UCC Conference Ministers & GM Board Members China Pilgrimage Report

UCC Conference Ministers & GM Board Members China Pilgrimage Report

The second of five commemorative global mission trips in observance of our church’s 200 years of global mission, took place March 7 – March 22, 2011. The trips are partially funded and sponsored by Wider Church Ministries, especially for conference ministers and UCC Global Ministries Board members. The trips to each of the five regions of our global mission work, Latin America, Southern Asia, East Asia and the Middle East, will occur in 2010, through 2012.
A group of eleven, led by Xiaoling Zhu, Global Ministries Executive for East Asia and the Pacific traveled to many missionsites in the eastern portion of the country. Time was spent with heads of the seminaries, schools and churches, as well as with missionaries. The group, made up of some conference ministers, Wider Church Ministries Board members and staff documented theirexperiences in writing and photographs. We hope you will have a sense of the inspiration, power and challenges they encountered in China.
The members of the group were:
Rev. Timothy Downs, Conference Minister, Southeast Conference
Rev Rich Pleva, Conference Minister, Iowa
Ruby E. Pleva, Iowa
Rev. Jeffrey Whitman, Conference Minister, Missouri Mid-South Conference
Mary Frances Hazeltine, RI, Wider Church and Global Ministries Board Member
Rev. David Moyer, Conference Minister, Wisconsin
Rev David Gaewski, Conference Minister, Maine
Rev Alan McLarty, Conference Minister, Penn West
Rev Jeffrey Groene, Samuel UCC, St Louis, MO
David Coatsworth, Global Ministries Executive for Financial Development
Rev. Xiaoling Zhu, Global Ministries Executive for East Asia and the Pacific

To read a detailed Pilgrimage Report by David Moyer, Conference Minister in Wisconsin, click here:  China Pilgrimage Report

The following are the daily Journal entries of the Pilgrimage participants:


 March 21, 2011 – Reflection By:
David Coatsworth


Title: Unique Country, Unique Church

Our group’s final visit of the trip was with the leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Christian Council (TPSM and CCC).  These organizations reflect the unique nature of Christianity in this vast land that is home to so many.  “Three-Self” refers to the intent that the church in China be self-governing, self-supporting, and self propagating, free of foreign influence.  These principles were originally formed in the late 1800’s by church leaders and by missionary leaders who recognized that the church needed to be led by indigenous people. The “Patriotic” element refers to the church’s 1951 assurance to the newly-formed People’s Republic of China that the church would be patriotic to the government.

The organizations are housed in a former Anglican church, “The Red Roof Church”, which also houses the oldest operating elevator in Shanghai. 

Rev. Xu Xiaohong, TPSM Secretary General, briefed the group about the history and the work of TSPM & CCC.  Their work includes disaster preparedness training (assisted by visit from the UCC’s Florence Coppola), an extensive publishing activity, medical programs, social work, community development, and church ministry. 

Rev. David Moyer responded with an overview of United Church of Christ firsts and commitment to justice.  He concluded his remarks with observations about the partnership approach we currently take to mission work, and how impressed we’ve been with the scholars and theologians we met during our visits around the country. 

Our visit concluded with further conversation over a delicious meal featuring some of Shanghai’s characteristic cuisine. 

A final notable aspect of the trip took place while riding the maglev train from Shanghai’s city center to the airport.  The train reached a top speed of 431 km/hour, or 267 mph!

Photo Notes:

1) Food presentation was notable in several cities, including this Shanghai plate decorated with sauces to portray a tree.

2)  Light noodles around large shrimp resemble chickens on their nests.

3)  Speed!  The maglev train to the airport was the fastest land speed most of us have experienced.


 March 20, 2011 – Reflection By:
Rev. David Gaewski


Title:  Full House!

On Sunday, March 20th, we visited the “Pure in Heart Christian Church” in Shanghai.  Before worship we met with Ms. Sho who is the ordained Elder of the congregation.  She described various aspects of the membership as well as ministries of the church. This is a church with about 5000 members, two ordained Pastors (one of which is sort of a Pastor Emeritus) and one ordained Elder.  After touring the Sunday School rooms and interacting with children of several age groups, we were ushered to the front row of the sanctuary.  Within minutes, the church completely filled.  Tim Downs and I calculated afterward that there were at least 1,200 people present.  When asked if the other two worship services had as many attendees, the Elder responded, “Yes, each service is completely filled.”

