Is this the day I die? He’d asked himself the question every day.
This was Sunday. It was on Sunday that Quan’s great-grandfather had been beheaded. And it was Sunday his father died in prison after a beating.
”It is time?” Ming whispered, her voice a feather falling upon silk. Candle flame dancing in her brown eyes, she looked just as she had ten years ago, at their wedding in Shanghai.
Quan kissed her delicate forehead. Already in this short night he’d dreamed again he held her wounded body—Ming running red through his fingers in a dark rain.
They moved swiftly, silently, performing their 2:00 a.m. Sunday ritual. Ming fed Shen two crackers, holding up his wobbly head. Quan wrapped a gray blanket around his neck, then squeezed into his dark green parka. Stuffing money into his trouser pocket,
Quan stepped outside and strapped a bundle to the back of his old ashen bicycle. He tied and knotted the bundle, double-tying and double-checking the knots. Ming and sleepy-eyed Shen followed, coats bulging like overstuffed cushions.
Quan positioned Shen on the seat in front of him. Ming peddled beside them, a silent shadow. They wished there was no moon—it made the ride easier but more dangerous. He preferred safety over ease.
An unnatural slivery dust floated on the wind. Quan bounced over hard ruts, pressing tightly against Shen. Seeing shadows ahead, he instinctively began the rehearsal. “Our son is sick,” he said to the wind. “We are taking him to my brother’s for medicine.”
After four kilometers, dark clouds rolled in as an artist suddenly changing his mood on a canvas. The moon hid from the coming storm. They’d have to ride home in it. But that might be better—storms kept eyes off the streets.
At seven kilometers, he saw white wisps of smoke rising from a chimney. A welcome sight, yet if he could see it, so could others. He pushed down his fear to that hollow place inside.
They got off their bicycles in deathly stillness and walked them behind Ling Ho’s house. They leaned them against the dark side, by the chicken coop. Quan brushed his hand over other bicycles, counting them. Fourteen.
He walked to the back door knowing they’d crossed the line of no return. From this moment all explanations for being out in the night were futile.
As they entered, Quan nodded and returned shy smiles to the twenty others. He regretted that, as usual, his smiles were forced and nervous. The family sat on a backless bench, coats on, leaning into each other’s warmth.
The dull luminescence cast an eerie hue over the one room house, bare but for a bench, some chairs and a bed. When the church was smaller, with ten of them, they’d sat in a circle, but now they had four small rows, the last being the edge of the bed.
Jin stood up. Eyelids heavy, but eyes alert, his upper teeth protruded in a yellow smile. The draft was a wind upon Jin’s wispy hair, a wind that stirred the room, then the words came out the old man’s lips.
”Lord, we give you thanks for your abundant blessing.”
Jin gazed at the church, his children. “Today we speak of light and momentary troubles, which achieve in us an eternal weight of glory.”
As he said the word glory, lightning flashed in the eastern sky. Moments later God’s voice shook the earth, then his tears fell from heaven.
Quan felt a hand on his shoulder, chilling him. He turned to see Eng Lok, who’d been coming only six weeks. Quan didn’t know him. He smiled nervously as Lok’s palsied fingers passed forward a worn hymnal, paper so thin Quan could read the words two pages back. The church sang, too loudly Quan thought, “Yesu Jidu, we praise your name forever…”
Is this the day? ”
Unless a kernel of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds.”
Craggy-faced Jin was seated now, in an old wicker chair, reading the verse slowly, leaning forward. Specters from the flickering candles cut across his ancient brow. He spoke each word with the gentle obstinacy of a long obedience. “Whoever serves me must follow me…my Father will honor the one who serves me.”
Jin reminded Quan of his father. The old man raised his arms, exposing red callused wrists. The sight stabbed Quan with the memory of the shame he’d felt at his father’s imprisonment. Teachers and students in the communist school had taunted him because his father’s faith made him a “public enemy.”
A younger Quan had tried to disbelieve in God. He had tried to embrace the ideals of the party, to believe the words of his teachers. He didn’t want to stand out, didn’t want to be noticed. He’d longed to blend into the dark green background of modern China. To this day, he wouldn’t wear reds and yellows and bright colors. He was no rebel. He’d even joined the student Red Guards.
Quan had tried hard not be a Christian. But somehow the wind herded him back. In college, the faith that had been his father’s became his own. Jin went on. “No man having put his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
It was still coal black outside, 3:15 a.m. Curtains were drawn. In some towns unregistered churches met while police looked the other way, but here the Chief always searched for enemies of the state, those he could make an example of.
Quan rubbed the rough scar on his neck. Church must end before the prying eyes of sunrise.
