As the first Lake Ontario snowstorm of the year came sweeping into my study, bringing with it an afternoon chill in the depth of a Chicago winter I see myself back in the school library, looking for traces of our evangelical heritage.
The author of the book “Discovering an Evangelical Heritage”, Donald W. Dayton, is a Professor of Moral Theology at North American Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1975, his little book was published as a series of articles in a little known gospel publication “Post-American”. It received a surprising welcome from readers, and was listed by the theological community as one of the 25 most important publications of the year.
I studied under Prof. Dayton for half a year, and he directed me to search through the vast collection of books in the library, and lose myself in ‘cross-hatched history’, and in ‘clear reality’. ‘Cross-hatched history’ referred to the powerful evangelical revival movements in America over the last two hundred years, which transformed churches, changed society, and influenced the progress of history. ‘Clear reality’ refers to the fact that while Chinese footsteps may have criss-crossed the new continent, yet they are not to be found in the records documenting Kingdom history.
I thought back to the time when I left the church where I had been born again and nurtured in Madison, Wisconsin. I went to call on the retired elderly pastor Charles He. Many years previously, Pastor He had left Shanghai to study at Baptist Western Seminary in Berkeley, California. At that time, the North American Baptist Union had an opening in Madison and he used to go there and share the gospel with the local Chinese; after he graduated, Pastor He moved there.
The Union leased a church building to Pastor He for a rental of $1. Pastor He did the preaching while Mrs.He played the piano, and together over a period of nearly 20 years they planted the gospel seed in the local Chinese community.. They set up the ‘Golden Club’ in the church basement; this was a fellowship serving the needs of the elderly. They also started a Chinese school to serve the next generation. We often gathered together there; it was the only place in the whole city where you could find Chinese people, taste hometown cuisine from China and have an opportunity for our children to learn a few more Chinese characters. Later on, the number of overseas students increased, and a campus church was established on the north side.
Of Pastor He’s four children, three married non-Chinese spouses. Some members of the church with deep roots in China found this difficult to accept. Chinese people are very concerned about heritage; our family shrines display the names of the five generations before us; those more than five generations before us are beyond our grasp. We are very close to our own older generation and to our children; and in this way our ancestral heritage and friendships can be passed on for generations to come. Yet, somehow we do not seem as concerned about the origins of life or about the One who created Adam and Eve, and bestowed on them the ‘original’ love, which has been diluted over and over down the ages. Chinese people measure human standards by people’s achievements rather than by their faith, and subconsciously look for models to imitate. God has given us a ‘sacrificial Lamb’, who freely took upon Himself the responsibility for all our debts, as long as we believe. To calculating Chinese, who are used to bargaining, there is something highly suspicious about this offer.
In this way, as the glow of wave after wave of evangelical revivals lit up North America, denominational Chinese churches locked themselves into their ‘$1 worth of grace’. Then came the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century, when many campus-based Bible study groups were transforming themselves into independent self-sufficient Chinese churches. All over this vast land of North America, Chinese churches were springing up like green grass after spring rain. They provided Sunday worship services, certainly; but fellowship as well.
However as we advanced, we found ourselves unable to depend solely on faith. Young people who loved the Lord clung to books written in the 1930s and 40s, and treated these doctrines and spiritual experiences as the epitome of Christian teaching. Not only did they read the writings of Watchman Nee and Ming-dao Wang, even these men’s 3-4 page sermon notes did not escape notice. Yet while Mr. Nee and Wang certainly served the believers of their own generation; we have problems which are peculiar to our own generation, which those leaders could neither envisage nor solve or help our churches with.
Yet while the Chinese churches considered and dithered, in 1989 in California a new bright star emerged, whose brilliance helped us Chinese shine before Westerners. Her name was Amy Tan, a second generation Chinese American, whose novel ‘The Joy Luck Club’ was on the Best Seller List for months. Many of us may not know that Amy Tan actually grew up in a Chinese church Sunday School, and “Joy Luck Club” is about the lives of members of their Sisters’ Fellowship.
At my farewell dinner, hosted by Pastor He, he mentioned Amy to me. He could not hide his typical Chinese pride in his own people: “Her father and I were classmates; we studied together at Western Seminary in Berkeley…” I can still see the joy and delight on his face – here was the second generation of Chinese Christians putting the church life of the first generation onto the silver screen!
Her father, according to Amy Tan, was a silent character; one without a voice. But her mother’s fellowship group represented the sorrows and hopes of immigrant Chinese – their tragic pasts and hopes for the future, with remarkable liveliness. “Our lives are much better now !” was the catch-cry which warmed the hearts of the elderly migrants. This satisfaction was realistically and sensitively expressed in the Joy Luck Club’s endless rounds of Mahjong; their long lists of dishes to be served at dinner parties, the slow, uninterrupted savoring of delicacies at a feast, their hopes for the future invested in their children…
Three books: ‘The Joy Luck Club’, ‘The Color Purple’ by African American writer Alice Walker, and ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ describing life under apartheid written by the famed South African writer Alan Paton, all share the honor of compulsory reading for cross-cultural ministry courses offered by Baptist Seminaries in the USA. The common features of these three books are their exposure of the challenges and difficulties of gospel ministry within different cultures.
Through “The Joy Luck Club”, Westerners have been able to gain an insight into the situation of Chinese in North America. Previously when I was studying and had more contact with Westerners, “The Joy Luck Club” was a common topic; they regarded every Chinese they met as another Amy Tan. Comparing myself with Amy Tan, she was older in age; but identity-wise, I am first generation and she is second generation Chinese; so culturally and psychologically there are real differences between us.
The year 1989 not only brought us Amy Tan, but also the bloody ‘June 4’ affair at Tiananmen, involving groups of young people. After that terrible event, they were stirred to abandon their open or covert political conflict, move overseas, and, in spite of themselves, start to taste the rich spiritual feasts of church fellowships. The past they had left behind on the other side of the Pacific had been hard and onerous. While the forever-young elders on the opposite side of the dinner table were still taken up with the hardships of pre-1949 China, this new generation of Chinese on this side also had long sad memories, but they were of today’s China. When they all gather together to sing hymns, the first words to catch everyone’s eye were not ‘joy and happiness’, but ‘sorrow’.
It is not easy for us to appreciate simple child-like ‘joy and happiness’, but Jesus tells us that ‘joy and happiness’ are found in the Kingdom of Heaven.
I remember that when I first believed, the scripture verses I found most meaningful were Romans 5:2-5. Over ten years later when I meditate on the same verses I am still moved by their resonance and deep spiritual meaning. Yet when we speak of the ‘joy of tears’ and the joy of ‘fear and trembling’, it is actually a very complex emotion which the little Amy Tans of the English service may not fully appreciate.
Pastor He retired and he no longer preaches. He did not leave the books on his bookshelves to his children, but presented them to me as a gift: “Take them! Take all you can carry!” I sent off 23 boxes of books by UPS to California where I planned to live; and a large number of them had been his.
Life in North America is not static, and I had many moves; finally I moved to Canada. Those boxes of books stayed in the basement, and over time they became damp. Some were really old and were starting to go moldy; so I took them out on to the balcony to dry in the sun. Unfortunately, there was a bitterly cold wind blowing from the other side of Lake Ontario, it was so strong that I could hardly open my eyes.
The author came from China and is an editor at a Chinese church in Toronto.
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