A Centennial Pilgrimage to China
Though the occasion has passed by virtually without notice here in the States, 2013 marked a major event in the history of the Lutheran Church Missouri–Synod, namely the centennial of LCMS mission in China. On 28 February 1913, the Rev. Eduard Louis Arndt with wife and four (of seven) children arrived in China—just two years and two weeks after the toppling of the last imperial dynasty in China’s history. From Shanghai the Arndts sailed up the Yangzi River to Hankou [i], China’s major inland international city, arriving 3 March to begin residence. The forty-year story that follows is intriguing though convoluted. Happily, there are resources that trace that history. [ii] What is presented here is a recounting of a weekend of commemoration in Hong Kong and a two-week (mid-October 2013) visit to major LCMS mission sites from that era, to observe and honor both missionaries and nationals who labored during those years, and also to note some of the lasting impact of that Gospel outreach.
Centennial Observances in Hong Kong
Centennial observance began with festive weekend activities in Hong Kong. The LCMS Asia Office hosted a Saturday gathering, with special presentations by Dr. Jeffrey Oschwald (Great Things through Little Preachers), by Dr. Henry Rowold (Reflections on Theological Education), and by David Kohl (History of the LCMS in China). Sunday marked a Lutheran Church–Hong Kong Synod (LCHKS) festival worship service with some 700 people in attendance, including representatives from partner churches of the region. Dr. Oschwald’s sermon, A Century of Gratitude, a World of Opportunity, noted points of convergence between the Reformation, the China centennial , and the ongoing mission of the church.
Five Men in a Van
By comparison, the centennial pilgrimage was much smaller (only five people), though it did it involve travel over a more extended time (two weeks). The catalyst for the trip was a centennial book written and newly published by David Kohl, former teacher at Hong Kong International School and professor at Concordia University, Portland. What makes his book (Lutherans on the Yangtze) such a treasure is that he has not only gathered artifacts that missionary children inherited and treasured from their parents (photos, letters, journals) but he also interviewed those children and mined the memories of their growing up in China. The book is a marvelous tribute, combining words that tell the story, with visuals available nowhere else, all of which gives warm human insight to an era long passed.
The other key people in the trip were Adam and Sherry Gawel. Adam is a Wisconsin Synod graduate, presently in a doctoral program in Wuhan—with special interest in the history of the LCMS mission in China. His academic scholarship provided a superb complement to David’s focus on the human story. Adam and Sherry planned the logistics of the trip, including renting a vehicle so we could set our own route, and keep housing and food costs down. With Kevin Stellick, another WELS colleague, and Richard Miller, retired LCMS teacher and polished photographer, we set out, “five men in a van,’ to explore places where that early corps of missionaries/families lived and worked, spread over some 600 miles, and to find legacies of that ministry. Those five in the van included three who could speak Chinese, and three who had done some prior study of the history.
First Stop: Wuhan
Coming from different directions, we met and began our trip in Wuhan. [iii] We lingered there a couple of days, among buildings that helped jog our transition to the Wuhan of a century and more ago. Though it lay far inland, it was considered an ocean port because ocean-going ships were able to navigate 450 miles up the Yangtze all the way to Wuhan. Like Shanghai, therefore, the city was divided into various concessions (British, French, Japanese), and some gracious buildings from that era have not only survived but have been given new life in a bustling city. Among those buildings one stood out because of a plaque marking it as the “Lutheran Missionary Home,” which functioned as a Lutheran Center for a wide variety of Lutheran mission agencies, European and American. From the first day we felt we were already on sacred Lutheran soil.
The most memorable event of our days in Wuhan took place in a neighborhood in the shadow of those lovely buildings. With the help of letters, descriptions, and photos, we found not only the street but the very row house, and the specific flat the Arndts rented as residence (upstairs) and chapel /school (downstairs). We could hardly believe our eyes, first that the nondescript building in a poor section of town (presently serving a combination of family laundry and auto supplies) not only survived upwards of a hundred years, but also that the building still had recognizable marks of earlier photographs. We were off to an excited start.
