Two, Three, or Fifty: Reflections from the Seminarians Delegation People-to-People Pilgrimage to China

Two, Three, or Fifty: Reflections from the Seminarians Delegation People-to-People Pilgrimage to China

May 30 – June 10, 2009

Participants: Donna Campbell, Rebekah Cypert, Ryan Motter, Tara Thomspon, and Jonathan Wallace


2009 Disciples Seminarians People-to-People Pilgrimage to China

The Division of Overseas Ministries sponsored its second Disciples Seminarians Pilgrimage from May 28 to June 11, 2009.  David Vargas, President of the Division of Overseas Ministries and Co-Executive of Global Ministries initiated this program in response to the priorities of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), especially as it relates to leadership development.  “The values that the Church looks for in its leaders include an abiding faith, a yearning for justice, a spirit of unity in Jesus Christ, love for compassion and caring, a commitment for mission and outreach, and dedication to stewardship, among others.”. These pilgrimages are designed to help provide seminarians with the experiences to become effective pastors.   The goals of the pilgrimages are to equip a new generation of pastors to become global mission pastors, capable of turning their congregations into global mission churches; to help Disciples of Christ seminaries to become global mission seminaries; to respond to the imperative of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) by developing leaders with a commitment and passion for God’s mission in the world.

China was selected as the site of the 2009 pilgrimage.  Five seminarians from five Disciples of Christ related seminaries had the unique opportunity to learn about the life and witness of the church in China.  The group was led by Xiaoling Zhu, Area Executive for East Asia and the Pacific and Julia Brown Karimu, Vice President of the Division of Overseas Ministries and Mission Personnel Executive for Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.  The seminarians were nominated by the academic dean of their institutions to be a part of the pilgrimage and represented Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, Texas; Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, Indiana; Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago; and the Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. Special gifts to the Division of Overseas Ministries made this trip possible.  

The group visited Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu, Xi’an, and Beijing and had the opportunity to participate in worship services, as well as visits to seminaries, Bible schools, social development projects, historical sites, in addition to meeting with government officials.  This journal chronicles the interpretations of this pilgrimage through the seminarians’ personal reflections.

Julia Brown Karimu
Xiaoling Zhu


What follows are the personal reflections of the five seminarians who traveled with Global Ministries on a People-to-People Pilgrimage in China from May 30 to June 10, 2009.  These five seminarians reflect the diverse experience of formal theological education in the Disciple church, and each student brings a unique personal perspective to the experiences and ideas encountered on this journey.  The student pilgrims are:

  • Donna Campbell, Christian Theological Seminary
  • Rebekah Cypert, Brite Divinity School
  • Ryan Motter, Vanderbilt University Divinity School
  • Tara Lyn Thompson, Phillips Theological Seminary
  • Jonathan Wallace, The Divinity School at the University of Chicago

Leading this group were two Global Ministries executives.  Rev. Julia Brown Karimu serves as Executive for Mission Personnel, and Rev. Xiaoling Zhu is Area Executive for East Asia and Pacific.  Other characters and names shall appear in these sparse journal entries, some better identified than others.  However, each seminarian has sought to convey the basic and important events of the pilgrimage.  Some interpreted their journals to be more devotional, giving their reflections a more public or popular reading style.  Still others chose to relate more of an itinerary sprinkled with thoughts along the way.  This diversity of style was, however, inevitable, and we ask that you read with a careful and forgiving eye at times.  Also, please note that there are three days not included in this journal: Days 5, 8, and 9.   While we struggled to write all the reflections of this project, our constant travel and activity occasionally precluded our abilities to provide reflections.  Such was the case with these days. 

The terse title of this small collection reflects a small anecdote from our journey that occurred on the ninth day of our journey.  As it was a Sunday, we had come to worship at Chongwenmen Church in Beijing.  Meeting with the pastor there, she described to us the abundant spirit of her church and the sheer size of the growing Christian Population in China.  Jokingly she said, “In the Bible, it says, ‘Wherever two or three are gathered…’ but in China, it’s more like two or three or fifty.”  We laughed, but there was a deeper unity in that verse for us.  As we gathered as one body of Christ, we realized the immensity of the body of Christ and the global connections we shared.  These journal entries are but a tiny attempt to describe one part of the body to another.  

