This article is part of a series that explores life along the Hu Line, an imaginary diagonal line across China that has vast demographic, environmental, and political significance.
INNER MONGOLIA, North China — On a windswept evening in a remote field, a group of Christian men and women scoop clumps of brown soil in quiet reverence. They dig steadily, slowly revealing the base of a tall cornerstone engraved with a golden cross.
Laid on May 13, the cornerstone marks the site of a new church that has been in the planning stages for three years. On the other side of the field, a small billboard shows an artist’s impression of the finished church: a modest white building, three stories high in parts, with blue triangular steeples.
“When I look at this, I am filled with excitement,” says Hong Wenqin as she eyes the cornerstone. Known to her congregation as Elder Hong, the 66-year-old spiritual leader of the group has also handled the complex task of securing government approval for the church’s construction.
“It’s not easy to build a sanctuary in this area,” Hong explains. It took almost 10 years just for the group to secure a venue permit to hold religious activities, which they acquired in 2012. When Sixth Tone spoke to Hong in late May, she was still waiting for a final stamp of approval from the planning department of Tongliao City.
“We are Christians,” she says, “so we cannot launch construction without that stamp.”
Members of a Christian church dig in the soil to uncover the cornerstone at their new church site in Tongliao, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, May 29, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone
With utter faith in the power of prayer, in May, congregation members participated in six-hour shifts of around-the-clock worship at their current church, hoping God would offer a way through the red tape. Though the group has not yet received the city’s seal of approval, they believe it is forthcoming and have decided to move ahead with plans for the new site. Construction of the church commenced on June 3, and the congregation estimates that it will be completed by the end of the year.
Hong belongs to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the only Protestant church recognized by the state and — along with its Catholic counterpart, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association — one of two officially sanctioned Christian churches in China. “Three-self” refers not to the Holy Trinity but to the church’s principles of “self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation” — a commitment to building and sustaining a homegrown Chinese Christianity under the government’s watch that rejects foreign influence, funding, and missionaries.
Official estimates say there are 23 million to 40 million Protestants in China, according to a 2014 report by Party newspaper People’s Daily. However, the number could be much higher if unofficial “house churches” are included. Data from China’s official religious affairs administration showed that as of June 2012, there were around 56,000 approved Protestant churches and gathering points.
In Tongliao, Christian churches have been officially recognized for more than 100 years, according to Wang Zhanguo, senior pastor of a church in the city. But Wang says interest has recently surged.
“Our region has seen a rapid increase in the number of Christians over the past 10 years, but there is no place for the believers to gather,” Wang tells Sixth Tone.
His church in downtown Tongliao’s Horqin District, built in 1914 and renovated in 1994 after China’s reform period, can hold 600 people. But more than 1,000 come on weekends, he says, so hundreds must sit outside in a shed.
Organized evangelism has driven the growth of Christianity in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region — the third largest of China’s provinces and regions, and roughly the same size as Colombia. Each fall, members of Hong’s church go from house to house in rural areas to preach the gospel. On average, there are a dozen Christians in each village, according to Hong. The congregation also helps look after elderly people in the community, some of whom turn to Christianity when faced with life-threatening illnesses.
To skeptics, these tactics are exploitative — especially since China was recently shaken by an extreme evangelical sect called Eastern Lightning, which primarily won converts by going door-to-door in rural areas — but believers feel they are simply sharing the light of God’s grace.
Hong Wenqin at her church in Tongliao, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, May 29, 2017. Colum Murphy/Sixth Tone
Hong herself discovered Christianity 23 years ago during a difficult time in her life. “My husband passed away when I was in my 40s. I had four unmarried children,” she recalls. “I was trapped in a hopeless situation and had no way out.”
Now, she and her four children are all Christians. Her eldest daughter, 45-year-old Yu Minzhi, also serves as a full-time volunteer for the church. Yu represents Horqin District in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a national government advisory body.
“Previously, our church was full of those who were old, sick, or poor. Now, there are quite a few young and active people, too,” Yu tells Sixth Tone.
Her mother, Hong, feels that God has helped her both materially and spiritually. “He didn’t let me lack anything, and he didn’t let me live in poverty,” she says. Now, she volunteers at the church every day to repay God’s grace. “I work here full time to serve God and don’t ask for payment,” Hong says.
For more than a decade, the church operated out of Hong’s house. Then, the members moved to their current church, a farmhouse they purchased and renovated for a total of 800,000 yuan (around $118,000) in 2013. Now, the congregation has outgrown the farmhouse’s capacity, and the land is also slated to be requisitioned for a railway development to be completed at the end of 2019.
The local government helped the church group negotiate a good price with the developer of the new church site, so they bought the land use rights for 650,000 yuan, using funds donated and borrowed within the local Christian community. Compensation for the requisition of their current church has not yet been finalized.
Despite the group’s bureaucratic struggles, Hong feels sure that God heaps blessings upon her church and its followers. She says one elderly woman in their congregation fell ill and was told she only had one week to live. “But she is still alive, while the doctor himself has passed away,” she says with a smile. “God really loves us.”
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
Over the coming weeks, Sixth Tone will publish stories, videos, photo galleries, and social media posts that chronicle our road trip across China along the Hu Line, as well as an interactive multimedia platform in the fall.
(Header image: Protestants worship at their church in Tongliao, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, May 29, 2017. Liang Chenyu/Sixth Tone)