My first experience with a Chinese underground Christian church was very above the ground; in fact, 20 floors above.
I went there with a friend yesterday, on Christmas day. We arrived at an apartment complex just outside the 4th ring road at 2pm. The buildings looked no different from any other dotting Beijing’s expanding footprint – new on the outside but quickly decaying on the inside.
My friend gave me a quick jolt once we got in the lobby. He scratched his head, “darn, I forgot which floor it is on. 18 or 20?”. Then he asked the security guard who was dressed in some kind of police-like uniform with a heavy cotton army coat on the outside, “comrade, do you know on which floor the underground church is located?” I thought we were going to be arrested right then and there, but the guard only replied impatiently, “What underground service? I don’t know any here.”
We took the elevator to the 18th floor which was his first guess. He buzzed an apartment. The little window on the top of the iron security door opened. A gruff male voice asked what we wanted. My friend asked again, “comrade, do you know on which floor the underground church is located?” The gruff male voice replied that there was no Christian in the building.
We climbed up the dark stairs to the 20th floor. His second buzz opened the door to the underground church set up in an apartment. The living room, now acting as the chapel, had no decoration except for a small cross on one wall, a poster of Christ’s resurrection on the second, and a huge Chinese character Love on the 3rd. At the deep end of the room stood a tiny podium under the cross, and the rest of the room was packed with chairs.
Worshippers streamed in slowly as the service started until the room was jam packed. The crowd seemed younger on average than that visiting the official churches. Altogether there were about 40-50 people, including a middle-aged woman who cried during hymns, a couple of trendy-looking young girls, a few from Hong Kong, a hip looking young artist type and one older guy who dozed off during the service.
A grave-looking middle-aged overweight man with long wild beard gave the sermon. He appeared to be some kind of writer and was very eloquent. He preached for love and peace and humility. He claimed that Christianity was the best religion after he compared it to all the other religions he knew; the difference – the immaculate conception of Christ. He bashed democracy for its innate lack of a higher good.
“Look at the democracy in Taiwan. It’s like a farce. Democracy brought out the worst in us.” He exclaimed, while sweat stained through his shirt. The central heating was turned unbearably high. “We need a higher good to guide us.” He said.
I had the urge to point out that his sense of superiority was very similar to that of George Bush; that why we would wish for paradise when the very imperfect democracy is a lot more achievable; and that Taiwan is a very good example democracy is working. But I knew better to argue with religious people, especially the preacher.
The service ended with the preacher leading the whole group praying for world peace, for their good behavior under god’s guidance in the new year, and for their good behavior helping in the near year convert non-believers who were like lost lambs without god’s grace.
All in all, it was very similar to the service at the official church. I couldn’t see why the government would ever want to suppress underground church service. The only reason possible is that the Chinese government dislikes anyone or any organization openly proclaim a higher loyalty to an entity above itself, which the underground churches do ardently. If that’s the case, whom is the government kidding? Above ground or underground, the government can only promise 10% GDP growth, while God promises a kingdom of heaven.