As modest as that original site of LCMS presence in China was, the campus of (the former) Concordia Seminary was quite a striking place. It was not built until some twenty years into the history of the LCMS mission, but was far and away the most substantial facility built by the LCMS, and the best preserved. Though theological training began early in the mission, the completion of a campus had to wait until 1932, well after Arndt’s death. Delayed by limited funding (these were depression years) and by civil unrest leading to departure of missionaries in the late 1920s, this facility became the center of LCMS presence and activity, including theological education, publication of literature, and housing of missionary families. There are a couple of notable side-bytes of history concerning the seminary: 1) In 1938 the campus served the International Red Cross and the League of Nations as an isolation hospital, serving upwards of a hundred people with communicable diseases, ranging from small pox to typhoid, to cholera; 2) During the Japanese occupation but prior to Pearl Harbor the American declaration of war with Japan, the missionary presence, led by the Rev. Paul Frillmann, not only kept the compound safe from Japanese incursion, but allowed it to serve as refuge to Chinese at risk, especially women and children.
During the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) era, the campus was transformed into a kindergarten for families of government leaders, which gave it immunity from the chaotic destructiveness of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, with some adaptation of missionary homes for classroom use and a few additional buildings, it has not only emerged intact, but, with 1,200 children, it forms one of the finest and largest kindergartens in Wuhan. The present leadership of the kindergarten was aware we were coming, and hosted us graciously, showing the kindergarten with pride, and exchanging with us their recent history for our sharing via photos and anecdotes the early history of the campus. Interestingly, legal ownership of the campus belongs to municipal church structures, and the kindergarten pays rent to the church, though any thought of recouping use of the facility lies likely far in the future.
One place that time did not allow us to visit was a residence, still standing, which housed several families of Chinese pastors who worked with the LCMS.
Second Stop: Makou (Hsimakow)
The next day being Sunday, we travelled north up to Han River to one of the smaller river towns that was part of LCMS outreach. Still a small village (by Chinese standards), there was a Christian church. Somewhat similar to what happened with the LCMS seminary, what had been a rather spacious church compound had been confiscated during the Cultural Revolution and assigned to other use. More recently, although the government has recognized the church’s legal ownership, only a hall inside the compound has been returned to church use. In any case, the worship of the 60-70 people was joyfully contagious.
Third Stop: Jingzhou
Our first stop heading (west) up the Yangtze River was Jingzhou, an historic walled city which has expanded to include the smaller city of Shashi, where the LCMS had missionary residence and several churches and schools. I remember visiting on prior trips what had been Zion Lutheran Church (LCMS)—the only LCMS sanctuary remaining at that time from pre-PRC era. Unfortunately, that church was in bad repair and too small for the several thousand members. The government offered to trade that site for a larger plot of land on the edge of town, where an impressive multi-building, multi-story church campus has been built. (The crumbling shell of a transitional church structure still stands…barely)
Place of honor in the history of that church goes to the widow of Rev. Liu Langen, a pastor in the LCMS mission, who shepherded that church in the final years before the PRC era and in the early years of that era. His wife, Evangelist Wang Meiyu, recently deceased, is credited as being the person who, after Rev. Liu’s death, guided the church through the chaotic, repressive days of the Cultural Revolution, and saw the days of its resurgence. The pastor of today’s successor church allowed us one further glimpse into the resilience of the Christian church in China. Down a tiny alleyway of the old section of Shashi was a door that opened to a small home. At the entrance was a cross and a word of welcome to the Christian church—unassuming, but integral to the life of the back streets of Shashi. The contrast of striking new campus and low-key old house church was striking and heartening.
Fourth Stop: Enshi (Enshih)
Further up the Yangtze, nestled in spectacular mountains, lies the city of Enshi, formerly known as Shihnan. The mountains in fact are so rugged and imposing that it wasn’t until two years ago that Enshi was connected to the rest of China by a rail line and a major highway. Being that inaccessible was a blessing during World War 2, though, because though the Japanese occupied most centers of population and industry in China, troops never set foot in Enshi, though they did bomb it mercilessly.
In this remote city, we saw another legacy of LCMS ministry in China, namely a missionary residence, built in 1925, which served over the years also as clinic, nursing school, and home for orphans. The home, declared recently as an historical building, [iv] will likely stand for many more years, as a museum and a lasting tribute to the ministry carried on there. The nursing school which began there some ninety years ago has been developed into a superb nursing college and hospital.
Two notes of further interest: 1) In fear that Japanese troops would attack Enshi, missionaries Gertrude Simon and Olive Gruen led 21 small orphaned girls on an 11-day, 200-mile trip overland to safety in Wanzhou—a river city also beyond Japanese occupation. 2) One of the orphans, Wang Meiyu, mentioned in the section just above, grew up in the Enshi clinic/orphanage. She went on to marry Rev. Liu Langen, pastor at Shashi, and after his death during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, she held the church together until China emerged from those bitter days.
