I am writing this on a high speed train from Kaohsiung, Taiwan to the island’s capital, Taipei. Why am I here and not in mainland China? In short, because I have been deported from China. To tell the long story, I have to go back to Easter Sunday two weeks ago.
On Easter morning, I was supposed to preach at Grace Baptist Church in the northern district of the city. Grace was started by Pastor Xu, a young man who became a Christian in the first year of our church and has trained with me for over five years. This year, our four churches in Harbin were planning on having our largest conference we’ve ever had on the Saturday following Easter. So on Easter Sunday, each church was having their own celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. A lot of work had gone into getting the word out about both our Sunday service and the following Saturday’s conference.
The Sunday school hour went off without a hitch. There were a good number of first time visitors and Grace was as joyful a group as they always are. In the ten minutes or so between Sunday school and the main service, my head started to hurt. I had rushed to church that morning with my wife, our two kids, and my mother-in-law without stopping for a caffeine fix. So I thought I’d run to a store downstairs before the service began.
When I reached the open apartment door, I met a herd of middle-aged men crowding around the entrance. The short guy in front kinda corralled me back into the church. Then I saw the cops behind him. Took just a few seconds for twenty or so police officers (mostly uniformed, but some plain-clothed guys too) to file into the auditorium. I went back to the kids’ room to tell my family that the police were here.
I came back into the auditorium. The police were lined around the perimeter of the room. Two or three of them had cameras or video cameras and seemed to be trying to get every person in the room on film. They were looking for the leader of the church. They wanted all the foreigners in the kids’ room. I told them that I helped there and that I was preaching that day, but that I wasn’t the pastor. They found Pastor Xu then and brought the two of us together.
The police asked Pastor Xu if he knew that the meeting was illegal. He said that he knew that it was technically illegal. The police asked if he’d had any run-ins with the police before. Pastor Xu smiled and confirmed that he’d been visited before. One of the head officers laughed and said, ‘You think this is a visit? This is an illegal church service, don’t you know?’
Out in the auditorium, the officers were explaining to the congregation that this was an illegal gathering and that they needed to attend government-approved churches. They began to take down the names and identification numbers of everyone in the room.
Meanwhile, the officers with us in the other room told Steven and I that they were going to take all the foreigners away. So we got our stuff and were escorted through the auditorium and downstairs. When we got out in front of the apartment building, we could see multiple police cars and a big police bus parked in an alley down the road a bit. They pulled up a van and loaded us inside. One officer sat in the back seat with us and a few more sat in one of the middle bench seats. One of them kept a camera on us at all times.
It was on this short van ride that we first knew that this wasn’t the only church hit. We got text messages from members of the other churches saying that their services had been interrupted in a similar way. That was all we knew.
Once we got to the police station, they put my wife, our two kids, and my mother-in-law in a room with Pastor Xu’s wife and their two kids. Then they took me back into the ‘interrogation room.’ It was a little padded windowless room with a little platform on one end that had a big desk with a computer. In front of the desk on the floor was a big wooden chair with locks for securing prisoners. They pulled up a less-intimidating chair next to that one for me to sit in, and some officers that I hadn’t seen yet came in and sat behind the desk.
They asked me questions for about an hour and a half. It wasn’t as exhausting as it sounds, because they wrote down everything they asked and all my answers. They started off asking some form questions about whether I needed a translator or whether I worked for some branch of the Chinese government. After this, they mostly asked questions about my participation in religious activities in China. Who was in charge of this church, who invited me today, when did this church meet, what were my responsibilities. They seemed to be trying to get me to help them identify a single head of the operation. Their questions led to a single point: Pastor Xu.
The main officer questioning me was very formal and serious towards the beginning. Seemed to be trying to give the impression of what a serious offense had been committed. In the last few minutes of the interview, though, he finally relaxed a bit. He was smiling and explaining to me that China was welcoming of all faiths, so long as they were practiced within the bounds prescribed by law.
After they were finally done (around 12:30 or so), they printed off the transcript and asked me to review it to make sure I had been represented correctly. Then I had to sign and fingerprint each page. Finally, they asked me to write something like, “the above transcript is accurate”, at the bottom of the whole thing.
Close to the end of this process, they brought in Pastor Xu. Their little police station didn’t have enough interrogation rooms, so they were waiting for me to be done to start with Pastor Xu. In the room next door, they had already started questioning one of the leaders from Grace, a young man named Jin.
They put me in the room with my family. It honestly surprised me that they were being so inconsiderate. It was lunch time and there were four small children and three ladies closed into this little room. Some of Grace’s church members had come by with some french fries for Pastor Xu’s and my families. By this time, my head was killing me, so those church members went out on a mission to find me some medicine.
Another hour and a half or so went by while Pastor Xu was being questioned. No one had taken away our phones, so we were able to send out some emails and make contact with the other churches. We knew that another one of the Chinese pastors had been taken in for questioning to another police station, along with another missionary family that is working with our family while they are in language school.
