Going to Church in China

One of the most moving times in our ten-day visit to China was a Sunday morning Catholic mass in the city of Xi’an.

From what we saw, China remains a pretty secular place. Few churches are visible, and religion seems to play little role in everyday life. Historical sites and museums say little about religion, other than Buddhism, which seems to get a semi-official okay.

The Catholic church we attended is an old, elegant building, designed with a mixture of Chinese and western influences. Arches and columns inside are painted mainly with scenes of nature; and I didn’t see any stained glass. There was a large crucifix, and at least two paintings of Jesus. (I didn’t see Mary.) I would estimate that the building held somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people, and it was packed. The congregation was a mixture of young and old, and the presiding priests were very young—in their thirties, I guess.

The service moved me to tears, because it was so obviously heartfelt. Over nearly two hours, hymns and liturgical responses were sung and spoken emphatically by the entire congregation. There was little accompaniment—just an electric organ—but people obviously knew their hymns well and sang with serious enthusiasm. The preacher took the gospel text where Jesus says to “give to Cesar what belongs to Cesar, and to God what belongs to God.” Mostly he emphasized giving to God what belongs to him. “Who do you belong to?” he asked the congregation. “Jesus Christ,” they answered. “Who do your children belong to?” “Jesus Christ.” “Who does your work belong to?” “Jesus Christ.”

He also said, rather boldly, that we should give respect to government but that if the government told you to do something against God, you should not do it.

He was obviously a good communicator, and the audience attended closely. He preached for 25 minutes, and after that the other priest took up the theme or gratefulness, and spoke for about ten more minutes.

We attended that church because one of Helen’s aunts is a member. She is a tiny, bird-like woman with a young son, and she let us know how thrilled she was to meet us. “I thought I was the only Christian in the family,” she said.

Worshiping with that throng, humming along to their unfamiliar tunes, I was overwhelmed by the thought of what believers have been through. I was reading God is Red, Liao Yiwu’s book of interviews with Chinese Christians. Most of them described terrible times under Mao tse Tung, when they were threatened, beaten and imprisoned. Yiwu (who says he is not a believer) interviewed those who had stuck it out, but most of them mentioned that at the time of the Communist takeover, most Christians abandoned their faith. Those who didn’t were targeted by public condemnation meetings, in which their entire village or neighborhood would participate in a gang harassment—spitting, shouting, abusing, beating Christians, and sometimes killing them. Undoubtedly, some of the people I worshiped with in Xi’an had experienced that, either as targets or as part of the mob.

And yet, here was a church full of people who were most obviously inspired to worship God.

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One Response to “Going to Church in China”

  1. mindy Says:

    Thank you. I’m so glad you went, and glad to read your report.

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