Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, July 22, 2005

Back to Jerusalem 

I don't think anyone knows for sure when the "Back to Jerusalem" movement began, but it seems to have developed as an active movement by the 1940's. Phyllis Thompson, a CIM missionary stationed in Chongqing made the following observation in a prayer letter written in 1949:

"The thing that has impressed me most has been the strange, unaccountable urge of a number of different Chinese groups of Christians to press forward in faith, taking the gospel towards the west. I know of at least five different groups, quite unconnected with each other, who have left their homes in east China and gone forth, leaving practically everything behind them, to the west. Some are in Sikang [now western Sichuan], some in Kansu [Gansu Province], some right away in the great northwestern province of Sinkiang [now Xinjiang] or Chinese Turkestan. It seems like a movement of the Spirit which is irresistible. The striking thing is that they are disconnected, and in most cases seem to know nothing about each other. Yet all are convinced that the Lord is sending them to the western borders to preach the gospel, and they are going with a strong sense of urgency of the shortness of the time, and the imminence of the Lord's return."

As far as I can tell, the "Back to Jerusalem" movement seemed to have three characteristics:

  1. It involved separate groups and individuals who, as Phyllis Thompson observed, did not know each other, but seemed to have gotten the same vision at the same time.

  2. It was based on the belief that the development of what we often call the "Great Comission" has historically moved in a primarily westward direction, beginning with the missionary journeys of Paul, and moving into Europe, down into Africa and across to the Americas, and finally to Asia.

  3. Last, and most important, is the belief that God has given to the Chinese people the responsibility to "complete the circle," bringing the gospel through the Moslem world on the way back to Jerusalem.

At any rate, during the forties, several different groups of missionaries began move toward the northwest. One of these missionaries was a man by the name of Simon Zhao.

Simon Zhao's involvement with the "Back to Jerusalem" movement began one winter day as he entered the prayer tower of the old American Presbyterian Church in Mukden (now Shenyang), the capital of Manchuria. Tony Lambert, writing in China Insight, tells the story,

"One day when it was his turn to pray in the tower, he was still wrestling with this question, so he brought a large map with him. It had been snowing hard so he opened the door of the prayer-tower with some difficulty. Alone in the vast silence, he laid out the map and prayed.

"He was drawn to Xinjiang with its strange-sounding place-names. Was this the place the Lord had for him? The more he prayed, the more Xinjiang imprinted itself in his mind. But Xinjiang was far away, plagued with many political, religious and racial problems, so he could not help feeling afraid. But had he not placed himself on the altar? Had not Christ given up his life for him? He ceased to resist any longer.

"He married Wen Muling, a fourth generation descendent of a Qing dynasty first-rank imperial councilor. They both went to study at the Taidong Seminary in Nanjing. There they met two women from Jinan who shared their vision to preach the gospel in Xinjiang. Zhao was very moved and determined to go there. In 1949 he, his wife and the two sisters set sail up the Yangtze from Nanjing. They were seen off personally by Rev. Yang Shaotang, one of China's leading preachers. This raises the fascinating question as to how much Rev. Yang may have had a burden for the evangelization of the far Northwest and "Back to Jerusalem."

"China was torn apart by the civil war between Nationalists and Communists. Everywhere there were refugees. Uncle Simon had already prepared himself for suffering, even prison, so did not complain about the hardships of the journey. Eventually they reached Hami on the eastern edge of Xinjiang and joined members of the North West Evangelization Band who had arrived there a year or two previously..."

I began my own "Back to Jerusalem" journey yesterday morning when I boarded a plane for Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province. I had bought a backpack for this trip. I am not a backpacker in the classic sense of the term, but I have found that a backpack is much less troublesome than a suitcase when traveling alone. Michael, my neighbor in the foreign teachers' dormitory, helped me adjust the thing so that the weight rests on my hips, and not on my back. I don't think it's a major issue, becuase I am not planning to walk from Mexico to Canada as he did, but he is right that one should keep weight off the back as much as possible. This is especially true in my case, because I do carry a few books with me, which tends to make my backpack a bit heavy.

The four hour flight to Urumqi was uneventful. I spent most of the time watching a movie about this guy who is trapped in the New York airport due to lack of proper documentation. When it got to the part where he was describing his mission to a seemingly missionless airline stewardess, I found myself struck by the futility of his mission, which was to obtain the autograph of a famous band leader for his father, who was not able to obtain it before he died.

But while his mission may seem futile, I guess you would have to say that it was at least noble, because it was done to honor someone who had passed on. And I couldn't help being impressed by his commitment to his mission, and by how clearly he saw and understood exactly what he wanted to accomplish. I hate to use a secular film to illustrate a spiritual truth, but I think we can see from this movie, that a missionary is defined by the clarity of his vision, the quality of his mission, and the depth of his commitment to it.

Joy (one of the translators at the Haidian church) had arranged for me to stay with her sister. Her sister had told me which bus to catch from the airport in order to get to her neighborhood. For some reason, that bus was not immediately accessible from the airport, so I took another one that was going to that particular part of the city. When I got off, I was still some distance from where I needed to be. Fortunately for me, a kind passerby asked me where I was going, so I called the number Joy's sister had given me, and the friend who was at her home told the guy where I needed to go. He found the bus for me, and insisted on riding with me to the right place, not leaving until he was sure I had met my party. I have always been impressed by the kindness of ordinary Chinese people, who go out of their way to help a complete stranger.

Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, has the distinction of being the farthest from any ocean of all the cities in the world. Pick any direction, and it is a very, very long drive to the beach. It is the quintessential inland city. And it was a welcome relief from the humidity of a Beijing summer. Everyone has their preferences, but I definitely prefer a dry climate, which is what Beijing is, most of the time. Fall, Winter and Spring, Beijing is very dry. But there is that one period during the summer, when the climate seems to reverse, and Beijing becomes a steam bath.

Xinjiang Province is the home of the Uygur minority, but Han Chinese are moving in fast, and Urumqi, as the capital city, is definitely dominated by the Chinese. It has become a popular choice for modern Chinese yuppies (Young Urban Professionals), because they can enjoy the "good life" of the city, at a cost which is quite a bit less than what it would cost them in Beijing or Shanghai.

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