A witch, a lion, a wardrobe closet, or leaders of a nationwide network of secret churches throughout China? I walked through the back of a closet built into a wall in a remote rural Chinese farmhouse wondering which it would end up being—it certainly was not Narnia. An invitation came to join other professors and teach 100 underground leaders from all four geographic corners of that big place in 2003.
A translator and the four of us arrived closely followed by the Public Security Bureau (PSB). They spotted us in an out-of-the way airport where foreigners were not usually allowed to go. The driver pulled off onto a foot trail. Separated into five small motorcycle-pulled wagons, we were moving in different directions rendezvousing inside a walled farm compound. PSB scrutiny jeopardized the whole plan. Secret church leaders, several of whom were often imprisoned, could not risk it. They said that some would not get out the next time. Several Mandarin, and some local dialect conversations took place between the few folk we saw inside the compound. Until then I had not seen any sign of 100 leaders. Where could they all be?
With text message preset to activate in case rushed and arrested, we waited for the decision. It was a “go,” but extra security precautions were needed throughout the four days, including turning off cell phones and removing the SIM chips. The PSB were checking door-to-door, or more accurately, front gates. They passed us by. Whoever met them was apparently convincing.
Directed to a small bedroom, the escort pointed to the built-in wardrobe as if I already knew where to go next. Realizing the problem, he stepped up, opened the doors, and pushed on the back. An interior room with no other way in or out was full, and more than 100 smiling people stood up. The wardrobe wall behind us closed and locked from the outside. We began.
Ironically, we went to teach them something, but we learned far more from them than they did from us.
At nearly 11 o’clock that night, a tractor with a flatbed trailer parked outside. We could hear, and smell, the old diesel two-stroke engine. We got onto the trailer, 30 or so at a time; covered with a tarp, they drove each group to different locations. That night we slept on the floor shoulder-to- shoulder with Chinese heroes. At 4 a.m., it had rained, and they then moved us quietly through slippery mud to a different walled farmhouse. There we taught from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. for four days, rotating between professors. Our translator’s jaws got weary. The Chinese rose to pray about an hour earlier each day and prayed an hour after we were done. Ironically, we went to teach them something, but we learned far more from them than they did from us.
The book of 1 Peter encourages believers facing such circumstances. Foreboding insight into driving convictions engage the spiritual engine of the Church at war with powers bent on limiting the freedom to exist and believe. Prophetically, Peter, soon to be martyred, addressed “ … those who reside as aliens … [and live] to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:1, 4-5). For the first time, there in rural China, I met resident aliens, who triumphed through humiliation and sacrifice. Those believers shifted their convictions to live this life in full view of the next; they were in this world on “visitor’s visas.”
Two leaders who had been imprisoned numerous times reminisced about a prison game played together, crowning as a champion the one who could tolerate the most weevil worms in their rice while incarcerated and subjected to hard labor for years because they dared to obey Christ. Only resident aliens exhibit such selfless spirit, caring more to believe Christ than to suffer the consequences, and some of those were deadly radical. This is the zeal of martyrs, not witches in the wardrobe. Through that door stood resident aliens who taught these Western leaders volumes in only four days.
Stay tuned for the latest issue of Southwestern News magazine, coming in June, which features God’s work among the 1.35 billion people in China.