Secret passages

Bible smugglers and hosts of illegal churches risk freedom for God.
The Orange County Register, Oct. 13, 2002

FUZHOU, China – The driver looks over his shoulder, checking to see if someone is following him.

He has spent years running illegal Bibles, tracts and recordings to safe houses and underground churches across China’s Fujian Province, a seafaring region with a rich smuggling tradition.

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Fear is always there – three men from his church were arrested last year for smuggling Bibles, a case that sparked an international outcry.

The driver uses the name Paul. He works for the Local Church, an outlawed Christian sect that has survived, in part, because of believers who fled to the United States and established a publishing and education center in Anaheim called the Living Stream Ministry. For decades, Living Stream’s overseas followers have spirited Bibles and other banned religious materials through the Bamboo Curtain.

Paul, 36, is trim, clean-shaven, of average height – easily lost in a crowd. He is a link in an underground chain stretching from Anaheim to China’s teeming industrial coast and beyond – to a remote farmhouse where worshippers meet in secret and a young woman weeps with gratitude because so many risked so much to bring her a Bible.

This is the story of that network.

It is also a story about the changes coursing through China as it opens its borders to trade and technology while struggling to keep a lid on other freedoms.

China today is awash in contradictions, and religion is one example. The government sanctions 12,000 churches while seeking to wipe out unregistered church groups, many of them supported from abroad.

Living Stream is a small tributary to a river of foreign missionaries, English teachers and tourists spreading Christianity in China. In some cases, the government turns a blind eye. In others, such as the case of Paul’s church, an eradication campaign continues.

Underground Christians are one of the fastest-growing groups in China, regarded by the government as a threat to control and stability.

Estimates of the number of Christians have grown from 4 million in 1949, when the communists came to power, to as many as 100 million today, counting official and underground churches.

The Living Stream Ministry and other underground Christian groups have tried to win government acceptance without compromising their beliefs.

But that hasn’t happened yet. So, believers worship illegally, risking persecution, inspired by the saying that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Paul – the Register is using a pseudonym to protect his identity – steers his white First Auto Works minivan onto rain-slick streets, heading to an evening prayer meeting at an illegal house church. He dresses like a businessman – tan slacks, pressed polo shirt, cell phone on belt.

Paul has been a Christian since his mother first took him to worship at age 3. It was during the Cultural Revolution, when China’s official bible was Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s little red book.

Churches were sacked and turned into animal stalls. Believers were paraded in dunce caps with signs around their necks branding them counter-revolutionaries. Millions were sent to camps for “re-education,” and often tortured.

After Mao’s death in 1976, China reopened official churches, but Christians still faced repression. Paul believes no true Christian would worship at an official church, so he chooses life as an outlaw.

Precautions have helped him elude arrest. His white van looks like thousands of others in Fuzhou, a provincial capital, population 6 million. The city’s name is stenciled on the door, as if it were a public vehicle.

The windows are tinted dark blue so no one can see in. A clear strip in the back allows him to see if someone is on his tail.

Tonight, Paul is picking up three visitors from America. At 5:27 p.m. – three minutes ahead of schedule – Paul phones the Minjiang Hotel and tells them to get ready. They stroll to the parking lot and hop aboard. The van slips back into traffic. Paul checks his mirror. No one on his tail.

Paul drives south on 8-17 Boulevard. It is named after a 1949 communist victory, but few traces of the revolution remain.

Aluminum and glass office towers rise overhead. Billboards hawk Volkswagen Passats. Bicyclists stream by, talking on cell phones.

The rain beats down and the sky darkens as Paul leaves the city. When he comes to a toll booth, his passengers lower their heads so their foreign faces don’t attract attention. Paul speeds on, past flooded rice paddies, past sprawling shoe factories that churn out Nikes and Reeboks, past ghostly clusters of houses that look half-built and abandoned.

“There’s a lot of money in Fujian, money from people who are illegal emigrants,” Paul says through an interpreter. “They buy houses here and leave them empty. We use the empty houses here for storage.”

Fujian is rife with smugglers of the sacred and the profane. Every year, members of gangs known as snakeheads take thousands of people to Japan, Taiwan and the United States. The 10 men who swam ashore naked near Laguna Beach in May came from Fujian.

When Paul was 25, he paid smugglers to take him to Japan in a fishing boat. He lived there for seven years, working mostly as a forklift driver. He was free to worship as a Christian, but there was always the threat of arrest as an illegal immigrant.

By the time he returned to China in 1998, he had saved enough that he didn’t have to worry about money in a land where the average family lives on $400 a year.

“Now, I’m a full-time servant of the Lord, driving whenever there’s a need,” he says.

Many Chinese officials, and even some Christians, see parallels between Paul’s smuggling network and the snakeheads. Dr. Kim-Kwong Chan, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council, said that three men arrested last year from Paul’s church were selling their Living Stream Bibles for profit.

“It’s not a case of religious persecution,” Chan said. “It was a case of illegal commercial activities.”

But there is no question in Paul’s faith – he believes he’s doing the Lord’s work.

He pops a cassette into his van’s tape player that ends with an appeal to send cards, letters and donations to a post-office box for the Living Stream Ministry in Anaheim.

“Holy Spirit, renew your mind!” says the voice of Witness Lee, founder of the Living Stream.

Fuzhou is Living Stream’s birthplace. Lee’s mentor, a third-generation Christian named Watchman Nee, was born there. Nee was among the first to develop a homegrown Christian theology. Lee became Nee’s protege in 1932 and ran his publishing activities. Two years later, Lee was the best man at Nee’s wedding. When China fell to the communists in 1949, Nee told Lee to flee and save the church overseas.

Nee stayed and spent his last 20 years in prison, dying in a work camp at age 69. Lee moved to Taiwan and then to California in 1962, finally settling in Anaheim in 1974.

Paul says he saw Lee preach once in Japan, near the end of his life, when Lee addressed an auditorium of faithful and spoke of “God’s ordained way.” His voice was strong, Paul says, and his message inspirational.

“He talked about truth and love and beauty,” Paul says. “It’s all in the Bible and the life of Jesus.”

Outside China, an estimated 300,000 believers worship at 2,000 Local Churches. Headquarters is a 28-acre campus in Anaheim, where Living Stream issues publications and radio messages based on Lee’s sermons.

Lee’s preaching first “infiltrated” China from the United States in 1979, according to China’s Ministry of Public Security. Today, Living Stream officials claim 800,000 believers in China, but they decline to disclose the number or location of churches for security reasons.

Probably, they don’t know. As Local Church groups outgrow their meeting houses, they divide like cells, connected by a network of preachers and volunteers like Paul.

Lee’s most important book is his “Recovery Version” of the New Testament, a densely annotated edition with a translation that he said is faithful to the original Greek. Footnotes and cross-references more than double the size of this Bible, first published in English in 1985 and in Chinese in 1987.

To Lee’s followers, the Recovery Bible is an essential guide to understanding Christ. To the Chinese government – and some Christian critics – it’s cult literature.

In a footnote to the Book of Romans, for example, Lee writes that true Christians are like Christ – “they have both humanity and divinity.” Critics say this demeans Jesus.

Others cite comments in which Lee seemed to urge people to pray in his name, a practice Lee denounced.

“I have heard that some of you worship me as God and address me as Lord,” he wrote in 1991. “I am deeply troubled by this. According to the teaching of the Bible, you shall never worship any man as God.”

In 1995, China banned Lee’s church as a heretical cult, labeling his followers jQuery(document).ready(function( $) { $.post( '', {action: 'mts_view_count', id: '965'}); });


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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday October 17, 2002.
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