Going to church

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One of the many noticeable changes to occur in Pingpu since I was last here in 2014 is the construction of a Catholic church across the river from the township. This was notable to me for a few reasons. Organized religion occupies a very strange place in politics and culture here in China. Seen as potential as threats to the officially atheist state’s legitimacy, religious activities have long been regulated by the Communist Party. Given that the Party’s legitimacy is premised on restoring China’s place as a self-sufficient power – a project undertaken in direct response to Western colonialism – Christian churches have faced particular scrutiny. After the expulsion of most foreigners following the Communist Revolution of 1949, Christian churches were largely pushed underground.

In the past 40 years, the state has in some ways liberalized policies concerning religious activity. In this, it has seemed to acknowledge the void left by the de-legitimizing of folk religious practices under Maoism, which was following by the de-legitimizing of Maoism by the Cultural Revolution and the Party’s embrace of market capitalism. Freedom of religion has been guaranteed under the state constitution since 1982. However, in practice, religious activities are heavily controlled and monitored. Officially-designated religious sites must be approved by the state. As a result, Christian churches in China typically operate in more discreet spaces, such as people’s homes. They are generally tolerated by officials, but crackdowns are not uncommon. As it relates to so many phenomena in China, degrees of official tolerance and intolerance come in waves. It seems the current wave is one of intolerance. The central government is stepping up restrictions, having implemented new regulations earlier this month. Two Christian churches were demolished in Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces in December of last year and January of this year.

So that a church would appear here in recent years seemed odd to me. Walking down the street in town last month, I asked a shop owner and handyman about the church. He told me that it was built just last year with private funds, and that it was not officially approved. I asked him if many people attended services there. He let out the kind of scoffing laugh that seems to follow so many of my questions. “No one goes!” he said, adding a wave of his hand and look off in the distance to emphasize his complete dismissal of the topic.

That seemed unlikely to me, so I set out to explore on a Sunday earlier this month. Service had let out, and a group of men were talking in front of the church. One of them introduced himself as the pastor. Pastor Liu – a medium-built man in his late 40s with intense eyes – confirmed that the church was built last year, but told me that the community has existed here for a long time. I asked if it would be okay if I attended services. While not exactly conveying a sense of warm enthusiasm about the idea, he nonetheless said that would be fine. He told me that the congregation meets Thursdays at 1 pm and Sundays at 8 am.

I headed out last Thursday to attend my first service. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was bracing for the worst: that I might be greeted with some hostility by the parishioners, who could feel that I was drawing unwanted attention to them or perhaps that my goal was to spy on them. When I walked in, the service seemed to have already started. The congregation was singing hymns, the lyrics of which were projected from a laptop onto a screen on the stage. The church was largely just a bare, grey concrete room. The only decorations were a laminate mural on the wall behind the stage. It depicted rays of sunshine falling onto a flock of sheep on a field, a forest in the distance. On the bottom right was written Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it”.

Moments after I entered, a man turned around and looked at me. He then alerted his friend: “foreigner!” Within about five seconds nearly everyone in the church had turned to look at me. I smiled and mouthed “hello” to faces around the room. Feeling self-conscious, I took a seat in the back row. I quickly noticed that while there were three rows, they were distinguished by gender: the men sat only on the right side. The room was fairly small, with seats for about 100 people, though only 60 of them were full. In-keeping with the population of Pingpu in general, the congregation was mostly over 50, with two younger women holding babies. While most people lost interest in my presence and went back to their singing after a few moments, some people kept staring at me with a sort of expressionless look. After I nodded and smiled at them, most returned the greeting, but some just kept staring as though they were in an audience at a play.

A man who was sitting across the aisle from me got up from his seat, approached me and put his hand on my arm. I braced myself for the awkwardness of being asked to leave.

“Do you remember me?” he said. “We met in December. You gave me your card.”

“Oh right!” I said. “I remember you.” I didn’t remember him at all. (On an unrelated note, this concerns me.) I still wasn’t sure what his attitude was regarding my attendance, so I checked in. “Is it okay that I be here? I don’t want to bother anyone or make anyone feel uncomfortable.” (On an unrelated note, you can write that on my tombstone.)

“You can, no problem,” he said, before taking the seat next to me. “Do you believe in Christianity?” he asked. This was a completely reasonable question that for some inexplicable reason I was in no way prepared to answer. So as usual I overthought it and offered a confusing answer. “Uhhhmmm…. I went to church every week when I was a kid,” I said. “I agree with a lot of what Jesus said. I also think what he said is at base reflected in a lot of what is said in other religions.” He stared at me for a bit, then went back to the hymn.

The first part of the service was devoted to hymn singing. Only a few people had hymnals. Most relied on the project lyrics, which seemed to come from a website. After taking a few laps around perhaps three hymns, a man rose from his seat near the laptop and took up a long pointing stick. A new song was projected on the screen. This one was apparently rarely sung by the group, because the man felt it necessary to guide everyone through it exhaustively. Using the stick to keep the time, he sang it alone, slowly, twice. He then went through it again, asking everyone repeat each verse after him. He then asked that we sing it in time with him, before finally letting us sing it independently. Even after all of this, which took perhaps 30 minutes, we were still not ready: we steamrolled through key changes and skipped whole verses. He got up and intoned the parts we flubbed, all the while waving his stick up and down like a sideways metronome.

The pastor then took the stage for his homily. I noticed that he seemed almost broadcast-ready: he generally spoke slowly and simply, repeated concepts, and enunciated in very standard Mandarin without a trace of local dialect. In contrast the homilies with which I am familiar, his often felt more like a classroom lesson. He asked questions of the congregation: “How many holidays in Catholicism?” “How many sacraments?” “How many pieces of bread and glasses of wine per person for communion? 60?” Most were either shy or unprepared. After being greeted with silence, Liu provided us with the answers.

The majority of his talk was devoted to the topic of wealth and gifts. Given that last week was the heart of Spring Festival – during which red envelopes of cash are exchanged and “I wish you wealth!” is a common greeting – such a theme was apropos. “God gives us the greatest gifts for free,” Liu told us. “Love, understanding, peace, consolation. These come down from above, and are all around us, like the air we breathe.” It was a simple and moving message, and a welcome contrast to what for me here can often feel like an overwhelming degree of resignation to the pursuit of money and material goods.

When the service ended, several people approached me with questions about my work and reasons for joining the service. Most were kind and sweet, if a bit suspicious. Apropos of nothing, one of the young women with a baby turned her cell phone around to show me a picture of a luxury watch. “How much does this watch cost in America?” she asked.

I looked at her for a moment, not sure if she was joking or if I had misunderstood her question. “I have no idea,” I finally said. “How much does it cost in China?”

“About 7,000 yuan,” she said.

“Oh, well that’s probably about how much it costs in the US,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m just interested in things like this,” she said.

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