So yesterday: Day 2 — a tourist day. We travelled the 1.5 hours from our hotel in Beijing to the Great Wall of China. Which is indeed the GREAT WALL! It's unbelievable. They said that a million people would be working on that wall at a time, and I believe it. They say that for every stone in that wall there’s a dead worker, which is, of course, an exaggeration, but nobody is sure how many tens of thousands of workers’ bones are in that wall.
Unfortunately, yesterday was foggy the whole time we were there as you’ll see in the pictures, but at least outside of Beijing the pollution is not nearly so bad, and because we were enveloped in clouds it was a little cooler. Today is the first time that the sky is actually clear (well, pretty clear); I doubt that Beijing’s air is ever actually totally clear! There's still lots of brown haze, but I haven't been feeling as if I’m breathing poison like I did the first day here.
I'll try to post pictures on the blog yet this afternoon hopefully. My hosts will take me to their son’s apartment for internet access. So there's not just the Great Wall of China; there's also the Great Firewall of China! I’ve found many websites to be simply inaccessible. Facebook is one of them. And sometimes even gmail is trouble. But so far peacemennonite.ca keeps working, so I’ll keep trying to update this blog.
So Beijing driving is pretty crazy. The highways are packed, and everyone drives with great vigour, squeezing into the tightest of spots, and you have to be extremely vigilant if you’re a pedestrian. Yet in my three days here I haven't seen a single accident or pedestrian hit. Yesterday Jeanette chartered a van and driver to get us to the Great Wall. I sat up front with the driver because everyone else was too scared to take that seat! He careened around tight corners, pushed between cars going both ways, and squeezed into massive traffic jams where there seemed to be no room to squeeze. Lots of gasps from the foreigners. I thought it was great fun, though once in awhile it really did look like we were about to be hit.
The four “single” pastors in the group hiked together quite a distance along the Great Wall. I have blisters on both little toes to prove it. The wall goes up and over mountain after mountain. The steps along the top can be long and shallow or else short and steep. We got up onto the wall via a gondola up the side of the mountain. The best part though was going down: on a small plastic sled with a brake, sliding down a half-tube steel chute that snaked down the mountain. We waited as long as possible to get on our sleds so that everyone below us would be out of the way. At points along the way attendants waved frantically at us to slow down.
We returned to Beijing’s congestion and spent close to two hours threading our way to another fabulous restaurant where once again we were treated to a massive banquet (that's been a theme every day thus far) hosted by Rob and Kathy Suderman, the MCC leaders in China. They invited us over to their home after dinner, and shared with us about their remarkable work of peace-building and also relief in North Korea. Because we're still rather jet-lagged, several of us had some difficulty keeping our eyes open, but it was really great to hear what God is doing through MCC.
This morning we visited the head office of China Vision, the organization that has teamed up with Mennonite Partners in China to support and connect the Christian Churches across China. Pastor Hongtao (one of the leaders of China Vision… he stayed with us for a few days last summer and spoke one Sunday at Peace) then drove me across the city along the Fifth Ring Road to meet my first hosting church, Beijing Christian Council Tongji Church. Tongji is one of the eight districts of Beijing. So now the nine of us are spread out in every direction across China for the next four days. I was quite happy not to have to fly across the country, and especially now having met the pastors of my host church. I really can hardly wait to see this church in full swing tomorrow. They will be four services, standing room only. It's a really tiny little spot, but still one of the major churches of Beijing. What they wouldn’t give for the resources of Peace Mennonite Church. Our congregation of less than 200 is in a building far bigger than this congregation of more than 2000.
So after sitting down in the Tongji church office to a lovely snack of fruits and nuts (this is harvest season in China), the senior pastor, Pastor Liu, and his associate (Pastor Wei) took Hongtao and me out to an incredible lunch, and like always ordered huge amounts of food of every description, which we didn't have a hope of finishing. (May what we leave behind find its way to those who need it a lot more than I do.) It was a 2-3 hour lunch, and I got to ask him tonnes of questions. He's a highly respected pastor with huge responsibilities, and is on the board of the National Council of Churches here in China, which represents at least 25 million members!
Pastor Liu’s wife is senior pastor of probably the most famous church in China, the church where Billy Graham preached, where George and Barbara Bush attended when they worked in the embassy here (and where their daughter was baptized), and also the church where Bill and Hillary Clinton have attended (Hongtao has a picture of himself with Hillary!). I’ll be spending some time at that downtown church on Monday. This church has more than 10,000 in attendance each weekend.
What I find so remarkable is how these very influential pastors who represent Christianity for so much of China are also connected to China Vision and their Anabaptist teaching. It’s incredible, really, what a huge influence Jeanette and the Anabaptist leaders have on the church as a whole here in China. Thrilling, really. And these pastors I keep meeting are so dedicated to the Gospel of Jesus. I just had to keep reminding myself at lunch today what a privilege it was for me to be sitting across from Pastor Liu and asking him question after question about his church and about the church across China. One of the really cool things that is happening here is how the barriers between the independent house churches and the 3-Self (registered) churches are coming down. It's true that there have been national leaders of the 3-Self Churches that have been way too bureaucratic and way too influenced by the government, but there are also far more who really love Jesus and want the church to grow and to evangelize, and to disciple new believers in the way of Jesus. I think that so many Christians in the West have this perspective that true, pristine Christianity in China only exists in the house churches. But, as Hongtao keeps saying to me, neither the registered or the unregistered churches are perfect. It's also true that there have been many failures in the house churches, where charismatic leaders go off the rails theologically, or where they form a relationship with some church group in America and get lots of financial support, and then the pastor simply takes it all and runs away. But by far the majority of Christians here are incredibly serious about their faith, and strongly committed to the way of Jesus. The passion that exists among most of the Christians here for getting the Good News out to the hundreds of millions who’ve never heard about Jesus is beyond inspiring.
Are you still reading? Good for you! I’ll set up a slide show yet, I think, which will be much more interesting than my run-on commentary. I thank God over and over for the Spirit’s motivating me to finally find my way over to Asia. This pastors exchange is an awesome idea. The opportunities for us to partner with churches in China and to learn from their dedication to Jesus are beyond counting.
Just a word yet on the enormous changes in China. Huge apartment blocks are going up everywhere. Entire landscapes change every year! It is unbelievable, simply unbelievable. There are a total of 6 ring roads around Beijing, and plans for Ring Road #7. It will be more than 1000 km around! Can you imagine? Hongtao said that when he went to America in 1999 to study at AMBS there were only 3 ring roads. When he came back they had built Ring Roads 4 and 5, and were building #6! Ridiculous. Jeanette tells me she can think of areas in Nanchong that have been rebuilt three times… since 1994! Entire landscapes that change not once, not twice, but three times in less than 20 years. No wonder people here are searching for rootedness.
Sorry... so far only pictures from Day 2 (Friday). Day 3 (Saturday) pictures coming soon, I hope.