I was surprised to find that the order of the worship service was pretty much identical to any local church in Maine (except for responsive readings).  We were also quite surprised that we knew the tune of each of the three hymns that were sung.  However, after the service the Elder informed us that they took out their “old hymnals” that Sunday in order to sing hymn that they thought we would know.  Jeff Whitman delivered the sermon.  I watched the faces of the choir members as he preached.  They particularly lit up when he told the story of an older member of a congregation he served who, while having limited resources to support the church financially, she truly ministered to many members of the congregation through acts of kindness, visitation, and encouragement, albeit with a somewhat…how shall I put it….rough mannerism.  Many laughs were heard when Jeff recalled how this woman called him up in the middle of a very cold winter night informing him to go to a certain elderly woman’s house whose furnace had stopped working.  “Pastor, go pick her up right now and bring her to my trailer, I’ll take care of her.  Oh, and then go fix her furnace”.  Clearly the Christian action of caring for those in need was appreciated by the congregation.

Again, the greatest impression is the sheer size of the congregation and the enthusiasm for participating in this worshipping community.  I will not forget the sound of everyone singing, nor will I forget the many, many, many people who stayed around after church in order to shake our hands. Several, knowing they could not communicate with us with words, held up the two finger “peace” sign.  

Photo Notes:

1)  Elder Sho met with the group before worship.  David Moyer and Xiaoling Zhu shown here.

2)  Rev. Jeffrey Whitman preaches, then Xiaoling Zhu translates


March 18, 2011 – Reflection By:
Rev. Jeffrey Whitman

Title: The Pieces Fit Together

Today our pilgrimage continued in the city of Nanjing, the capital of China during the Second World War.  In many ways all of the themes of our pilgrimage have come together in Nanjing.  Our day began with a visit to the Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital where we were welcomed by the president of the hospital Dr. Yi Tao Ding and our two global missionaries Tom and Lynnea Morse who both teach English: Tom with the Drum Tower Hospital and Lynnea with the Amity Foundation.  Drum Tower hospital was founded in 1892 and is regarded as one of the best hospitals in China serving over 2 million patients last year.  Partnership is meeting people at the point of deepest need and the staff at Drum Tower Hospital has been doing this for over 100 years.  During the occupation of Nanjing in WWII the staff provided medical care for the Chinese victims of the occupation.  Today the staff at the hospital cares for the needs of the people of Nanjing, health care teams have been sent to respond to natural disasters, and is involved in training doctors and health care workers from Africa.

Responding to the health care needs of the rural poor in China is also one of the programs of the Amity Foundation, our next stop on this day.  The Amity Foundation was the first faith-based organization founded in China (in 1982) following the Cultural Revolution.  The Amity Foundation partners with rural villages in China to deliver basic health care by providing training for village health care workers.  In addition, the Amity Foundation has programs in Community Development, Environmental Protection, Social Services for children and the elderly, Education, and Disaster response.  In a country with few services for those with disabilities the Amity Foundation works with children with polio and their families and has a program to employ mentally challenged adults in the Amity Bakery. 

After a visit to the Amity Printing Company – which just published its 80 millionth Bible in Chinese (since 1986!), we ended our day with a visit to our partners at the Nanjing United Theological Seminary.  This national seminary prepares many of the pastors who serve churches throughout China, and is the only seminary in China that offers the Master of Divinity degree.  We have been hearing about the seminary throughout our China Pilgrimage and it was exciting to visit with the president and some of the faculty.  They repeated the theme we have heard everywhere we have visited in China – there are not enough trained pastors for the rapidly growing Christian Church here.  Because of a shortage of qualified teachers Nanjing Seminary can only enroll 15 students in their Masters Program every year.  This year they had 80 applicants.  They dream of offering a doctoral program at Nanjing and of sending faculty to study abroad to earn their doctoral degree.  But there are problems.  For example, the seminary has one teacher for Old Testament.  If that person leaves for study abroad, who will teach Old Testament at Nanjing in the interim? 

