View From the Wall

Little Flashlights Conquer Deep Darkness

Christmas Eve, 2004, northern China, cold as usual. Around 7 p.m., one of Beijing’s winter regulars, the Gobi gust, is cutting through an old and abandoned auditorium previously owned by the military. Several hundred Christian believers are celebrating Christmas in the cold, dark auditorium. Many of these people are Christians from the Wenzhou area of southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. They rented this auditorium for a Christmas celebration with performances and music remembering the birth of Christ.

As people were beginning to gather in the auditorium, ready for the celebration, the government authority decided to shut off the electricity and heat supply. In the meantime, a group of both uniformed and plainclothes police invaded the meeting and occupied every entry way. They announced that there was trouble supplying electricity and heat and urged the entire audience to leave the auditorium. In fact, they had cut off the electricity. With no heat and no lighting, people were shaking in the freezing temperatures.

However, no one wanted to leave; they encouraged each other to stay. They helped latecomers find seats in the darkness by holding hands. Candles would not have been a feasible alternative because the police would have shut down the whole auditorium in the name of preventing a fire hazard. However, the Lord gave these people wisdom. Some went out and bought flashlights to be distributed among the audience. People on the stage had to use very loud voices because the loudspeakers were of no use without electricity. Still, no one complained.

Without electricity, the stage was dark. Nevertheless, one member of the audience was inspired and had everyone who was sitting in the auditorium, flashlight in hand, point them towards the stage as the performance and music began. The flashlights concentrated into beams that were powerful enough to allow the performance and singing to continue. In the coldness of this man-made disaster, the flashlights warmed the people’s hearts.

That was a unique experience. As the flashlights were dying down in the harsh winter night and the burning cigarettes of the police dotted the air near the auditorium entrance, these Christian people were focused on the message delivered through the performance and music on the stage. They were brave souls resisting not only the darkness and coldness of the Beijing winter but also the cruel political pressures.

This successful celebration of Christ’s birth in Beijing was only a small part of the exciting existence of large Wenzhou Christian communities all over the country. In large cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, there are many Christian gatherings like this composed mostly of people from Wenzhou. Wenzhou Christians are present wherever there are business opportunities. However, they are not the only groups of Christian migrant workers and small business entrepreneurs that are taking roots in many barely reachable corners of China. Christian migrant workers from many other rural areas have formed churches in big cities as well. They provide manual labor or small business services to locals during the week; they also gather to worship in makeshift places, as well as care for fellow Christians and other people in worse living situations than their own. They are becoming lighthouses and refuges for many people from their hometowns as well as for urban locals.

Migrant workers are a big reality in China. They are in large citiesand they are almost everywhere in these cities. For China’s destitute farmhands, jobs in the citiesmany sourced from America and Taiwanoffer a new hope for a better life. Population migration, especially labor migration, has always been an indispensable element of China’s economic progress. Societal changes, such as clearer and finer categorization of jobs, give rise to new work opportunities enticing farm labors from the countryside to the cities. These farm laborers are often not skilled workers who, without many painful struggles, can meet the cities’ demands for increasingly high quality products and services. Yet, they are vital for many kinds of indispensable services for which the cities have appetites. They build high-rise apartments and office towers, finish the interiors of homes and apartments, provide security and parking services at the doors of hotels, wait at dinner tables, baby-sit children and adults, distribute newspapers, sell vegetables and do many other physically tiring, health risky, low-paying jobs. Without these migrant workers, a big city could hardly survive unless its own local citizens decided to pick up this kind of “dirty” work themselves.

