On the Road With Brother Jonah
Since 1949, itinerant evangelists have become crucial to the vitality and growth of the Christan community in China.
Independent itinerant evangelists are law breakers on at least two counts: The constitution states that evangelism must occur only within designated religous premises, and preachers must be accredited by the local Protestant Threee-Self oganization.
The Life of an itinerant evangelist in China is hectic, sacrificial and dangerous. The following story is a weekend in the life of one of these evangelists.
One of history's greatest itinerant preachers, John Wesley, said that the true itinerant needs only four characteristics to be successful: "a back for any bed, a face for any weather, a stomach for any food, and strength for any work." That describes Brother Jonah, a native of Shanghai, who has been an itinerant preacher throughout China since 1976. He maintains a schedule that would exhaust a 20-year-old. Jonah is 73. I joined up with Jonah in Shanghai. He was collecting a huge pack of Bibles to take into the interior. The bag weighed 60 pounds, bending his slight frame almost to the ground as he staggered off to the railway station where he bought a ticket to a town in Henan Province. Sitting in a third-class carriage, he tells me, "I received a request to preach the gospel in the village we're going to. Apparently someone was converted under my ministry elsewhere, and he has returned to his village, where he is the only believer." As Jonah talked, the people around him listened. He was wedged between two young men; two soldiers stood in the crowded aisle and a family of three sat opposite. They all looked at this small man dressed in a drab and shabby Mao suit. I worried, Is something wrong? One soldier finally leaned forward and said, "Old man, tell us why you seem so happy." Jonah replied with a question: "What do you think? What would be the happiest thing that could ever happen to you, and I'll tell you whether that has happened to me." He addressed his question to all who were listening. The wife sitting opposite said, "a big house would make me the happiest person in the world." The man next to Jonah said, "No, I just want to be loved by a beautiful woman." Another said, "I'd like a passport to America," and one of the soldiers shouted, "If I had the power to command the People's Liberation Army, I would be the happiest man in the world." Jonah grinned. They asked, "Do you have any of these? Is that why you are so happy?" "Yes!" Jonah replied, "I have all of them, and more." They were aghast. He smiled again. "Let me see now," he said. "I have a mansion so large an emperor would be green with envy; I am loved devotedly by the most beautiful person in the world; I have the perfect freedom to go wherever I wish; and I happen to be a very close friend of the most powerful man on earth. In fact, I have received all this from one person, and his name is Jesus Christ." For 20 hours, Jonah talked. He pulled out his frayed Bible and took them through it book by book. Hunched over his Bible, he spoke earnestly to his eager audience. At dawn we reached our destination. Jonah distributed New Testaments and tracts. He shook hands with them, and we stepped out. "They are not far from the Kingdom," he said. "all but one of them were greatly convicted by God, but the fellow sitting beside me could spell trouble." As if on cue, the same young man passed on the station platform. He gave us both a long look. Suddenly another man approached us. "Praise the Lord," he said, looking at Jonah. "God has answered my prayers and sent you." He pointed to three rusty bicycles. "Our transport," he said. "It's a five-hour ride to my village." I don't know how Jonah managed to balance on the bike with that heavy bag-nor how he had the strength to keep pedaling and talking at the same time, for the young man was full of questions, and Jonah answered them all. Three hours into the journey I pulled alongside him, my legs aching, and joked, "It's a miracle that you are fit enough to do this at your age." "That's exactly what it is," he replied. We arrived at the village mid-morning. He wasted no time in gathering a crowd. He simply dove into a house, emerged with two tin pots, and proceeded to bang them together. He shouted over the din, "Friends, come and hear about a God who can really transform your life!" They came running. He spoke for nearly an hour about his biblical namesake, Jonah. He told them that they had two things in common with the people of Ninevah; first, they were living in ignorance and defiance of the one true God, and second, God would judge them soon if they did not repent. It was a new teaching to them, but the 200 villagers listened. Jonah later explained, "Chinese people gape with astonishment when they are told that what is wrong with the world is themselves. All China's religions, right up to Mao's 'religion,' affirm that human beings are basically good; it's circumstances that make them bad. So when they hear that they are the ones who are bad, they can hardly take it in." Jonah went on to tell them about God's love for them and wept tears as he told them of Jesus' sufferings on the cross. Then he led them in a prayer of repentance. About a quarter of the village prayed with him. The Kingdom of God had come to that village. Jonah spent the rest of the afternoon with three converts he selected to lead the new church and gave them a crash course in Christian doctrine. Leaving a stock of Bibles, he exhorted