Ryan Motter
Vanderbilt University Divinity School

Day 1: Overwhelmed, but Eager to Love

May 31, 2009
Shanghai, China

I am on a Global Ministries people to people pilgrimage to China with Julia Brown Karimu, Executive of the Mission Personnel office, Xiaoling Zhu, Area Executive for East Asia and the Pacific, and Donna Campbell,

Ryan Motter, Tara Thompson and Jonathan Wallace, four other Disciple seminarians.  Today is our first full day in China and right now we are on a train from Shanghai to Nanjing.  Already there has been so much to absorb, including the overwhelming amount of skyscrapers and the friendliness of the people we have met.  This morning we went to Gospel Church for worship.  I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but the service amazed me in many ways from the hospitality to the spirit of reverence during worship. 

When we first got to the church I immediately noticed all of the people scurrying out of their cars, mopeds, and bicycles eager to get there and this spirit of eagerness continued to be felt during the worship service.  This was the second service of the day and every seat was occupied with some standing in the back.  During the service Julia Brown Karimu and Xiaoling Zhu brought greetings on behalf of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ, and presented a gift on behalf of the seminarian’s delegation.

Afterwards we had lunch and then visited a local YMCA/YWCA branch.  At the YMCA/YWCA we toured the facilities and were given an introduction of all the services they offer the surrounding community.  Mr. Wu Jianrong, General Secretary, shared with us the mission for this YMCA/YWCA was to share the love of Christ through the services and programs they offered for people of all ages but especially for children, people with autism, and migrant workers who come to Shanghai to find work but have difficulties because of the high price of living.  This mission for love was not hidden but could be felt and experienced as we toured their facilities and encountered the hospitality of the people we met.  This reminded me of how contagious love is because once offered it continues to spread and multiply.  Love is experienced person to person, but shouldn’t stop there because it continues to spread and multiply.  Already in this short time we have spent in China, through the people we meet, places we see, and sounds we hear, our appreciation for God’s mission of love for the whole world is growing deeper and deeper.

Rebekah Cypert
Brite Divinity School

Day 2: The Power of History and the Ministers of the Future

June 1, 2009
Nanjing, China

Our seminarians delegation began today in Nanjing by packing up the van and leaving for the Nanjing Massacre Museum.  The Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, occurred during the Japanese Occupation of China.  The Japanese Army sought to destroy Nanjing, then the capital of China.  From December 13, 1937 to mid-January 1938, Japanese forces murdered over 300,000 people, while countless others were victims of burglary, theft, rape and other horrific forms of violence.  Nanjing was utterly decimated.  The memorial stands as a stark reminder to the massacre itself, a massacre Nanjing still feels as “not a giant scar but a gaping wound.”  The memorial was a powerful monument to the necessity of memory, and I couldn’t help but recall a quote from Paul Tillich that a wise mentor once gave me: “The most difficult thing to be or do is to be forgotten.”  It was here that we encountered again Minnie Vautrin, the Disciple missionary who served at the Nanjing Girls’ School.  There is a statue and several placards of information about her, as she is one of the few foreign people who stayed in Nanjing through the massacre in order to protect women and children from horror.  Other Disciple missionaries also found in the museum include Dr. Searle Bates and Dr. Lewis Smythe.  All served the International Committee for the Nanking International Safety Zone, saving more than 250,000 lives. Their legacy is a proud one for Disciples and an important witness to the power of love.

