No, Thank You -19-

china(continuation)

I didn’t know what happened when the communist agents didn’t follow us that afternoon. We got back to the hotel with no Bibles in the back of the van. That meant that we gave out the share of day to the church and pastors who came to our meeting that morning. It wasn’t our concern how many Bibles would go where. We were distributing what we found in the van every day. Our interpreter must have been in charge with that, and also he must have been in charge to storing them somewhere.

 

The fact that we were left a little loose by the government was a proof that the governor understood that we were not a danger for the Chinese society. The moment we got back to the hotel, the white car left and didn’t come back that day. We didn’t see somebody else to follow us when we got back in our van after an hour. “Where are we going?” I asked the interpreter. “We are taking you to be part of a house church service.” His answer made me speechless.

 

House/underground/unregistered churches were illegal in China.

 

The government vetted all the pastors and approved the churches that applied for a license. The moment that happened, a number of communist agents were assigned to watch that church, the pastor, the teaching, the congregation, (the pastors were not allowed to preach to children and teenagers under 18 years old,) the new comers, and practically, everything. The state gave particular guideline to the pastor and the church committee of elders, and they had to follow it and comply with the communists’ requirements. The pastors were not allowed to give speeches about specific topics, as politics and social issues, and all the sermons were censored. That was the price for being a legal church in China.

 

The house churches didn’t want to pay that price. In many cases, young people, who attended informal Bible studies while studying at the university, formed the house/illegal churches. Most of their gatherings were secret, in houses or apartments, with a number of about 20-30 attendees. Sometimes they would change their location to keep everybody safe.

 

Anyway, as incredible as it was, there were also house / underground churches with more than one thousand members, with a visible cross placed on the building, and operating open services in plain sight. Depending on the area where these churches were located, there was persecution or not.

 

The van took us to a neighborhood of block-of-flats. We got off the car and walked through the old buildings, watching elderly people sitting in front of their flats and eating fruit or some sort of seeds. Everywhere around us there was a deep sense of poverty. When we reached one of the blocks’ gates, a few women were waiting for us with big smiles on their faces. They took us in their arms, and gave us kisses and hugs with tears rolling down their cheeks. Neighbors from other flats were watching us, and almost every window from the apartments around us had somebody out there trying to see us.

Our public encounter made me ask myself when the secret police would show up. Maybe they were already there.

 

We followed the ladies who met us outside, and entered in a small two-room flat located at the first floor. The apartment was filled with women and elderly men sitting on chairs and benches. The few rows faced the window where there was a small table with a Bible on it. Two ventilators tried to drive away the heat and give us a sense of cool air. We were invited to sit on the front row, and somehow I turned my chair in such an angle so I could see most of the audience.

 

When the service started with a prayer and a worship song, my hair raised from emotions. It was a choir of angels, sweet praises to our God in tears and sighs. Their arms were lifted up high, from where their hope was coming.

-to be continued-

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No, Thank You -18-

china(continuation)

I looked at the dish. It was a serving bowl, and that meant I didn’t have to eat the whole thing.

People who knew us, Romanians and tasted our cuisine, may liked our stuffed cabbage rolls and “mici”, the national signature for our unique sausages made of ground beef, pork and mutton, and then grilled on the BBQ.

They may also know that we enjoy eating fried pork/chicken/beef brains, liver, kidney, and pork skin. We make special dishes for Easter, for example, as “drob” from ground baked lamb liver, garlic and bitter herbs.

Now was the moment for me to step out and expand my food range in order to earn our hosts’ respect. One of my friends whispered to me, “You don’t need to do this.” But I had already promised I would do it.

“How many do you want me to eat?” I asked the governor whose face was red from the alcohol.

He showed me grace. “One.”

I wasn’t an expert in using the chopsticks, but I wanted to deliver my best in a Chinese way. I picked up the chopsticks, made sure my fingers held them properly and I looked into the bowl. The worms were deep fried and got a nice brown crust. I could see their hair-like crispy legs. I picked one, and placed it in my mouth. My skin crawled and I could feel my stomach in my mouth. I had to do that. Used all my stubbornness to go through the whole ordeal without throwing up. There was no way I could swallow the thing without crushing it in my mouth. My teeth listened and the worm shattered in my mouth in many fried pieces. Then the inner soft part splashed on my palate spreading a bitter taste. I swallowed and fought the vomit, keeping my face impassive as much as I could. I swallowed again and the thing went down in my stomach. It was good to see the Chinese applauding and nodding their heads.