Finally, they brought Pastor Xu out, and I thought that this mess might be over. But the police informed us that they were going to take us to our houses to pick up our passports. So they pulled up two cars in front of the station (it was raining) and loaded Pastor Xu and his family into one and my family into the other. Then we all drove in a caravan to Pastor Xu’s house. I didn’t realize until we arrived there, but there were about five other cars of cops that came along. When we got there, my family was left in one car with an escort, while a dozen officers or so went up with Pastor Xu’s family to his apartment. We had no idea what was going on up there, but it seemed to take forever. Naturally, my 19-month-old really appreciated all this sitting around that was going on that day!
Finally, the officers came down without Pastor Xu’s family and we set out for our house (about a 40 minute drive). Only three cars came on this leg of the journey. The officer that was driving us around was the one that had first met me at the door when the cops arrived at the church. He was certainly the one who had been ugliest to us. Stuck in a car together now, we tried to make small talk. He asked what I did for a living. I laughed and asked, ‘Are you joking? Didn’t you just pick me up for preaching at a church?’ Said he had a son studying overseas if I remember right. I asked him why there had been an incident that day and he said that people he reported us.
When we got to our house, there were only about eight or nine officers (all plainclothes) that came up to our apartment. Two of them were taking pictures and video of everything. They looked around, but didn’t move stuff around. I got the passports for them. They spotted my mother-in-law’s computer sitting on a table and asked if it was mine. I told them it wasn’t. Then they saw mine in a side room and asked if I used it to prepare my lessons for the church. I told them that there wasn’t really any Chinese lessons on there. They still wanted to take it. Asked me for a bag for it. Wrote me a receipt for it. After about fifteen minutes, they left with our passports and computer in tow. The officer who had driven us told me that Pastor Xu and I were expected at his office in the morning. I think it was about four in the afternoon when they finally left.
It was quite a relief to close the door behind them when they left. We immediately began to make calls to figure out where our friends were and what had happened at the other churches. The other missionary family and Pastor Liu from Omega Baptist Church had not yet returned from the police station that they had been taken to. We learned that Pastor Jia from Witness Baptist Church had not been taken in, mainly because he knew the head officer who interrupted their church service that morning from a previous encounter. I called Pastor Xu to see what had happened at his house. They had taken two computers from their house. We also learned that the police had let everyone else leave the churches after they had gotten their information. The police took some things from the churches, including 5,000 yuan (about 800 dollars) from Grace’s offering and Pastor Liu’s computer from Omega.
In a little while, I went over to Branches Baptist Church, also pastored by Pastor Jia. This was the only church that hadn’t been interrupted that morning, because they have Sunday evening services. The police had come there first, but as no one was there, they proceeded to Witness where they found Pastor Jia.
I was tremendously encouraged when I arrived at Branches. Brothers and sisters from all three churches that had been hit that morning were gathering there, preparing food and spending time in fellowship, encouraging one another and sharing stories from their service. Many of the members from Grace had gone to the nearby university after leaving the service and observed Communion together in the cafeteria. When something like this happens, a church-planter’s greatest concern is the ability of the saplings to withstand the storm. Multiplied stories of the believers’ resilience throughout this tempest have confirmed for us again: there are much greater things to be feared for young churches than persecution. The three Chinese pastors and the five young men in pastoral training all demonstrated faith-empowered courage.
Eventually all the pastors and the other missionary family were all accounted for. After a couple hours of questioning, Pastor Liu and John had been let go. They had had a different experience than us. First of all, most of the police that stopped their service were plainclothes officers from the religious bureau. Second, the police there knew all about our team and our family of churches. Third, the police were much kinder to them, even eating lunch with John, his wife, and pastor Liu before taking them into the police station. Pastor Liu, Pastor Jia, and John had all been told to wait for a phone call from the police.
The next day, Pastor Xu and I went together to the big city police station downtown. This was where the national security bureau had their offices in our city. We waited in the lobby for the police officer to come downstairs and check us in. He led us past the guards and to the elevator. Went up to the 14th floor or so – the department of foreign affairs. We waited for a minute by the desk of the guy who had driven us home on Sunday. Then an officer I didn’t recognize came to get me. He asked if I was Jake. Then he led me down the hall to a big conference room overlooking the city’s downtown district. As we walked, he said, ‘So your Chinese is pretty good.’ I said it wasn’t that great. He said, ‘Well, I’ve heard you preach on the internet.’ (our churches often put videos from their services on Chinese video sites)
We sat down across from each other at the conference table and he asked me questions for another hour and a half. Toward the beginning, a couple people came in and took pictures of us at the table together. He started the questioning much like the officer from the day before, but he was writing down all the transcript by hand, so it was much slower going. He warned me that they already knew lots about us, so there was no point lying. ‘We’ve been watching you a long time,’ he said. ‘Don’t think this is just something that’s come up in the past couple days.’