After the massacre museum, we moved on to the Jiangsu Bible Training School, a provincial seminary that both trains and ordains ministers for parish settings.  The Chinese seminary system is set up so that there are provincial seminaries, regional seminaries and one national seminary.  The seminary system in China is very different than our own, and most students who find themselves at provincial and regional seminaries are the equivalent age of most college students in the United States, and are pursuing a college degree.  We met with the Dean and Vice Dean of Jiangsu Bible Training School, where we talked about “seminarian stuff!”  WHAT COULD BE BETTER?!  Curriculum, worship, student life, library statistics…we also discussed the interfaith experience of the Chinese church and culture and the “post- denominational” self-identity of the Chinese church.  After sharing in lunch, we took a tour of the grounds and then once again were whisked away.

This time, we found ourselves at Nanjing Seminary, the only national seminary in China. Nanjing Union Theological Seminary has just moved to a new campus right outside of Nanjing in an area that is primarily devoted to colleges of all kinds. It was here that we met two Disciple missionaries serving in China: Michael and Doreen MacFarlane. Doreen is a Canadian-born citizen who was recruited to teach Old Testament for the students and her husband Michael, originally “just along for the ride,” was discovered to have excellent musical talent and recruited to organize and lead a choir at the seminary. Michael and Doreen have served at the seminary for three years now, and are preparing to leave this coming week to take new positions at Religion Department at Shanghai University. They graciously received us with Diet Pepsi! A DELICACY! They were excited to have guests, and were eager to share with us their experience in Nanjing and the joy their position has given them. They were wonderful hosts, and we were blessed to be able to meet them.

After a long visit with them and a tour of the Nanjing grounds, we headed out to the Nanjing Airport for our flight to Chengdu. The flight was awfully turbulent, but we made it just fine, and now we are relaxing in the “Education Hotel” in Chengdu, a hotel owned by one of our partners in China. More on that, tomorrow!

With Hope,
Ryan Motter
Vanderbilt University Divinity School

Day 3: Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Place

June 2, 2009
Nanjing, China

A thought to ponder:

How can I sing the Lord’s Song in a strange land: Psalm 137:1-4

1By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.  2We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.  3For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.  4How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

Although this bible verse talks about a time of sorrow and of defeat, this scripture also came to me in order to describe our pilgrimage travel yesterday.  Similar to those in the text, the people who survived against opposition in this verse were actually being mocked when asked to sing the songs of Zion after seemingly being defeated.  In yesterday’s journey, I found no defeat.

I imagine Dr. William Edward Macklin was mocked back in 1886 when he envisioned the few he would help with a small idea about practicing medicine in Nanjing.  There must have been those who said, you could do this on a much grander scale in the USA and without all the hassles of a government who is non-yielding.  But he stayed and began from scratch.

As we visited the Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital, I am sure there were those who didn’t believe it would ever amount to much.  I am not sure Dr. Macklin ever saw anything beyond a small room, a clinic or a building.  We saw both the beginnings of his quest, and what his perseverance wrought.  We also see his future of the total expansion of this project and it’s completing in the not to distant future.  Because of Dr. Macklin, a virtual city of medicine has unfolded to assist those in need and it is a hospital equipped to lead the world itself in medicine and the miracle of healing.  He devoted his entire life to the health and healing of others

How can we sing the Lord’s Song in a strange land?  By perseverance at all cost toward the mark God has set for each of us.  Whether our strange land is getting through to our brothers or sisters across the street, or across the world.  Whatever God has for you to do, do it!

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?  By daring to print bibles and other Christian and medical materials like Amity Printing Co. which we also visited and who is in a cooperative effort with those who don’t necessarily have the same religious beliefs as themselves.  In a land where others must have mocked and scoffed at those who began this venture, the press has now grown into the largest bible printing company in the world. Amity has printed more than 60 million Bibles and prints and distributes over 1.5 million bibles annually.  China doesn’t need to import Bibles; in fact, it exports Bibles everyday with the orders of the United Bible Society.  The Bible is made in China, too!

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?  By forming a Christian based service agency like the Amity Foundation to attend to the needs of many, an organization that dares to seek a religion that is not as popular in their land and whose faces are now meshed with the rest of the Christian Church in the world.  I am sure they were mocked for offering to distribute Christian products and goods of inspiration and teaching created from local Chinese Christian Artists. 