As weird as it was, our team gained more respect.

I didn’t remember eating any dessert after that. I was thankful I continued enjoying the conversation and didn’t get sick.

We departed in good relationships with the governor and were taken back to our hotel.

Next day, with the back of the car full of boxes again, we drove to a village where, because of the heat, we were invited to sit on logs outside in the shade. People from different areas were waiting for us to bring the Bibles. There were quite a few elderly male pastors who had rode their bike for many miles to get there. The precious books went in a wooden or plastic box in the back of their bicycle and carefully tided up with a string.

We sat in a circle and other people showed up, some of them who were non-believers. I remembered I saw a young family, husband and wife, who came to us to pray for them. Their presence was a precious surprise. There were not many young couples to come to church together, since it was mandatory for men to work wherever the communist party sent them on the vast China’s land.

We were encouraged by this little church’s faith in Jesus, and our faith encouraged them. We ate cucumbers again and gave our testimony. They wept. We wept and after a couple of hours, we had to say goodbye.

For every church where we went we had little personal gifts we gave to our sisters alongside with the Bibles. Pencils, notepads, pens, thank you cards, and other little items we carried from home.

That afternoon we were told we would attend a special service in a special place.

-to be continued-

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No, Thank You -17-

chinaThe governor came close and introduced himself to each of us, and we made acquaintance. It was for sure that he knew almost anything about us. When he and I shook hands, I told him I was from Romania. “Our countries have a long history of friendship,” I mentioned. It wasn’t wise to insist about that good relationship since Romania overturned the dictatorial system on December 1989 and left the block of the communist nations.

 

Anyway, for the four of us to be exclusively invited to dinner by the elite of the elite in China was a great honor. The ruler made a sign with his hand to have us sit down and he took the seat facing the door. The other two companions joined him, without introducing themselves. Definitely at least one of them knew the English language, but never showed it. The authorities wanted to be sure our interpreter’s translation was accurate.

 

The servers began to bring the meal, course after course. They filled the table with trays and bowls I’ve never seen before. Each of us had a personal waiter who started to pour what we wanted in our glasses. The governor got ready to give a toast in our behalf, and we all raised our cups. Our young translator had his with alcohol. The Chinese authority had another glass, and our friend did the same. The atmosphere was relaxed and we started to eat. The rice and noodles were covered in saucy pieces of meat and wonderful vegetables. I didn’t know what I was eating, but I tried many meals and I liked almost everything.

 

The governor asked us questions about our jobs and families in the US, and we also shared about our church’s love for the Chinese people. The authorities might have had the idea that we afforded to take such a costly journey because we were millionaires, which wasn’t the case.

A huge fresh fish was settled in the middle of the table and I saw the governor cutting in the meat and placing the pieces in the little boiling bowl in front of him. Seconds later, he started to eat, dipping the piece of fish in a sauce. My friends and I looked at each other, and then we did the same.

 

We ate fish at home when I was little, but it was seasonal and pretty expensive. My parents never bought frozen fish, but the living ones that were caught in the rivers. If the fish weren’t alive in the seller’s basin, nobody would buy it. It was common that after my dad would scale the fish and remove the innards, after cutting it in pieces, the meat would still move. Sometimes, when he would fry the fish in halves, the meat would jump on the floor. It was a reality I grew up with, even though it looked grotesque.

 

I continued to cut and place the meat in the boiling water for as long as the governor did that.

 

Then it came the challenge.

“I’m sure you would not eat our last course,” the man in power declared. “Why?” I asked. I didn’t wait for the answer and announced, “I will.”

By that time I understood it wasn’t only a cordial dinner, it was about winning, and the Chinese ruler was sure the Americans would lose. The man laughed and made a sign to the main server to bring in the new dish. I started to pray, “Lord, don’t let this be worms or bugs. I can’t eat that.” I was ready to cut and eat crocodile, snake, frog, and snail, anything but worms and bugs.

 

On the other hand, I didn’t want the Chinese to win. It was about respect, and I was ready to pay what I had to pay to gain that respect for our team. The interpreter looked at me and shook his head. His face was pretty congested from trying to keep up with the governor’s taste for liquor. I took a glance of my friends and I could see they were done with eating. From my perspective, that was a race between China and US, and I had to win.

