The desire to love unconditionally: A former missionary to China speaks
By Sam Freeman
Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash
This is the account of a missionary to China from 2010 to 2020. His name has been changed in this article.
CM: What was daily life like as a missionary in China?
Sam: In the United States I was a successful musician, and in China I used music as a way to connect with and minister to people. Since missionaries are forbidden, you must find another way to live there. To stay long-term you must receive a residence permit, which means you have to be hired by a company approved of by the government. Most foreign missionaries I met were English teachers, but I was fortunate enough to be hired by a music company under the guise of marketing manager. In reality what I did was work with an underground church teaching worship leaders from all around the country. I learned Chinese at the same time.
In China there are three types of churches: government-approved churches, international churches that Chinese citizens are not allowed to attend and underground churches, which often meet inside people’s homes. The Chinese government knows about most of these churches because of GPS and cameras. In big cities like Beijing, they usually turn a blind eye, but they don’t want any foreign influence, so as long as I wasn’t preaching, they would allow me to help out by teaching Chinese musicians. One police officer actually came to my home for private lessons. That was funny but also scary. Later, he took me to his underground church where he was a prayer leader. He was a Communist Party member and not allowed to have any religion; if they found out, he would lose his job.
In 2014, things started to change. The government started putting pressure on us, and we had to operate more discreetly. The police would show up at random times; Chinese friends informed me to stay away when they showed up. The police interrogated our church’s pastor multiple times, specifically asking about me and what my role was in the church. They warned the pastor not to allow the church to become too big and to be sure that I didn’t preach there.
I also traveled the country attending various underground churches and performing and teaching music. There are lots of foreigners in big cities, but when you go to smaller cities you get a lot of attention, so I had to sneak into these places. Sometimes I wasn’t allowed out of the church building for several days for fear that locals would report us to the police.
Finally the pastor’s wife, whom I was working with, decided to form a more conventional music school and move into a nearby building in an attempt to alleviate the added attention we were bringing to the church because of all the students attending there. Unfortunately, with the formation of a more conventional music school came more restrictions and pressure from the government, this time from the Education Bureau, which demands strict adherence to Communist ideology. At that time that I decided to step down from my role there.
I started playing music in some local music venues and quickly got picked up by a famous Chinese artist to play some large concerts and tours. I also met somebody from the biggest music education company in China who began hiring me to judge music competitions and perform all over the country. Again, I was able to use music to connect with people and share my faith. I met many government officials and had dinners with business owners, mayors of cities and regular citizens alike. I never imagined that I would be doing these kind of things as a missionary, but that is how it played out. You have a plan, but you are limited to what you can do and you must learn to adapt to many obstacles and restrictions along the way.
I was no longer living the rockstar lifestyle, but in China they tried to treat me as a rockstar. I would perform for crowds of thousands of students and families in the city centers all over China. They were usually surprised to find out that I didn’t drink alcohol or smoke and party. I told them my story about how God rescued me from that way of life and how a relationship with Jesus gave me a new reason to live.
CM: How open were you in talking to people about Jesus?
Sam: I was very open about my faith in general. Chinese people are very curious about foreigners and they asked me every possible question. It was common to be asked, “Where are you from?” with a quick jump to “How much money do you make?” From there it’s easy to connect with people.
I didn’t have many negative responses when I shared my faith, but I often had to break down the prejudice people had concerning foreigners in general, especially the prejudice a large number of them have toward Americans due to much government propaganda. After I conversed with them a little in their own language, they quickly became curious and 99 percent of them were extremely warm and friendly.
CM: What would you like Americans to understand about the people of China?
Sam: My experience living overseas and with the Chinese people has led me to a greater understanding of humanity in general. We all have our differences and many of the differences were not of our own choosing. We didn’t choose to be born in a specific country. That choice was made for us. Any of us could have been born Chinese or under the authority of a Communist government or a harsh dictator.
Most Americans don’t know many Chinese people, in the same way that most Chinese people don’t know many Americans. We only know what we hear on the news, just like they only know what they hear on the news about America, and 100 percent of that news is negative. After living there for ten years, I can attest that in general the people of China are beautiful, intelligent, friendly and extremely hospitable human beings, but sadly, the Communist Party of China does not value or care about human life, including their own people. They treat people like cattle and make decisions like engineers would — for example, build this dam here, move people there, tear down this city, build a factory over there. Their leadership is harsh and they demand obedience without question; anybody who opposes them can be eliminated. Now with new technologies, it is easier than ever for them to censor and propagate any communications they like, and to monitor and track people in China and all over the world.
Despite all this, I still met many Chinese people who seemed to be completely free. I’m not talking about those who are blissfully unaware of what is going on. I am talking about all the brave Chinese Christians we met — not because they opposed the government but because they lived a life of love despite their circumstances. I don’t think freedom is defined by whether we have choices or not, because if my choices can impose on yours, that can bring conflict and ultimately somebody will lose their freedom. True freedom is the ability and the desire to love unconditionally, and I witnessed many Chinese Christians who loved people and their country despite dire circumstances. We met some Chinese Christians who exercised this freedom when the police bulldozed their church. They offered the police water and food while they were being arrested. Those Christians had compassion on the young police officers. They saw the brokenness and distrust in their eyes and yet they loved them unconditionally.
When I visited the U.S. several years ago, I met an exiled Chinese man who escaped from prison in China and wrote a famous book that is now banned in China. He was imprisoned for a long time and heavily tortured for preaching. During that time he received a message from some Christians outside the prison who said they were praying for his release from prison. He replied to them, “Don’t pray for me. I am not a prisoner; I am in a new mission field. Pray for those who don’t have the hope of Christ. Pray for my captors; they are the ones without hope and truly enslaved.”
The reality is that we are all susceptible to becoming prisoners of corrupt ideology and self-centered evil desires, so let us have compassion on all of humanity, including those we consider enemies, and consider that true freedom will never come from any government system.