”Stand and we will worship our Lord.” The old one began singing a hymn Quan had heard and reluctantly sung many times since childhood: “One day I’ll die for the Lord.”
Is this the day?
As the church sang, Jin raised his hands again. Quan knew every scar on his father’s back and arms, the scars he used to run his fingers over, before Father went to prison the last time. His father would be Jin’s age. If only…
Quan stiffened at the shout behind him. The voice rang with the authority of an captain of the Public Security Bureau.
Quan swept his left arm over Shen, pulling him close against him and Ming. “Look down, be quiet, don’t move.” Quan had learned the drill long ago, hiding in house church under his mother’s skirt. To his left he saw two green uniforms. To his right two more.
”Do not move,” a harsh baritone voice commanded from the back.
At the front right a young policeman held out a Type 54 pistol. Quan had seen one close-up. It had been waved in his face, then struck against his skull. Quan’s right elbow was banged by the heavy butt of a Type 56 assault rifle, the PSB’s version of the Russian AK-47. Quan often contemplated the irony that China’s politics and weapons had come from a “despised foreign power.”
Quan’s head remained bowed but he peeked up so he could barely see the PSB captain standing just three feet in front of him. The man stared at the twenty-four believers with the pinched eyes of cold assessment. A two-inch scar, rough-sewn in his burlap skin, hung over his right eyebrow. Quan didn’t recognize him.
Hands tight, with fingers pointing inward like gray claws, the captain was dressed sharply in a green uniform, straight black necktie, pants neatly creased, cap exactly positioned. The only imperfection was the slight tilt of his shoulder badge. This minor flaw comforted Quan, a reminder the government machinery was not so perfect after all.
The captain took his place in front of the hushed room. His smoked-glass eyes raked the assembly. ”
This is an illegal jiaotang!”
Quan detected an accent that suggested the villages over the mountains, where he’d probably transferred from.
”This church is not registered with the Bureau of Religious Affairs,” he said, stretching his voice as if this were the ultimate offense. “You are not part of the Three Self Patriotic Movement!” He’d spoken the truth—it was against the law to gather for religious purposes except at approved locations.
”You meet in the night like the criminals you are.”
He walked across the front of the room like walking it made it his. His gait was arrogant and sure, like an actor posturing onstage. He looked like he’d walked on the necks of a thousand peasants.
”You have been distributing illegal foreign propaganda.”
With dramatic flourish, he waved a thin flat brown object, covering his palm, gripped tightly by the ends of his gray fingers. Though unmarked, Quan knew what it was—a compact disk container, and inside, no doubt, the movie. Quan had passed out dozens himself. Last month he and Ming brought eighteen neighbors into their little house, where they watched it. Five became Christians. Three were here this morning. Quan had seen them in the back. Already he’d gotten them into trouble—he longed to turn his neck to see them, but dared not.
Shen’s pudgy face scrunched. The dour-mouthed captain lowered his gaze and stared at the boy. Shen’s upper lip quivered. He started to cry. Slowly, Ming took off her silk scarf, blood-red, and gently pressed it against Shen’s lips. Quan peered into his only son’s eyes, pleading for quiet, making unspoken promises, knowing he couldn’t keep them.
”It is against our law to teach religion to children under eighteen! Brainwashing children! You are a disgrace—traitors to the Republic.”
Shame was familiar—ancient, but still effective. When his father was arrested, a teacher fashioned paper and strings, and hung a sign on Quan’s that read, “Quan is a criminal.” He’d cried uncontrollably. Even now he felt the humiliation.
”You are cultists, devious and immoral,” The captain said. “Do you think you are above the law? If you must worship foreign gods, there is a registered church!”
The nearest registered church was fourteen kilometers away. Three legal meeting places for a half million people. Quan’s family had only their two bicycles. But even if they could get there, the pastor had been trained at seminary to censor his messages to the Bureau’s liking. Some of the registered pastors were faithful-not this one. There were many infiltrators in the church, who watched and reported. Spies and informants were well rewarded.
"China is built on the backbone of hard-working citizens loyal to the superior socialist system.”
As always, propaganda followed shame. Spoken with passionate seriousness, the words were formula. Quan could have recited them in his sleep. Sometimes he did.
With a rigid swagger, the captain took three steps to the side then turned suddenly like an owl’s head.
”You are very bad people!”
Is this the day?
Quan looked back at the book on the bench, the precious cargo he’d strapped to his bicycle. He was one of only three in this church who owned a whole Bible.
”By assembling unlawfully you are subject to imprisonment. But what you deserve is much worse!”
Quan recalled his visits to his father. They were permitted to see him once a month for thirty minutes. He was often in solitary confinement.
