Positioning Missionaries

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Greg Girard/Contact Press Images for TIME

Faye Pearson teaches at China's biggest seminary

Kate Goodspeed came to missionary work late. First, she was a political activist, attracting worldwide attention for a debilitating four-week hunger strike outside the White House protesting the Gulf War. When the conflict ended, she wanted to share her faith, hoping for a mission post in what she considered the world's most troubled region, Africa. Instead, her church sent her to China to teach university students. Goodspeed, 56, carried her Bible and her activism to the lakefront city of Hangzhou in eastern China. There she developed a popular style: she asks students to submit journals, which she returns with comments. The method builds intimate relationships, and her students often open up to her in ways they wouldn't with their closest friends. One student recently wondered in writing whether her fiancE could love her enough. Goodspeed punctuated her written reply with a typical comment: "As a Christian, I would say that only God can know us that well."

In a country ruled by a Communist Party that professes atheism and harbors deep suspicions of foreigners, it might be logical to assume that Goodspeed would be put on the next plane home. But her actions are no secret—a quasi-government agency placed her at the school, and her methods violate no rules. She is but one of thousands of foreign missionaries in China, some of whom work openly with government support, others illegally and on the sly. A brutal murder last week of a Christian teacher drew attention to the numbers of such workers throughout the country (see accompanying story). What has drawn less attention is the relative freedom with which they operate, even in the face of a vicious crackdown on "evil cults" like Falun Gong that has led to more than 100 deaths in police custody. Christianity is thriving in China—though its spread not unfettered—and missionaries reflect the growing freedom to worship Jesus. "The amount of personal freedom that people have to practice religion is magnitudes greater than 10 years ago," says Robert Cheeley, who leads Christian development projects in southern China.

Christians from the West have tried to save the souls of the Chinese for centuries. In the late 1500s the arrival of Italian Mateo Ricci—the first Jesuit to show up on China's shores—threw the Ming court into a tizzy: his hosts initially viewed him as a savage for carrying an idol of a long-haired fellow nailed to a cross. In the 1800s, thousands of Western missionary families spread across China offering healthcare and famine relief, eliciting accusations of selective distribution to the faithful: Chinese referred pejoratively to peasant converts as "rice Christians." In the early 1900s, Chinese ultra-nationalists marauded across the countryside, decapitating missionaries in the xenophobic Boxer Rebellion. But it was only after the Communist Party swept to power in 1949 that evangelists were finally expelled and extensive church lands reclaimed for farming. Most religious leaders later spent decades in re-education camps. When China reopened to the West in the late 1970s, missionaries were among the first to enter, often as the only people willing to brave rural hardships as English teachers. In 1986 the government approved a foundation, Amity, to print Bibles and place Western religious workers in schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

The numbers attest to China's soul-searching. In 1949, despite centuries of intensive missionary work, the country had only about 4 million Christians. As faith in communism has waned, however, Chinese have increasingly explored Christianity as a way to fill a spiritual void. Unofficial estimates of Chinese Christian converts now run to 50 million, most of whom have had no contact with foreigners. Even with China's reforms, Christian practice remains tightly monitored. The Catholic Patriotic Association controls Catholic dioceses that would normally be administered by the Vatican. Many Catholic believers, however, continue to worship under bishops approved by the Pope, and a broad network of "underground" dioceses operates outside government control. Similarly, Protestants often refuse to register with the official Three Self Patriotic Movement that governs their faith, and instead worship in illegal house churches. Periodic crackdowns on these independent movements often result in detentions, which are usually brief but limit the growth of underground churches.

Under these conditions, what is a missionary allowed to do? Standing on a soapbox and preaching the Second Coming of Christ is definitely out, but most Christian workers in China recoil at such evangelical stereotypes. Few even want to be called missionaries, a term that rankles government officials. Generally, church-led development projects are permitted, as are teaching and health training, but overt proselytizing is not. If asked, foreign Christians can give a Bible to a friend but offering one unasked is frowned upon."If a teacher talks privately of Christianity, and a student decides to convert, that's the student's freedom," says Zhang Liwei, an official at Amity, which has published 23 million Bibles in the past 15 years. "But if a teacher distributes religious work and tries to convert students, that's something we guard against." Bible study is a step too far: holding fellowship sessions or studying scriptures with Chinese is illegal.

Still, it happens a lot. For years, the U.S.-based Southern Baptists took a two-track approach. One group worked through the government to place Christian workers. A more secretive division burrowed underground, with missionaries posing as teachers, doctors or business executives. These covert missionaries—many were married couples—sometimes focused on acquiring a single convert. That convert would take communion in the couple's kitchen and receive baptism in the bathroom. At that point, the apartment could be considered a church and the couple could return to the U.S. and announce that they had established an underground church in communist China, a compelling story for their congregations. "It can sound like the Westerners risked their lives—they get tears, and they get money, because they play on emotions," says Faye Pearson, who until four years ago ran the above-ground operations for the Southern Baptists in all of Asia, including China. In 1997, China ejected nearly all Southern Baptist church workers who refused to renounce the underground approach. Pearson chose to stay, no longer as a missionary, and now teaches at China's biggest seminary. "I just don't think that kind of underground ministry is effective," she says in her lilting Mississippi accent. Yet hundreds of Southern Baptists remain in China undercover, running house churches.

Even Christians who work within the system can find themselves in trouble. Goodspeed, the teacher in Hangzhou who belongs to the United Church of Christ, spent two years in the northern province of Shandong. She lent money to students to study abroad, and advised others on how to apply for scholarships. But she became increasingly frustrated when less-deserving but better-connected pupils consistently won the grants. One day, the Communist Youth League nominated one of her students for an award for helping save an orphan, but withdrew his name when it learned of his faith. School officials blamed Goodspeed and asked her to leave. "I don't collect converts," she explains, "but I try to help people see that going to church isn't for the old and the weird."

If China has held an allure for religious emissaries since Ricci in the 16th century, then today's Mecca is Yunnan province, which abuts Burma. It attracts Christian workers for its distance from the country's political medulla in Beijing, its poverty and its large number of isolated minority hill tribes. So many Christian families have located in Yunnan that they have set up a school for their kids. The Kunming International Academy, nestled against an apartment complex in Yunnan's capital, Kunming, began with two families in 1994 and now has 100 students from 18 countries. It is run like a private Christian school with permission from the city government. All of the teachers are Christian, and most of the parents were sent to China by their churches. "The school enables families to stay longer and work harder, since they don't have to home-school," says office manager Sue Kimber.

One of the most important Christian projects in Kunming is the city's orphanage. It was in dire straights 10 years ago, according to missionaries who worked there at the time. Adoptions were rare. The only sure way out of the institution was death, which came quickly from scant food, unsanitary bedding and lack of care. Workers received no training or oversight, nor adequate funds. When embarrassing reports of abuses in a Shanghai orphanage surfaced five years ago, Kunming officials came close to barring Christian workers from the building. Through the years, however, they have managed to stay. "The cooperation of orphanage workers and government officials allowed the foreigners to provide training and some money, and compared to 1990, it's wonderful," says Cheeley, founder of Project Grace International, a Kunming-based Christian development organization. So far, the government hasn't objected to a few souls saved along the way.