Fifth Stop: Chongqing (Chungking)
The road from Enshi led us through a mountain pass so breathtakingly beautiful that the local people used the word “Grand Canyon” to describe it, even though it’s wooded and green. From there we headed to Chongqing, with a population of some 7 million—30 million with environs. In terms of World War 2 history, Chongqing was far enough inland that the Nationalist Chinese government, driven by the Japanese during World War 2 away from its capital in Nanjing, moved 750 upriver to Chongqing. One of the interesting war museums we visited gave the story of the Flying Tigers and of the military and diplomatic efforts of General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell. Missionary Paul Frillmann, mentioned above for providing refuge on the Wuhan seminary compound during World War 2, served in later years as chaplain to the Flying Tigers, at the invitation of Major Claire Chennault.
Along with the government and many refugees, missionaries also retreated to Chongqing. As a result, Chongqing was added in 1943 as the last of the mission plants. [v] We visited two churches here. One, Agape Congregation, was a very large, impressive church, with a sanctuary that seats close to a thousand on the seventh floor of a multi-story building. (Their one complaint? Getting all those hundreds of worshippers up to the seventh floor in two busy elevator cars in time for worship, and then down again for the folks coming for the next service.) Much less imposing, but more relevant for our purposes, was a congregation built where the LCMS Savior Church stood at one time. Entrance was non-descript, through a parking garage, into a facility that could, however, also hold several hundred people. We met the pastor and several church leaders, and had a very interesting exchange, sharing with them photos and stories about a history they had not heard much of before. During several visits in earlier years (before his passing), I had the joy of meeting and talking with the Rev. Li Muqun, who graduated from the LCMS seminary program and served the Chongqing churches for many decades, both before and during the PRC years.
Sixth Stop: Wanzhou (Wanxian or Wanhsien)
Turning back to the east, we wandered through the hills to Wanzhou. For many years, this somewhat remote place, accessible primarily via river travel, was the westernmost mission station, begun in 1924. [vi] Here in Wanzhou is where I had earlier met the other surviving pastor from our pre-PRC China mission, the Rev. Zhang Dongjin, another low-key but resolute saint like Evangelist Wang Meiyu from Shashi. An outgrowth of LCMS congregational ministry was the development of Concordia Middle School (CMS). The CMS facilities survived into the PRC era and were expanded to form the Second Middle School of Wanzhou (SMSW). Striking about our CMS/SMSW visit was a chance to see the room that portrayed the full history of the school. One major section was devoted to its early years as CMS, with photos displaying the work of early teachers, including missionaries. As often before, while the school leadership had much to share about the growth of the school since 1950, they had much curiosity about the pre-PRC era that they themselves had no contact with…until our visit there.
Seventh Stop: Fengjie (Kweifu)
From Wanzhou we boarded a river boat that took us down through the gorgeous Gorges, including the so-called “little gorges,” even more spectacular than the better known Yangzi Gorges. As beautiful as the gorges were, with mountains and cliffs rising abrupt and high out of the water, we were also reminded that this was the only means of travel back and forth from mission station to mission station, with perils of submerged rock formation, whirlpools, bandits and marauders vulnerable and tenuous for that earlier generation.
We did make one brief stop at Fengjie. Though we were able to get off the river boat, we were committed by time to prearranged visits to local sites, and were not able to explore legacies of LCMS ministry here. Truth be told, however, ministry here (begun in 1923) seemed to meet greater local resistance than in other places, so it might have been more difficulty to find roots or remnants. Besides, old Fengjie, like Wanzhou, was largely inundated by water when the Yangzi River was backed up by the Three Gorges Dam, and a new Fengjie established on higher ground.
Eighth Stop: Yichang
Our river boat ride ended at the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam, which ranks as the largest hydroelectric power stations in the world. Ecological concerns notwithstanding, the dam completes a long-dreamed vision of harvesting electrical power and providing flood control for the heartland of China.
At the terminus is the city of Yichang, where the LCMS had begun ministry already in 1921, including a school. Unfortunately, time did not allow us to explore those sites, though we did visit a large Christian church in an unusually prominent, high-visibility location virtually on the banks of the Yangzi River.
