An introverted and irritable man from Beijing, Cao Xiao Jing experienced an incredible transformation that led him to remote areas of Yunnan Province where he served the marginalized of society, including drug addicts and minorities. The story of Cao’s conversion and call to ministry is told in the online journal Jingjie. Out of his experiences with a relapsed addict and a formerly wealthy street dweller, Cao shares about a significant shift that took place in his own theology, which led to a new way of approaching ministry.
Loving the Unlovable
Every morning in Beijing at 5:30am, Cao Xiao Jing rises to pray for others. Some of the names on the list pierce his heart. The persons corresponding to each of these names are, in the eyes of the world, those to be feared and avoided; they are the drug addicts and bottom dwellers of society, all scattered in the most remote and desolate parts China.
But on this midsummer day as Cao mentions these names to me, and as he recounts his seven years spent serving in rural areas, the forty-something, middle-aged minister chokes up with tears. “In serving them, we truly learn to experience Jesus’ words: ‘If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?’" He says, “it is now that I finally truly appreciate the love in Jesus’ self denial.”
Unlikely Beginnings: Low Self-Esteem, Irritable, and Almost Expelled from His Work Unit
Born in 1970 in Beijing, Cao Xiao Jing “wandered confused and ignorant for his first 19 years”. During high school, the ever introverted and lacking in confidence Cao fell in love with a girl. He began to pursue her whole-heartedly, yet couldn’t seem to figure out how to express his love. This led to a sense of defeat, which would often torment him late into the night, enshrouding him with a sense of disappointment and frustration with himself.
As soon as Cao graduated from high school he began working. A young man just entering the world, confusion and frustration continued to overshadow his life, compounded by his introverted and passive nature. He often felt lost. It seemed as though nothing could lift his spirits, and this became even more true when he encountered setbacks and got stuck, feeling overwhelmed and uncertain as to how to move forward.
Under these oppressive circumstances the young man struggled to find the meaning of life and a way out. He became a heavy smoker and drinker, downing up to half a jin [about 9oz] of “white spirits” [similar to the America’s “white lightning” hard liquor] very easily, and becoming increasingly overweight. Soon, although he was only 1.8 meters tall [5’11”] he weighed more than 180 jin [198 pounds].
He had a poor attitude at work and was bad-tempered, quick to get angry, and prone to get into brawls. His work unit leaders warned him that he was dangerously close to expulsion. Having barely set foot into adulthood, life just seemed to go from bad to worse, as one entering a dark and foreboding alley.
To be a young man with everything you need available and yet feeling as though you have nothing at all is undoubtedly a kind of torture. “What is the point if life is like this? What value is there in life?" Such are the questions Cao often asked himself.
In the year that he was about to lose his job, on a Sunday, two coworkers suggested that it might be fun to visit the local church and dragged him along on their excursion.
Once they entered the Chongwen Church, Cao Xiaojing saw people quietly reading their Bibles and then praying, at which point the only thought in Cao’s head was, “This is ridiculous.”
However, as the service was about to end a sister rose to share her testimony. As she spoke, there was one phrase that moved his heart.
“At the end she said that prayer was her intimate communion with God, that when her heart is weak it is in prayer that she is filled with peace and joy.”
At that moment it felt as though the warm hand of God folded around his cold, hard heart, and he couldn’t help but join in silently as the sister prayed from the platform.
As he walked out of the church that day, Cao Xiao Jing felt as if the dusty, dark, long closed room of his heart had suddenly flung wide open and was filled with light.
“I felt so joyful, with an inexplicable sense of lightness and calm.” Even ten years later Cao becomes very excited as he describes that moment. He says that at that time his soul gushed with a kind of joy he had never experienced before.
Back at home, he couldn’t help but share this experience with his parents and family members.
But his family responded, “Where is God? You can’t see him or touch him. This is just the result of psychological suggestion, a mental reaction.” This response left him speechless, and as one who still didn’t fully know Jesus or understand the gospel he had no way to answer. Instead, he began to doubt his experience and to think that maybe it really was just the result of mental suggestion.
“When I started to question these things, that old shadow of emotions again rolled over me and I began to argue with the brothers and sisters from the church, debating the existence of God.”
During that season of questioning, the men and women he met at the church began praying for Cao.
As he came to better understand the gospel, new life began to take root in his soul and doubt dispersed. Cao Xiao Jing once again experienced that inexplicable peace and joy. Although previously he had never helped out around the house he began sharing the chores with his parents, and at work he no longer struggled with bitterness. “Everyone asked me how I could have changed so much.” Because of the changes both inside and out for Cao, his parents soon accepted Jesus.
In 1993, Cao Xiao Jing was baptized by the Reverend Yuan Xiang Chen. Walking in this new life, Cao continued to work at his old job for nine more years.
Obeying the Call to Yunnan's Remote Fishing Village
A few years after making the commitment to follow Christ, Cao Xiao Jing developed a strong desire to listen to God’s call on his life to “be a living sacrifice” and go to the most underdeveloped areas of China to serve the people there. In 1995, the Sunday before his wedding, Cao and his girlfriend went to Reverend Yuan Xiang Chen’s home. At that time Cao once again felt the hand of God touch his heart, and he determined that the couple must leave their home and go to help the most needy of the nation.
