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Drawn by grace

Religion | Many Chinese immigrants hear the gospel for the first time in the United States-and many are responding

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 18, 2010

Grand Street sprawls like a clogged artery to the heart of New York's Chinatown. People brush through sidewalks packed with shops selling fresh fruit. Restaurants display whole shriveled barbecued ducks. Old women haggle for fish in harsh Cantonese tones. Souvenir shops offer fake golden Buddhas, fish carved in cheap jade, and bonsai trees growing in porcelain vases.

For some Americans, stepping into this ethnic enclave feels like stepping onto another continent. It might seem that Li Rong Liu, a native of Fujian in southern China, would read the Chinese lettering on shops and feel at home-but it's a bleak home where he started on the lowest level as a busboy, working seven days a week from the early morning to midnight for six years before upgrading to a sushi chef. He now works a more modest 10 hours a day.

"Have you ever worked at a restaurant?" Liu asked in Mandarin with a wry smile. I shook my head no, and he sighed, "Then you have no idea how hard it is." Two years ago, though, Liu found respite from his burdens when a friend invited him to the Church of Grace to Fujianese. Here in midtown Manhattan was a place where he could bond with others from Fujian province in southeastern China. He also noticed something different in the church: a kind of joy and love he had yet to experience in the United States.

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"There was something genuine about this faith, unlike the idols we worshipped in China," Liu said. "When I was in China, I had heard of Christianity, but I didn't think I needed it. Now in the U.S., when I'm alone and facing new hardships, here is where I find God."

Liu's story is like that of many immigrants both legal and illegal from mainland China. Since the People's Republic of China eased travel restrictions in 1978, the number of Chinese immigrants has soared from 200,000 in 1980 to 1.4 million in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This creates a tremendous opportunity for the Chinese people to hear the gospel right here in the United States-and the number of Chinese churches in the United States has risen from 366 churches in 1980 to more than 800 today.

On Sunday mornings at 10:45 a.m., throngs of Fujianese people file through a doorway under metal letters that spell out "The Church of Grace to Fujianese" in both Chinese and English. Friendly chatter fills the 300-seat sanctuary as pews hit capacity and those without seats stand along the wall. Latecomers sit on folding chairs in the foyer and watch the service on a small flatscreen.

After the congregation sings a few hymns in Chinese, Pastor Matthew Ding takes the podium and instructs congregants to open their Bibles to Nehemiah 11:6-24. He calls for the congregation to read the passage aloud, and the hall is filled with a loud jumble of words as everyone reads at his or her own pace. The passage seems dry-a genealogy of Israelites who settled in Jerusalem-but Ding emphasizes that the Israelites, like the Chinese, are interested both in lineage and in passing down teaching of the law. He then brings it back to the Chinese culture: "You came to the U.S. to give your kids a better life, but if you don't teach them about Christianity, what good will it be? Nothing else will last for eternity."

Many Chinese immigrants come to the church entrenched in the Confucian belief that hard work is the only path to success in life: Study hard to get into a good college, work hard to make more money, and discipline children to have a respectable household. When Chinese immigrants hear the gospel, they have a hard time understanding that salvation comes from grace alone, not from works. Hence the word grace or "un dian" is often repeated in church.

Ding presents the gospel both in his sermons and through church meetings that fit work schedules. He has Bible studies and classes on other days than Sunday mornings, since many congregants work then. He holds a later service for those who work late. The church also has a telephone ministry where about 1,000 immigrants who work in Chinese restaurants across the United States call in from midnight to 2 a.m. to hear a pastor lead Bible study. Afterwards the lines are open for callers to share prayer requests and pray together.

Other Christian organizations also reach out to Chinese immigrants. Herald Restaurant Gospel Ministry, headquartered in San Jose, Calif., holds late-night Bible studies at Chinese restaurants for what founder Esther Lou calls "an unreached people group." Lou, a former restaurant owner, came to Christ and saw a whole population of dishwashers, busboys, and waiters toiling all day without hearing about the gospel. She started holding Bible studies after work in San Jose in 1995, and the organization now has expanded to a dozen cities such as Indianapolis, Atlanta, Tucson, and New York.

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