Evangelism over isolation
The coronavirus provides opportunities and hurdles for ministry to South Africa’s Chinese population
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On a recent Sunday morning in Krugersdorp, South Africa, people slowly filled the green cushioned pews inside the multiracial Christian Heritage Church. Many smiled at each other, a few others hugged, and even more greeted each other with elbow-bumps to avoid handshakes.
At the foot of the pulpit, Mei, her daughter, Joyce, and at least 18 other people joined a South African Chinese Outreach Network (SACON) mission program.
Karl Teichert, an American missionary who leads the network, explained to the congregation the importance of taking the gospel to unreached communities. That includes the Chinese population within the province: “We need to take our love for the Lord and extend it in practical ways into loving our neighbors.”
The blue logo of China’s state-run construction company looms over major construction sites from Nigeria to Ethiopia. China has plugged into the urbanization push across Africa, offering infrastructure for airports, hospitals, and rail stations. That opens the doors for profit-seeking businessmen and Chinese state employees. The Migration Policy Institute estimates about 1 million Chinese migrants are on the continent. At least 350,000 of them reside in South Africa, with the majority running private businesses.
That migrant population has created a unique evangelism opportunity for Christian missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity. That work has been going on for years. But the coronavirus outbreak brings new business and social challenges to that work and makes technology all the more important.
Days before the program at Christian Heritage Church, Chinese migrants Joyce and Mei (whose full names WORLD is not using to protect their mission work) arrived at the One Challenge (OC) Africa office.
They gathered around a conference table with Teichert and two other team members to plan the church program and future events. The session began with prayers, which mostly focused on the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic had begun to sweep westward from China. By late March, South Africa had confirmed more than 500 cases but no deaths.
Teichert thanked God for “shaking up the powers of the world.” He prayed for creativity in ministry and for God to “reawaken the Church.”
Teichert first came to South Africa in 1997 with his wife, Jenny, and their four children. He had worked as an engineer for the city of Los Angeles for 14 years before their involvement in inner-city ministry sparked a desire for a more global outreach. The couple now work as missionaries under OC Africa, as they help with church planting and leadership development.
In 2011, Teichert attended a conference with about 600 African Christian leaders in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. Teichert said several of the delegates talked about the growing Chinese population in their countries and how Christians lacked an understanding of Chinese culture and language, which hurt outreach efforts.
When he returned, Teichert and several other delegates across southern Africa continued to develop outreach ideas. Their approach includes speaking at local churches to encourage ministry and connecting with Chinese converts who can help bridge language and culture barriers.
The network now includes about 30 Chinese leaders across the region. After the visit to Christian Heritage Church, the residing pastor announced plans to begin a ministry to Chinese migrants. “That was huge,” Teichert said. “All we need is workers who can jump right in.”
The coronavirus outbreak is complicating years-long mission efforts, like Teichert’s.
Since the coronavirus outbreak began, South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa has suspended international travel to some of the most affected countries, banned public gatherings, and shut down schools.
The growing isolation has prompted the Teicherts to start considering ways to increase their outreach. The couple plan to collect encouraging words and scripture from some Chinese pastors to hand out at shops, where they say many of the Chinese workers still remain.
The health crisis has also affected other members of the network.
Joyce and Mei had to postpone a three-month training session for Chinese business owners. They intended to teach English to the group and coach children on English and Afrikaans, two of South Africa’s official languages. The course would also include sessions on understanding labor laws, team building, and other “soft skills” needed to run a successful business.
They see such efforts as opportunities to build trust within the Chinese community. Their understanding of the culture also shapes their ministry efforts. Joyce is working on e-guides to help Chinese understand the local community and another to help other local Christians understand Chinese culture and traditions. “People wanted to go to China to share the word, but China is now at our doorstep,” she said.
But the pandemic is affecting all business in the country. South Africa Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said the tourism industry has already suffered losses she anticipates will increase.
Mei has seen fewer clients at her herbal medicine shop. She last ordered stock in January, and in mid-March it was still stuck in China, where the outbreak began. “My medicine for diabetes is out,” she explained.
Joyce called it the worst time for her city’s Chinatown in years: “Even the Chinese won’t go there.”
She also gets cautious glances from native South Africans at malls and other public spaces. Joyce said she was somewhat relieved the first case of coronavirus in South Africa came from Italy, not China.
The coronavirus pandemic is creating even more of a need for relational ministry to Chinese migrants.
Daniel Hughes—a South African missionary who also works with SACON—worked as a missionary in Asia for 16 years before returning to South Africa to work with Chinese churches. His “funny Chinese” has helped in ministry, he said. But he admitted ministering to people with little or no exposure to Christianity is a long-term endeavor.
His initial focus is on building relationships. In 2008, Hughes connected with six Chinese shop owners all selling similar items but with no relationship with each other. “It’s a Communistic mindset,” he said. “You can’t trust your own people.”
He started to visit them and help with taxes, labor laws, and technology. Gradually, several of them started attending small group sessions at his home. Hughes said laughter filled the meetings.
“Many of the folk live in their shops. They don’t speak much English—they don’t have many relationships outside of their little group,” he said. “So when they started to come to our home, talking in their language, eating food together, it was like family again.”
From that group, two sisters and one of their husbands got baptized in 2018—10 years after Hughes first met them.
Other Chinese migrants are indifferent to Christianity. Hughes connected with a businessman and his family. The man was willing to attend meetings in Hughes’ home but said he will never become Christian. He later returned to China with his family.
“We cannot change a person’s heart, but we can sow into their lives,” he said. “We trust the Lord that something good was sown in their hearts.”
The coronavirus pandemic doesn’t change Hughes’ approach. At the SACON meeting, he reminded the team to be “careful but not fearful.” He shared how a Jewish community continued to take cakes to workers in Chinese malls now devoid of customers: “Somehow we need to bring the love of Christ.”
As in other countries around the world, the coronavirus outbreak is forcing Chinese Christians in South Africa to rely on technology even more.
As the number of coronavirus cases began to rise, Christians in the South Africa Chinese Methodist Church started wearing masks and using sanitizers. Gradually, people started to sit farther apart during Sunday services, and fewer people attended weekly study sessions.
The church moved the Wednesday evening Bible study to social media platform WeChat before suspending all in-person services.
Several members of the Chinese Covenant Church in Edenvale, near Johannesburg, traveled to visit families ahead of the Chinese New Year celebration in January. As they returned, the church implemented a 14- to 24-day waiting period before they could rejoin the congregation.
As cases worsened, weekday services similarly shifted to WhatsApp and WeChat.
Boaz and his wife, Hannah, joined the church in full-time ministry in 2016 (WORLD is also not disclosing their full names). The Chinese couple converted to Christianity in 2003, while they were students in Cape Town. Boaz said the majority of the Chinese business owners come from poorer families and focus solely on making money. That drives many of them to work every day of the week.
“It’s hard for them to separate time for the meetings or even Sunday services,” he said.
That’s what makes the digital community even more important for the church this season.
For Hannah, the ongoing outbreak is an opportunity to keep sharing the gospel as more people search for peace. “The only true peace we know comes from God.”
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