them, "Do nothing hastily, do nothing out of anger. Every decision you make should be in accord with each other, and only after much prayer and searching of this book." That evening, someone rode into the village and said that the Public Security Bureau was looking for an evangelist and his companion. That meant trouble. "I knew it," Jonah said. "The young man on the train has informed on us." We left the village pedaling fast over rutted roads in the black of night. Four hours later, we reached a bus station. The bus was just leaving, and we climbed aboard. Later we learned what a miracle God had worked for our escape. After we had got on the bus, someone from the village came across the Public Security Bureau car-it had run out of gas barely one mile from the bus station. Had the car been functioning properly, they would have easily over taken the bus. Meanwhile we had arrived in this new city. It was Sunday, and Jonah said, "we'll drop in on a house-church leader I know." The leader was delighted to see Jonah, but after greeting us he turned serious. "We have had a division in our church since you were last here, Jonah. Three of our six elders led half the church away, and we no longer fellowship together." It was a large church, comprised of more than 5,000 members. Three thousand now worshipped with the three renegade elders. "What was the issue of division?" Jonah asked. "It has to do with the Lord's return," the leader replied. "The three elders believe that the Lord will return in the middle of next year, and that the church should prepare-sell property, leave jobs, and concentrate more on evangelism. The rest of the elders did not share this conviction, and were accused of not showing enough urgency. Eventually they split." That afternoon six elders gathered in the house. The atmosphere was tense and strained. Jonah entered the room and surveyed the group. He said nothing. They looked back. He sat down. All of a sudden great sobs heaved his body, tears cascaded down his cheeks, and he cried out in anguish, "O Lord, how we have dirtied your name!" His grief, so genuine and so deep, broke the strained atmosphere, and soon all the elders were weeping. The Lord's name had been dishonored; the elders confessed, repented, and were reconciled. There were no words. No fingers pointed. No voices raised. No issues aired. Tears were enough. Just as we were preparing to leave, there was a knock on the door. To our horror it was the local party boss. Was he there to round up the six elders? Or was he after Jonah, who was well known to the authorities as an undesirable? "Who is the evangelist Jonah?" he asked. Jonah stepped forward and said, "I am." "Will you come and pray for my 8-year-old son? He is very sick." Jonah replied, "Why have you come to me? What makes you think I can help?" "Because I have heard you are in touch with a God of real power," the party boss answered. Yet Jonah persisted, "Why do you think I should ask God to heal your son? After all, you have not shown much liking for Christians." Tension mounted. Was Jonah going too far? This man was powerful. One word from him and we would be spending the next few months in jail. But it seemed his child's need banished all thoughts of revenge. "I have also heard that Christians are full of love, " he said, "and that they forgive their enemies." "Do you think that is true?" Jonah asked. "What sense does it make to reach out to enemies in love?" With great emotion, the man declared, "All my life I have been taught to hate-to hate tradition, to hate capitalism, to hate the West, to hate the revisionists. Always the cry is 'hate, hate, hate.' I know I have accomplished nothing. And I know China has gone nowhere. I know hate only kills. My wife is dead, my family is dead, and sometimes I feel dead myself. Hatred has killed them, and it's killing me. But I still feel love-love for my son-and I know that without that little love I bear for him, and he for me, I am dead. Christians are supposed to worship a God of love. Maybe this God will take pity on my sick son." There was shocked silence. Jonah said gently, "We do worship a God of love, and he is the One who has given you the love you have for your son. But you don't have to ask me to pray. Why not speak to God yourself about your son?" "Will he listen to me?" the man gasped. "Of course," Jonah replied. "Now you pray, and we will pray with you." The distraught father prayed: "God, since you are love, save my son, and free him to live a life of love!" We all said "Amen" and hurried after him to his son. The boy was completely well, and two more souls were united to Christ. It was an amazing weekend: nine hours of bicycle pedaling, 40 hours on a hard railway seat, and eight hours on a bumpy bus. Jonah led more than 50 people from a remote village into the Kingdom of God, he started a church, held an all-night seminar on Bible doctrine to 10 young people on a train, reconciled the leaders of 5,000 Christians, and converted a high-ranking party cadre through the healing of his son. Was he tired? He returned to his apartment and sifted through his mail. Another invitation had arrived from Gansu Province, requesting him to instruct 600 full-time workers in a house-church movement. That very evening he was on the train to Gansu Province. He once said, "Rest is for the next world!" Jonah is a man of his word.
Ron MacMillan is the Asia correspondent for News Network International, for which this story was written. Reprinted by permission of world Vision Magazine.