What is your strange land?  What area is God asking you to conquer?  Be it great or small, the Lord’s song can be sung with fervor and with joy.  Let us seek out those foreign lands that God wants us to conquer.  Even if that call is to our own back yard, this day in China we have witnessed his song being sung and the possibility of the seemingly impossible being achieved and, as of now, we are changed for ever.

Go sing your song!

Love and Peace in Christ
Donna M. Campbell
Christian Theological Seminary

Day 4: Destruction and Rebuilding, Cities and Churches

June 3, 2009
Chengdu, China

We arrived in Chengdu late last night and arrived at the hotel around 11.  As is becoming the norm for this trip, some wonderful people who are administrators at the TV and Radio University here in Chengdu met us at the airport.  We stayed at the Education Hotel, which is owned by the university.  We had a huge meal for breakfast, which consisted of many vegetables and different dumplings, and of course watermelon.

We headed to a village called Yingxiu in the mountains about an hour outside of Chengdu to visit the hypocenter of last year’s earthquake that measured over 8.0 on the Richter scale.  I can’t even describe the devastation.  Half of the village’s population was wiped out.  Over 10,000 people were killed, and 6,000 people survived the horrific earthquake.  There is a middle school there where students and teachers lived, that was most devastating of all.  The building was separated into fourths-the right side, left side, front, and back all split away from one another.  You could see students clothing still left inside the building.   Classes began at 2:30 on that day, and the earthquake hit at 2:28.  All of the students and teachers were in their classrooms ready to start classes.

We met Justin, a college student, who has put his life on hold to come and help rebuild the town.  Justin is living the Gospel.  He left all that is familiar and comfortable to him, to go to a foreign land and be a source of hope to those people who have lost so much.  He truly was an inspiration to me, in speaking with him it was almost like there wasn’t a choice to make.  His brothers and sisters needed his help, so he is there to help them.  He is there day in and day out planning for their future, laughing and crying with them; being community together-that is doing the work of God in this world.

While there was such devastation, the true spirit of the Chinese people lives on.  They were laughing, welcoming us, and planning for the future.  We saw women carrying water, men driving bulldozers, and children being children.  I saw God’s children working together, in some terrifying and saddening conditions, to rebuild what was lost.  I remember the ice storm of January 2007, when my mom and I had to leave our home for 2 weeks due to no electricity and how much I complained.

I had my Aunt Tracy and friends’ Phil and Amanda who opened their homes to me.  I did not know what it means to be displaced, or what it literally means to fight to survive.  These villagers do and they are doing it with grace and beauty.  I will never forget my encounters at the site, and how each visit, each new face, has changed me forever.  We have played a role in helping these villagers.  The money that is donated to Week of Compassion has gone to help this community.  I was proud to be a Disciple when I learned of all we have done as a denomination in the face of this awful tragedy.

During the ride back to Chengdu, I think we were all emotionally and physically exhausted as we fell asleep in the van.  Everything we have seen over the past couple days has been extremely overwhelming, and we have not had much time to take it all in a process it.  My journal writing has helped me absorb everything.

In the afternoon we visited the Sichuan Province China Christian Council.  Rev. Shangyong Long is the General Secretary of Sichuan TSPM.  The gospel came to the Sichuan Province Church in 1848.  After the Cultural Revolution, there were only about 20,000 Christians in the Sichuan Province, now there are more than 460,000.  There are 849 churches and meeting points in the Province and only 88 pastors; yes, you read correctly that one pastor is the pastor for 5,000 people.  A lot of work in these meeting points and churches depends on lay leaders of the church.

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement has been very busy ever since the earthquake. 136 churches were damaged, and 18 people from within this community lost their lives in the quake.  Right now they are working on 3 areas: (1) rebuild 136 churches/meeting points (2) provide better pastoral care to churches in those areas (3) encourage pastors to engage in home visits to those affected by the quake.  When the pastor visits these families, they can see what families need and pass those needs onto the Provincial Council.  The council sees relief work as a way to live out the Gospel through action.  Their work is spreading the Gospel, sharing God’s grace, and preaching the Gospel.