The questions soon went in a different direction than the previous day, however. He wanted to know about the churches, the pastors, and my ministry in particular. ‘Four churches; that’s a lot of illegal activity.’ He wanted to know about money, theological training, ordination, preaching, baptisms, our sending organization, etc. For example, he wanted to know when Pastor Xu had been baptized, ordained, and how much financial support I gave him and his church. These kinds of questions came up in all the subsequent interviews, and the police seemed generally unimpressed by the amount of money that had changed hands. They seemed to be looking for evidence of major cash flow. It turned out that this was the officer that had questioned John the day before. We didn’t see the guy that had driven me home again. This officer and the one that questioned Pastor Xu in another room were taking over our case. They were the two that had led the bust at Omega. Seems they thought that was ‘headquarters,’
During my interview, the officer said, ‘We’ve talked to Pastor Xu before about his illegal church, and what does he do? He moves to a new location to get away from us. Your churches are acting all secretive.’ I did my best to correct him at this point. I told him that that was exactly the opposite of what we were trying to do! We were trying to be as open and honest as possible so that no on would mistake us for a cult or a group that is against the government. After all, passing out a few thousand invitations to the community in the past week before Easter hardly sounded like a group that was trying to keep quiet! I told him that the pastors have no desire to be illegal and that if they could be shown a way to legalize their churches, I believed they would be happy to take it!
By the end of the conversation, the officer was chatting happily. His partner reminded him about the activity we had planned for Saturday, and he told me that we would have to cancel that. After a while, Pastor Xu returned with the officer who had questioned him. The officers told us to go home and call them the next morning. I felt pretty good about my chances of getting off with a warning at that time. But as we were waiting for the elevator, Pastor Xu told me that he didn’t think it looked good. The police officer had told him as if in confidence that John and I were going to be deported. The cop also told him that it wasn’t safe to talk on the phone. (I still think that’s a bunch of nonsense – that officer seemed very happy to voice his opinions)
I think it was Thursday when they had us come back in. We were worried about the outcome, because they had told us to bring along some visa pictures. Why would they need to give us visas except to expel us? Sure enough, when we got to the station, the cops led us over to the visa bureau a couple blocks down the road where we have always had to go to apply for our visas. Took them more than an hour, but they finally told us that they were giving us ten days to leave the country. We would not be allowed to return for five years. Our families were not deported, only John and I. The officers told Steven that they were going to make John take the blame for Omega and I would take the blame for Grace.
They gave us back our computers and passports. When I turned to leave at the end, the officer called me back and shook my hand. He said he had done everything he could to let the churches get off easy. And he told me that maybe we would meet again someday. ‘It’s a shame we didn’t meet earlier,’ he said at the very end, implying that this might have all been avoided if we had.
The next days were days of great grief and great joy. We witnessed baptisms at two churches. All the churches continued their regular service times in their regular places without interruption or disturbance. I personally had some wonderful training sessions with the pastors and the interns. On the Monday after my interview at the big police station, we had a combined service for all four churches hosted at Omega, the first church that we had started in the city back in 2008. It was definitely the most difficult message I have ever had to bring. Showed them how Paul commended churches to God’s grace in Acts 14 and 20. What they needed for the future was clearly not Paul, but to hope in grace and fight for it with everything they had. There were many goodbyes in the last few days.
By far, the hardest part of leaving was saying goodbye to my Chinese sons in the faith. Particularly the three pastors are as close as family to me. Many tears were shed in our last meeting. They are strong men of God who give me great hope in the midst of this distress. The churches are in as good hands as I could find anywhere in the world. I am still troubled deeply by the fact that I have been removed from the immediate training of our five pastoral interns. My time with them was too short, just beginning really. We will do everything in our power to continue their training from a distance.
So what now? Well, my wife is still stuck in mainland with our newborn son. We had not yet had time to get him a visa when I was kicked out, so she is dealing with the incredibly stressful process of getting visas and getting out. Meanwhile, my colaborer and I are in Taiwan trying to decide where we will set up operations next. We are praying the Lord will open a door to let us return home to China, but we are surveying Taiwan on our way back to the States to see what opportunities await there. Lord willing, we will continue planting churches in the Chinese speaking world.
In the next post, I will try to answer some questions that seem to be on people’s minds. Mainly about how what has just happens figures into our commitment to open proclamation of the Gospel in China.
Please pray for our families during this time. It is very painful for my wife and I as we are leaving behind so many of our dearest friends. We had only returned to China 90 days prior to this and had just got our home set up. We were finally getting our little girl adjusted to her own place in China, and now it’s time to move on. We thank God for the wonderful years of ministry in northeastern China. We were unworthy of it all. It is Christ’s church and he knows best how to build it. Even though there are sharp turns in the path that follows after Christ, they are all turns for the right, turns for the best, turns for his glory. With each hairpin turn, our earthly things rattle a bit looser, but we are afforded yet brighter and more breathtaking views of the worth of knowing and serving Christ.
Jake and his family will be in the U.S. for the next few months as they regroup and make plans to return to a Chinese-speaking country. If you would be interested in having them visit your church and share about their church-planting ministry in northeast China, please feel free to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.