 

The brown bowl was placed closed to me. “You can’t eat one piece,” the ruler said. He leaned forward and got two fat worms the size of a thumb between his sticks. Jovial and confident, he placed the crunchy animals in his mouth and chewed them.

I froze. I knew I had to eat that.

-to be continued-

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No, Thank You -16-

(continuation)

With the back of the van filled with boxes, we hit the road again next morning. The church in that village was a room connected to multiple other rooms for the people who lived there. The dirt floor had a handmade long rug between the two rows of pews. It looked immaculate, sign that it was used only for out of the ordinary days like that. Elderly men and women with wrinkled sunburned faces were waiting for us in the heat of the day. The sweet connection of love was overwhelming. The ladies surrounded us, and held our hands or hanged themselves to our arms. They smiled and chuckled while talking to us and giving us hugs. One had brought her little granddaughter with her and was so proud. We took tens of pictures with everybody, and the celebration of the Bibles was beyond expectations.

 

The lady pastor took us to show us the entire building. It was more of a shack made of mud bricks with the main room converted to the gathering place, and four-five other rooms for families who lived there, one little chamber per family. The woman in charge showed us the vegetable garden, very well kept, and we found out that it was the main source of food for that little community. They canned fruit and vegetables for winter. The only source of water came from a rudimentary fountain by the garden. It was peaceful. A few chickens were digging in the dirt. The outhouse was a hole in the ground covered with a roof made of sticks. In spite of the extreme poverty, these elderly people of God had such a joy in their hearts. It looked like the heavy hand of the communist government with restricted laws and regulations for churches didn’t touch them. That day was a day of great encouragement, a sign that God didn’t forget them. Holding their Bibles with both hands, they prayed for us.

 

The interpreter told us that we were invited to have dinner with the governor of the region that night. It was a great honor for us to spend time with one of the most powerful people in China. “The protocol is that we can’t refuse any trait of his hospitability,” the Chinese interpreter continued. “He will offer us alcohol and we can’t say ‘no’.” At this point we just looked at each other. “We can drink coffee and soft drinks with him, ” one of us suggested. “It’s not the same,” the young man said. After pondering over this and how not to let the authorities feel offended by our refusal, he made his mind. “I will tell the government agents who shadow us that it is against your principles to drink alcohol, and that I will drink with him.” We agreed. He called the men and spoke to them right away. About a half hour later he received a phone call that the governor was pleased with our team’s decision and was looking to eat dinner with us.

 

After distributing the last share of Bibles for that day, we came back to the city to get ready for the dinner protocol. We put on our best outfits and were taken to one of the best restaurants in the region. The richness welcomed us from the door. The crystal windows and chandeliers sparkled under hundred of lights. Every chair was like a throne, elaborately carved in expensive wood. We were introduced in a private room with a huge oval table set for 12. I felt I was in a museum. The paintings on the wall looked as veritable pieces of art, presenting mysterious landscapes, the Great Wall, and of course, the picture of the Chinese Communist leader. Light blue velvet curtains in fine Chinese embroidery covered the windows.

 

The four of us were seated first and the servers swarmed around us offering us drinks, and making sure we were comfortable. I could see our interpreter was pretty tensioned. He had never been in the presence of the governor. One thing to go wrong, and his future would have been sealed forever.

We, the Americans, were jovial and enjoyed the exquisite atmosphere that reminded us of a royal palace. All of a sudden, the long line of waiters lined up by the wall and froze. “He is coming,” the interpreter whispered. The door opened and we stood on our feet to honor our host.

The governor entered the room, followed by two of his counselors. Thin, in his late fifties, the man wearing a suit was nothing exceptional in the way he appeared. Sharp eyes and a ceremonial smile, we could easily discern the shrewd side of his personality. He inclined his head towards us and greeted, “Welcome to China!”

-to be continued-

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No, Thank You -15-

china

(continuation)

We knew we were honored with great respect, and during our conversation, we had a few pieces of strange, delicious fruit. It didn’t take long and we were invited in the sanctuary to distribute the Bibles. Three rows of benches filled the large sanctuary the size of a gym, while the light shined generously through wide windows on both sides. The big platform in the front was spacious enough to accommodate one hundred people.

