Brother Xu Guoyong, co-founder of Oak Tree Press in Beijing, died in January 2016 following a tragic accident that occurred while he was attending a conference in the United States.
As a publisher, Brother Xu was instrumental in making a number of significant Christian classics available to readers in China.
Brother Xu came to Christ while in university and became an early member of Shouwang Church in Beijing. In 2011, both he and his wife were detained for ten days in Beijing for participating in the church’s outdoor worship services. During their detention, their first daughter, who had been left in the care of relatives, was tragically killed when she fell from an upper story window.
In this Chinese Church Voices article from the ChinaSource archives, we feature excerpts from an article that Brother Xu wrote reflecting on his experience in prison. Friends of Brother Xu provided the translations. It is well worth reading again.
My Story in the Cell
By Xu Guoyong
Rules in the cell normally allow reading newspapers and books, but I was not allowed to enjoy such privileges. Sometimes I received postcards and letters from brothers and sisters that diminished my regret of not being able to read more. I shared these postcards and letters with others in our cell. All of us read them with care, once, twice, even three times.
Singing is allowed in the cell as long as your singing is not too loud to attract the guards. People liked to sing pop songs by Chi Zhiqiang, and I heard the same melodies during both of my imprisonments. Hymns were welcomed in the cell, too. I sang “The Most Beautiful Blessings” and “Life and Sun above the Cloud” to my cellmates. Lines from the latter hymn—“while I lie in a valley of darkness” and “sprinkles of rain fall on my face”—resonated with the condition of the cell and our emotions.
In cell 403, I met an artistic man who loved to improvise and rhyme poems. So we often did that together. Because the two of us had a lot of literary interests in common, the prison guards often put us on duty together. One day, while we were strolling in the hallway, my eye caught a beautiful sight. It was a row of inmates’ shoes lying under bright sunshine, showcased by a sound-asleep prisoner wearing his yellow and blue prison garb. A beam of sunshine was like a spotlight on those black cloth shoes, one of which was marked by a cross painted with toothpaste. This pair might belong to a brother in our church. Several flies danced around them. I called my artist friend aside and together we watched this tableau. I asked him if he knew how to paint, and he said “only mountains and rivers.” I replied that I thought it would be a very moving picture if an artist could capture this scene unto canvas. We could name the painting “The Prisoner.” He replied that he would name it “Light.” Five days later, my artist friend was released and I sank into loneliness.
I was imprisoned twice and recall shedding tears twice. One was in my sadness of missing my two-year-old daughter Leyi now in heaven after a tragic accident that took her life. Another time was when I remembered a traditional poem for Mid-Autumn Festival called “How I Miss My Family When Festivals Come.” This poem was written on the very same day second daughter Si Yi was born. After my weeping, I wrote my own festival poem that I called “Missing My Wife and Daughter in a Mid-Autumn Day Prison Cell.”
I got to know many drug addicts in prison this time. The very first night I arrived in prison, word spread quickly that I had been arrested because I am a Christian. A young man in his early thirties had a very strong reaction to this news. I later learned that he was a Christian brother who fell away and got into drugs. This brother knew a lot about Shouwang Church—my church. After we got to know each other better, he always uttered the same words, “How ashamed I am, brother, compared to you! You are in prison for your faith, but I am here for my crime.” He was under great pressure because every day he would plead with the guards to give him an early release. One day I could not bear to see his anguish anymore, so I prayed fervently for him, asking God to show his mercy in this prisoner’s life, to not lay burdens that are too heavy for him. After my prayer, I sang two short hymns, “Even Mountains Can be Removed” and “Bruised Reed.” Unfortunately, he still received a verdict of a two-year term of forced rehabilitation. He took the notice in hand and sighed, “How expensive this is!”
Besides drug addicts, I met a wide range of other people in prison, including those arrested for prostitution, gambling, stealing, and selling things on the black market; those who broke traffic rules as well as petitioners. Some of the prisoners were very rich with multiple luxury cars, and some were barely making ends meet by vending snacks on the streets. I tried to be a friend to every one of them, hoping on the one hand to bring the gospel to them and on the other hand, to listen to the journeys of their lives that had led them to this prison.
When I was put on duty, I prayed for everybody with whom I came in contact each day. I asked God to give me opportunities to talk with them—and to give me the right words to speak. In the first ten days, God answered every single prayer on my list. So this prison stay became a special retreat for me. It revived my prayer life, renewed my zeal for the gospel, and rekindled my love for all kinds of people in this land. During naptime on my duty days, I watched these strange and familiar faces, this sleeping group who appeared both pathetic and lovely to me. My heart went out to them in prayers, and a love surged out of me towards them. It was in these moments that I found myself falling in love with this place. I even had desires to stay in prison longer.
