Why would 20 or 30 Chinese stand outside a church in -2 Celsius weather for two hours? Most immediately, because there was no sitting or standing room inside the church. More broadly, because there is a spiritual void in China, and many Chinese turn to God to fill it.
This past weekend, we did some traveling in China to the ancient capital of Xi’an. Since we were there over a Sunday, we went to church. Research done beforehand had turned up a few churches, and we settled on St. Francis Cathedral since it was historic (built in 1716) and there was some English information about it (quite scientific, eh?). Apparently it was closed for 14 years for the Cultural Revolution but made a strong comeback, and even opened up the first soup kitchen for the poor in all of China in 2005. Unfortunately, while our research told us service times, it failed to tell us what language those services were in.
So we showed up at 9:30 for the 10:00 service, and found out it was all in Chinese! We followed along where we could (we understood “Amen” and “alleluia” and “Jesu”. . .and that was about it). All the songs sounded very Chinese, and the girl sitting next to me obligingly held over her songbook so I could “read” along. I tried to sound like I was singing in Chinese, anyways, but it probably didn’t work.
It was amazing, though, to see all the Chinese people who came to the service. The building was completely full–standing-room-only full! Even though we arrived half an hour early, we were still too late to sit in the pews in the nave. We had to sit in the quire. And the people who came after us had to sit behind the priest. There were people spilling out the doorways too, who stood for the whole two hours in the cold.
As we were leaving, we saw on the doorway that they DID have an English service–at 3:00 p.m. So we went back for that that afternoon.
We got there early again, hoping to sit in the regular pews so we could see better what was going on (it’s hard to listen to a sermon when you’re sitting behind and to the side of the preacher!). But no sooner had we sat down than a Chinese lady approached us and asked if we could read one of the readings and the prayers. (They told us they asked foreigners because they’re doubtful about everyone else’s English.) So we put on our vestments and went up to sit where we were before. Thankfully, there was another American there who regularly attended the church, and he explained when we were to read and how to bow and all that.
They never asked if we were Catholic or Protestant. It seemed to be enough that we were there and we were white. In fact, after the service we met a Pakistani who was Catholic. He said, “In Pakistan, nobody cares if you’re Catholic or Protestant, because there are so few Christians. The important thing is that you’re Christian. We have so much discrimination from Muslims that dividing against ourselves would be pointless!” 1.5% of Pakistanis, are Christians, he said, and he went to a church where 10,000 of them (both Protestant and Catholic) worshipped, married, and fellowshipped.
In China, this attitude seems to hold as well. As Evan Osnos shows in his book Age of Ambition, for the last forty years Chinese have sought what Mao denied them: fortune, truth, and faith. Fortune, the Party has done a good job supplying. Truth it tries to counter through censorship (but pure negation is weak). Faith it has tried to supply through nationalism. But nationalism is a brittle and dangerous substitute for true religion, and one that is ultimately unsatisfying. And so Chinese are turning to God.
Mao did his best to destroy traditional China. Then in the Reform and Opening period (starting in 1979–this church re-opened in 1980), Communist China was reformed and has gradually disappeared (even the ugly buildings are slowly being torn down). In the words of eminent historian John Lukacs, “Communism is a wasm.” Now, according to the Economist, China has a quickly growing–to the tune of 10% a year–Christian population. The light persecution offered by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), like taking crosses off of churches and stopping large house churches from meeting, makes Christianity more attractive to many Chinese. The blood of the martyrs (as long as it’s not too widespread, as it was in Tokugawa Japan), is indeed the lifeblood of the church.
So visiting this church, seeing so many Chinese praying and singing to God in their native language, was a reminder of God’s faithfulness. Old farmers, young children (who loved turning around and staring at us, until we winked at them and they blushed), middle-aged mothers and fathers all gathered together to worship God. That’s why people are so eager to come to church that they’ll stand outside in the cold for two hours–because they know that their God lives.