Wednesday, May 20, 2009

China Churches Response to Last Year's Earthquake

The earthquake that struck China's Sichuan province a year ago (the land of four rivers and famous for Pandas), shattered thousands of lives, and is still a very open wound in the minds and hearts of many survivors. One year after the devastating tremor, it is estimated that 90,000 people are dead or missing.

Earthquake reconstruction has been going on almost around the clock in an attempt to provide housing and jobs for those most affected. A government official reports more than one million rural homes have been completed, and half that many are under construction.

Sichuan (old spelling: Szechuan) was home to the eighth century poet Li Bai. He loved the great mountain ranges (Sichuan sits just east of Tibet) and he was inspired by them. One of his poems has a line: "Sichuan roads are more difficult to travel than the road to heaven." (The original is better.)

Hugely overlooked and unreported were the stories of Christian churches and their responses to the disaster. In the town of Mianzhu, just north of the provincial capital of Chengdu, the old Protestant church there lost its roof and the loose and falling facade, made worship there impossible.

Pastor Gu Yumei, a woman in her late twenties was finishing up her studies at the Nanjing Theological Seminary when the earthquake struck. She immediately went back to Sichuan to take care of her congregation. (Sichuan sits just east of Tibet.)

The shock of the tragedy put the whole countryside into a time of uncertainty and hardship. For some months worshippers met under a tarpaulin next to the church. In China, rural citizens do not own land; it is owned collectively and administered by the state. Making opportunities for corruption paramount.

The contributions to the churches of the area came from China churches all over the country. The Amity Foundation, a non-government organization, and churches around the world contributed to the rebuilding efforts. One of the buildings is used as a church now that seats 1,000 people at a time.

The Mianzhu church congregation has grown fivefold. By last December, the people attending the Sunday services had grown from 180 to 1,000. The church has helped with medical service to those in need. A small clinic was put up on the church grounds.

Only those who have been through such a trauma have any idea of the psychological counseling needed. Warm clothes and quilts are for everybody, thanks to Amity's help. Counseling by Pastor Gu and other Christians is primarily for the believers. Thereby they are not accused of proselytizing.

The Amity Foundation (Ai-De in Chinese, meaning "love and virtue") was established in 1985 is an independent Chinese voluntary organization. It was created on the initiative of Chinese Christians to be a social service ministry promoting education, health, and rural development in the under developed areas of China. (I was fortunate enough to be present when Amity was founded. Since that time Amity has also published Christian books and over 80 million Bibles. Once they sold Bibles in a Nanjing bookstore they were sold out in one morning. Most distribution is through churches.)

Qiu Zhonghui, the secretary general of the Amity Foundation, has been awarded the honor of "National Outstanding Charity Worker" by the General Assembly of Charities in Beijing, an arm of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Jamil Anderlini and Du Juan, reporters for the Financial Times, report that many survivors have genuine gratitude towards the state for providing them with the basics. The growth in church attendance has expressed the heart-felt needs of the people in this time of distress.

Many would not talk about the fact that school buildings were hit hardest. Many homes still stand next to the schools, giving speculation as to the schools being shoddily built.

For those who might be interested in this non-governmental ministry write to: The Amity Foundation headquarters: 71, Hankou Road, Nanjing, 210008, China. Or E-mail: for more insight into some of the social and positive things going on in China today. In addition to helping with national emergencies, the Foundation sent aid to Burma during the recent floods.

As I was finishing this column, my wife reminded me that for the Chinese people mountains are often likened to the firmness and constancy that mankind strives for. In 1984 my wife Jody was in Sichuan. She was as much impressed with the massive mountains as much as the spirit of the churches.

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