Today was a day to celebrate the ministry of our partners in Nanjing.  We give thanks for the ministry at the Drum Tower Hospital, The Amity Foundation, and Nanjing Theological Seminary. 

Photo Notes:

1)   Tom Morse leads tour of Drum Tower Hospital, showing expansion model.  L to R: Tom’s associate, Jasmine; David Moyer; Xiaoling Zhu; Mary Frances Hazeltine; David Gaewski; Timothy Downs, Alan McLarty; Tom Morse.

2)   Ruby Pleva presents delegation’s gift to the group’s host at Amity Printing Company.  Others, L to R: Jeffrey Whitman, Tom Morse, David Moyer, Richard Pleva, Jeffrey Groene, Alan McLarty.

3)   Student dormitory at Nanjing United Theological Seminary.  Library building is to the left.

4)   Nanjing street scenes.



March 17, 2011 – Reflection By:
Rev. Timothy Downs

We arrived at the airport in Wuyishan a little before 11:00 PM on the way to Shaowu, Fujian Province. We were warmly greeted by members of the church, who drove us for an hour through the mountains on the new international standard highway to reach Shaowu.   Shaowu was the site of a Congregational mission that was established here in 1873.  The first church was built  in 1882. The missionaries who came here were sent by the Massachusetts Mission Society.  Over the years, the mission built not only a church, but a school and hospital.  Today the school has become a state operated elementary school and high school. 

In 1999 the current congregation, East Gate Church, built a new four story church which has pews for 1200 people, houses a theological school, and the Shaowu Christian Council.  There are 200 children in the Church School.  The congregation of East Gate Church has a vital small group ministry.  It’s priorities in ministry are to serve its members, serve God, and serve society. The province has 7000 Christian, 35 ordained ministers, 2 teachers, 6 elders and 120 lay leaders to equip their ministries.  Their new building was made possible by a generous partnership with the China Christian Council and The Amity Foundation.  The pastor, Rev. Feng, expressed his deep gratitude to the China Christian Council and the State Administration for Religious Affairs for their support of the congregation’s ministries.

Pastor Feng expressed his gratitude to the missionaries for bringing the Gospel to Shaowu, and with the Gospel, bringing technology and education.  He noted that there were strong anti-missionary sentiments during the Opium Wars in the late 19th century, given that the missionaries were viewed as collaborators with the oppressing European powers, and were persecuted as a consequence.

Jeff Groene, pastor of Samuel UCC, St. Louis, our spokesperson, presented the church with a plate with the logos of each of the represented conferences.  Pastor Feng, presented our delegation a magnificent calligraphy he had done himself, which commemorated our visit.

A church leader, Mr. Du, was present in our meeting, and was introduced as the owner of a factory employing 1200 workers.  The company manufactures kitchen cabinets and other wood products.  His company the Du Group, ships 100 containers of finished product to the United States each month.  His customers include Home Depot and IKEA.  Both IKEA and Home Depot inspected his factory and commended him for the working conditions, compensation, and full benefits, and care that he extends to his employees.  We found the factory spacious, well ventilated, and pleasant. David Gaeski, Conference Minister of the Maine Conference presented Mr. Du with a plaque on our behalf, thanking him for exhibiting Christian compassion and love toward those who worked for him.

The visit ended with a magnificent lunch hosted by the church and us and its leaders.

Photo Notes:

1) School’s out!  Children leave the elementary school across the street from the Shaowu church.

2) The large tree is the Missionary Tree, planted many years ago in front of the home where successive missionaries lived.  The home was removed long ago, but the tree was planted to remember.  Behind the tree to the right is a high school on church property.  High school students can be seen at play on the basketball court.  The roofs of nearby homes are shown in this view from the roof of the 5th floor of the Shaowu church.

