Introduction: The spiritual journey presented in this article is quite representative of what many Chinese immigrants go through. It raises questions on the modern role of religion, and whether churches serve primarily social or spiritual needs. For almost everyone from China, western religions have been unknown, and it is interesting to see how perceptions evolve as that novelty is explored.
I found this article in Chinese, posted in four parts, on www.haidongji.com. I translated parts of this into English with the author's permission. If you can read Chinese, the original posts have more humor and flavor. Too bad certain things always get lost in translation. – Xujun
1.For a period, from middle school in China till a few years after I came to the US, I held in my subconscious admiration for Christianity. Perhaps this had something to do with the Western world's advancement and the reverence evoked by the Chinese translation of names from religious literature. Sometimes when I was a poseur or dubious or unsure about things, as part of making selfish wishes I would add the words "God bless." In Xiamen University, where I was a undergrad, the library, near to the Chemistry College, had a foreign language reading room on the second floor. There I once read American Presidents' English speeches. When I read the ending line “god bless America,” I felt my heart throb from the appeal of America. (America, like every country in the world, has many good things we can learn from, but also many lessons that we can draw from.) Now, whenever Junior Bush has a chance, he adds "May God continue to bless America." Please note the word "continue," as if America were God's favorite. A few years ago I asked my Swedish wife, in the more democratic, freer Sweden, would leaders say "God bless Sweden" in their speeches? She had a flabbergasted look of incomprehension: "Are you making sense? Such irrelevant fudge would make most citizens laugh to death."
During my undergraduate time at Xiamen University, the feeling of novelty made me turn the pages of a Chinese translation of the Bible, but it did not convert me. In 1997, after receiving my Master's degree in the US, I worked for a consulting company. Through a customer I met a lady from Hong Kong, who – with her husband – was an eager proselytizer. During the 1998 Memorial Day weekend, a few Chinese churches organized a Gospel camp in Indiana, which provided free food and board. They invited me to join. I happened to have time at hand, and was somewhat lonely and bored. That made a few free meals and an opportunity to make friends sound pretty good. In addition, my new Dodge Neon hadn't had a chance to travel far from home.
So I went. Those were okay days. The preachers were mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, while the audience was mainly Mainland Chinese. The attractive things to me were the food to eat and the basketball games to play, plus other outdoor activities and more or less acceptable music. But, of course, more time was spent listening to preaching and "testimonies" proving that God, and the resurrected Jesus, loved and cared for them, and fiddled all kinds of miracles on their torsos. At emotional points, some clapped hands, some sobbed, some said "amen." Any little thing would cause people to pray. The pray was formative – thank the Father in the heaven and his son on the earth; hope you bless this thing we are about to do together. At this point the prayer would insert his or her personal wishes and views, but still say it all in the name of God. Thank my Lord for bringing the strayed sheep Ji Haidong here; then again thank my Lord. Then "amen"; the prayer ends. If the prayer is before a meal, now it's time to pick up your chopsticks. Though I haven't participated in other Gospel camps, my guess is the format is largely identical (perhaps without the chopsticks).
2.The day before camp finished, a Ph.D. in physics who emigrated from Mainland China joined us. It seemed he had just gotten a theology diploma, now single candle serving the Lord having abandoned science. He was an older man, who spent his youth during the Cultural Revolution. He talked about his experiences and struggles, and the calmness of his soul after converting to Christianity. At times he even choked with sobs. I don't think he was acting, but in retrospect he seemed to have too much self-pity but lacked self-examination, self-renewal, or self-determination.
Anyhow, regardless of race, complexion, nationality, or financial condition, who doesn't have anguish, struggle, and vacillation? Listening to him, I did feel a certain resonance and was somewhat touched. Following his speech was the usual process of showing resolution: those who would accept the unconditional love from Jesus and gain rebirth and eternal life etc., etc. were called on to raise their hands.
I sat there, feeling the gaze from the family who brought me in and the imperceptible influence from the benefits of Christian belief, and I bashfully raised my hand.
Years later I discussed this with my wife and she asked if it was because the unconditional love has so much emotional appeal for me. This makes some sense, but isn't it also true that, to most of us, the love from our parents is unconditional? Have we gotten it wrong somewhere in the way we express love? Isn't it also true that making a person feel shame, guilt, and humiliation are all means of controlling?
After returning from the Gospel camp I often drove to the Chinese church. Though it was a bit far from where I lived, it was good to chat with the others I had met there. I felt that, for most Chinese, belief was due to loneliness and social need, in this sense an alumni association or townsmen association might actually do better than the church.
