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Minister True to His Faith in China

Despite Communist backdrop, growth of Christian churches strengthens a clergyman's resolve. RELIGION

IT was Sunday in Shanghai, and the old Methodist church was filled to the rafters. Men and women, young and old, students and workers, listened intently to an impassioned sermon from their pastor, Rev. Shi Qigui. His text: Romans 8:16, ``The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.'' Outside, the streets were full of people strolling, or shopping, or on their way to the movies. For most citizens, Sunday is their only full day off. But inside the Victorian structure, with vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows, a congregation of 3,000 listened intently to Reverend Shi's message. Intellectuals, illiterates, Chinese, Americans, people of all races and tongues, were enfolded in that love, the minister said. Later, in his study, Shi chats with a visiting journalist about Christianity's coexistence with Marxism in China. We are in the presence of government officials and do not discuss politics. But on any religious topic, including the growth of Christians meeting in illegal ``house churches,'' Shi is quite forthright. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in China have experienced a striking growth in membership during the past decade, which has continued despite the Tiananmen crackdown of June 1989, the minister says. Both Sunday services at his church, Mu-en (Abundant Grace), are full. Many members are survivors of the persecutions of the Cultural Revolution period (1966-76). But there is also an increasing number of young newcomers. Shi comes from an old Methodist family. The church, built in 1887, used to be called Moore Memorial Church. Nine years after the Communist victory of 1949, all Protestant denominations were merged into one united church, and Moore Memorial became Mu-en. Christians and Communists coexisted uneasily during these early years of the Communist regime. Shi says, ``They [the Communists] said, you can keep your religious belief, but you must love your country. We said, `Of course we love our country, but we believe in God. And we think you, the Communist Party, don't believe in God.''' Then came the nationwide upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution, when all churches were closed and their ministers were sent to prison or to factories as manual workers. Shi passed the decade of the cultural revolution as a hauler of goods in a small factory. The terrible decade ended, and a new government proclaimed a program of economic reforms and of an opening to the outside world. The ban on Christianity was lifted, and in 1979 Mu-en became the first church in Shanghai to reopen its doors. When he was told he could become a pastor again, ``Frankly, I was somewhat afraid,'' Shi says. Who could guarantee how long the new freedom would last? But he gave himself a pep talk that, after all, ``I am a pastor. I won't be afraid. Even if the government allows us to open for just one or two years, still I will preach.'' At first his congregation was made up only of Christians who had survived the Cultural Revolution. Then newcomers began to attend. Some were attracted by the hymn-singing. Others because it was a place you could meet foreigners, and make contacts that might allow you to study abroad. Gradually, those with extraneous motives fell away. Those who remained did so because they were impressed by the lives of the Christians they met. ``All these nonbelievers, or I'll say all these people, looked at our Christians, and said `Yes, they are good persons, what is it that happened in their lives?''' Shi says. ``They read the Bible, then they get their own spiritual experience. They feel Christianity is the great power that can move them.'' SHI acknowledges that he operates under restrictions. ``We cannot preach on the street or in the park.'' While Christians are supposed to worship only in officially recognized churches, they could gather in their homes, or, if there were no churches, at ``meeting points'' that were serviced by lay workers or by itinerant pastors. One ``meeting point'' had a congregation of 1,200. The government considers this activity illegal, and there is much independent testimony regarding arrests and imprisonment of underground Christians. Shi says that the practice differs from region to region. Being a Christian in a Communist country isn't easy. Still, Shi is encouraged that more than 10 years have passed since his church reopened, and so far, at least, the government has kept its word, the official doctrine being that people have the freedom to be atheists or to be believers. What if a new period of persecution were to come? Shi laughs. ``We aren't afraid. We believe in God. God will lead us. History shows that any persecution always left Christianity stronger and increasing.'' -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/dshang.

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