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As pastor of the Zion Church in Beijing, Jin Mingri walks the line between sanctioned and unsanctioned Christianity. For 10 years, he was a pastor with the official church in China, but last year he broke away to start Zion. Though it is not officially recognized by the state, he says that the government has never disrupted his gatherings. Here, he talks with FRONTLINE/World reporter Evan Osnos about what attracted Jin to Christianity in the first place, why he chose to break away from the official state church and what Christianity can do for China.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
FRONTLINE/WORLD: Why open a church outside of the existing, legal church structure in China?
JIN MINGRI: We felt that God gives us far greater opportunities outside of what the existing structure offers us. We want to emphasize openness, in terms of prayers and space, as well as the speakers we have. We are also open to the government and to society. We want to let our work be known.
Q: But you don’t like the name “underground church”? You like something else?
A: That’s right: an open and independent church. This is because “underground” belongs to China’s past, during a time where the environment forced churches to go underground. The church didn’t choose to go underground, but at the time it was not accepted by our society. Since 1979, our society has changed, and our people enjoy a greater degree of freedom. So our generation of church workers prefers to emphasize openness and independence.
Q: That seems to be a trend recently: more pastors being open about their faith and speaking out about Christianity.
A: We realize that many Chinese need Christianity. It changes their life and the lives of those around them for the better. This has made it possible for us to spread the words of Christ more aggressively. Another important reason is that China itself underwent tremendous changes in the past 30 years. Churches that were once deemed illegal are now legal. Even if they aren’t legal, they are close to legal. That allows us to take a more active approach, and it’s quite apparent in our services.
Q: You’ve said that because of the Olympics, 2008 is a very meaningful year for China. Why is that?
A: I feel China hosting the 2008 Olympic is historic -- an opportunity that’s hard to come by, especially for post-1949 China . We’ve not hosted a show this huge. This is more than a sports event. It brings China to the world, and the world to China. In the history of China, each time China opens its door to the world, Christianity is the one religion that has the most to gain.
Q: With China’s economic progress happening so rapidly, people have said that it has brought a “belief crisis.” What does that mean?
A: In the recent past, China has promoted one central belief system, and that is the ideology of communism. But such a belief is losing its charm in China today, leaving behind a vacuum in people’s lives, an emptiness. The Cultural Revolution left its mark. After the reform, China chose a path that emphasized economic growth. There is really not a trace of belief left in people’s hearts. That’s why we see a revival in folk religion and so forth . Most people are saying that all they have left is money. What that means is that the Chinese people are feeling an emptiness that’s never been felt before. People are questioning, “Who am I? What’s going on in the world?" There’s a lot of confusion.
Q: How did you come to know that you wanted to be a pastor?
A: I’m just like all the young people in China today. When I was in secondary school, I was a good, hardworking student. I was also a member of the Communist Party. I got into Beijing University in 1986. In my third year, I experienced the events of Tiananmen Square. It affected my generation of university students very deelpy. The university students in the ’80s were groomed by the country. Our fees and living expenses were paid for by the country. The Tiananmen Square events left many students hurt. I didn’t see the connection between that and how I became a Christian after that. I just knew that at the time, like all my other university peers, I felt an immense sense of hopelessness.
In August [ of 1988] , I went to a Christian funeral. Maybe God touched me. When I got back, I started attending congregation regularly. A few months later, someone preached to me about Jesus Christ and how he suffered and was resurrected three days later. If you’re willing to accept him, he’s willing to save you. That day, in the spring of ’89, I knelt down in a corner of the church and accepted Jesus Christ.
I cried for more than an hour. I don’t know why, but I was so moved by God. I took a 40-minute cab ride back to Beijing University. For the first time, I became aware of how beautiful the world is. Under God’s guidance, I realized there was beauty in this world. So, according to my loved one, a week after I converted, I told her I wanted to be a pastor. My family opposed my decision vehemently because they were all non believers. They thought I’d gone crazy! [ Laughs] Later, for about two years, I worked for foreign enterprises, and I made a good living. But God moved me.
At the time, most of the members of our church were elderly people. Now, most of our members are highly educated -- master's degree holders, Ph D holders, university professors. Many people say that our church is for the white collar. But at the end of ’92, our members were all elderly people. God moved me. They needed a pastor, a shepherd. So in 1992 I began my journey as a pastor. I have never regretted that.
