June 27, 2007


God vs. Country: When Chinese scholars arrive at Cal, Christian ministers help them get settled. But church involvement may set the visitors up for trouble back home. (Lygia Navarro, June 27, 2007, East Bay Express)

While the attention may be merely a nuisance for some, others worry about repercussions for being affiliated with Christians should word spread back home — particularly if the scholars are Party members. Despite recent changes, Vala says, China still is not entirely hospitable to religion, especially when the churchgoers have ties overseas. "People could be arrested, held for ransom," he says. "If there is knowledge of an international connection, then local authorities may see this as a moneymaking opportunity. You may have torture."

It's not an entirely abstract threat. Over the last year, the Chinese and foreign press have reported that Chinese authorities beat townspeople attempting to build a church near Hangzhou, raided underground churches, sent house church leaders to reeducation labor camps, arrested Christians for walking too close to the 2008 Beijing Olympic complex — missionary groups have publicized their plans to infiltrate the games — and executed leaders of a Christian sect that the authorities deemed a cult.

Back at Chinese for Christ, Benjamin Yi thinks ahead to the summer, when the next crop of scholars will arrive. A graduate of an all-Chinese seminary in Concord, the Taiwanese minister is new to his scholars-and-students post, which has become higher-profile with the influx of scholars. With short salt-and-pepper hair, Yi, dressed carefully in khakis, striped dress shirt, and a blue windbreaker, is warm and soft-spoken. He and his wife, Meirong, sit for an interview on folding chairs in the church vestibule, where the door's stained glass tints the morning light orange.

Yi gets his list of new scholars' names from Berkeley's Chinese Students and Scholars Association — Wong was cagey when asked about his church's connection with the campus association, as was its president, Peng Li, who refused to discuss anything related to religion.

In any case, Yi says some of the newcomers will be housed with church members until they find apartments. Once they get settled, Yi and others will show them around town, and teach them how to take public transport, open a bank account, and get driver's licenses. "When a new student comes here," he says, referring to the church, "they've been hosted by some family. It's hard for them to say no."

The statement sounds brash, and his wife laughs uncomfortably as he continues: "Some of them will keep coming. Friday night fellowship is a good way to attract them — the friends, the food. Gradually they make friends, and when they have friends, they come."

In the beginning, the couple says, they take care not to be preachy. While helping scholars with day-to-day tasks, they try not to come on too strong or talk about the Bible. "We have to build a relationship," Yi notes. "We have to be trustworthy, and then they come to church. Very few of them keep coming because they're aware of the consequences. They visit one time, two times — that won't cause problems."

But the faithful are indeed under surveillance, according to the minister. "There are spies in every church, and they report back to China," Yi says matter-of-factly. "The spy will tell, 'These are the scholars that constantly attend the church.' So our church is very conscious. You don't know who the spies are." He tells of a friend who came from a house church in China to study at the Concord seminary. Shortly thereafter, the man received a phone call from a Chinese government agent, asking whether he needed help. The purpose of the call was clear, Yi says: "They're watching everything."

The ostracism scholars may face upon return to China isn't lost on Yi: "We know this probably will affect their promotion — the promotion is controlled by the government. So definitely if they are Christian, they will have trouble." However, Yi says self-protection is ultimately the scholars' responsibility. "They understand," he stresses. "They know the Party, they know it well."

He also sees adversity as part of the grand plan. "Don't you think that's God's work?" the minister asks, smiling. "They know that this would jeopardize their career. They are smart guys; they know the consequences. So why can they conquer their fear and really believe? It's not the food that attracts them. It's God's calling they cannot resist. If they don't go to church [in China], we don't blame them. We understand. In the Bible, the Christians were underground."

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2007 12:00 AM
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