Each month Quan watched Father waste away. Eventually the face that stared back at him was misshapen from beatings, crusted with scabs, puffy with infections. At the beginning of his ten-year imprisonment his face looked mottled and leathery, like the sole of an army boot. Eventually it became a chalky mask. But the eyes peering through the mask’s eyeholes, though hollowed and jaundiced, were still his father’s, full of determination and joy. Yes, joy, welling up from some subterranean reservoir.
”What is that?” the captain pointed at the Bible. Quan swallowed hard. The worst had happened—being singled out of a crowd. Would he have to explain why his shenjing didn’t have the government seal?
”What is it?” the man shouted.
”It is…a message from God.” He heard his own voice, surprised at its steadiness.
The captain pulled from his pocket a little red volume. “This is China’s book—not your western imperialist Bible.”
The captain was a Mao-quoter, from the old school. How many times had Quan been told Christianity was a western religion? Didn’t they understand Jidu wasn’t American? He needed to watch that movie in his hand so he could understand the world of Zhu Jidu was more like rural China than America.
”Our revered father Mao Zedong said, ‘The communist party is the core of the Chinese people.’”
Mao was “the Great Savior,” his picture once hung everywhere. But his experiment failed miserably, leaving under-producing collective farms and a commerce greased by bribes and corruption. But the failure was shrouded under a canopy of words, upheld by professional thugs and a network of gulags, some of which held ten percent of their inmates simply for living out Christian convictions. There was endless pushing and herding and reminding of how the state cared for them and protected them from their enemies. Conflicting ideology, Christian faith in particular, was not tolerated.
Since the economic reforms of Deng, Mao’s successor, many said it was different. But Quan’s nephew was killed in Six Four, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. And Quan had been in a house church raided the next week, and two more since. The scars and aches in his neck, and inside his head, reminded him things were never what they appeared. “This world is not my home,” he reminded himself.
”Do you think we will stand by and allow what happened in Russia and eastern Europe?”
He’d heard it before—Christianity was blamed for creating the demand for freedom, leading to the regime’s loss of control. China now had twice as many Christians as communist party members. A great wall of repression had been built to prevent Christianity from spreading.
There was much good in China, Quan knew—beauty, history, nobility, and decency, and now economic progress. But the chains of prisoners and free alike had choked this great land, strangled his father and his great-grandfather. Quan sensed that, one day, they would strangle him.
Is this the day?
The captain waved his rifle. “We must crack down on all law-breaking activities to safeguard social stability.” Code words for crushing Christians.
”The Chairman said, ‘If you don’t hit it, it won’t fall. Like sweeping the floor, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.’”
He paused, then squared his shoulders, eyes aflame. “Today we come with brooms!” In concert, every man in uniform lifted his weapon high.
”We must kill the baby while it is still in the manger. You do not deserve to live!”
Quan had been threatened, strong-armed and jailed, and he’d heard the “kill the baby” line, but never had he sensed such impending doom. He felt his heart throbbing in the tips of his ears. He’d assumed they’d be given warnings, marks would be made on their records, and perhaps he and the other men would be taken to jail and beaten. This had happened to him before. But these soldiers were different. “Something else is happening here,” he thought.
Ming trembled beside him, a tear on her downy cheek. Even Jin, who had spent over twenty years in prison, seemed to shake. ”
With these brooms we will sweep away the dirt and filth that threatens China.” The captain stared at every person in the room, one by one, studying them.
The captain’s eloquence frightened Quan. Educated evil was always the worst. Something terrible was coming.
”There are two sides to this room. All those loyal to the party and people must prove it by moving to the left side, and out the door. In doing so, they will declare there is no God, and they do not believe in Jidu. They are free to go and will not be punished. Those who choose Jidu will step to the right side.”
Quan looked at Ming, a tempest in her eyes. For a long five seconds no one moved. Then one man stepped to the left, toward the door. Immediately, stoop-shouldered Jin walked to the right. Quan tried to budge his legs, but they felt wobbly, like rusted rain gutters.
”In three minutes,” the captain said matter-of-factly, “we will shoot every man and woman—and child—who does not declare himself loyal to the people rather than foreign devils.”
Soft groans erupted across the room. Quan had never heard of such a thing. Killings, yes, of course, one or two at a time, but not this!
The captain looked at his watch, stepped aside, leaned against the wall and observed, as if guessing who would be left for him to execute.
Ling Ho and Mei came forward and joined Jin on the right side of their home.
”Will they really kill us?” Ming whispered feebly. ”
I…think so,” Quan said.
Eng Lok, eyes down, walked out the door, his wife two steps behind.