After the wedding, Cao and his new wife began to pray in unity regarding the journey they believed God was calling them to in order to serve the needy.
God did not require them to wait long; in 1999 Cao connected with a group that was enlisting volunteers to serve in Yunnan and they asked if he would be able to go.
“The people around me insisted that this [venture] was inappropriate, as I currently had a job.” To everyone's surprise the Beijinger responded without hesitation, telling the group that yes, he was willing.
In July of that same year Cao Xiao Jing resigned from his position and he and his wife entered seminary.
A year later they graduated and in 2001 they moved to the remote fishing village of Dali in Yunnan Province.
His first job was to learn the local culture and understand the unique nature of the local geography, as well as begin learning the Bai language.
In the mornings he studied the Bible and in the afternoons he went out to observe and study his new home. In the evenings he returned to pray over the specific burdens for the area that filled his heart that day.
Every day he was accompanied by a notebook where he sketched maps of the places he visited, as well as marked down the local characteristics and specific circumstances of the area. When he left home he would trek through the mountains, at times living in caves or sleeping in stables; sometimes when he arrived at his destination his legs would ache too much to support him any further.
In all of this, dependance on prayer was Cao’s most important weapon. Each morning he rose to sing hymns among the hilltops and wide open spaces of the land, moving on to pray for the surrounding villages and people, whose names he recorded in his notebook.
Thus, from 2001 to 2005 Cao Xiao Jing and his co-workers established three churches, located in the Bai, Yi, and Han areas of Dali. These places became the centers from which they served the local people.
As his ministry grew deeper, Cao began to realize that drug addicts often came into the church.
These individuals generally avoided meeting Cao’s eyes and were unwilling to talk, appearing to feel very inferior to others.
“At first I didn’t really understand their situation, and I would often criticize them for their sin, calling on them to repent. My heart lacked love, and I believed that these people were not worthy of love.”
However, one night as he was praying for the church, Jesus’ words hit him like a hammer: “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”
The phrase shed light on his ministry and he began to see what a dogmatic, cold, and self-superior preacher he had become. He tossed and turned restlessly, unable to sleep, until finally he knelt before the Lord and repented, purposing in his heart to draw close to these drug addicts and to see into the depths of their struggles, genuinely serving their needs.
The Best Ministry is Not Knowledge, But Presence
Among the drug addicts within the church there as a man called A-Bing. In his thirties or forties, he agreed early on to be sent by the church to a Christian drug rehabilitation center. However at the critical three month point A-Bing was not able to handle the pressure and fled back to his village, returning to the church.
Seeing A-Bing return, both in pain and filled with self-loathing, Cao entered his inner room and knelt, praying, “Oh Lord! I have such a great burden for A-Bing, will you please have mercy on him! Please set him free from bondage to drugs! Please strengthen his faith, and give us wisdom and love to serve him…please don’t allow the breaches in our ability to minister to bring shame to your name!
After this prayer, Cao made a habit of regularly checking in on A-Bing. Like most addicts, A-Bing seemed very depressed and dispirited throughout the day but became increasingly alert as night approached.
“So every night around nine or ten I would go to his home and look for him.”
In the past when Cao Xiao Jing ministered to A-Bing and the others, he grabbed every opportunity to share the gospel, endlessly speaking about the truth, but meeting with little success.
However, after this time in prayer his heart underwent a great change, and Cao resolved to “accept him, respect him, and not preach at him, but simply to empathetically accompany him”.
After this revelation, Cao’s nightly visits to A-Bing focused on sitting with him and talking, eating sunflower seeds, and listening to him share his deepest pain.
In this way the A-Bing who was always so closed at church began to open up. Slowly he also became more comfortable in the church.
Cao finally began to see progress among this group of people, even starting a Bible study specifically for addicts that met every week before the normal Sunday service.
In order to help them have a sense of belonging, after each meeting he invited them out for a meal.
A-Bing finally gave up his addiction, but there was a man called A-Wu attending the fellowship who ultimately influenced him to take money from his girlfriend “accidentally” and to buy more drugs. After this relapse, A-Bing slipped deep into the bondage of self-hate and guilt, becoming unwilling to return to the church meetings.
Cao Xiao Jing brought A-Bing before God in prayer, saying: “Oh Lord! My brother is willing to believe you, but he is once again captive to drugs…I beg you to personally set him free!”
He prayed this way for a time and then once again began weekly visits to A-Bing’s home to comfort him and lay hands on him in prayer. Slowly, A-Bing re-established his faith and returned to a relationship with God. Later, God opened the way for him to enter a gospel-oriented addiction recovery center and since that time his life has remained relatively stable.
In 2008, when due to other ministry duties Cao Xiao Jing left the Lijiang district, A-Bing showed up to personally give him a box of apples and express his gratitude.
To this day, whenever Cao has a chance to visit Yunnan he makes a point of visiting A-Bing. A-Bing's family, of the historically suspicious and closed Naxi people group, always holds their doors open to Cao.
