2011 China Pilgrimage

Daily journal entries from China group.



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 E. 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. Rich 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.