”Two minutes,” The captain said, with a machine’s voice. Clearly this man knew what he was going to do. The only question was, what would the people do?
Quan looked toward the right.
”We cannot let Shen die,” Ming whispered.
”He is Jidu’s gift to us,” Quan said. “No, not a gift, a loan. God is his father. He will care for him.”
”We cannot not lose our only son.”
”God lost his only son. He buried his son in a foreign land.”
”I am willing to die,” Ming said, voice cracking, “but I cannot bear to think of them killing Shen. Still...perhaps it is the Lord’s mercy for us to die together.”
”I’ve always thought I might end like my father and great-grandfather…but not you, not Shen.” Yes, he’d dreamed of holding Ming’s dying body, but he hadn’t really believed it would happen. Quan covered his face with his hands. He felt her small, strong grip on his arm.
”Are we not Zhu Jidu’s also? Are we not his called and chosen? Why should we not walk the way He has chosen for you? Why should you be considered worthy and not us?”
It had always been this way. Whenever she weakened, he was strong for her. Whenever he weakened, she was strong for him. He leaned over Shen and put his arms around Ming. Then Quan got down on one knee in front of his only son.
”Do you understand what the captain said, Shen?” The child nodded his head slowly, eyes puffy.
”Will you come with us and follow Zhu Jidu?”
He nodded again, face pinched and wet.
Quan started to pick Shen up, but instead held his hand, and let him walk beside him.
Wordlessly, the three turned their backs on the door and walked to those standing on the right.
”Sixty seconds,” the captain called.
Three families, including three children, joined Quan and the others. Five people stood in the middle of the room, starting to move one way and then the other, as if in the center of a tug-of-war. Quan prayed hard for his three neighbors standing there—Fu Gan, Chun, and their teenage daughter Yuet.
”This is your final chance. Leave now or die!”
A woman he didn’t recognize headed for the door, followed by a man. Suddenly the three neighbors walked briskly, young Yuet leading the way. They embraced Quan and Ming, holding tightly. Quan rejoiced. When the three had come to Yesu in their home only weeks before, he hadn’t dreamed they would die together in church.
He counted. Eighteen people remained. Five had walked out. One last man stood inside the door, glancing back, as if looking for a third alternative. The captain pointed his weapon at the man, who turned and fled out the door into the cold darkness.
One of the officers stepped outside, weapon pointed, looking around. Reentering, he shut the door and locked it. Quan, Ming and Shen clasped each others’ hands. Quan breathed deeply and braced himself.
The captain now moved toward Jin and Quan. He put one hand on each of their shoulders. His face trembled. He dropped his weapon.
”Forgive us, brothers. I am Fu Chi. We have come from AnNing village, across the mountain. We are followers of Zhu Jidu. God is doing mighty things among us. We have much to tell you. But we dared not put you at risk…or our brothers and families at home.
Registered and house churches alike are betrayed by spies. We had to drive away the infiltrators. Now you know who they are. You can trust each other. We salute you. For you are the overcomers—more loyal to the King than to your own lives.”
Quan stared blankly as his executioner embraced him. He felt the man’s powerful torso quiver. Fu Chi, knelt and faced Shen, hands upon his shoulders.
”Forgive us, brave one,” he whispered. “We knew no other way.”
Among the eighteen, confusion slowly dissolved into cautious smiles. At Jin’s beckoning, the younger uniformed men, heads hung, joined them. Quan knelt down to Shen, Ming alongside. He pressed his face against theirs and felt their hot tears mingle with his.
Jin sang, “Zhu Yesu Jidu, we praise your name forever.” Fu Chi’s strong baritone rose. Other voices joined them.
Is this the day?
No. But it would come, Quan knew, whether at gunpoint, at work, or at home in the ease of bed. His day would come.
Quan lifted Shen into his embrace. He gazed into his brown eyes, seeing his reflection in them. But he also saw someone else looking back, eyes he’d last seen behind the holes of a mask.
Quan’s insides felt as if hot tea had been poured down his throat. He believed for the first time that when his day came, he would be ready. Then, on the other side, in his true home, he would see again the face of the father he yearned to embrace, no longer hidden behind the mask. He would see his father’s real face and look into those joy-filled eyes. And he would see another face, the face of One who died for him...and for Whom he knew at last he was willing to die.
”Well done, my son.”
Quan didn’t recognize the voice he heard.
He turned his head to search for it. He saw only Ming and Shen and the followers of Zhu Jidu.
For the first time in many years, Quan—not forcing it—smiled broadly…without fear and without shame.
Excerpted from Safely Home by Randy Alcorn.