Mennonite Study Group Visits China

Participants in a consultation held Oct. 13 at the Institute of World Religions, Division of Christianity (Beijing). Standing (l to r): Elmer S. Miller, Philadephia; Myrrl Byler, Harrisonburg; Xiyi Yao (Kevin), Hong Kong (with MMN); third from right, Marlin Jeschke, Goshen. Seated: Theron Schlabach, Goshen; Robert Lee, Harrisonburg; Cal Redekop, Harrisonburg; John A. Lapp, Akron, Pa.; Al Keim, Harrisonburg; Ray Gingerich, Harrisonburg. All others pictured are faculty members and students at the Institute of World Religions.
Photo by Ray Gingerich

Learning and new experiences don’t end with retirement, at least not for one group of seniors who spent most of October traveling in China.

The combined group had extensive overseas experience and represented decades of college classroom teaching, but few had ever been to China. As retired Temple University professor Elmer Miller stated, "China was never on my radar screen."

Mennonite Partners in China (formerly China Educational Exchange) arranged the visit at the request of the Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society (ACRS). ACRS is a group of retired professors, primarily from Eastern Mennonite University, who seek to connect faith and life in contemporary academia and the church. ACRS members and long-time Mennonite Mission Network workers Robert and Nancy Lee sparked the interest in the tour.

The 17 participants visited major historical sights like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing, the canals of Suzhou, skyscrapers in Shanghai and the ancient terracotta army in Xian. A visit to the 7th century site of the first Christian church and monastery in China was a highlight for many. An ancient pagoda marks the site of this Nestorian mission.

Listen and Learn

According to John A. Lapp, former executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee, a primary objective for the group was "to listen and learn what the Spirit is saying to the churches in China." Following a worship service in Beijing, the senior pastor shared the history of her congregation of 7,000 and fielded questions from the ACRS group.

Visits to seminaries in two different cities highlighted the progress that the church has made in training pastors. However, leaders admitted that most churches and meeting points still rely on lay leadership.

An unusual privilege was the visit to a meeting point in the remote countryside of Sichuan province. The Christian faith came to this area of China less than 20 years ago, but already more than 300 believers attend. Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., contributed funds for the completion of the building where the believers meet. Albert Keim and others from the Park View congregation continued the ties between the two congregations by bringing greetings. Members who gathered at the meeting point shared several songs, and the pastor explained how the church had been helped by other churches in the province in their battle against false teachings.

After numerous conversations with Chinese pastors, seminary teachers and North American Mennonites working in China, the ACRS group admitted that the situation of the church in China is highly complex. In a signed letter to Mennonite mission agencies and MCC, the group stated: "We are sure that to work in China without a profound respect for differences and divergences from conventional western assumptions about authentic Christianity would be a serious mistake.: The group commended Mennonite Partners in China for their work in :interpreting the faith and practice of the church in China, serving as helpers and facilitators of its vision."

Looking at Christianity for Answers

Calvin Redekop, retired from years of teaching at several Mennonite colleges, was impressed with the incredible interest in the study of religion at China