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Drawn by grace

Many Chinese immigrants hear the gospel for the first time in the United States-and many are responding

Drawn by grace

(Nailah Feanny/Genesis Photos)

Grand Street sprawls like a clogged artery to the heart of New York's Chinatown. People brush through sidewalks packed with shops selling fresh fruit. Restaurants display whole shriveled barbecued ducks. Old women haggle for fish in harsh Cantonese tones. Souvenir shops offer fake golden Buddhas, fish carved in cheap jade, and bonsai trees growing in porcelain vases.

For some Americans, stepping into this ethnic enclave feels like stepping onto another continent. It might seem that Li Rong Liu, a native of Fujian in southern China, would read the Chinese lettering on shops and feel at home-but it's a bleak home where he started on the lowest level as a busboy, working seven days a week from the early morning to midnight for six years before upgrading to a sushi chef. He now works a more modest 10 hours a day.

"Have you ever worked at a restaurant?" Liu asked in Mandarin with a wry smile. I shook my head no, and he sighed, "Then you have no idea how hard it is." Two years ago, though, Liu found respite from his burdens when a friend invited him to the Church of Grace to Fujianese. Here in midtown Manhattan was a place where he could bond with others from Fujian province in southeastern China. He also noticed something different in the church: a kind of joy and love he had yet to experience in the United States.

"There was something genuine about this faith, unlike the idols we worshipped in China," Liu said. "When I was in China, I had heard of Christianity, but I didn't think I needed it. Now in the U.S., when I'm alone and facing new hardships, here is where I find God."

Liu's story is like that of many immigrants both legal and illegal from mainland China. Since the People's Republic of China eased travel restrictions in 1978, the number of Chinese immigrants has soared from 200,000 in 1980 to 1.4 million in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This creates a tremendous opportunity for the Chinese people to hear the gospel right here in the United States-and the number of Chinese churches in the United States has risen from 366 churches in 1980 to more than 800 today.

On Sunday mornings at 10:45 a.m., throngs of Fujianese people file through a doorway under metal letters that spell out "The Church of Grace to Fujianese" in both Chinese and English. Friendly chatter fills the 300-seat sanctuary as pews hit capacity and those without seats stand along the wall. Latecomers sit on folding chairs in the foyer and watch the service on a small flatscreen.

After the congregation sings a few hymns in Chinese, Pastor Matthew Ding takes the podium and instructs congregants to open their Bibles to Nehemiah 11:6-24. He calls for the congregation to read the passage aloud, and the hall is filled with a loud jumble of words as everyone reads at his or her own pace. The passage seems dry-a genealogy of Israelites who settled in Jerusalem-but Ding emphasizes that the Israelites, like the Chinese, are interested both in lineage and in passing down teaching of the law. He then brings it back to the Chinese culture: "You came to the U.S. to give your kids a better life, but if you don't teach them about Christianity, what good will it be? Nothing else will last for eternity."

Many Chinese immigrants come to the church entrenched in the Confucian belief that hard work is the only path to success in life: Study hard to get into a good college, work hard to make more money, and discipline children to have a respectable household. When Chinese immigrants hear the gospel, they have a hard time understanding that salvation comes from grace alone, not from works. Hence the word grace or "un dian" is often repeated in church.

Ding presents the gospel both in his sermons and through church meetings that fit work schedules. He has Bible studies and classes on other days than Sunday mornings, since many congregants work then. He holds a later service for those who work late. The church also has a telephone ministry where about 1,000 immigrants who work in Chinese restaurants across the United States call in from midnight to 2 a.m. to hear a pastor lead Bible study. Afterwards the lines are open for callers to share prayer requests and pray together.

Other Christian organizations also reach out to Chinese immigrants. Herald Restaurant Gospel Ministry, headquartered in San Jose, Calif., holds late-night Bible studies at Chinese restaurants for what founder Esther Lou calls "an unreached people group." Lou, a former restaurant owner, came to Christ and saw a whole population of dishwashers, busboys, and waiters toiling all day without hearing about the gospel. She started holding Bible studies after work in San Jose in 1995, and the organization now has expanded to a dozen cities such as Indianapolis, Atlanta, Tucson, and New York.

California's San Gabriel Valley, where 22 percent of the immigrants from Taiwan reside, has dozens of churches that immigrants from the mainland increasingly attend: Pastor Matthew Liu's house church, Hui-Xin Christian Ministry, is one of them. A native of Taiwan, Liu started as a pastor at a Taiwanese church but thought more about helping immigrants from mainland China after his wife befriended two and held a Bible study with them in their home.

