On a bleak January day in 1951 our family disembarked from the boat that had brought us back to a land of religious freedom, from a land where the newly formed People’s Republic of China had started a purge to eradicate faith in God from its people.
My parents, Jack and Pegi Sharman, had travelled independently to China in their mid-twenties. Now in their early forties, they had had to leave their adopted country to safeguard the friends they had left behind. They had hoped that their life’s work would have been to support the church in China as Bible teachers. The previous year, they had witnessed many accepting the saving message of Jesus and now they knew that these very people were being interrogated and forbidden to meet together.
Call to China
In 1932 D.E. Hoste, Hudson Taylor’s successor as General Director of the China Inland Mission, feeling that the doors for Christian ministry in China may not remain open for long, prayed for 500 young people to respond to God’s call to go and tell the good news. My parents were two of them. In 1934 my father left his friends and family in Neath to go to that great land 6000 miles to the East, conscious of the millions of people who died never hearing the name of Jesus.
My mother had been raised in the neighbouring town of Port Talbot, and had met Dad once before, over a supper table in the home of her pastor Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Two years after my father, she too set sail for China, feeling inadequate for the task of learning Chinese, but conscious of God’s call to do so in order to sow the seeds of God’s word. A year later she met my father and in 1938, they married and their partnership in winning souls for Christ began.
For most of the next 12 years, they were based in a town in South East China called Chengsien (renamed Shengzhou during the Cultural Revolution). There they made strong bonds with people and saw many coming to faith in Christ. During much of the war years they were fleeing from the Japanese, which gave them opportunities to share their faith in other towns and cities in that province. That area now hosts the largest percentage of Christians in China.
At the end of the Sino Japanese War, they returned to their home in Chengsien which had been used by the Japanese as their local headquarters. My parents had a sense of urgency that is best expressed in John 9:4:
I must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.
The doors for ministry remained open for another two years, but in the spring of 1948, news began reaching them of unrest. In October 1949 when I was eleven months old, Chairman Mao declared to the world that the People’s Republic of China had been founded. Soon their freedom to tell people of God’s love was taken away as Mao launched a political campaign of punishment against counterrevolutionaries. The Christian church was seen by the government to be an imperialist institution, so the activities of its members were closely watched and any contact with foreigners, like my parents, was seen to be subversive. They realised that they were a hindrance to the church, so applied for permission to leave the country.
Increasingly, on Sundays, their church building was commandeered for party political meetings and in October 1950, they received an order that they would no longer be able to use it for worship. For the next 32 years Christians were forbidden to meet and the Bamboo Curtain made it impossible to correspond with anyone on the other side of it. Snippets of news reported arrests, imprisonments, executions and persecution as the government continued to attempt to trample the life out of God’s people.
On the day before the building was forfeited the church elders organised a photograph to be taken. This became a priceless possession which my parents treasured greatly when they returned home to Wales. When Dad pastored Presbyterian churches in Cardiff (Saltmead, Clive Road and Heath), and later Whitefield Church in Abergavenny, the picture always sat on his desk. Every morning at 11 my mother would bring coffee to his study and together they would scan the lines of faces, praying for their friends by name. They told me how brave each person had been by putting themselves under special suspicion.
My father died in 1968 when China was at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Thousands of Christians were then living in prison cells undergoing brainwashing, physical violence and constant threats. My mother lived for another thirty years and continued praying daily for the people in the picture, but she never knew how those prayers were answered.
After she went to be with her Lord in 1998, I wrote my parents’ memoirs of China as a Christmas present for their grandchildren. Other people asked for copies, so, for each booklet sold, I vowed to take one Bible back to the city where I had spent the first two years of my life. In 2000 I went with a case full of Bibles and a hope of finding someone who had been photographed with me in that picture fifty years previously.
What I experienced was extraordinary. I met many of those people whose faith had grown stronger. I heard how God had sustained them when some had been thrown into prison or paraded around wearing placards, shouted at and humiliated publicly. During those years they had shared their passion for Christ with their children and despite the fire of persecution, the Christian church had mushroomed. When I attended a service in the old rickety building where my parents had once ministered, it could no longer contain its exploding congregation. Being in a prime spot in the city centre, the local government wanted it for a cultural centre and was offering the church a larger plot of land in exchange, which the church saw as an answer to prayer.
In 2006 I visited this new venue, and on it stood a church with a meeting hall big enough for 3,500 people. The growth of the church in China has no parallels in history and despite being thoroughly trampled on and still very restricted, it mirrors what Jesus himself said:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.