3) A member of the Shaowu church owns a furniture manufacturing plant making products available through Home Depot and IKEA 

March 15, 2011 – Reflection By:
Mary Frances Hazeltine

 Shaanxi Province Highlights

This morning we visited the Shaanxi Bible School on its 23rd birthday in Shaanxi Province.  Initially it had been located more than 50 miles away.  While we were there the students had their morning break from classes.  All 100 plus students gathered in the quad for exercises.  They will be strong in body as well as mind and spirit.  Many students stood at attention while the Rev. David Gaewski greeted them, recounted for them the story of Samuel’s call and told them that perhaps they will hear God’s call.  The students nodded in affirmation.

When the students were asked what is exciting about coming to this school a third-year student said he saw many people who needed God so he came here to study to help build the churches for the future.

Shaanxi Bible School is the only seminary in Northwest China. It is a provincial seminary, the lowest of the three seminary levels in China, and has a goal of attaining regional seminary ranking.  There are two programs: a one year program for lay leaders and a four-year seminary program leading to ordination as pastor.  There are only seven full-time teachers for the theological programs so they can admit students only every other year.  Local churches often ask them for help training their members.  When a faculty member goes to a church of 1000 she may find 5000 people there because they have heard about the training and want to learn more.

After we left the Bible School we met with the China Christian Council of Shaanxi.  There are only 77 ordained pastors to serve 420,000 members in 554 churches and 1200 meeting points in the province.  Most of the churches are led by elders and lay leaders.  One of the major tasks of the Council is theological training, especially how to equip local church leaders to deal with cults such as Eastern Lighting and an offshoot of Shouting Group.  The cults concentrate on promising healing.

We ended the afternoon with a visit to the Forest of Stone Tablets where we saw the Nestorian Tablet, some 7 feet tall with beautiful calligraphy about the first Christian mission to China.  That was in the Tang Dynasty – in the 8th century.

 Photo: Rev. Jeffrey Groene with one of hundreds of stone tablets.


March 14, 2011 – Reflection By:
Rev. David Gaewski

Our day began with a time of prayer for Japan and in particular our Global Ministries missionary Jeff Mensendiek and his family.  I visited Jeff several years ago and am grateful that he is okay. I am sure the challenge ahead is overwhelming.

We visited the Henan Theological Seminary in Zhengzhou for several hours.  As our days unfold, it becomes increasingly clear to see the challenges the church faces in China with the rapid growth of church membership. In Henan Province alone there are 3 million Christians, the highest percentage of all the Chinese Provinces.  While there are 400 students in the seminary, there are only 60 per year that graduate from the three-year program. This is a step toward pastoral leadership and ordination for the students. Those in the two-year program will become lay leaders in one of the 7000 churches or meeting places in Henan Province. The need for trained leadership to provide guidance for the exploding churches is all too evident.

A special moment today was when Rev. Tim Downs spoke to the assembled student body—all 400! Tim challenged these students, most quite young, to be the hands, voice, eyes, feet, and heart of Jesus Christ among the people of Henan Province, seventy-five percent of which work in agriculture. Global Ministries presented a gift of books for their library during the assembly. The students responded with thunderous applause. I noted the tears in the eyes of the seminary President, as he received the gift for the school. A special moment, indeed.

March 13, 2011 – Reflection By:
Rev. Alan McLarty


Our Sunday in Zhoukou began with students at the “seminary” next to the Church in Zhoukou, Henan Province, 450 miles south-southwest of Beijing.  The students are post high school and the seminary is more of the Bible College level than a seminary.  Graduates decide if they believe they are called to ordained ministry.  If so, they may continue to the South Middle Theological Seminary.  If not, they may return to their villages to work in the church in lay positions as elders or teachers.  Unfortunately, we did not have much time with the students to ask more than a few questions, as worship was about to begin.

The need for ordained ministers is very great.  There are now five active and one retired ordained ministers serving 500,000 Christians.  Yes, half a million!  To respond they have an aggressive lay worker program and have trained 4000 lay teachers.

As we approached the church, we could hear the singing from the sanctuary.  Entering the church by a side door, we saw many adults and children sitting in a “side area” with window access to the main sanctuary.  Our host ushered us into the worship service and escorted us to the front rows.

We could see that large sanctuary was full: they said that worship attendance was usually 700 and it was clear there were at least that many.  The assistant pastor led the congregation in prayer and the choir sang two hymns.

