Disaster Tests Local Chinese Congregation's Faith

Correction July 7, 2008

The audio version of this story makes reference to a reading from the Book of Genesis and the destruction of Sodom. We mistakenly said Sodom was spared. In fact, in Genesis 19 (King James Version), it says, "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground."

Cross atop Thanksgiving Christian Church in Chengdu

hide captionThe red cross atop the Thanksgiving Christian Church in Chengdu, China, remains standing minutes after the earthquake on May 12. During the quake, the cross waved wildly from the force of the tremors.

Melissa Block/NPR
Pastor Richard Cai

hide captionPastor Richard Cai says he has turned to the Bible to provide encouragement to his congregation in the earthquake's aftermath.

Melissa Block/NPR
Fan Shuya, 6, attends Sunday services along with his parents May 18 at the church's temporary site.

hide captionFan Shuya, 6, attends Sunday services along with his parents on May 18 at the church's temporary worship space.

Melissa Block/NPR
Worshippers donated about $80 per person after Sunday's services.

hide captionWorshippers donated about $80 per person after Sunday's services.

Andrea Hsu/NPR

It was just before 2:28 in the afternoon — exactly one week ago — that I sat down for an interview with Pastor Richard Cai of the Thanksgiving Christian Church at a seminary in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province. I wanted to talk to him about the growth of faith in China.

As he was telling me about his role of helping to grow his church, the building started to shake violently. We ran out to the street.

The red cross on the roof of the church waved wildly with the tremors as debris rained down.

Needless to say, we never finished that interview.

Worship Continues

But I found Pastor Cai again — at a Sunday afternoon service, nearly a week after the quake.

The worshippers couldn't meet in their regular space because it is too badly damaged.

Instead, about three dozen congregants gather on blue plastic chairs in the offices of a Christian social services group.

The reading is from Genesis 18.

It seems no coincidence that the chosen verses speak of the intended destruction of a city — in this case, the city of Sodom.

Abraham intercedes, asking the Lord, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" Sodom is spared.

Xie Chunmei, 25, delivers the sermon.

"The worst earthquake ever to hit Sichuan happened on May 12, and at that moment, it seemed that time stood still," Xie says.

"We need to keep praying," she tells the worshippers as she presses her hand to her heart. "Especially now with so many aftershocks, we need to put everything in the hand of God."

She asks God to bless the volunteers, doctors and soldiers who are struggling to save lives.

'Our Mission will Not Be Shaken'

This Protestant church is what's known as an "official" church — one sanctioned by the authorities in this officially atheist country.

By some estimates, there are 50 million Christians in China. And the number is growing.

Pastor Cai ends the service with a reading from Hebrews — and a prayer.

"Our mission will not be shaken," he says. "It is a mission from heaven."

Then he asks the congregation to join in a special offering from their "loving heart" — giving money for disaster relief.

The worshippers stuff thick bundles of bills into a red plastic donation box in the shape of a heart.

The congregation is urged not to linger because aftershocks are still frequent.

Quake Prompts Questioning of Faith

Afterward, back in his office, Pastor Cai recalls those first moments after the earthquake hit.

"A lot of the seminary students were stunned and frightened," he says. "A lot of people started to cry. And I was trying to figure out how to comfort them and keep them safe. I started praying to God, asking him to make the earth calm down."

In the aftermath of the disaster, Pastor Cai says several people have come to him, questioning their faith and how God, if he exists, would allow such a thing to happen.

He says he turns to the Bible to encourage his followers and "to try to help them understand that what we've experienced is a part of our faith."

"The Bible tells us ... we will experience all sorts of difficulties and setbacks. These are unavoidable. But we are fortunate that throughout, God is always with us," Pastor Cai says.

Guo Cunwu is a member of the Thanksgiving Christian Church and a full-time pastor himself. He says the earthquake poses a test.

"If I tell people that God is merciful, they ask then why did so many people die. In my heart, I don't know how to answer that question. But I believe God will give me the answer," Guo say.

Christian Charity Still Strong

The Thanksgiving Christian Church in Chengdu collected 17,000 yuan Sunday from the 30 or so parishioners at the service. That amounts to about $80 a person — a staggering amount for those in China.

The church plans to use the money to buy medicine and medical instruments to send to the earthquake zone. They already have boxes of plaster for casts and 20 wheelchairs ready to go.

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