by Dan Wooding
I met some unusual people in my travels around the world this year (1999), and one of the most remarkable was Pastor Chen, who spent part of his 18 years in a Chinese labor camp in a cesspool.
I talked with Pastor Chen during a visit with an ASSIST team to Yunnan Province, China, in October. It was then that I discovered that each day, over a period of years in a Chinese labor camp, Pastor Chen would be lowered into a stinking putrid cesspool and a huge smile would envelope his face. As he shoveled out the vile waste-matter there to be used as fertilizer in the fields, he would begin to sing the old hymn, "I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still in on the roses..." As I sang, I would feel our Lord holding me tight in his everlasting arms. At that very moment, that cesspool became my own private garden.
"You see, this was a wonderful blessing for me because it was the only time I was alone from the prying eyes of the guards," he said in an interview in Kunming, China. "I could now commune with God, praise His Name at the top of my voice, and I would also recite scriptures that I had memorized. I have experienced how important it is for us Christians to memorize scriptures.
"People wonder how I could keep my faith during those 18 years in prison and labor camp, but I can say that God was with me during that whole time and I bear no ill feelings to those that put me there, even though there were many times that I was ill-treated."
Pastor Chen was born in Shanghai, China, some 63 years ago, to a wealthy family. His father was a factory owner, and when the communists seized power some 50 years ago, his family became a target for the local cadres.
Tried To Eat Toothpaste
He says that when he was first arrested, he was put in Shanghai City Jail, where he almost starved to death. "I was so hungry that there were times that I wanted to even eat my toothpaste," he recalled. "I was so weak that I didn't have the strength to stand up; from morning to night I would be exhausted and so I could only crawl along the floor.
"After three-and-a-half years, I was sent to the labor camp where there was more food provided because you were expected to work in the open air. While you were working in the fields, the cadre would try to indoctrinate you into communism. They knew my background of being born in a wealthy family and they did not like it. They hate all capitalists because they said that they exploited the regular people. I was also well educated and they hated well-educated people; during the Cultural Revolution, they didn't allow any educating for 10 years. People went to school, not to study but to act out the revolution. Another problem was that I was a Christian leader and they were atheists.
"They decided that the way they could punish me was to have me work in the cesspool. Little did they realize this was to be a greatest blessing to me. At that time, almost all of the prisoners were afraid to even approach the cesspool because all of the human waste from the entire camp of about 60,000 prisoners was deposited there. They were scared of picking up a fatal virus from it. I worked there for nearly six years.
"They thought they would re-educate me there, but they did not know that, during those years, I enjoyed so much to work in the cesspool. It was very deep and I would have to wade into it to scoop up the mess. The smell would be so strong that the guards and prisoners would get far way from me because of the stink. But I enjoyed the solitude of being alone... with God!
"It is easy for us to praise the Lord in freedom, but are we able to praise our Lord in these kind of circumstances? Because He was with me, I was able to praise him in such earthly misery because He never leaves or forsakes us. For 18 years, not only did I survive physically, but also I was able to forgive those that put me there. Today I continue to serve the Church in China."
He has planted scores, if not hundreds of churches in China. "I spend a lot of my time today with the tribal people," said Chen. "I will get a bus to the side of the mountain where some of the minority people live. Then I climb up the mountain for two or three hours, which is getting more and more difficult for me, as I am now in my mid-sixties and I have arthritis. I stay in the village with the Christians. When I am there often a service will go on all day, but when I'm not there, they are usually two to three hours long."
"God Never Makes Mistakes"
Another hero I met during a visit to China was Pastor Gu, the founder of the Kunming Theological Seminary. As I talked with him, I noticed he has the countenance of an angel. With a gentle smile on his 83-year-old face, he said in an interview, "Bring back to your brothers and sisters in the West the message that God never makes mistakes. I have undergone a lot of tribulation and suffering, but I have found out that the Lord never makes mistakes."
Pastor Gu had just recounted the story of how he was detained in 1958, one year after his ordination as a pastor. "I was arrested because of my work in the church and also at a local theological seminary of which I was the headmaster. They charged me with being a counter-revolutionary. I spent 23 1/2 years in a labor camp, which was not easy, especially as I was not allowed to have my Bible with me."
He said that he had to trust God to bring back to him scriptures that he had memorized before his arrest. He said that after prayer, he would remember many Bible verses that were a comfort to him. "My favorite scripture was Romans 8.28 - 'All things work together for good...'" he said. "However Psalm 23 was really the expression of my life. I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, but I experienced the banquet or the feast that the Lord set before my enemies. Without His grace and protection, our family and myself would not be here."
Pastor Gu, who suffered for part of that time with excruciating pain from his spinal chord, admitted there were times when he questioned why he was in prison.
Discovered Why God Allowed His Imprisonment
"I had to depend on God during my imprisonment, but I couldn't understand why I was in prison because I had been called by God to serve Him and I worked in the theological seminary where we trained Christian leaders," he said. "When I was released, I finally discovered that the reason I was in prison was that I was being protected by God because of the Cultural Revolution. Otherwise I would have been brutally beaten by the Gang of Four and the Red Guards. When I was released, there was only one thing I said to our Lord and that was, 'Thank you God.'" (Many believers were killed during this turbulent period in China's history and Pastor Gu knows that he could have also been murdered by the Red Guards.)
Pastor Gu was married with nine children when he began his long imprisonment, and two of his children died while he was in the labor camp.
A friend of Pastor Gu told me, "I know his family very well and his two little girls went to the local railway station just to pick up ashes to sell it to get money. That was how desperate they had become to get money to live."
Pastor said that, despite the intense surveillance from the camp guards, he saw several other prisoners come to Christ.
"It is true that I was indoctrinated in the prison, but I had read all those so-called theories, and I know that were was only God and I found only one truth and that was Jesus and his Salvation," he added.
Now Pastor Gu is back in the thick of things; in 1989 in founded the Kunming Theological Seminary that specializes in training Christian leaders from the tribal people of Yunnan Province where a revival is taking place. It is estimated that there are more than 1,000,000 believers in this province that is the south westernmost province of China. It borders Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Vietnam to its west and south, and the provinces of Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi to its north and east. A rough, mountainous land affected by the formation of the Himalayas, its highest point is Meili Snow Mountain, in the northwest, at 22,035 feet and its lowest is at Hekou, on the Vietnam border, at about 228 feet. Pastor Gu explained why he started the seminary. "I wanted to follow up on the growth of the church, so I realized we needed to train up more leaders and evangelists," he said.
When asked why he loved the ethnic people so much, he said. "I was attracted by their love despite their poverty," said Pastor Gu. "In the early times, the missionaries from the west came to evangelize China and we should now do that also. The faith of the ethnic people is great, but their life is very poor and so we should help them understand the truths of the Gospel.
"At my age, I could leave the theological seminary, but the Lord has told me that I have to stay here and serve."
He revealed that the seminary currently has 189 students drawn from 15 nationalities.
"We train them in sound doctrine and also to go back to their people mainly as
pastors and evangelists."
When I asked if he is afraid he would be arrested again, he said firmly, "No, never!" Once again, it appears to Pastor Gu that even in this situation, "God never makes mistakes!"
Dan Wooding is an award-winning British journalist now living in Southern California with his wife, Norma. He is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times). Wooding is also the author of some 38 books, (the latest of which is a second printing of "Blind Faith" with Anne Wooding, his 91-year-old mother who was a pioneer missionary to the blind of Nigeria - ASSIST Books and WinePress Publishing). He is also a syndicated columnist and for ten years was a commentator on the UPI Radio Network in Washington, DC.