Church in Shanghai

We’re back from our second trip to Shanghai. I’m still surprised at how easy it’s becoming to travel around China. Justin now speaks enough Chinese that he can purchase bus or train tickets at the ticket counter and complete the entire transaction without having to speak any English. I’m lagging pretty far behind him in my Mandarin skills…he’s always bugging me to study, but it just doesn’t interest me. I suppose if I was here on my own, having only myself to rely on, I would know quite a bit more Mandarin by now simply out of necessity. However, everywhere we go, Justin orders us food, asks directions, makes purchases, etc. all in Mandarin, so I don’t really feel any urgency to study Chinese. I just finally learned how to count to ten (including counting to ten on my fingers, something the Chinese people do differently than we do in the States), something I’ve been meaning to learn since July. Justin spends hours each week studying words and phrases online, not counting the lessons we’ve started getting from teachers at the school every Monday and Thursday. I’ll be leisurely reading a book or grading papers and I’ll hear him in the other room, practicing his pronunciation over and over until he sounds almost just like the recording of the Chinese woman online. He’s started to get frustrated with being my security blanket, though. Every so often, we’ll step up to a counter in the cafeteria to order food, and I’ll look at him expectantly only to see him looking back at me. He’ll say, “Go on, order us our dinner,” and watch me flounder through it, all so that he can reiterate his point of how important it is for me to start getting serious about my Chinese studies. A few weeks ago, with the cooling of the temperatures outside, we were at a shopping mall and I was searching through all of the size extra-extra-small sweaters on the rack, looking for something I could wear to keep me warm. I stumbled across a size large and tried it on. It was a bit snug, but it felt very thick and cozy. I turned to Justin who was sitting on a bench in the corner and asked, “How much is it?” expecting him to ask the sales lady in Chinese for me. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Don’t ask me. You should probably ask her,” nodding his head towards the sales lady who was watching our conversation with obvious interest, but had no idea what we were saying. “I don’t remember how to say it,” I whined, but Justin just shrugged again and said, “I guess you can’t buy it then. If only you knew a little more Chinese…”

So you can imagine how relieved I felt to be in Shanghai for a few days, where most sales clerks and restaurant employees know enough English to get by, and every sign and map and menu has an English translation on it. As we walked the streets of the city, Justin and I could hardly contain our excitement, pointing out chains like Starbucks, Papa John’s, and Burger King (we even saw a Chinese Hooter’s on a mall directory, and we searched for it just to get a laugh from seeing the Chinese girls wearing those little orange shorts, but we never could find it). It was even difficult to keep from pointing at all of the foreigners we saw, but we didn’t want to sink to the level of the Chinese people in Huzhou, making a fuss and snapping pictures every time we saw a blonde head walk by. It was so exciting to keep bumping into people who weren’t Chinese, and it was also nice to be spared all of the ogling and staring from the Chinese living in Shanghai, who are quite accustomed to seeing foreigners by now. Shanghai is a great place to visit, but I still think I’m partly glad that we’re living in Huzhou. I feel like we’re experiencing “real” China by living in our small town. If we lived in Shanghai we would be more comfortable since it is so western-friendly, but we would also have a very skewed idea of what China is really like.

Still, it was nice to have a few days of vacation from “real” China. We visited as many tourist attractions as we could afford (another good reason to live in Huzhou—we would be broke if we lived in Shanghai). We saw a Chinese acrobat show, visited the fish at the Shanghai Aquarium, walked through the streets of Old Town and haggled with the vendors over cheap merchandise (rather, I let Justin haggle for me), toured the picturesque YuYuan Gardens, and rocketed up in an elevator to the 100th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center, which is currently the tallest building in China. I admit I was feeling very edgy walking along the almost completely glass-encased observation floor, watching the clouds drift by outside the windows. Even much of the floor was made of glass so that visitors could really feel exactly how high from the ground they were (about 1,555 feet). I treaded carefully on only those parts of the floor that were solid, and gripped the wall in panic when a couple of carefree children skipped right across the observation glass, not fearing that it would shatter and send them plummeting to the ground. We only spent about fifteen minutes up there; I was all too eager to get back into the elevator and return to solid ground, which Justin thought was very funny.

I would have to say the highlight of our trip was getting to attend a church service for the first time since we’ve left America. We’ve done what we can to get by without a church here in Huzhou—we download podcasts of sermons from our church in Tallahassee, we spend a lot of time listening to Way FM (our favorite Christian radio station) streaming on the internet, and we’ve even Skyped in to our Bible study group a couple of times. But we finally had the chance to attend a real, live church for expatriates in Shanghai, and we were both really excited.

I must say, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a church in China. Even though expatriates are permitted by the government to attend Christian services, I always pictured them meeting in a secret room down a dark alley, in which one would have to perform a secret knock on the door or utter some sort of password to gain entry. However, Justin found a three-page spread in our Frommer’s guide book of services around town catering to every different religion (even Jewish synagogues!), so we navigated our way through the Metro system to find the address of the multi-denominational Christian church listed in our book. What I was not expecting was a giant cathedral with stained glass windows and a courtyard. The church had a tall ivy-covered brick wall surrounding the entire premises, and the entryway had a large iron gate with a golden cross emblazoned on the front. We could just barely make out the roof with the steeple from outside the wall. We had arrived about an hour early (just in case we got lost trying to find it), so we wandered around the church grounds for a bit to investigate. To my surprise, we saw very normal church-like things: fliers and signs advertising small group Bible Studies and upcoming church events, small classrooms for teaching Sunday School, and a smaller chapel behind the large sanctuary in which we saw people on their knees fervently praying for the nation of Japan. It all reminded me of my church at home, and I was getting very excited in anticipation of the service. The only striking difference this church had from the churches we’re used to at home was the obligatory sign by the front gate that read: “In observance of government regulation, SCF is open to FOREIGN PASSPORT/Resident Permit holders only (including citizens of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan). Services in Chinese are held here at 7AM/10AM/7PM each Sunday and are open to all.” I wondered a bit about what exactly those Chinese services were all about. They obviously couldn’t be preaching the gospel to the Chinese people, could they? Perhaps they did studies on the books of wisdom, like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes—learning moral principles that anyone could apply to their life without necessarily being called a Christian. I suppose even if I attended one of those Chinese services, I would still have no idea what was being said, so it’s still a bit of a mystery.