There were churchgoers sitting only on the benches in the middle, all women dressed in the same uniform, blue skirt and white top. They looked festive, but it was something sad about that, since everybody had to comply with such a strict dress code. Choir members enjoy wearing matching outfits, but I’ve never seen that applying to an entire congregation. It hurt to see my sisters garrisoned like that. The faith in Jesus comes with the liberty of the spirit and a deep sense of a new vibrant life. There I could sense oppression. Christians were free to gather, pray together and listen to a sermon, but only on a rigid platform totally controlled by the state.

 

We took a seat on the front bench next to the boxes with Bibles. The pastor prayed and then started to give a short speech. Our interpreter translated to us. He thanked us for our great gift and praised the government for freedom of religion. When he finished his discourse, the people applauded. I looked back to see them and it sounded like a robot. I’ve been there. As high school students, we were required to do a lot of hand clapping and show appreciation to the dictator Ceausescu when we listened to his allocutions in school. Twice a year, on May 1st and August 23rd, the most celebrated days in communist Romania, we were on the stadiums or marching the city shouting slogans and applauding the communist leaders. With no water and in plain sun, many of the students fainted and were taken to the hospital in ambulances. We had to endure, and I praised God my endurance was great.

 

The distribution of the Bibles was precious, with us presenting book after book to our sisters, and their stretched hands to receive it and place it on their chest. That was their profound and very personal moment of pure happiness, and nobody could touch or alter it. When we finished, there was not much to be said. Everybody stood up and applauded us as we walked to the door. The two agents, each with a plastic bag full of fruit, got in their car and waited for us to leave first. That was the routine. The pastor stayed there on the steps and waved at us until we turned to another street.

Our first day of the mission we came for, was over. The back of the van was empty now. We, with mixed emotions and too tired to chat, were watching out the window.

 

The Chinese dinner in that small restaurant was good, and we spent time to talk and listen to each other. My two American teammates were born and raised in the United States, and didn’t have the experience of a strange, dangerous political system the way I did. With all of that, they perceived what was going on in the big church the same way I did. It was such a difference between the two churches we had visited that day. Same system, same oppressors, but we could tell the main government’s attention was on the church in the city that had hundreds, maybe thousands of members, than on the small gathering of peasants. We couldn’t help with anything else, but distributing the Bibles and loving everyone.

 

After dinner we went for a walk downtown. I couldn’t spot the men who followed us for the past two days. It was possible the agents worked in shifts and new ones were in charge to supervise us. We joined the crowd of young people strolling the sidewalk, and loud American music blasted from the bars we passed by. The stores were closed, and after taking a tour of the central neighborhood, we came back to the hotel.

We had to take some rest before the next day.

-to be continued-

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No, Thank You -14-

china(continuation)
It is something here in the US that people avoid being emotional. Every time when someone in our circle of friends weeps, they say they are embarrassed. Maybe it’s considered weakness, or maybe they don’t want to disturb others and make them feel awkward, I’m not sure.
I come from a culture infused with Italian blood. Italians are emotional. So are we, Romanians.
When we pray, we weep.
We also weep during life events.
Saying goodbye to our new friends in that little church stirred my heart. It was like meeting your family you were searching after for a lifetime. When you finally hold them for the first time, you have to let them go, knowing that you will never see them again on this earth. The separation from my new family at that church was so hard I needed quite a time to pull myself together. I could still feel their calloused hands caressing my cheeks and hear their words of love pouring over me in a language I didn’t know.

We stopped to get lunch and then were back in the van for a long ride. I saw the two agents eating in their car from a bag.
In spite of all the heat, the crops and trees by the road looked fresh and green. The driver turned on a radio station and we listened to Chinese country music. The road was full of holes and we had to slalom from one side to the other to avoid them. The bikers kept their way on the dirt-path by the pavement, dangerously holding their loads in balance. After a while, the traffic became heavy, sign that we were close to a city. That was our destination.

We didn’t have an exact idea about where we were. All the signs and words were in Chinese, but on one of our future outings we were by the Yellow Sea, and watching the shore of North Korea.

The wind picked up, twirling the dust. At that hour, people were coming from work, everyone carrying a bag with some food. Tired crowds were waiting in the bus stations. The old vehicles were riding with their doors open, with people dangling on the steps like bunches of grapes. That was the same when my parents went to work and had me with them, since my daycare served their shoe factory. For more than one time, the tram caught on fire and my dad had to jump out with me in his arms.
Watching the same helpless scenario after many years, was breaking my heart.