Ninth Stop: Wuhan
Back in Wuhan for Sunday morning, we worshipped with a small Christian gathering (30-40), mostly younger people, a contrast to many of the larger congregations we saw along the way, but not atypical of many unregistered gatherings of people (house churches) in both rural and urban areas. Such is the diversity of the Christian church in China, whether in terms of size, of visibility, of age, of gender, of openness. Though ours was a short, quick, focused trip whose major agenda was seeking roots and legacies of the LCMS, we did find the Christian church at every step, much more alive and assertive than in my earlier visits. One lesson reinforced by this trip is that God is by no means through with China yet—or anywhere else, as far as that goes.
Tenth Step: Guling (Kuling)
Our last major stretch of road took us eastward past Wuhan to the river city of Jiujiang, where we basically turned a bit south and began the ascent up Lu Mountain to a mountain-top village of Guling. Like Aspen CO or Holden Village WA, Guling is a resort area treasured equally by privileged (international political leaders, social and business leaders) folks as by lower-budget folks. For missionaries Guling was a God-send place of cool, fresh air, particularly when the beastly hot, humid summers lay heavy on the lowlands. With the help of the LCMS Walther League, four residences were built on Guling as missionary retreat in 1924 and used through 1937. There annual conferences could meet in comfort and leisure, but also families could enjoy fellowship, sightseeing, swimming, sports. Babies were born; illnesses were eased and healed; spirits were renewed. Though the trip in those days was strenuous, including what looked to us like a formidable, downright dangerous thousand-step climb up a path with seemingly no protective railings. Likely, the pay-off of weeks of relaxation and renewal, however, made the climb simply an obstacle to deal with. We did, by the way, with the help of photos and documents locate those residences—inherited by and still used by local residents.
Eleventh Step: Shanghai
Actually, our trip together ended when we came back down from Guling off the Lu mountain range. Back in Jiujiang, Adam drove back home to Wuhan, and the rest of us took the train to Shanghai. That left me with a half-day in Shanghai where I visited our Concordia International School Shanghai (CISS), which I have visited almost every year since the day when the only thing there was a dream hovering over a vacant field. Since then, after several years’ preparation and construction, and another 15 years’ operation, CISS has emerged into a P-12 school of some 1,200 children, not only an excellent school any way “excellent” is defined, but also a clearly Christian school. CISS is a daughter school of Hong Kong International School (HKIS), in the sense that leaders of HKIS came to China and shared with municipal governments the vision of a school with similar quality as HKIS. Similarly, those two schools teamed up to offer the vision of a quality school in Hanoi (Vietnam). Besides, HKIS “donated” experienced Christian teachers to help form CISS, and both seeded Concordia International School Hanoi with experienced Christian teachers.
Twelfth Step: Shenzhen
From Shanghai to Hong Kong and then on to Shenzhen just north of the border from Hong Kong. In Shenzhen is one more Lutheran school, Buena Vista-Concordia (BVC), pioneered just a few years ago (2011) by our partner Lutheran Church-Hong Kong Synod, with administrative and classroom staff shared by the LCMS. While CISS, as an international school, can enroll only non-PRC students—though some 50% are ethnic Chinese—BVC is registered as a local school, though with an international curriculum, and is thus able to provide Christian education to citizens of the PRC. This partnership makes a good place to end the tale of the pilgrimage, for two reasons. One, the final step is fulfillment of the initial step, namely founding a fledgling school in Wuhan, which led to other schools down to our own era. Secondly, this ministry was undertaken not by the LCMS but by a “mission plant” of the LCMS. In reaching into its cultural home, China, the LCHKS takes its place as partner to the LCMS.
From start to finish, this was a trip where thoughts and reflections bounced freely back and forth between places and people and between eras and ministries (pre-PRC, PRC era, even offshore). What follows are a few of the more lasting impressions.
We all came back with much deepened respect for missionaries who lived and served in a China very different from today. Families were days’ travel by potentially dangerous routes from colleagues and from basic provision of life, like medical care, education, familiar foods. They went with minimal prior language study, but functioned well in Chinese, not an easy language. [vii] They had to be extraordinarily self-sufficient: gardening, raising animals for milk and meat, maintaining and repairing house and machinery, providing basic medical care, educating children at home. My guess is that the fact that the rural upbringing that most missionaries had, husband and wife, gave them not only basic life skills but the ability to adapt and adjust.
In addition, missionaries lived in very troubled and uncertain times. They arrived just two years after the last dynasty fell, which consigned China to decades of warlords and marauding troops. In that political and social vacuum emerged also nationalistic spirit, including communism, which sometimes turned anti-foreign. 1937 saw the beginning of Japanese invasion and occupation, leading to World War 2. Civil war broke out between Nationalist and Communist factions, leading to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which in turn led to the expulsion of all missionaries and the end of the mission era.
