During the mid 80s, which seems a millennium ago, I spent a year teaching English at a university in Shanghai, China. Three years prior to my arrival, the Chinese government had surprisingly softened their stance against freedom of religion, and had made public statements to that effect. However, as foreign teachers, we still had to be careful and sensitive to the issue and were certainly not allowed to do any proselytizing. We were told we could share any religious beliefs pertaining to western culture and traditions in our classes, and that we could answer any questions relating to religious matters if the inquiries were initiated by the student.
I was on a team with three other Christian teachers, so of course we enjoyed sharing our faith and our cultural traditions during Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. One memorable experience I had was setting up a little cardboard nativity set and sharing the Christmas story. Afterwards, the students gathered around to get a closer look. They were just fascinated with the story, most of whom had never heard it before. I was amazed as they stood with reverent awe and pointed out the various characters and quietly reviewed their names.
One student began reciting, “These are the wise men, these are the angels, this is Mary and this is Joseph, Jesus’ father.” Another student immediately spoke up and corrected him, “You mean Jesus’ step-father!” I was pleased to see how they had absorbed the key elements of the story, and could sense a real hunger for God, but also a fear and hesitancy to even broach the subject. Even though there had been some significant relaxation on religious matters from the government, it was still difficult to purchase a Bible anywhere, and when you did, your name was registered, which caused some angst and hesitation.
During our holiday break for the Chinese New Year, my colleague Helen and I decided to take a trip to Hong Kong. At that time, Hong Kong was still under British rule, so it was easy to find Christian bookstores and purchase Bibles. Both of us decided to purchase as many Chinese Bibles as we could possibly stash away in our suitcases. I purchased thirteen Bibles, and Helen about that many. We never had any fear about being caught, as we didn’t feel like we were doing anything illegal. We had never been told we couldn’t bring Bibles into the country.
However, when it was time to re-enter China, we had to go through baggage inspection, which was no surprise to us, but we still weren’t the least bit apprehensive – for some reason. At the train station we waited in a long line for baggage inspection, chatting away with each other and never did notice any other Americans in line ahead of us. The next thing we knew we were waiting behind two tall young men, who appeared to be American. I remember being surprised, because in our long wait, we had not even noticed them. (When you’re in a foreign country, Americans tend to quickly identify each other and strike up a conversation.) Their suitcases were being inspected rather thoroughly, and everything was being dragged out. The two began laughing, when one of them turned to the other and blurted out, “They must think we’re trying to smuggle in Bibles!” This was followed by more snickers and laughter. The guard/inspectors quickly replaced everything into the suitcases and waved them on. When Helen and I walked up they rolled their eyes at us, and waved us on as well, never inspecting our luggage. It was obvious they thought we were traveling with the two American men.
Upon arriving back in Shanghai, I carefully stored the Bibles in the back of my closet. Throughout the remainder of the year, I had exactly thirteen students come to me privately, asking for a Bible! I was so grateful that I was able to quietly honor their request. I’ve often wondered about them. Did they read their Bibles? Were their lives transformed? Did they share their Bibles with family and friends? One student did come to me later and ask, “What does ‘Emmanuel’ mean? I was happy to tell him that it meant ‘God is with us.’ Even though I lost contact with these students over the years, I know that God is still with them.
The latest news out of China, in regard to religious freedom, is not good. Christians are suffering renewed and intense persecution, churches are being shut down, and Bibles are now being confiscated. Once again, the government is tightening their grip. It would be wonderful to know where those thirteen Bibles are right now. I am forever grateful Helen and I were able to get them into China when we did…and that God provided His protection and covering for us! I know the Word of God is powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and has the ability to tear down barriers and cut into the darkest corners of the world and spread Light.