loneliness brings an ache to the heart, yet he is not a team person. His attempts to fit give him an ungainliness and unpredictability, which is not in his character. His knowledge of China and detail of cities and streets seem inexhaustible but comes a poor second to his knowledge of China’s mission history and missionaries – even to their uncles, aunts, their graves and surviving relatives. He owned nothing. His rucksack held few clothes, yet his generosity became painful as it unmasked the deep veins of inherent selfishness in each of us. He carried an air of childlike innocence, but each one knew it was reflected light from surface water of a deep well which no-one had fathomed.
Once I spoke to him about the brassy, politically correct public figures who are sometimes called China’s VIPs. His expression did not change but his eyes betrayed the fact that some hidden secret vault had opened and a memory escaped that he had chosen to forget. After some time he spoke with little more than a whisper ‘VIPs? . . do you know what VIP stands for? Very important potatoes I think , . . yes, very important potatoes!’
For those few short weeks as I began to grow to know this very extraordinary man, I realised that I had begun to know Jesus in a different light also. The thought did cross my mind that at times when the presence of the Lord was very close, perhaps He wore the heavy disguise of a Chinese missionary called Chen.
When the land wept
One of the objectives of my journey was to accompany a colleague who, based in China, has spent many years in pursuit of a vision for the Silk Road countries westward. Now, with a grasp of history, the language and a general flow with the culture, felt it time to write up a history of at least one earlier attempt by the Chinese to evangelise from China back to Jerusalem. This courageous attempt was culled on the border by the communist party when it assumed power.
In his usual style, Chen, had made a sudden decision to travel to Beijing and had agreed to find us in a town, small by Chinese standards, on the Silk Route in a northwest province. From Central China my team had agreed to divide and to find their way to this frontier town, taking different routes through some unfrequented regions of Tibet. Lack of reliable information, permissions, unpredictability of transport meant that times of arrival would be anything but certain.
As it happened, horrendous landslides delayed the arrival of my Asian colleague en route overland from Lhasa, while another team exploring the mountainside above a Tibetan village stumbled into a sky burial. Not often witnessed by foreigners, this is the normal Tibetan method for disposal of the dead. The body is dismembered and laid on rock, then vultures summoned to pick the carcase clean, if the fierce Tibetan dogs do not make the discovery first!
In his own inimitable way, Chen appeared on time and quickly found his way to the tiny home of a key associate of the forgotten Chinese mission band. She was an intensely articulate and clear thinking 80+ year-old Chinese missionary to her own country. Robbed of her adopted children, and imprisoned for twenty years for her faith, the light in her eyes told of no resentment. She reasoned to us, ‘If I had not been imprisoned, then I would have been prey to the Red Guards, but they did not kill those already imprisoned.’
At that time, somewhere down in the hush of my being, an unmistakeable draw sent me in search of every moment I could redeem from each day’s activities so that I might be alone and listening with an inner ear.
This retreat into the sanctuary within myself, was not a retreat into joy, but into a sorrowful, sobbing that seemed to rise from a depth of my soul I had seldom visited.
The town, an important staging post on the Silk Road, had grown long and narrow as it hugged either bank of the Yellow River. We agreed to prayer-walk the promenades, using the ancient crossing points to form a circular route. Alone I leaned on a parapet and stared into the muddy waters as they swirled and eddied their way through China’s vast landscape. With my inner weeping now in control of my visible emotions I became aware that I had reached a critical staging post on a personal journey.
‘O God, what is it you want me to know?’ was the prayer that came most easily to my heart. It must have met the point of His giving, for in moments I understood a possibility that I had never considered before . . . . The very soil of this province was weeping for Christian workers who would claim it as their inheritance. I wept with it. I had often noticed the affinity that man has with earth. Perhaps it is because we are made from it and will return to it. At the best, we are ‘borrowed earth’ on a lease of 70 years. Certainly, a central theme of the Old Testament is that land and the people it supports are the inheritance of faith.
Set between the mountains of Tibet and the Steppes of Mongolia, this corridor of land has held the ancient highway from the central provinces of China west through Central Asia, the Middle East and on into Europe. Thousands of years of camel caravans have plodded its dust and have traded the silk and spice of China with western centres of civilization. Invading and defending armies have stained it red. In the early centuries, by this route, Nestorian Christians arrived in Chang’an, China’s old capital. So did other of the world’s great religions. The 5000-mile Islamic trail from Xi’an to Arabia and beyond, is cradled in this valley. Then I too, somewhere near the end of time, in an appointment with destiny, felt that I should work and pray towards opening a missionary base in this valley for the gathering and preparation of Chinese and other nationalities to reach Tibet and Mongolia, as well as the next stages westward along the ancient Silk Road towards the Middle East, Israel and . . .
I shall return to this province. Perhaps I will find a few moments of quiet to share my secret and climb to where the valley’s private sky meets its towering boundary hills and shout to the land and the Yellow River. . . ‘Hold on, reinforcements are on their way.’ I have colleagues from a new Asian mission movement who are preparing to come. Soon, celebration will replace tears for, as Isaiah promised, “Your land will be married as a young man marries a maiden.” When they arrive, the vision for a missionary base will materialise, as the mysterious substance of faith becomes visual reality!
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