One Big Christian Family

Late one afternoon, our giant charter bus rolled into a quiet town two hours northeast of Xian to explore life outside the urban centers in China. What we found was, in my opinion, a level of hospitality unmatched thus far in our travels. After finishing a delicious dinner prepared by a group of local women, we took a slow stroll to the town’s only Christian church, escorted by the cunzhang, "village head."

We came upon a dried-earth building with the unmistakable steepled roof of a small church and a carved cross on the front. A group of women welcomed us into a courtyard where they served us tea and sweets. One of the women had a chubby baby fixed to her hip who quickly became the center of attention. I approached the group of women armed with the usual questions I've been asking everywhere we go, about where they get their news and whether they prefer television or print—but it turns out they had some questions of their own.

“How did you become a Christian? What is your church like? How often do you go to church in the U.S.? How big is your church?”

One middle-aged woman's question in particular took me aback: “How did your group all come to believe in Christianity?” All of us? Until recently, I barely knew the last names of my classmates and still have little idea about their religious views. “I don’t know about everyone else, but I myself became a Christian when I was eight years old,” I responded.

It made me wonder what kind of ideas they had about Christianity in the U.S. Why would being an American in China’s countryside automatically make you Christian? For that matter, were the words "American" and "Christian" synonymous for these women?

One clue as to why these women so quickly pegged us as Christians may be their frequent references to our current U.S. president. George W. Bush has made very public his religious commitment and how his Christian faith has helped him overcome certain obstacles, including alcoholism. Furthermore, in 2005 the International Herald Tribune reported Bush's official visit to Gangwashi Church in Beijing, where he urged the growth of religious freedom in China. He wrote in the church guestbook, "The spirit of the Lord is very strong inside your church." Perhaps such public declerations have had more impact on perceptions of religion in the U.S. than I had expected.

When we walked the village streets earlier in the evening, our local contact, Yang Yifeng, told me that Americans like to be individuals while Chinese prefer to stay in groups. Perhaps the women at the Church imposed their group values on our group by assuming we were all a part of the same religious community. They told me more than once that we were one big Christian family.

Eventually a policeman in a squad car showed up outside the church. Such procedures must be somewhat routine since the government took a harder line toward unregistered religious activity in 2005. In August 2006, the New York Times reported the deployment of 500 police officers to an upstart church outside of the provincial capital of Hangzhou. The almost completed church was demolished and 3,000 congregants were driven away.

Whatever the cause, in the women's view "we" were clearly a family. As Confucius said, honor your family above the authorities. I wonder how this notion factors into how these women cope with being part of a big Christian family that is so closely monitored by government officials.