I met a gambler who was 45 years old. He has no wife and no children because he thinks that childrearing would be a burden to him. One day he asked me if Christians recite religious texts every day. I asked, “What makes you think so?” He said he had seen me murmuring things while on duty. Then I realized that he was always lying in the spot where I prayed. It was the only spot where I could have my back to the surveillance camera so that guards wouldn’t notice me praying.
I also met old friends of brothers of my church. Xiao Qi was one of them, an old cellmate of brother Zhang of our church. How absurd this world is! Zhong Gang plaza witnesses two different dramas every Sunday. Some people are arrested for their faith by worshipping in this public space, and some are arrested for trying to make a living by going against the rules. These two different groups met each other in prison cells. I can only say that this is the good providence of God. I told Xiao Qi again about the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, and in exchange, he told me about the depraved and tragic things he had witnessed in prison. From what he shared, I realized that the prison I was in, by comparison, does not count as a real prison. There are numerous prisons full of deep darkness and endless despair. Our ministry in this prison is only the prelude of a true prison ministry.
I told almost everyone I met in this prison the reason why I was there and I also told them that I might come in again after my release.
Sometimes prisoners burdened with troublesome thoughts would come to me. For example, a young man who had engaged in prostitution on a business trip would talk for a long time with me every day. One day he said to me, “Hey Christian, you have no idea how many souls you have helped around here.” Still, he could not understand why I would say that I might come back again.
During my first days in prison, I found myself hesitant to approach drug addicts (May God forgive my weakness). But because there was a former believer among them this time, I was drawn closer to them. Every day I would talk to them which made me a misfit in the cell.
After some conversations over several days, I got to know all of them and shared the gospel with a few. Sometimes they would take the initiative to talk with me. When brothers and sisters sent me clothes, some of them would come and ask for some. One of them even asked me to find a church for him, and that really flattered me. A man in his fifties wondered if the church would receive someone like him. He previously shared with me that his family has given up on him, and preferred that he would stay in prison. I said to him wholeheartedly, Yes! There are all kinds of people in church. But as soon as the words left my lips, I felt weak inside and murmured to myself, “Is our church mature enough to receive and pastor a drug addict like him?”
On the day of my release, I could not help but jump up onto the platform to give a farewell address.*
Hi all. Today I am being released so I want to say goodbye to you all and share some of my thoughts with you. I was arrested because of my church and was forced to come here. After coming into this prison, I adjusted my expectations and took this as a place to learn. And I have learned a lot from all of you.
In this world, most people measure the value of one person by wealth or social status, but in the eyes of God, the God I believe in, every person, every soul is precious in God’s eyes. It doesn’t matter if you are a drug addict, a thief, a vendor, a person who broke traffic rules, or a person who committed other crimes.
In fact, I am just like you, a sinner. I have made some of the same mistakes as some of you here. But God saved me first. This is why I arrived in prison with a mission, that is, to experience your pain and to spread the goodness of Jesus. In these ten days, I looked at you through Jesus’ eyes of love, especially you who are addicted to drugs. I witnessed your deep pain of withdrawal and your anxiety when waiting for a verdict. I felt heartbroken for this brother who has to go through a two-year forced rehab when his child is only two years old.
Now before I leave, I hope to share my clothes with you. May they represent Jesus’ love for you and me. And remember, I am leaving today, but I might come back again. (Audience laughed.)
You don’t need to remember my name. Just remember that I am your Christian brother. I hope in the future, at some point in your life marked perhaps by frustration or questions or despair, you will remember that there was a Christian with you in prison who shared Jesus’ love with you—a love that will never end.
Goodbye, my friends.
An hour after my farewell address, I was called out for some final procedures. Around noon, I was sent back to the cell to wait for the authorities to release me (a special rule for people in our church and petitioners). In the afternoon, the cell became noisy again. But I was amazed to find that in a corner, our group leader was initiating a conversation with a drug addict who had gotten into a fight with him earlier. They were trying to make peace; it was awkward but genuine. Seeing this made me smile.
* Postscript: When I began to make my farewell address, two guards interrupted me. I told one of them that I am a member of Shouwang Church and I desired to say a few words to the people here. Thank God he left me alone after a few rebuking words. Before I left, many of the drug addicts gave me phone numbers of their family members, hoping I that could send some news to them. The night of my release, I called those numbers but few answered. So I sent text messages of the news I had been asked to share.
"My Story in the Cell" was originally published in Chinese Church Voices on February 16, 2016.
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