Magazine article The Christian Century

Christians in Beiwan

Magazine article The Christian Century

Christians in Beiwan

Article excerpt

TRUCKS FILLED with pigs or bags of cement zoom north along National Highway 107 toward Hunan Province. As they pass our bus, they raise a cloud of red dust. Every kilometer or so we catch a glimpse of a local "tea house," with two or three girls sitting on the stoop. These are farm girls from the poorer northern province who have come south to work as prostitutes for the truck drivers.

We are traveling in Guangdong, one of the richest provinces in China since the country opened to the outside world and began reforming the economy 16 years ago. Qingyuan, an administrative center and crossroads, is situated at the northern limit of this arc of prosperity. A few years ago it was mostly a collection of brick houses hugging the North River. Now office buildings have sprouted on the south side, and the construction brings a profusion of construction cranes and cement mixers that one sees everywhere in the Pearl River Delta.

North of Qingyuan, however, we leave the bustle of Guangdong's special economic zones. The bus pulls off the highway and makes its way along a winding dirt road. In this region a million people still live in poverty. A 1992 survey estimated the annual per capita income here at less than $30.

Soon the lower reaches of the Lingnan mountain range appear. The mountains are mostly made of porous limestone, and their sides are badly scarred from quarrying; the limestone feeds the cement plants that are the main industry here.

The inhabitants scratch out a living by farming in the valleys and midranges. The soil is too poor for rice or cash crops, so the peasants mainly cultivate corn and sweet potatoes. A water buffalo would have considerable trouble turning around in one of the small plots. The villagers eat sweet potatoes, taroroot and, on good days, some rice and vegetables or a slice of chicken.

The bus descends into a valley and we enter Beiwan township, a cluster of two dozen villages. Although Beiwan means "white bay," the community is far from any seacoast. We arrive at the village Protestant church, a structure made of mud and white plaster. A large group of Christians has assembled to greet us. At the head is Chen Gexing, secretary of the local Communist Party. He stands in the courtyard with a big smile, pumping everybody's hand and inviting us into the church.

We are members of churches in Hong Kong who have come as guests of the Guangdong Christian Council to visit the Beiwan school. Founded as a church-run elementary school, it was confiscated by the government shortly after the communist revolution, along with all churches and private schools. Now, for the first time, the authorities want to give a primary school back to a church. The villagers appealed to Christians in Hong Kong for help in repairing and running it.

Many of the 2,500 Beiwan villagers are Christians. They were converted in the early 1930s through the efforts of several Chinese and one foreign evangelist from Qingyuan. The missionaries, who spent several years here, founded a Bible school on one of Hong Kong's outlying islands.

"I was one of the first seven to be baptized in our community," recalls Li Yuansu, spiritual leader of Beiwan's Christians. "By the end of 1936 more than 200 had been baptized, at one time more than 90." Ordained pastors are rare, and only in recent years have schools been turning out trained preachers. …

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