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An Unexpected Treasure

A couple of months ago, after a morning service at my church, a woman approached me with three books in her hand. She had been born in Beijing in 1948, the daughter of Baptist missionaries, Dale and Alma Bjork. Her mother had recently passed away and she and her siblings had been going through some of her things, among which were these three books: a Chinese Bible, a Chinese New Testament, and a Chinese hymnal. She told me that I was the only person she knew who might have an interest in them.

I graciously accepted the books and have enjoyed poring over them.

The two smaller books are the Bibles. Since they were published in the 1930s, the format is quite different than what I am used to reading. They open back to front; the characters are traditional; and the writing is vertical. In other words, they are quite difficult for me to read.

The hymnbook was published in 1947 by China Baptist Publications, a name that seems incomprehensible today. Not only was China Baptist Publications a real entity, it was large and influential enough to have hired the famous Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudek to design its headquarters in Shanghai, overlooking Suzhou Creek and not far off the Bund. (Hudeck also designed the Moore Memorial Church in Shanghai.) Amazingly, this art deco building still stands. Even though its official name is now the Zhenguang Building (真光大厦), the name China Baptist Publications is still visible on the building.

But I digress….

As I was looking through these books, I noticed Dale’s many notations in the margins, most of which have to do with language learning. Characters are circled with translations scribbled in the margins. Romanization notes are attached to characters, although they are unfamiliar to me because pinyin romanization was not in use at that time. Passages of Scripture are underlined.

He clearly took his language learning seriously.

Dale and Alma Bjork arrived in 1946 and settled in Beijing for language study. Their daughter Lois, who gave me the books, was born in 1948 in the Methodist hospital affiliated with Asbury Methodist Church, which is now the Beijing Chongwenmen Church.

In January of 1948 they moved to Qingdao. In the fall of that year, sensing the coming victory of the Communist forces, they decided it would be best for Alma and Lois to evacuate along with 2,000 other expat women and children. In anticipation of his passengers’ needs, the captain of the ship that took them to the US had supplied the ship with crates and crates of diapers and formula. Dale waved good-bye to his wife and daughter as they sailed from Qingdao. Thinking that once the war was over things would settle down, he had decided to stay on in China. On June 2, 1949, he joined the throngs of people as they watched the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) march into the city.

Dale’s hope of things getting back to normal enough to send for his wife and daughter were quickly dashed. It was clear that they would not be able to continue their missionary work. But leaving wasn’t easy, either. Even though he wanted to leave earlier, his exit visa wasn’t granted immediately so it was 1950 before he was able to return to the US and reunite with his family.

I can’t help thinking about how discouraged they must have been when they had to leave China so soon after working hard to learn the language and start a new ministry. I am sure they were full of questions. Had they really accomplished anything? What would happen to their Chinese brothers and sisters?

But God wasn’t finished with them or his people in China. In 1952 the Bjorks were reassigned to Japan, where they served for 10 years before returning to the US for medical reasons. And despite decades of persecution in China, the number of Christians exploded. In 1981, following Dale’s diagnosis of ALS disease, he and Alma were able visit China to see some of the places where they had served and to reconnect with Chinese brothers and sisters. It was a sweet gift from the Lord for them to see how God had been faithful to his church in China.

In 1984, shortly before I set out to serve in China, I had the opportunity to meet Dale and Alma, who were close friends of my aunt and uncle, in a small Minnesota town. Alma was taking care of Dale whose body was succumbing to ALS. Even though he was bedridden and could not speak I could tell he was happy to know that it was once again possible to serve in China. And I was blessed to meet a saint who had gone before. Meeting them was such a privilege.

Dale passed away shortly after I met him, but I remained in close touch with Alma. She passed away in January of 2023 at the age of 99 with, as her daughter told me, the Chinese people and Chinese language still holding a special place in her heart.

Today there are perhaps thousands of Christian workers who find themselves in a similar situation to the Bjorks, having been forced to leave China following years of study and service. I hope their story will be one of encouragement that the work is God’s and it will continue whether he allows us to be there or not.

And now I have the privilege of being the guardian of the books that are a tangible reminder of God’s sovereignty. They truly are an unexpected treasure.

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Image credit: Header and first image, courtesy of Joann Pittman; second image courtesy of a friend of ChinaSource.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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