Q: You were originally a pastor with [ the officially sanctioned] Shanzhi Church. Why did you decide to leave?
A: I was with the Shanzhi Church for 10 years and contributed quite significantly. I taught there for 7 years. When I came back from studying abroad in the U.S., there was a suggestion that I return to Shanzhi. But I felt the opportunity that God has given to China far exceeds what I could do within the church structure. I feel that China is gradually transforming into a citizen society. What that means is that, originally, we used to have a huge government that controlled everything. But now the government is gradually shrinking, and civil society is growing stronger and larger. I felt that churches should make good use of that opportunity to expand and spread the word of God.
Q: How is your new church’s relationship with the government?
A: After we opened the new church, they requested me to write reports to explain what I’m doing. I complied and explained who we are, what we want to do, and I gave them a schedule of our activities. We’ve been in operation for about a year now, and have not been interrupted. We tried our best to abide by the law and to satisfy the needs of our brothers and sisters. So far, we have not been disrupted. Thank God for that.
But, we have not been recognized by the laws of the government. We are urging the authority to give us some kind of legal protection, as our structure is already in place and our organization is already quite huge. Objectively speaking, the time is not right for us to be recognized by the law, but a lot of people are working hard to move this forward.
Q: Do you think the government feels threatened by Christianity?
A: I feel, judging from what the officials, including Jiang Zemin and Hu Jingtao, have said in their speeches, that they are taking religious issues very seriously. They regard religion as a vital force in the social and cultural progress of our society. This is something that hasn’t been mentioned much before. After the class struggle, any mention of the existence of religion would be considered very bold. This is because socialist ideals are built upon class struggle. So the survival of religion within communism is an amazing feat. Looking at the big picture, we have to move forward.
In the past, Chinese society has been called religion-blind. In actual fact, this is the result of the ruling communist party’s propaganda, branding religion as superstition and low class. A lot of changes have taken place since the reform. Many government officials now have a better understanding of religions. This is very good.
Q: Why is it that family churches are allowed in some places but not in others?
A: China is a not a country ruled by law, unlike the United States, where even the government cannot challenge the rule of laws. But in China, as laws are still being formed, the laws governing religions and religious organizations and activities are still very underdeveloped. So even though there are existing policies, there’s a lot of flexibility in the ways they are being implemented. In some places, the government officials are very ignorant about religions and so are very strict. In other places, where the officials are more open-minded, the religious organizations would enjoy greater freedom. China is big and complicated. There’s a saying that if you take a road trip from Beijing for an hour, you will experience 100 years. That is, 100 years of values co-exist within an hour drive. So it’s impossible to make any generalization. China has a very complex religious problem.
Q: Can you explain who your members are?
A: About 90 percent of our members are between 20 and 40 years old. And most of them are university grads that are working in Beijing. More than 30 percent of them hold higher degrees, like a master’s degree or a PhD. They all have their own professional occupations. These are the majority. It’s a very young group of people. That’s why we developed so quickly. Within a year, we already have more than 350 people. This year is our second year and we want to limit our membership to within 600 people. We don’t want to expand. This is because our own leadership ability is still weak and may not be able to sustain too fast a growth without facing some problems. We also don’t have sufficient space to meet our membership growth.
Q: At this point, are you afraid of the authority’s control?
A: The most important thing is that we should follow the path taken by Jesus and his disciples. We have nothing to hide. We are Christian believers. We think that Christianity is good for Beijing, for China. But it may take some time before our intention is understood, trusted and even respected by the authority. We even have to consider the price we may have to pay. But I believe that, one day, all the problems will be resolved.
Q: What’s the most important issue to be resolved?
A: One of them is private ownership. I personally don’t think that religious development is the greatest force of social change in China. What’s a bigger force is the shift toward private ownership. The loss of moral values, damage to family units, people’s hunger for money, the lack of moral value and virtues, and so forth , are the bigger problems that we are facing as our country develops. But this also goes to prove the need for the church.
Q: So, in the future, there will be more and more churches?
A; That’s the direction we are moving toward. Churches will be given more and more space. This is because the reform and liberalization have resulted in a transfer of power to the common people. That is, the power enjoyed by each individual has grown. So naturally, that person will gradually be empowered to exercise his rights to religion. So maybe that’s our future.