Sichuan Theological Seminary was established in 1984. The mission of STS: (1) Spirit (2) Faith (3) Talent (4) Witness of capacity.  Their goal is to bring up more people to do the work of God in the world.  During our meeting we met with several students.  The joy and love radiating from them was truly amazing.  They sang a few songs for us, and the joy they had in their faith was so contagious, they sang with such joy and peace.  It was interesting that we came to learn from them, and yet they were learning from us.  They were eager to ask us questions about our churches and seminaries.  Through their questions we in turn learned.  We learned more about our theology, our faith journey, and ourselves.  After conversing with them, I think it would be neat to have international dialog with other seminaries: to discuss theology and the Gospel.

Tonight we went to the Chuan Opera Tea House.  It was like dinner theater but with tea. There was music, dancing, comedy, and “face-changing.” It was great to experience the culture and be community with our sisters and brothers on the other side of the world. May we all stretch beyond ourselves and love our neighbor and walk with them in all times. During joy, sadness, tragedy, and all the times in between.

Tara Lyn Thompson
Phillips Theological Seminary

Day 6: A “Both/And” Experience

June 5, 2009
Xi’an, China

Once again today has been packed full on this People-to-People pilgrimage to China.  Our day began with a visit to the Shaanxi Province Christian Council/Three Self Patriotic Movement office and later to the Shaanxi Bible School. Afterwards we were immersed in Chinese history at the Shaanxi History Museum and the Forest of the Stone Tablets. 

For me, things are really coming together and I am beginning to see things with new eyes. I am appreciative of how this pilgrimage has been organized in order to allow for a various amount of activities because they all compliment each other.  For example, during this pilgrimage we are learning specifically about Christianity in China and generally about the history of China.  I believe taking both the particular and general together provides a source of inspiration because we need to be a church that is not limited but open to “both/and” possibilities.  We are a church oriented to both the local and the global.

Additionally while on this trip, Xiaoling Zhu has mentioned the other pilgrimages he has taken to China, including groups of regional ministers and ecumenical leaders such as Michael Kinnamon, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.  This past semester during my course reading I came across an idea from Kinnamon that I have been reminded of during this trip.  Kinnamon uses the word tension as a way to transform the type of logic we use when we approach Christian unity.  He believes instead of using an “if…then” model, we should embrace a “because…therefore” model:

This, of course, is the logic of the gospel: Not, if we love our neighbor, then God will love us; but, because God loves us, therefore we are freed and empowered to love our neighbor. In the same way, the logic of the ecumenical movement is not if we agree, then we can be one in Christ. Rather, because we are one in Christ, therefore we are freed and empowered to seek common mind on those matters that have kept us apart.[1]

While visiting with our partners I have seen this type of “because…therefore” logic in practice, the presence of the gospel is alive and well. Additionally, my experience in China has affirmed that Global Ministries operates out of the model that because God loves us, therefore we are freed and empowered to engage in mission.

Rebekah Cypert
Brite Divinity School

Day 7: Patterns and New Things

June 6, 2009 
Xi’an, China

So often, as we continue to grow, we discover that our lives take on certain patterns.  We only will watch a certain type of movie, eat a certain variety of foods, even filling our tanks with a certain kind of gas.  Patterns.  And too often we try to place God in the same kind of holding pattern.  We go to church every Sunday and sit in the same pew as every Sunday.  We call ahead to make sure the pastor is preaching today because only they can bring the word.  We half-heartedly welcome and acknowledge visitors out of a sense of obligation and not out of love.  We leave as soon as the sermon is over because God has “finished speaking to us for the day.”  Patterns.  I once heard a wise man say that God is claustrophobic—and this proverbial box with which we try to place Him is not enough to contain He or His will.