Liu started a small house church, with services at his kitchen table always followed by a home-cooked meal. The Liu house became a pit stop for immigrants who came for dinner, Bible teaching, fellowship, and help in filling out forms and finding lawyers, doctors, and jobs. They frequently told Liu, "We have no family here and when we come to your house we feel like we are home." As the church grew, the Lius moved to a bigger house to accommodate it. When the church no longer fit in that house, Hui-Xin moved to a nearby building. Now 70 to 80 people come every week.

The stories some of the immigrants tell are extraordinary. For example, Joshua Yu, 84, a Christian in communist China, spent 22 years in a "reeducation-through-labor" camp-and watched as famous evangelists denied their faith.

Yu grew up in a Christian home and accepted Christ at the age of 16. His father, a church elder, taught him to read the Bible. When Yu was 23, the Communist Party of China gained control of the country and restricted religion. The government created the Three-Self Church and allowed Christians to worship only there.

Yu quickly saw how the official church contradicted the Bible: The government would not allow anyone under the age of 18 to attend, but Yu recalled Matthew 19:14, where Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." The Three-Self Church also prohibited preaching about the second coming of Christ and about commands not to love the world: Communist Party leaders feared such ideas would undermine the government's authority.

Yu refused to deny his faith, so government officials called him in for questioning in 1958 and asked him why he did not join the Three-Self Church: "I was in a bold mood, so I said, 'The Bible tells me-and as a Christian, I believe in the Bible-that God places authorities over us, so I will obey the Communist government. But the Bible also says to obey God over man. If the government and God contradict, then I will follow God. Three-Self Church doesn't follow God.'"

The government sent Yu and 2,000 others to a "reeducation camp" in an isolated mountain region where they worked all day with little rest: Lunch was a small amount of rice and onion soup, dinner was a small piece of onion. Malnutrition and overwork wrecked the prisoners. By the time Yu was freed in 1979 after the death of Mao Zedong, only 800 of the original 2,000 prisoners were alive.

After 21 years and 7 months of labor, Yu was allowed to return to his rural hometown but officials would not let him live with his wife in Shanghai.

On a two-week visit to Shanghai, Yu found a newspaper ad seeking an English professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Despite his former prisoner status, Yu beat out 600 other applicants to get the job. After five years teaching English, a church in America wanted Yu to come work for them, so Yu tried applying for a visa. At first officials rejected him because of his prison background, but somehow he got his visa on his second try.

Once he came to the United States, Yu started the Chinese Christian Testimony Ministry, a publishing company that releases books, translates testimonies to English, and creates DVDs. His ministry has reached back to China as missionaries bring his books into China and reproduce them in the country. But Yu also has a message for American Christians: "Before Communism took over, there were a lot of enthusiastic pastors. . . . When they came under fire, a lot of them joined the Three-Self Church and others just decided to give up on Christianity. . . . I see America's situation and it is like China's before Communism. American Christians need to examine themselves."

-Angela Lu is a writer in St. Louis, Mo.

Nicole's story

When Nicole Shen came to Brooklyn from Macau, China, as a teenager, she felt lonely and depressed. At the time she could not speak any English and was without friends or relatives. Her classmates teased her and her parents were too busy working in restaurants to pay attention to her and her younger siblings. Shen's parents would come home tired and frustrated that they had yet to find the promised "mountain of gold" in America. They would take their anger out on their children. Shen was deeply disappointed that no matter what she did, she could not earn her parents' love.

When a high-school counselor asked Shen if she wanted to do community service through the New York Chinese Alliance Church, she agreed, eager for something to do. After coming to the church a few times, she wondered why the people there were so kind and caring to non-relatives: Did they have other motives? In China, she had never met strangers who were willing to cook for her, care for her, and genuinely listen to her.

She started coming to youth group to find out why people here were so different, and at the youth group she learned about Jesus. Raised in a Confucian culture that emphasizes filial piety, Shen found the idea of a Heavenly Father loving her so much that He would sacrifice His Son for her a complete reversal from all that she knew. At church, Shen said she finally found the love of God that she had searched so long for in her parents.

"The biggest grace that God has shown me is bringing [my sister and me] to church and letting us know Him," said Shen in Mandarin. "In China, I had never heard of God so I wonder, 'Why were we so lucky to find these people at church who cared about us?' We didn't do anything to get it, I wasn't a good person. It was all God's grace."

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.