Greeting was extended by the Pastor, Rev. Xin Ma, and he introduced Rev. Rich Pleva, Conference Minister, Iowa, who was preaching.  Rev. Xiaoling Zhu, Global Ministries Area Executive for East Asia and the Pacific, translated.

Rev. Pleva extended his greetings and blessings from the United Church of Christ and our delegation.  The title of the sermon was “Following Jesus in a Broken World”, and his text was Luke 4.14-21.  Rev. Pleva suggested a paraphrase to the text:

Jesus is saying, “I’ve come for those people whom nobody else cares much about.  I’ve come to bring good news to the poor folk and people who are in prison and all other sorts of bondage.  Blind people will see because of me and I’m particularly going to help those who powerful people step on when only looking out for themselves.”  He acknowledged that there are powerful people in all countries, including the United States and China, who work again the outcast, poor, and lost people of society.  The church is to witness to God’s Love for all as Jesus loved all, and is to reach out to these people.

He asked for their prayers for our delegation and for the United Church of Christ.

“I can assure you that we will never forget you, and we will pray for you as you work out the ministries to which God has called you.  I will pray that you will have the courage and insight to embrace whatever work God calls you to.  Whenever you do that work you will be following the example of Jesus.”

Our delegation presented Rev. Ma a gift—a plate with the logos of the Conferences and Global Ministries – as a memento of our visit.

Following the service, we had lunch and met with Rev. Ma and others who told us about the extensive ministries of the Churches.  These ministries include the training of the lay workers, agriculture and farming instruction, medical services, and a school for orphans of parents who died from HIV and AIDS.  The Global Ministries assisted in the construction of a new school for these children, now serving 300 students.


March 12, 2011 – Reflection By:
Mrs. Ruby Pleva

If one only visited Beijing, one would have a very distorted picture of China, Beijing feels very much like a western city – it is cosmopolitan, filled with cars and immaculately clean (alright, NOT like many western cities!).  Today we took the train to Zhengzhou and then traveled by bus to Zhoukou.  Our experience today has given us a broader experience of this country.  The cities we’ve visited today have been more crowded and more filled with motorbikes and bicycles and pedestrians – who not only fill the walks, but the roads as well.  The shops are less prosperous and informal.  The immaculate character of Beijing is certainly not in evidence in these places – everything is dusty and quality construction is often much conspicuously absent.  In between the cities, we’ve experienced rural and small town China – we’ve seen mile after mile of agriculture and seen evidence of the obvious poverty of those who work the land.  These small towns are especially jarring – though there is at least some new construction almost everywhere – the small towns are largely composed of small and dilapidated masonry structures – people’s homes.

Near Zhoukou – a metropolitan area of over 10 million people – we visited a school in a small village populated mostly by Muslims.  It’s an area where HIV/AIDS infection rates are high and consequently an area where there are higher numbers of orphans.  Through the generosity of one Christian Church (DOC) woman, a new school building was erected in this small village.  We were told that the children were formerly afraid to come to school, but now they enjoy coming. 

These are precisely the sorts of people to people linkages that one by one begin to change the world.  These children desperately need education.  A multiparty partnership of donor and church and government has made it possible for 300 children to access a superior education than that which they would otherwise enjoy.

Zhoukou is the most Christian of all the major cities of China – over 10% are believers (compared with a little over 1% nationwide).  Tomorrow we will worship in a Chinese church for the first time.  It’s an experience we are all looking forward to.


March 11, 2011 – Reflection By:
Rev. Richard Pleva

We’d arrived early for dinner.  The restaurant was housed in a multi-room compound that had once been home for an emperor’s son.  This was going to be something like a dinner theatre – we’d have a feast and then enjoy classic Chinese entertainment – traditional dancing and music performed by young Chinese men and women in colorfully ornate costumes.

But being early, we had time to kill.  Our hostess – a young and vivacious woman in her early 20’s offered to take us on a tour of the compound.  We saw ornate rooms and gardens – learned that Michael Phelps and entourage had dinned there during the 2008 Olympics.  At one point she leaned over to catch a better look at my lapel pin – a Global Ministries pin – and asked what it was.

