Young boy at Tiananmen Square, now a favourite family haunt.
Kunming, otherwise known as the “City of Eternal Spring” is by far the most colourful place we’ve seen seven days into our 13-day journey last April visiting China’s Protestant churches.
With a year-round temperate climate, Kunming is home to more than 400 species of flowers and 4,000 varieties of tropical and subtropical plants, picturesque highland scenery, stone parks, and 26 out of 56 “nationalities” whose customs and traditions are celebrated in festivals that have become major tourist attractions.
The attractions beckon but we are not here to play tourists but to meet indigenous Christians. Upon our arrival, the Yunnan Provincial Committee of the Three Self-Patriotic Movement (TSPM) immediately gave us a briefing.
The struggle for resources is evident in Kunming’s churches, where there are only 80 pastors for 800,000 congregants (80% of them from ethnic minority groups).
The local theological seminary, which we visited the next day, is a cold, damp, bare-boned structure where teachers and students are housed in cramped quarters. The seminary has 90 students representing 18 minority groups and since it does not charge tuition, it is dependent on funds provided by the Shanghai-based China Christian Council (CCC).
But despite the harsh conditions, spirits soar in this seminary, where students treated us to a rousing musical presentation.
“The beauty of your music brings tears to my eyes,” Rev. Carol Hancock of the United Church of Canada told them. Ian Morrison, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s Life and Mission Agency said, “The Scottish are not known for their emotions, but I, too, have been moved. You have not just welcomed us but sung praise to God.”
Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, told them that like China, Canada is a huge country with its own indigenous peoples and a large immigrant population. “As you remember us, remember that we are like you. Please pray for us as we minister to many cultures,” he said.
Christianity came to Wuding County, located 100 km from Kunming, 95 years ago. But Bible translation work only began 35 years later, in 1949.
The task of translating the Bible from Mandarin to Yi has been an arduous, on and off process, hampered for the most part by lack of money, according to Zhang Pei Fu, pastor of the Church of Pure Heart. The church itself, he said, is not yet complete; the 500-member congregation is still paying a loan it incurred to build it from the local bank.
Next stop: the remote, mountainous village of the Miao people. Our bus is unable to climb the steep, narrow and rugged terrain so we are transported in several batches by a sports utility vehicle.
The small, white, wooden church appears as we descend into the village where houses are made of straw and clay. The community – men, women, children – have gathered outside the church to greet us wearing their colourful hand-woven clothes. Another musical event by the Miao choir, equally electrifying, greeted us. A feast of sticky rice, marinated vegetables, soup and delicacies followed at the plaza.
The Miao, well known for their hospitality and love of song and dance, generally depend on farming; their neat and elaborately embroidered jackets and bags are much sought after by tourists.
About 300,000 out of nine million Miao people in China are Christians; China Inland Mission and Methodist missionaries introduced them to Christianity in the 1890s.
A beautiful sunset greeted us in China’s capital city, Beijing, where Christian churches welcome 1,500 new members annually. There are new churches and buildings under construction. According to Rev. Yu Xin Li, associate general secretary of the CCC and chair of the Beijing Christian Council, the largest church in the city can accommodate 2,500 people.
We visited the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the first Roman Catholic church to reopen in 1971, under the aegis of the Patriotic Catholic Church of China.
“We have a good relationship with the other religions,” said Bishop Michael Fu, who welcomed members of the delegation, adding that Protestant pastors are invited to give lectures in Catholic seminaries.
The task of meeting with religious leaders and visiting churches done, the delegation also got a chance to do some sightseeing at the breathtaking Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square.
It was a family day when we visited Tiananmen Square, site of the infamous massacre of student-led pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989. Tots ambled about, waving miniature Chinese flags, while their parents dutifully guarded them from behind; other children played kites, lovers held hands and whispered, peddlers hawked souvenirs and water. It was an ordinary but serene tableau that one hoped in one’s heart would become a permanent part of China, a country with a troubled past, and a present and future exciting yet uncertain.