China hotel beds are hard! Village beds are . . . harder. A sheet of plywood for a mattress and a thin “Hello Kitty” quilt or two for padding. (It always feels like my hip is bruised when I first wake up.) I woke in the morning to the cries of roosters and the clucking of hens, the chopping of wood, loudspeakers broadcasting patriotic songs and village announcements, and the movement of people into the fields. Many carry a hot-baked potato in their jacket pocket, cooked overnight in the dying coals, to use as a mid-morning snack and to warm up their hands before gripping their digging hoe.
With the movement of the morning came the awakening of my memory and the remarkable images of the night before: Brothers and sisters in Christ worshipping in their heart languages; Jon and I sitting on stools over the dirt floor of the Village Leader’s house as his wife heated water over an open fire, set in a hole carved in the ground, just so that we could wash our feet; discovering custom-welded bed frames for Stephen and his “larger” American guests so we could stretch out as we slept (a miracle gift to experience after Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride); and Jon making his first trip to the village “toilet” in the middle of the night, headlamp attached to his Angels’ baseball cap, only to be greeted by a really big rat (you know I thought that was funny).
The conversation that followed was one we’ll never forget. We sat outside our friend’s simple house on stools stacked high enough to get our knees bent to a near 90 degree angle. As always, tea, fruit, and sunflower seeds were in our hands. It was just four of us – the Village Leader, our young translator, Jon, and me. Stephen had left the village early that morning for other parts so we were on our own. Since I had heard them before, I asked our friend if he would tell Jon the village stories of God’s faithfulness. Jon was the excuse, but I desperately wanted to hear them again.
He sat with his knees bent at a 90 degree angle on a single stool, low to the ground, feet in sandals, legs clothed in those blue Mao pants. Three different t-shirts were layered under an old, shapeless, beige linen suitcoat – a surprising fabric for the mountains. His rough hands were nimble with gestures and finger punctuations. But it was his eyes and face that made me stare. With wrinkled determination, eyes flashing with wisdom and spiritual understanding, he began to tell a story of pain, of suffering, of the Church Militant, of God’s faithfulness, and a promised triumph to come.
Every story has a setting, a context, from which it draws meaning and understanding. The village’s story takes place during a multi-decade attempt to remove from Chinese life all systems of belief and philosophy but Communism. In the years following 1949 and the establishment of Mao’s government, 1,000’s of missionaries were thrown out of the country and the anti-Christian campaigns of the 1950s launched attacks against churches and Christian schools. While it is impossible to know how many Christians lost their lives during this time, it is speculated that 1,000s died.
In the 1940s and 50s the village Christian school was attended by Miao children from the surrounding countryside. One day, government officials told them to shut down the school and for the children to attend the school in the valley below – requiring little children to walk down the mountain each Sunday afternoon and return in the same way on Friday (common throughout all of the China countryside today). The village refused to close the school – confessing the words of Peter and the other apostles: “We must obey God rather than man.” (Acts 5:29) One day the soldiers came, forced the children down the mountain, lined up the teachers against a wall, massacred them with bullets, and left one old man to tell the story. Today the empty school still stands over the village as a monument to God’s faithful, the Church Militant, which stood unwaveringly for Christ – praying that one day it will again be full of Miao children.