How to explain?  I said that we were part of a church group visiting partners in China.  Her eyes widened – she pointed up and said, “You believe in God?”  We nodded yes, and she smiled and pointed away and said she went to a church off “that direction.”

We didn’t have time to visit more about church, but I found myself reflecting on a conversation we’d had that morning (and several times on the previous day) about the leadership shortage in the Chinese church.  That morning we’d been warmly welcomed at Yanjing Seminary in north Beijing and had a fascinating conversation with their president.  She introduced us to three additional members of the faculty – two of whom (three, including herself) had studied abroad and come back to train young men and women who might become pastors in the Chinese church. 

I wondered how many other young and men and women – like the one we met at the restaurant – are hungry for faith and church – for a relationship with God – but who’ve not encountered anyone who might invite them to church where they might hear the message of life.  More than once we’ve asked about evangelism here in China – after all, methods we take for granted in the US aren’t permitted here – churches don’t advertise, don’t have access to TV and radio, Christian books aren’t even sold in traditional bookstores.  People come to church because a friend or family member tells them about Christ.  The growth of faith – and therefore the church – is dependent on pastors who can peach and teach with faithfulness and conviction.

We’ve only been here three days, but we’ve heard the refrain over and over – “the harvest is great, but the workers are few.”  I’m proud to be part of a church that is working to help train leaders for this part of Christ’s church. 


March 10, 2011 Reflection By:
Rev. Timothy Downs

The first day of activity for our delegation of eleven (six conference ministers, a spouse, a pastor, and a WCM Board member) was a day in which we engaged our rich UCC mission roots in China, explored the current context not only of Christianity, but all faiths in China, and met with our partners in the Beijing Christian Council.

Our day began with a visit to Beijing School #25, established as a Bridgeman Boys’ School  in 1854  by Elijah Bridgeman the first Congregational missionary  commissioned to serve in China by the ABCFM in 1830.  Today it is one of the top ten schools in Beijing, co-ed, with 800 students enrolled in middle school and 800 in high school.  It accepts international teachers and students, and has been partnered with a Canadian school for six years. The principal Shaojun Deng described the school as the “oldest school with new energy”. Our delegation met with teachers and students, toured the campus including the 14,000 volume library, and exchanged gifts, including a gifts of three books presented by our tour organizer and staff Rev. Xiao Ling Zhu.  It would welcome contributions  to the English section of its library, particularly history, and novels appropriate for high school aged youth.

We proceeded to a visit with the State Administration for Religious Affairs of the People’s Republic of China SARA, which relates to the five major faiths of China; Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims and Daoism. Located in the magnificent home of the father of the last emperor of China, the mission of  SARA is to protect religious beliefs and believers, who are a distinctive minority in the nation. The staff of SARA are required to be party members, and cannot be believers in any religion. They value the important role of religions in the development of society, in social welfare and relief activities. They further seek to promote harmonious relationships among the faiths, and have developed  their relationships with churches in the United States. Our hosts were the Vice Minister of SARA,  Jian Jianyong and his staff, who were cordial and appreciative of our visit which ended with an extravagant traditional Chinese banquet.  From there we toured the Forbidden City, and were struck with the richness and glory of China’s heritage.

We ended our day with a visit with our ecumenical partners at the Beijing Christian Council hosted by their director, Rev. Fung Yee Zhou, his staff, and two pastors.  They gave us a picture of a dynamic church profoundly challenged by the shortage of trained pastors.  In the city of Beijing there are 80,000 baptized believers, 103 ordained pastors, 22 churches, and 500 meeting points.  Meeting points which can gather up to 800 people are worshiping communities with no pastor and no building.  There is one seminary in Beijing which served 10 province, almost ½ of the country.  Pastors will serve between 1000 to 3000 people.  They shared with us that the “harvest is ready but the laborers few”.  When asked about the strategies for the success of their evangelism, one pastor said, “we open the doors and the people come”. There are plans for five new church building.  We came away moved by the commitment of the pastors, and struck by the picture of spiritual renewal.