For each of the past 20 years, Freddie Sun and his wife Dorothy have traveled more than 25,000 miles within China to help start and support 155 Bible schools in every province. On Aug. 22, Sun, 76, director of the China Division of Christian Aid Mission, died of brain tumors.
Through Sun's work, Bible school graduates are leading thousands of house churches in China. Those churches, most unregistered with China's communist government, face varying degrees of persecution: In some provinces government officials turn a blind eye to them, while in others they crack down, detaining pastors and confiscating property. Leaders can disappear in prison or "re-education through labor" camps.
And as the house church movement - and the size of house churches - has grown, so has enforcement. Earlier this year, authorities ordered closed a 1,500-member house church in Sichuan province. In the past month, officials raided a Shaanxi church summer camp, beat a pastor in Inner Mongolia, and continued to harass members of Shouwang church in Beijing, which was evicted from its rented space last year.
Christian Aid could not speak openly about Sun's work while he was alive, but now friends and colleagues want to reveal its impact on the growth of Christianity in China. "He was indomitable, he was hard-driven, athletic, and determined - extremely determined," said Bill Bray, special projects coordinator of Christian Aid. "He had been persecuted so much that there was nothing left that anyone could do to him, he was fearless because he believed that God had called him."
Sun became a Christian at 19 as Mao Zedong was forcing churches to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, where they would be placed under government control. Sun became part of the house church movement and soon came under the scrutiny of the government for his open Christian faith.
While many Christians were giving in to pressure from the Communist government to renounce their faith during the Cultural Revolution, Sun held fast. He also wanted to find a woman who was willing to suffer for Christ. Through a friend he met Dorothy Chang, who was doing forced labor for refusing to renounce her Christian father and her faith.
"Freddie looked so serious, he was geologist working with fossils and rocks, we joke that he looks like a fossil, with a lack of romantic mood," Chang said. "I love him because he was a hero among the brothers and sisters, he would rather suffer for Christ and wait for a right sister in Christ."
Soon after they married, the government denounced Sun as a counter-revolutionary, set up a mass meeting where his co-workers publicly humiliated him, and sent him to do forced labor. He held tightly to Scripture, particularly Matthew 24:9, said Chang: "You will be brought before kings and governors and you will be hated by all on account of My name." He saw Dorothy a few times a year, even after she gave birth to twins.
Six years later government officials arrested Sun for being a "rebellious and reactionary church leader." Sun refused to give the names of the church leaders, so they sentenced him to 15 years in prison. In his autobiography, The Man in the Fiery Furnace, Sun called this his "seminary" experience: "Instead of learning homiletics, hermeneutics, Greek, and Hebrew, I was being taught the greater lessons of obedience, submission, forgiveness, love, endurance, and patience."
With Mao's death and the rise of Communist leader Deng Xiaoping, officials permitted appeals of some political prisoners. Sun appealed and officials released him with all of his charges dismissed after four and a half years in prison. The government gave him back his old job, and in 1980 the government also released Chang, who had been sentenced to 20 years of labor. She began working for the World Health Organization, which led to a position as a visiting scholar at the University of North Carolina. Dorothy moved to the United States, then brought Sun and their sons along.
The Suns started working with Virginia-based Christian Aid in 1988, traveling to different Chinese house churches to find ministries that Christian Aid could support. Sun quickly found that the Chinese church's greatest need was to train leaders. While the zeal for Christianity was rapidly spreading, church leaders needed solid theological foundations. So the Suns decided to connect resources from North American churches to fund and establish Bible schools - most of them unregistered. "You train one church leader, and he can train 200 to 300 more pastors or church leaders," Chang said. "Sometimes [we can] produce many house churches through one trainee."
According to Christian Aid, a total of 60,000 trained pastors and 90,000 house churches have come out of the 155 Bible institutes and missionary training centers the Suns have either supported or established themselves. Leaders and workers of the ministries and schools are all local Christians, and do not work directly with Westerners. While in the previous decades missionaries to China have come from the West, now missionaries are being trained and sent out from China."The Chinese indigenous Christians are already mature and raised up under 62 years of persecution," Chang said. "Now they carry the cross."
Christian Aid's Bray said that while Sun was alive, the danger was so great that before every trip back to China, Sun would say "Well, this may be the last time I see you, I may be caught on this trip."
The work will continue within the network of ministries that the Suns have built. Chang said she will continue making trips to visit the Bible schools. The focus now is on adding to the depth of the existing Bible schools rather than expanding the number of schools. She hopes to add more advanced theological classes that reach the seminary level.
Still, Chang believes their work is only one part of a larger picture: "We are just [messengers], we give all the love, prayer, financial help from throughout all the world … we just pass them to the right ministry," Chang said. "We can't take credit for what the indigenous people have done for the Lord, we did it together."