A NATIVE OF HUNAN, Cao first heard the gospel while studying in the English department at Hunan Normal University. Although the Chinese government closed all universities during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Cao was part of the first wave of students to take the resumed college entrance exam and attend university. At the age of 20, Cao met an American couple while walking down the street in the city of Changsha. The couple, who were Christians, chatted with Cao for a while and then handed him an English Bible. Cao began reading the Bible, listening to Billy Graham broadcasts, and asking the couple whenever he had questions about Christianity. Over time, Cao professed faith in Christ.
Lianchao Han, a classmate of Cao’s, remembers him as a considerate and gentle man who also possessed an aura of mystery, as Christians were uncommon in China at the time. As students readied for graduation, officials assigned each student a job. They assigned most graduates of the English department to positions at universities, but because of Cao’s faith, they relegated him to a high school in a remote area. Cao refused to take the job.
“He was the first one to not take an assigned job,” Han said. “He was the one who became a free man. … He stood out among the students.”
Cao took a completely different track: He worked odd jobs and traveled to different house churches preaching and teaching. With the help of the American couple, Cao moved to the States and studied at Alliance Theological Seminary in New York. He married Powell in 1988 and continued to minister both in North Carolina, where he pastored a Chinese church, and in China, where he helped build up house churches.
Amos and Ben spent their early years splitting their time between Southern China and the United States. Amos said his father always wanted them to learn the Chinese language and culture: “My dad is someone who is very patriotic about his country. … His work has never carried anti-China messages.”
Fu first met Cao in the early ’90s while pastoring a house church in Beijing. Fu’s first impression of Cao was that he was a tireless evangelist. Every time Cao would come up to Beijing, he would purposely ride the train from Guangzhou, which took a full day and night. He’d wear a specially designed jacket full of secret pockets for Bibles. “He’d share the gospel from the time he got on the train until the time he got off,” Fu remembered. “By the time he got to Beijing, he would have lost his voice.”
Later when Fu and his family fled to the United States in 1997, he remembers that on the first night Cao welcomed them into his home in North Carolina. Cao gave the master bedroom to Fu, his wife Heidi, and their then-2-month-old son, Daniel, as he slept on the couch. “We were so touched. That tells of John’s extraordinary love for others.”
IN THE 1990s AND EARLY 2000s, house churches mostly kept to themselves to stay under the government’s radar and because they didn’t trust other networks. But Cao became well-respected among the church networks and had contacts in every major city. In order to train house church leaders, he started more than 60 unregistered Bible training centers. He also built the first school among the Sui minority in Guizhou, recruiting students from his Bible schools to help run the school. Once the school got settled, he handed it over to the local government, which still runs it today.
“He really impacted a generation of house church leaders with wider world missions,” Fu said. “That’s why he was able to mobilize them to go.” Cao organized house church Christians to provide aid relief after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the 2015 Nepal earthquake. In 2012, he started visiting Myanmar to provide aid to refugee Kachins, a largely Christian ethnic minority living in the north near the Chinese border. Fighting between Burmese soldiers and the Kachin insurgents left more than 100,000 displaced, many living in abject poverty in the mountains.