Beijing has four million “noncitizens,” many of them migrant workers. In recent years, many new faces have joined the pool of migrant workers; these are the college educated outsiders, hired by tech companies and new businesses, who rent apartments on the northwest and northeast sides of Beijing. Their fields of work are so diverse that the term farm labor can no longer accurately describe the fresh group of workers from outside Beijing. Many of these educated migrant workers become stable wage earners with fairly handsome incomes. Some are extremely successful in making a fortune, but most migrant workers are living at the bottom layers of society with the city’s ambitions and glories on their shoulders. They keep the city “machinery” running on its normal course, they take care of the details of elaborate parties and auto shows for the enjoyment of city dwellersand in so doing, they taste the hardship of urban living. They are second-class urbanites, existing on the fringes of other people’s preferences. They are the neediest and the weakest group of people in the city.

Against this kind of background, migrant workers’ churches came into being. These churches have their closest origin in the house church movement. Migrant workers, especially the farm labors, have often been the victims of city dwellers’ discrimination and prejudice. These migrant workers churches are the only places in cities where they find Christian warmth and brotherly love.

The enticing opportunities to work in big cities also introduce the beasts of evil to job seekers. These evils are inherent in Chinese cities that are the size of many individual nations. They are waiting to devour the hope of inexperienced young people. Migrant farm laborers are especially vulnerable to the temptations from the devil and the lure of exotic human life styles. The morality of cities is being ruined by cheating, betrayal, evil intent, stealing, greed and murder. The success in the pursuit of material possessions has been overshadowed by the gradual depravation of hearts unsatisfied by these temporal belongings.

Because no one wants to relive the poverty of the countryside, even though the city is becoming a collection of traps and evil temptations, life in the city has to go forward. What can people of conscience do once they have been thrown into such a situation? Some of these migrant workers seek to detoxify the fertile land of evils and cultivate a piece of spiritual soil; they separate themselves for righteous living. They seek to comfort the injured with the love of God and to cleanse polluted minds with God’s words. Previously, house churches in cities have been attended mainly by intellectuals and students who have hearts for truth. These churches exist to serve the needs of a relatively stable population. Now, some of these churches are attended largely by migrants and are serving the needs of migrants, especially those doing manual labor. These churches serve as their home away from home where they can lay down their heavy burdens and share their struggles. Otherwise, they have little chance of being heard and cared for by society.

These migrant workers’ churches are not only the moral fortresses behind which the newly arrived can regain their strength to fight against the evil lures, they are also windows through which heavily laden believers can catch a glimpse of the hope to come. These churches serve to reaffirm the countryside Christian believers’ simple faith in God. No matter how far away from their familiar hometowns life has led these believers, Christ remains the same source of their hope and life. These churches provide migrant workers tools to adjust to the new environment and platforms to meet fellow believersespecially those from the same hometowns. These churches unite believers and make them stronger as groups. When a truth-loving, lone believer becomes mature in faith through the help of a migrant church, then, wherever he goes for work or wherever the winds of life blow him, he is like good, new, seed that takes root for the gospel and bears abundant, good fruit.

Few can say they know how many migrant churches are scattered in Chinese cities. The government does not recognize these churches as religious organizations and would never want to release any statistics on them even if they might have the data. However, no one can reasonably deny the widespread existence of these churches and their rapid growth. They are like the flashlight in the hand of a lonely foot-traveler, braving the dark winter night. As the light becomes dimmer, it becomes more precious.

House churches, and now their new city branches, the migrant churches, have a special need. Yes, these churches need doctrinally sound and dedicated pastors. They need increased amounts of Christian literature, steady financial supply and reasonably comfortable meeting facilities. However, what they need the most is a revival from inside. The Christian life is a long journey for most believers. Many times, as it passes through the night and cold winter darkness, it requires a flashlight that will stay strong. As a dimming flashlight needs to be recharged to stay lit, the churches need rekindling to meet their new challenges for their strategic existence inside the cities full of evils. For those who live near well lit passages, there is little need for flashlightslet alone the need to recharge them. But, for those making the journey in China’s big cities, the passage can lead through a valley of concrete jungle overshadowed by darkness and coldness.

The power of love provides for the recharging; it can rekindle the strength of these migrant house churches that are serving millions of migrant workers. That love comes from the Lord Christ.

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Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio