An eye-witness account of a China church service for poorer city folks
Weaving in and out of lanes, our guide hurried us through the narrow alleys of shop houses. We had already survived the crossing of somewhat harassed roads where pedestrian and motorists fight for right of way. Finally we stopped at what looked like a hole in the wall. It was the entrance to the church service hall. We have arrived at Nanjing’s San Cha He Church.
From what used to be an old warehouse it was now a temporary sanctuary for the gathering of God’s people. The hall looked even more dilapidated from the inside: the whitewashed walls had peeling paint and dirty marks plastered all over; the big rectangular gaps in the wall were windows once upon a time. “Yet we have a dream”, whispered my guide Ms Zhang pointing at a picture of an iconic church building on the wall. “We are in the midst of raising funds to build a new church that looks like this,” she added.
Behind the pulpit, there was a huge cross which caught my attention: it was not made from any precious metal but wrapped in metallic-red paper. Although the cross was not as handsome as some magnificent ones I had seen in my lifetime, its simplicity nevertheless moved me to my knees as I bowed my head reverently in silent prayer. When I looked up, I saw the Chinese Characters “以马内利” which means “Emmanuel” (God with us) glaring at me from against the wall. The characters humble foil-encasing was an awesome sight.
Like many church congregations in China, the members were mainly from the elderly group; a large proportion of the members were women as you could almost count the number of male attendees with your fingers. Although winter was over, the elderly were all bundled up in layers of clothes. The church building was poorly insulated; warmth was conserved by the wearing of thick clothes and sitting closely together. The elderly church attendees were hardly late for service – in fact, most were early for the service as the church hall was almost full by the time we arrived, and we were already 15 minutes early. Turning around, my attention was arrested by an elderly lady seated behind me using a small magnifying glass to follow the reading of the Bible passage by the leader from the pulpit.
The pastor was a white-haired benevolent–looking man in his 80’s. What was interesting about his sermon entitled “We (Christians) are like sheep” was not the topic per se but the way he flashed up occasionally to the audience small white papers scribbled with sermon points. This was the first time I encountered a preacher using white paper flashcards detailing sermon points.
My mind was in a whirlwind as I left the service; my reflections were dominated by two points:
Splendid Church, Shabby Homes
The members were poor, at least compared to our standard of living. Yet they give generously: they would rather put all their hard-earned savings into the church building fund than use it to spruce up their own homes. To them, the church building is of prime importance as it is the house of God — His dwelling place – therefore it must be grand and magnificent.
Empty Pockets Warm Hearts
The members never stopped shaking our hands. Nor did they stop thanking United Bible Societies for helping them get funding for their Bible paper. Looking at their grateful faces, warm reception and simple yet earnest faith, I could not help reaching into my pockets and giving whatever I could spare. My last thoughts to all Christian donors out there: the little you gave went a long way to feed a pastor, give a free Bible, and save a soul! So please do not stop giving.
Written by Pamela Choo