From A-Ding to A-Bing to A-Wu, Cao served a number of drug addicts. These experiences followed him until seven years later when he returned to Beijing to pastor. He had come to the deep realization that the secret of ministry is this: The best ministry is not the knowledge you share but how you are present with others, respecting them, and walking with them in patience and love.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
A Bullying Grouch Surrenders
Cao Xiao Jing ministered to all kinds of people on the remote margins of society, witnessing lives that truly turned around. “Old Grouch” Wu is one of them.
Cao met Wu Guo Cai during a round of home visits. When the man in his early sixties heard that the visitors were from Beijing, he happily invited them in. It wasn't until after he stayed in Wu’s home that Cao came to find out that people throughout the area referred to him as “Old Grouch.”
Early in the Cultural Revolution, because Wu Guo Cai was somewhat educated, he was targeted multiple times and thrown in prison. After his release Wu's hostility and hatred towards the local government often overflowed in angry fights with others.
Sinking into alcoholism, Wu regularly went on drunken rages, arbitrarily beating his wife and daughter.
Seeing himself victimized by a life of injustice and an unfair fate, bitterness and hatred bound his heart so that for decades he failed to find any real escape from the pain. He often talked big, threatening others that he had a large knife and planned to one day massacre all of the people in the world.
After spending some time at Wu Guo Cai’s home, Cao asked if the man would be willing to pray with him. Wu surprised him by sharing that in the year of “Destroying the Four Olds” he was a book lover and a custodian at the library, often sneaking books home to read. Among those books were some gospel booklets, which he read but didn’t quite understand.
He had heard that the young man now sitting before him understood the gospel. “Old Grouch” not only agreed to pray with Cao but also acknowledged his sins and repented, accepting Jesus as Lord of his life.
Cao stayed with Wu for two days, spending time in prayer with him each day. A few days later Cao returned to see Wu. “Old Grouch” already showed evidence of a little more patience. When conflict came his way he was able to suppress his anger, saying, “reasoning is not about a loud voice”. Once Cao arrived to find Wu in a state of rage; “Amazingly, he suggested we go to the edge of the village and pray!”
In 2008, after seven years in Yunnan, Cao brought his eleven-year-old son back to Beijing.
"My son complained for a year and a half, saying that he was of the Yunnan people and didn’t want to live in Beijing." But, Cao explained, the wonderful thing is that God never lets down those who serve him. They left Beijing when Cao’s son was only four years old, moved to Lijiang when he was nine, and returned to Beijing when he was eleven. This young boy who moved from place to place developed a strong ability to adapt to changes in life. “He loves sports, was a class monitor, and even led his peers in a Bible study. When he was 18 and officially an adult he decided to dedicate his life to the Lord.”
“We Prayed as Though in Heaven Ourselves.”
One day, while serving the Lijiang church, Cao came across a drug addict named A-Ding lying next to a garbage can. He and some co-workers brought the unconscious man back to the church.
They later learned that A-Ding had once been a wealthy man in the area. Because of his addiction he sold his villa home, then later while high on drugs he fell down the stairs and developed amnesia. The damage left him with the mental capacity of a six-year-old child and he was unable to care for himself.
The church helped A-Ding rent a small home and provided him with rice and noodles. Some of the brothers and sisters in the church would also lovingly stop by with eggs and other food for the man.
Cao Xiao Jing also taught A-Ding to collect bottles and other recyclables so that he could earn money, at the same time explaining the gospel to him just as he would with his own young son. As a result, A-Ding depended on Cao much like a child and ultimately gave up drugs.
Unfortunately because of his mental illness, A-Ding often struggled to control his emotions inevitably stirring up some kind of trouble or other. Every time A-Ding got into trouble Cao Xiao Jing would take the opportunity to teach him, helping him understand where he went wrong and how to take responsibility for his actions.
Cao often worried about what would happen to A-Ding when it was time for Cao to leave Yunnan. Would he manage to keep himself alive? He found the local party secretary and asked him to give A-Ding low-income insurance. Initially, the secretary was unwilling, believing that giving insurance to this societal nuisance would be a waste. Cao earnestly explained A-Ding’s situation and the change in his behavior, eventually winning the secretary over.
That same night Cao returned home and drafted out the application. Ultimately A-Ding received a minimal subsistence allowance that he was able to rely on.
Once, after A-Ding heard Cao preach on fasting, he disappeared and didn’t return to the church for five days. Cao hurried to the man’s home and asked why he hadn’t been back to church.
“I am fasting.” A-Ding explained.
Cao Xiao Jing asked, “Why are you fasting?”
“When you preached on Sunday you said that you wanted us to practice fasting!” A-Ding spoke with gravity, watching the pastor.
At that moment, Cao realized that the man before him, who was the same age as him, truly had a childlike heart. He invited A-Ding to pray with him.
“We prayed as though in heaven ourselves. His prayer was so thorough and penetrating that I couldn’t help but be moved by him.”
Despite the fact that this was many years ago, Cao Xiao Jing’s eyes mist over as he speaks. He shares that he is convinced that, although A-Ding has left this world, he is in heaven, even now, together with Christ.
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