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A Black Hole or a House of Gold?

In the post COVID-19 era, economic and social upheaval has led to a significant increase in migration. A surprising influx of refugees at the southern US border include a group of Chinese individuals who have passed through 10 to 20 countries to reach the US. They’ve been named “走线客” (translated as “smuggling route travelers” or “route runners”) in the Chinese-speaking world. According to news reports, in 2023 alone, approximately 50,000 of these travelers from China entered the US through the border, a number that vastly exceeds the total of the previous decade.

In October 2022, the pastoral and leadership team at the House of Joy Christian Church in San Dimas (基督徒喜乐之家), where I serve as the lead pastor, responded to God’s call and planned to establish a ministry for new immigrants in Ting Pangzi Plaza (丁胖子广场), Monterey Park, Los Angeles. Historically, Ting Pangzi Plaza has been a primary landing place for many Chinese newcomers to America, providing essential services like affordable housing, job placement, and legal assistance. As a result, we anticipated a post-pandemic wave of Chinese nationals emigrating from their homeland. During our planning, however, we were not aware of the significant influx of smuggling route travelers that were already en route to the area.

After two months of preparation, the Light of Life Evangelistic Association (生命之光福音中心) was established. By January 2023, a large group of smuggling route travelers unexpectedly arrived at Ting Pangzi Plaza. At that moment, a divine encounter occurred at this modest, worn-down commercial square, between a few evangelists prepared by God, and a multitude of these weary, lost, and helpless travelers. A significant evangelical movement unexpectedly began.

With the dramatic increase in smuggling route travelers, the Chinese church community in the Los Angeles area sees this group as both an opportunity and a challenge. The background and exact nature of these individuals, who have entered in large numbers through illegal means, are not clear to the churches. Questions arise about whether the church should welcome them with open arms, what assistance can be provided, and how to help them best. These uncertainties cause many churches to hesitate, especially as more negative information emerges about the travelers, leading to increased scrutiny and questions divided into three main areas:

  1. Their motives for joining the church are not pure. They participate in church activities because they need to apply for religious asylum, look for job opportunities, or receive financial and living assistance from the church, as opposed to the pursuit of truth.
  2. The retention rate after conversion is extremely low. While they readily accept the gospel, they tend to leave the church after baptism. On the one hand, this could be due to instability in their lives, but on the other, it could be intentional. Pastors from two churches near Ting Pangzi Plaza report that the travelers’ rate of departure after baptism, for them, reached up to 100%.
  3. They are of unclear origin and have complex backgrounds, generally possessing low qualifications. Their entrance into the church often leads to conflict and disorder. One pastor expressed that if they are not given baptism, they resort to violence. This is truly a challenge that Chinese churches have not faced in decades.

These issues have made the ministry’s relation to smuggling route travelers almost like a black hole; once involved, it is fraught with danger. This is why many churches are hesitant to engage with such a large group of new immigrants.

After the House of Joy Christian Church in San Dimas established the independently operated mission organization, the Light of Life Evangelistic Association, we were among the first to be called by God to serve the smuggling route travelers. We faced the same challenges as other churches, but after a year and a half of service, both the mission and the church experienced profound spiritual breakthroughs. We seem to have passed through a black hole and entered a house of gold. I would like to share this experience with you and hope you will find it helpful.

Upon truly engaging with this group, we discovered an opportunity of a lifetime. The initial wave of smuggling route immigrants at Ting Pangzi Plaza consisted mostly of young people aged 25–35, with men making up over 90% of this group. Despite the various issues mentioned earlier, these individuals are young, brave, and full of dreams, and their large numbers make the metaphor of “where the fishing is good,” (打鱼的水深之处) quite apt.

Later on, even as the average age of the group gradually increased, many middle-aged couples with children also joined the ranks of the smuggling route travelers. The sight of many children and teenagers, ranging from a few years old to their teens, made the urgency of the gospel work among the smuggling route travelers even more apparent. Thus, guided by the Holy Spirit, the church and the mission organization saw this as a precious opportunity for evangelism. They believed that among this vast group, many were chosen by God to be disciples, and the task of the church and the missionaries was to identify and equip these children of God, transforming the venture into a journey of panning for gold, rather than jumping into a black hole.