Amazingly, with limited resources, social turmoil, constant warfare, and natural disasters, those early missionaries, in addition to planting churches, founded clinics and hospitals, established schools (elementary, high school, nursing, seminary), cared for orphans, produced literature, beamed the Gospel over the air waves. Many of these ministries had to be moved upriver during the Japanese era. Life and ministry on the run!
The worst, of course, was when it became inevitable that they would leave China. The ministry had not really recovered from the devastation of the global war and the civil war. Too early came the reality that there was no room for them under the new PRC government. While national pastors and leaders continued the ministry, the writing on the wall became bleaker and bleaker, until the nation slid into the horrific decade of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (1965-1975), when all religious activity was forbidden, all church property confiscated, and all church leaders were under intense persecution (prison, hard labor, execution). One illustration of how bleak things looked is part of the conclusion of a missionary’s doctoral dissertation on the history of the LCMS China mission; with a painful poetic touch, he lamented that the LCMS mission came to an end “as quietly as a corpse is lowered over the railing for burial at sea. It made no splash as it slipped into oblivion.” [viii] Had he been able to live another decade beyond his death in 1981, he would have seen a completely different picture. Beginning about 1980, the government in China changed, and the church was able to emerge, not only where it had been before (like Shashi or Wanzhou or Chongqing) but in areas where there had never been a Christian presence (prisons, hard labor camps). Thankfully, over the years, it has been possible to make contact with some of those Lutheran pastors, evangelists, members who were not just survivors, but heroes who held the church together under persecution, and guided it to life and verve in today’s China. This is the supreme joy experienced on this centennial pilgrimage, namely not just buildings and institutions, but living testimonies to the Lord’s promise that his Word does not return void. True, not everyone who plants or waters gets to harvest, but the Lord of the harvest blesses and multiplies the work of all his servants.
There’s one more reflection, which is more of an overflow of the China mission. As reluctant as those missionaries were to leave China, they did not forsake their missionary calling. Put differently, God doesn’t waste much. Here is a corps of missionaries, accustomed to life away from home, experienced in planting and nurturing churches, skilled in cross-cultural living and working. To borrow another biblical image, the Spirit blows where it will, and the Spirit blew some of these missionaries to places like Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, where Chinese is the language and the people. It blew others to Japan and to the Philippines to Korea, even to Papua New Guinea to plant new churches and to nurture a church into partnership in the task of bringing the Gospel to all parts of Asia…and beyond…and even back to the United States as missionaries there/here. The centennial marks rebirth, of the church in China, in Asia, in the Unites States, and around the world.
What a marvelous centennial. What began as one person’s pioneering effort a hundred years ago has been blessed, transformed, and energized by God as a multi-faceted expression of the Gospel that touches the entire world.
[ii] Among the more helpful, though dated resources are several theses (Roy Suelflow, THE MISSION ENTERPRISE OF THE LUTHERAN CHURCH-MISSOURI SYNOD IN MAINLAND CHINA 1913-1952, 1971; Richard Meyer, THE MISSOURI EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN MISSION IN CHINA, 1958, and Alfred Ziegler, BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES OF LCMS MAINLAND CHINA MISSIONARIES, 1981.) A more popular, current, and illustrated resource is the book prepared in connection with the centennial, and just recently published: David Kohl’s LUTHERANS ON THE YANGTZE, 2013.
[iii] Wuhan is a mega-city comprised of three cities (Hankou, Hanyang, and Wuchang), originally separated by two major rivers, the Han and the Yangzi. After bridges were built to connect them, they were combined into one municipality. Its location on the Yangtze (east-west) and on the north-south rail line transformed the area into a major center of trade, transport, and manufacture (termed the “Chicago of China”), with a population upwards of ten million.
[iv] On an earlier trip, I did see also a second residence, which unfortunately did not survive.
[v] There were missionaries also in Kunming, but their ministry was largely to the United States military stationed there during World War 2.
[vi] Interestingly, this entire river town was picked up and moved further up into the hills when the Yangzi River dam raised the water level above the city.
[vii] Other early missionaries said of Chinese that it was “an unconverted language,” which demanded of the learner “bodies of brass, lungs of steel, heads of oak, hands of strong-steel, eyes of eagles, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah.”
[viii] Suelflow, p. 358.