When the Smugglers Are Working for Jesus

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Night had fallen over the dusty city of Luoyang, and the agents who call themselves the Secret Service Christians were ready to commence their most dangerous mission yet: to disperse 60 Americans into the Chinese hinterlands to spread the word of God covertly. Wendy Lawson, a member of the South Hills Assembly of God Church in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, was trained for the Tract Bombers, the Service's most Elite force. After a bruising half-day journey to get to the central Chinese city, the 51-year-old paramedic tucked her fair hair under a hat and crammed 300 religious pamphlets into the secret pockets of a custom-made vest. Then, from near midnight to the first glimmering of dawn, she and a posse of evangelists wandered down alleys in small-town China, stuffing mailboxes, bicycle baskets and window sills with their religious contraband. When the people woke up the next morning, she says, there was Jesus everywhere.While U.S. businesses are busy trying to capture the country's 1.3 billion wallets, America's evangelists are out to snare Chinese souls. Their spiritual quest couldn't come at a more opportune time. The decay of communism, combined with rising unemployment and rampant consumerism, has kindled a religious revival in China. Some Chinese, many elderly and disenfranchised, have taken to Falun Gong, the outlawed meditation group that spooked the nation's leadership by quietly mobilizing more than 10,000 people for a mass protest in Beijing last year. Other seekers of spirituality, mostly younger and more attuned to Western influences, have converted to Christianity. Two decades ago, shortly after the antireligion fervor of the Cultural Revolution, only 2 million Chinese identified themselves as Christian. Today the number is nearly 60 million, according to overseas Christian groups—about the same number as the official membership of China's Communist Party.Beijing has paid lip service to the burgeoning spiritual movement by encouraging believers to join its state-supported Christian church. (The government sanctions five carefully monitored religious organizations.) In a prelude to the Millennium World Peace Summit in New York City last week, Fu Tieshan, Beijing's state-appointed bishop, maintained that there is no religious persecution in China. Yet his statement came just days after the arrests of nearly 200 Christians. The raids also snared three American evangelists, who were deported to the U.S.The crackdown has, if anything, strengthened the resolve of overseas Christian groups to keep spreading the Gospel in China. Since Lawson's trip to Luoyang in 1998, overseas evangelists' trips have increased to an average of one a week. They claim to smuggle in as many as 3,000 Bibles at a time—although Bibles aren't in short supply in China. Many evangelists openly compete for Chinese converts, posting tallies on websites of how many souls they've saved—a somewhat questionable estimate, since most Americans don't speak the same language as the people they profess to be converting. Religious travel agencies guide devotees through tricky visa applications and advise them to elude the police by immediately boarding a train after blanketing a town with religious material. Evangelists are taught to speak in code, referring to the Bible as bread and God as the boss. You can't be too careful, says Joe Deng, who has made some 40 trips to underground churches in China over the past decade. One wrong move, and you could get dozens of innocent people arrested.The evangelists' efforts have been particularly successful in China's interior provinces, which have yet to enjoy the economic boom galvanizing big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Religious groups estimate that each Bible they smuggle into China passes through the hands of 300 people. It was a sunny spring day when the word of God fluttered out a bus window and landed at Ma Xingling's feet. As he looked up at the crowded bus, the 32-year-old Chinese factory worker caught sight of a blond woman releasing Christian pamphlets into the air. Ma never saw her again, but the woman's airborne message stayed with him. Today, five months after he first read the booklet, Ma leads a dozen underground worshippers near Changsha, capital of central Hunan province. Christianity fills my heart, he says of his illegal religious activity. It makes the problems of today's society much more tolerable.Despite his faith, Ma has not been immune to one of the largest social problems facing China today: corruption. In the past year, raids on house churches—worship groups set up in homes—have increased from twice a month to once a week, according to human-rights groups in Hong Kong. As long as church members have the funds to grease the palms of the police, they can often escape arrest. Ma so far has paid $350, more than six months' salary, but he's worried that the authorities will soon return. I pray they will not come back, he says. I pray to Jesus, and I pray to the Virgin Mary. Sometimes I even pray to that yellow-haired woman on the bus. With reporting by Edward Barnes/New York