Of Carpentry, Chairs and Church

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NANJING, China – When Rev Liu Xiaofan, 57, was working as a carpenter in his younger days, he did not expect himself to be repairing and restoring chairs for his church a decade later. “This church was built in 1924. It has an eventful history and there’s an amazing story behind the pews too,” shared Rev Liu from the dining cum living room of his home, adjacent to the church building.

Of Chairs
The greyish two-storey church building, having stood for the past 90 years is awash with history and charm. It saw the ravages of the Sino-Japanese War, rise of Communism, onslaught of Cultural Revolution, and the open door policy of Deng Xiaoping, with her fate rising and falling according to the times. Besides being used as what it is in the beginning as a church, it was also used later as an exhibition hall, then a community hall where movie screenings and other mass gatherings were held and even as a commercial warehouse before it was eventually reinstated for religious activity in 1984. “When it was reinstated as a church in 1984, there was even a life-sized statue of Mao Zedong in the middle of the sanctuary that had to be moved to another place!”

“Next was the problem of the pews – there was none. All the pews had been either given away or sold in order to make space for the various uses. They were scattered all over the region. But I was determined to recover them.” So together with the church volunteers, Rev Liu located the current owners of the pews – from governmental departments to hospitals and cinemas, to retrieve them. “It was amazing how God led us to meet each of the owners and got the pews back,” recalled Rev Liu, Chairman of the Luhe district Christian Council and pastor of the main church in the district, in his soft-spoken voice. “We didn’t have to pay for them since it was considered religious property under the law. That was how I got involved in repairing and restoring the chairs.”

Building the Church
With the church building reinstated and pews ready, Rev Liu and his church volunteers began the work of sowing and reaping in Luhe district. The district is one of the 11 in Nanjing with a population of almost one million and spans over 1.5 thousand square kilometres. Today, there are 45 churches and meeting points in Luhe and in the last three decades the population of Christians has grown from 400 to 45,000. “Over the past twenty years, we have emphasised training in Biblical truths so as to help believers grow in spiritual depth and maturity.”

Rev Liu (2nd from left) with the participants of the 40-Day training. Photo: UBS CP/ Cynthia Oh

To this end, the church has a 40-day residential training, held once every three years. “Twenty years ago, when conditions were poorer, participants slept on church floor laid with straws and grass. Nowadays, there are beds and mattresses and churches with sufficient rooms will take turns to host the trainees,” shared Rev Liu, recalling the earlier days. The training is open to the 39 churches and meeting points in Luhe, with an average of one trainee from each church or meeting point as each in-take is only limited to 40 persons. During these 40 days, trainees attend Bible classes covering the book of Genesis to Revelation, learn about ministry philosophy and take turns to preach. At the end of the training is a 90-minute written test on what was taught.

Attending the training is a pre-requisite for those who want to go into full-time service and enrol into a seminary. This year, six trainees were sent to Nanjing Union Theological Seminary while 11 went to Jiangsu Seminary. “The 40-day training is critical for church growth and health. It is also a way for us to raise labourers. We are in dire need for pastors and preachers. Without proper training and shepherding, believers are susceptible to the influence of cult groups,” explained Rev Liu who preaches at three churches or meeting points in the Luhe district every weekend, totalling to about 200 preaching sessions a year.

Family Support
Behind the busy man stand his wife and two daughters. Mrs Liu, 54, is a faithful prayer warrior for her husband’s ministry and the church. His elder daughter is a product of the 40-day training and now serves as a pastor at a church in the Nanjing city centre, while the younger daughter serves in the church Sunday School ministry. The Lius have come a long way from the days of hardship and impoverishment. Thirty years ago, when Rev Liu just started out as a preacher and was taken ill with colon cancer, Mrs Liu used to run a fruit stall business in the city centre. She would be up in the wee hours of the morning to open the stall before returning home to continue with farm work to support the family. “Our food supplies had to be kept under lock and key and then ‘rationed’ out daily,” recalled Liu Aili, the younger daughter. “I appreciate my mum for her faithful prayers for the family. She works quietly behind the scenes.”

What Gives the Greatest Fulfilment

One of the Christmas celebrations at the main church. It was so crowded that many had to stand outside and look through the window. (Photo: Jimmy Lam)

Having pastored for the last thirty years and seen the growth of Christianity in Luhe, what new plans does Rev Liu have for the church? “We are planning to move to a bigger place, 1.2 hectares, so that we can develop our ministry and house them all under one roof, be it in the area of worship, prayer, Sunday School, youth or elderly care. It’s been my dream of 20 years.” And what would be his greatest satisfaction? “Being so busy in ministry, what gives me greatest fulfilment is to be able to read the Word of God every morning. That’s my greatest satisfaction,” replied Rev Liu, in his usual soft but nonetheless resolute tone.

At the end of the interview, I had wanted to ask in jest if Rev Liu had expected himself to repair and restore chairs in the new church. But I had to let him take his rest as the evening got colder and considering that he has three preaching sessions lined up the following day. However, I believe that given his commitment and devotion to the Lord, he would not have minded even though they would most likely be buying new chairs and pews.

Story: Cynthia Oh
Edit: Angela Teo
2016 © United Bible Societies China Partnership