After strolling numerous streets, our van stopped in front of a big building, freshly painted. A few women in blue skirts and white blouses were waiting for us on the wide stairs to the church gate. The two government agents, who got there ahead of us, were talking to a man in a suit. If that was the pastor, I was sure he was given the last instructions about how to relate to us, Westerners. Everybody there was smiling, but we could easily discern that was a facade for timidity or even fear.
The man in a suit came forward to welcome us. We shook hands and were invited to get in the building and then up on a narrow staircase to his office. He was the pastor.

Treys of fruit were displayed on his desk, and we sat there for about twenty minutes eating and smiling. We asked a few general questions about the church, and the man didn’t forget to praise the system that gave them the liberty to gather in such a nice building. “The government built it for us,” he finished his dissertation, and then wiped his face with a large handkerchief. He had to tell us that information. The Church in China was free, but we all knew there was much more to that. He had to do what he had to do to have his church function in some kind of liberty. It wasn’t the best situation, but maybe something he could manage in those circumstances. He was serving God and His people, under a communist government. His submissive attitude reminded me of one of my former pastors during the communism. His sermons had to be pre-approved by the communist agent who was supervising our church. I remembered I started to write a 3-5 minute screenplay for every Sunday to encourage our congregation’s faith. I liked to choose simple, common topics from real life. My pastor had to read it first and make any changes in my terminology, in order to keep the communists happy.
It was sad.
-to be continued-

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No, Thank You -13-

china

(continuation)

We were in the rural China. The small houses reminded me of those in my birth country. The only exception was that there were lots of children where I grew up. Here, people had one.

The car pulled over a creek through green branches of trees and stopped by the first building. Two elderly women and a man waved at us as the driver opened the door to get out. A few moments later we were in these sweet people’s arms that kept hugging and kissing us. The precious minute of love was so intense that I burst in tears. We hung to each other and praised God for this divine appointment. Instantly I knew in my heart why we were there. It was because of these brothers and sisters’ prayers. They needed encouragement and evidence that they were not forgotten in their corner of the world. Their wrinkled faces and their mouth with missing teeth were so beautiful.

They invited us in the church. The government’s agents were already there, sitting on the last bench. It wasn’t a morning for gathering. The villagers were working in the fields, but a few more elderly men and women were there in the pews anyway.

The man who waited for us outside invited us to sit on the first bench. Somebody came with a trey of peeled cucumbers, and we sat there with tears rolling down our cheeks and eating cucumbers.

 

The church was a room that could fit maybe 60 people in rows of wooden benches. The dirt floor was freshly sprinkled with water to control the dust. The ceiling was low and the room had only one small window on one side of a wall. Our interpreter invited the brother from our team to give a word of greeting from our church across the ocean. The driver brought two boxes of Bibles and placed them on the table in front of the audience. After the little speech, the interpreter came to my friend and I to join our brother and sing a praising song together. It was a custom in churches, not only in China but also in Romania, to honor special guests in offering them to sing the praises of the Lord. We didn’t know for sure that would be the case there, but we were pretty prepared. We sang “Amazing Grace” together. Then we took a few Bibles from the boxes to give them to the people as they were sitting in expectation. When I handed out the first one, the woman grasped it and kissed it. Then she reached after my hand and kissed it too. I stretched my arms around her shoulders and kissed her back on her face. We couldn’t communicate verbally, but it was so much meaning of love and gratitude for each other in our hugs. The government couldn’t take that away from us.

 

Somebody wanted two Bibles, one for herself and one for her sister-in-law. But the understanding was one Bible per family.

I had three personal Bibles back home, and some of us had more than five in our bookcase just sitting there without being opened. And these sweet people of God were so hungry for the Word of God. One woman showed me a few printed pages torn from a book and I asked our interpreter what was that about. He explained me that was a Bible somebody had brought to their village. They took out the pages and shared them with the entire community, and that was her share.

 

One of the ladies gave us a plastic bag half full with fruit I had never seen. That represented a token of gratitude from their church to ours. As we were ready to leave, I was so sad. I knew I wouldn’t see these faces on earth again. I wished somehow I could stay in touch with them, but that was impossible.

“Don’t forget us,” the interpreted translated while our friends were saying the same words. It was noontime and we had to leave. As we were standing by our car, I held hands with two of the women next to me and I prayed for them.

That experience was heartbreaking. We were called to love, move on and continue to love. I remembered what our Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Luke 10:2 NIV

We had to keep our schedule. There was more work to be done.

-to be continued-

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