I was also interested in some local churches but was told not to go to a Catholic Church.
Later we moved, so I joined a Baptist church in northern Chicago, which didn't have many Chinese. This church was more interesting: beside the rostrum was a bathtub. A converted "sinner" was to soak in the bathtub, to wash off sins and live anew. Of course there wouldn't be a pedicure or massage, otherwise its door would be as crowded as a marketplace.
During my visits, I didn't see one person baptized.
I also joined the church's Sunday school. The instructor was quite good. I liked to chat with the black, Philippine, and Latin American members. Objectively speaking, it was beneficial, because communication is always a good thing.
3.Then we moved again. Where we live now, within 500-meters there are as many as ten churches. Next to our apartment is a small church, each Sunday it offers three services, and every time it is overcrowded, so much so even our car can't park in the church's parking lot. A mega-church, its believers are well-dressed in suits and ties or elegant dresses. Every Wednesday evening members of a study group gathered for discussion. In addition, the church runs a kindergarten, an elementary school, a middle school and a high school, with the priest's wife the principal, to ensure that religious roots are ingrained from a young age.
The priest's voice is as sonorous as a large bell, the tune can linger around the beamed ceiling for three days. Standing on the stage, he talks bombastically, nothing he doesn't know, nothing he can't address. Before preaching he will issue an outline, similar to the handouts for Mao Zedong Thought or Dialectic Materialism classes we had in China, only the content is switched. On the pages of the outline are blank spaces for believers to take notes. By the time he finishes, his face is radiant with red and he is soaked with sweat. He instructs the multitudes to hold up high the flag of Jesus Thought, follow his instructions, and pray the way we Chinese did with our "morning request for instructions" from Mao and "evening reporting" to him everyday during the Cultural Revolution.
Then someone will sing a song, signaling that it is time to give money. Usually a tray is passed around. The Bible says you should contribute 10% of your income. When the tray reaches me I would throw in bills from $3-$10. You don't have to pay, but you might suffer a supercilious glance. Some churches are even equipped with ATM, to put an end to excuses that you forget to bring money with you.
I went to this marvelous church several times, but soon lost interest. After the service, seeing flyers of anti-abortion and unconditional avocation of gun ownership everywhere, my appetite was spoiled. I also went to different churches but found the priests hypocritical. Later I drove to the Baptist Church again, but the feelings had changed.
Gradually I saw some church members' obscenity, selfishness, hypocrisy, and menace: self-righteous, intolerance, fierce attacks of dissenters. There have been men who are a human scourge in the guise of moral authority, and evil people who molest children and rape young girls and boys. Further, history shows no shortage of wars and killings in the name of religion.
So now I’m again an atheist for most of the time. Sometimes I still feel the existence of a higher power or powers that might be taking care of us, but that is only a temporary consolation. George Carlin put it very nicely here in this performance: George Carlin on religion
4.Though I am an atheist, I firmly support freedom of religion. Whether or not to have a religion, or which religion to choose, is a personal matter. Everyone needs love, care, tolerance, and relief. Religion, at its best, can provide such relief. Many of my friends and family members are Christians or Buddhists. When they gather together for a religion-related activity, I often join them. When touring temples, I light incense to pay respect. Relax, that makes me feel good. I don't mind others trying to convert me either, though I gently decline. In fact I look back with gratitude on the Hong Kong couple who brought me to the Gospel camp, because I can still feel their good intentions.
However supporting religious freedom does not mean supporting all activities that take place under the cover of religion. No need to mention the many cults in America, because we Chinese already have a conspicuous example – the broken wheel cult (Falun Gong). I deeply abhor its ugly performance in the United States. Let me state this clearly – I'm not an "angry youth." But when I see broken wheel's poorly trumped-up propaganda, baseless rumor mongering and slandering in the newspaper and on the TV, it makes me puke. During my last visit to China, I learned that a high school classmate of mine went berserk after joining that cult, and he ended up chopping his wife to death then killed himself. Frankly, I feel the cult members are pitiful and lamentable but also hideous. I wonder where they get so much money to support their filthy activities here.
Returning to the topic of the Bible – there is both cream and dross in it. Speaking of its cream, I like this passage about love very much:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Last but not least, I feel many of my countrymen in China are very ignorant about religion. I think the Chinese textbooks for middle and high schools should include the basics on the world's major religions. That will certainly help the understanding of, and communication with, different cultures, races, and nationalities.