As Americans, we rest in the privileged position of being one of the world’s only superpowers.  As such, there is an arrogance that we unconsciously—and sometimes consciously—walk in.  This arrogance colors how we view the world.  It makes us expectant for things that may or may not happen—this should not be so.  Those from other countries who respond as though our Americaness were something to be honored only bolster this line of thinking—missing the humility of our common humanity.  Our culture, our way of life, the way we talk, what we wear, watch and drive—all are placed under careful scrutiny….including our faith.

America, its doctrine of wanting to spread democracy to the world “whether they want it or not,” and its self-proclaimed position as evangelist to the world, could stand to be taken down a notch.  In our short time here in China, we have been privileged to witness a purity of faith that would put even the most devout Christian in America to shame.  We have taken our arrogance and sense of privilege too far.  We are judging other nations by our measuring stick of faith all the while failing to acknowledge that our measurements are off.  We must acknowledge that God is doing a new thing, not following the pattern that we set before Him.  As we are so quick to send out those with the hopes that they would succeed in doing God’s work, we may be missing an important task that God has set before us: simply to receive. 

Almost everything that we have bears the mark of Made in China.  If we were to turn over the word Transformation, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it there as well.

Jonathan Wallace
The Divinity School at the University of Chicago

Day 10: Testimonies to Wonders Strange and Great

June 8, 2009
Beijing, China

On Monday morning, we were invited to the State Administration for Religious Affairs Office, to meet with the Deputy Director General of Religious Affairs, Mr. Jiang Jianong. Mr. Jiang’s position is the equivalent of a government “minister” position; his office is tasked with the regulation, support, and connection of the many different religions in China. This is the office that regulates where churches are built and it is also the office that funds the building of some religious institutions. Our meeting with him was a special privilege, mainly because we were told that no questionswere off limits.  Our conversation was a fascinating one, during which we spoke primarily about the future of the Church in China, the conservatism of Chinese Christian theology and the theological “reconstruction” the church has undergone since 1999.  Mr. Jiang and his staff were very welcoming to us, and happily answered all of our questions.  It was indeed a special privilege for us to share with them, and I found the look inside of state regulated religion supremely fascinating when considering our constitutional religious freedoms.

After that meeting, we drove to Yanjing Seminary, the regional seminary in Beijing.  Here, we met Reverend  Yu.  Rev. Yu is about 75 and has lived an extraordinary life.  During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he was displaced as a pastor and moved to a state-run work farm.  There, he spent years sowing and reaping, waiting for freedom.

After the Cultural Revolution ended and churches reopened, Rev. Yu returned to the church and helped to start the seminaries again.  Now, he is President of Beijing Christian Council and TSPM, and president of the Yanjing Seminary.  He has met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Former President George W. Bush, to discuss Christianity in China.  He was a gracious host, and gave each of us copy of the Bible that was given away in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics.  Then, he joined us for lunch and told us more of his life.  The meal was a powerful moment.

Following lunch, we proceeded to a little activity we called…Climbing the Great Wall of China!  THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!  My goal was to walk as much of the wall as possible.  After walking about a mile vertically (it took me 40 minutes) and not making it to the top of one section, I decided simply to yell “I MADE IT!” and call it a day.  I have now walked on the Great Wall of China, one of the Seven Wonders of the World!

Finally, to top off the entire trip, we had dinner at an ornate hall of the Qing Dynasty style, and we shared in a dinner of many different kinds of meat, vegetables and, for celebration, Rice Wine.  During our meal, we heard five different Chinese opera singers, as well as one Chengdu “changing face” man, and enjoyed live music.  It was a fantastic evening, and a fitting end to a pilgrimage trip for Disciples. As we ate around our table together, only seven disciples in this instance, I couldn’t help but thank God for the opportunities and the experiences we have had over these last two weeks.

With Hope,
Ryan Motter
Vanderbilt University Divinity School

[1] Michael Kinnamon, The Vision of the Ecumenical Movement and how it has been Impoverished by its Friends (St Louis: Chalice, 2003), 18.