To find and equip disciples, the Light of Life Evangelistic Association and the House of Joy Christian Church utilized three strategies to address the aforementioned challenges, leading to the breakthrough and success of their ministry.

1. To Serve Them with Genuine Love

Upon reaching their first destination in the US after facing many dangers, the “smuggling route travelers” were in great need of love and acceptance. Despite the suspicions against them, and the numerous issues that arose from them, the church’s sincere invitation and selfless love could easily move and inspire many within this group.

While the local churches remained hesitant due to their doubts, even more individuals, non-travelers with ulterior motives, entered the community under the guise of the church. Collectively, they exploited the travelers for profit, offering legal, job, and housing services under the pretense of charity, leading to misunderstanding and harm, with many travelers then being deceived financially. Cults and other religions were also actively promoted, causing confusion. This made the new immigrants question the church’s motives just as much as the church doubted theirs.

Light of Life Evangelistic Association

To confront these challenges, from the onset, the Light of Life Evangelistic Association strictly prohibited any financial transactions with the smuggling route travelers and did not offer any legal or job consultancy. Our focus was solely on preaching the gospel with genuine love. We conducted evangelistic meetings, mid-week worship, and fellowship studies to impart the truth of Jesus Christ. Additionally, we provided free meals, English classes, and transportation for attendees. Through these actions powered by divine love, many of these new immigrants found their way to God, confessed, and accepted Jesus. In 2023, the Light of Life Evangelistic Association connected with over 5,000 people at Ting Pangzi Plaza, with over 1,000 accepting Jesus during our various gatherings.

2. To Seize the Opportunity to Teach Them Thoroughly

Despite the large number of converts, most will soon move on to their next destination. Therefore, it’s critical to help them build a solid foundation of faith before they depart, ensuring they will seek out churches wherever they go. To this end, we designed four gospel truth classes, each followed by a written exam. We also offered Bible study meetings and discipleship training, along with convenient transportation to attend Sunday church service. These efforts helped establish emotional connections and a solid foundation of faith.

In 2023, the House of Joy Christian Church baptized about 100 smuggling route travelers, representing a small portion of those who accepted the gospel. These individuals completed gospel courses and exams, and a high proportion of them stayed in the church after baptism, a stark contrast to the phenomenon at other churches. This retention is closely tied to solid teaching of the gospel.

3. To Select Disciples and Cultivate Them into Leaders

Following the example of Jesus, who chose 12 disciples after prayer and later sent 70 to preach, we focused on selecting disciples from the believers to cultivate them into leaders, crucial for the success of the ministry. Among the new converts, many were passionate and willing to commit and serve. The Holy Spirit gradually revealed these potential leaders, who, though a small percentage, formed a significant number due to the large base. A year later, at least five core leaders and a dozen committed coworkers emerged as a new force within the organization and church.

In response to the gospel needs of the smuggling route travelers, the Light of Life Evangelistic Association and the House of Joy Christian Church, while conducting intensive evangelism and discipleship training, aimed to select, equip, and cultivate disciples to become leaders in God’s kingdom. It was this very group, often questioned by others, that provided such a precious opportunity, turning what seemed like a black hole into a house of gold—a transformation that could only be attributed to the marvelous revelation and guidance of the Holy Spirit, beyond all human expectation.

Editor’s note: This article was originally written in Chinese and was translated by the ChinaSource Team.

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Image credit: Both courtesy of the author.
Michael Wan

Michael Wan

Rev. Michael Wan is the president of the Light of Life Evangelistic Association and the lead pastor at the House of Joy Christian Church in San Dimas. After graduating from university, he worked for a pharmaceutical company in China. He moved to the US in 2002, embraced faith the same …View Full Bio

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