When we wandered back around to the front gate of the church, about twenty minutes before the 4PM service, we were surprised to see a protester standing outside of the church holding a sign. I automatically assumed that he must be angry that Christians were permitted to meet on Chinese soil, and I started to get a bit annoyed about it, until I read his sign: “PROTEST!!! Can you give me one reason why Chinese are not allowed to come into church to worship God between 2-4 o’clock? Will God love you more if you are not Chinese? What difference does it make if I’m holding a Somali passport or a Chinese one? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Because I’m in your neighborhood now!” I was shocked to find that the man was not protesting the right for us to hold a church service; he was upset that he was not allowed to attend. I wasn’t annoyed with him anymore—I agreed with him! I wanted to stand alongside him and hold a sign too! “But isn’t it a bit dangerous to be openly protesting the government like that?” I wondered. I re-read his sign and realized he was directing his anger at the church, not the government. By mandating that Christian services only be attended by expatriates, the government is obligating the church to post a sign and/or check passports as church-goers enter the sanctuary, which gives people like this man the impression that segregation is the church’s idea, not the government’s. What a horrible message to send—the exact opposite of what Jesus would have wanted! Jesus told us to go out into the world and preach the gospel—he made it clear that salvation is for everyone, not just certain special people. And this man thinks that we don’t want him in our service because he is Chinese. How many other Chinese people share his misunderstanding? I wasn’t the only one who was bothered by this; several of the other foreigners exiting the church from the 2PM service stopped to read this man’s sign, and all of them looked sad and concerned. One twenty-something year-old American guy with a scruffy beard and red bandana around his head started talking to the protestor. I could only catch snippets of the conversation, but I heard him say, “I agree with you! I completely agree with you. And I’d be happy to sit down with you over coffee or something and explain what we do during our church service and why you’re not allowed to come inside.” I’m not sure if the protestor agreed to meet him for coffee later because he continued holding his sign after the guy with the bandana left, and others started trying to talk to him as well.

I tried to shake off the sadness I felt about the protestor as I entered the sanctuary to sit down, because I had been happy all day in anticipation of this church service.The inside of the sanctuary was no less beautiful than the outside. I felt rude snapping a picture, but I couldn’t help it. I’ll try to attach it below, along with a picture of the protestor. Because of the formal look of the church, I wondered if we would be singing very traditional hymns from a hymnal. However, as I flipped through the books shelved on the pew in front of me, I saw that they were all completely written in Chinese. However, I wasn’t disappointed when worship started and turned out to be very much like what I was used to at home—a band including electric guitars and a few girls on microphones leading  worship songs that I already knew the words to (though the words were also being displayed on a PowerPoint projector). I can’t even describe how elated I was as I looked around the enormous sanctuary, packed shoulder to shoulder with people (and people in the balconies as well), all joined together in heart and mind singing worship songs. I know now why Paul always wrote in the New Testament how important it is for believers to meet together to edify one another. I had never totally grasped it before, but after several weeks of being starved of Christian fellowship, I was feeling very encouraged.

As the service progressed, the pastor, who sounded American, got up on stage and started his sermon about helping the poor. He reminded us that as foreigners who generally have a good deal more money than the working-class citizens of China, we have almost daily opportunities to be generous to the poor who wander the streets begging for change (and he couldn’t have been more right, we realized later as we exited the church gate and immediately got barraged with beggars grasping at our arms and holding out tin cups). He also reminded us that sharing financially is a great segue into sharing spiritually, and telling people about Christ. People who usually cringe away from Christians may be more willing to listen to our message when they see that we back up our beliefs with works—that we’re not just “all talk.” He ended by telling us about an endeavor not unlike the “Operation Christmas Child” project that goes on in churches across America every year. SCF plans on making Christmas packages for orphans living in orphanages all across China. They’re going to include a warm winter coat along with some necessities and some toys in each package, and they’re hoping to be able to deliver them to more than 1500 orphans all over China.  I was very excited to sponsor one of the packages; we haven’t had any place to tithe or give offerings since we’ve been here, and I’ve been feeling remorseful about that.

We ended the service by singing a reprise of one of the songs we had sung earlier, and everyone was invited to come to the altar if they needed prayer. As we sang that last chorus together, with everyone’s resounding voices of praise rising up and filling the sanctuary, I wondered how far we could be heard. Were our voices loud enough to carry down the corridor and out into the courtyard? Could people passing on the street hear our song and be encouraged by it? Would that man standing outside the church gate holding his sign ever truly understand what we were singing about? Will there ever be a day when he is openly invited inside to hear the truth and decide for himself what he believes? One can only pray…


One thought on “Church in Shanghai

  1. Rachel,
    It sounds like God is teaching you some valuable lessons while living in China. Our prayers continue to be with you and Justin. Aunt Debbi

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