The excitement I felt in entering a church on my first Sunday morning in Taipei was overwhelming. I hadn’t been to a real, community worship service in over 4 months, so walking into the sanctuary of the Tai’an Church sent chills down my spine. A blue cross glowed from behind the pulpit, same design as the golden cross at First Presbyterian Church in Sioux Falls, SD (the sister church to this congregation). The church choir, in formal robes, sat to the right. Hymnals and bibles were tucked into every pew. And the pipe organ burst into life, its melody filling my heart with joy. These little things made me feel at home. Though the service was in Taiwanese I was given an earphone for translation, and I was excited to find that I was able to sing the familiar tunes with pinyin in the hymnals! I left the service feeling refreshed and fulfilled by the Holy Spirit! I have now spent three Sundays at Tai’an and I couldn’t be more grateful!
For those of you who are not aware, Christian churches in mainland China must be officially registered with the government. While there are Christians who commune together on a weekly basis in Guyuan, there is no registered building. For the safety of these believers and ourselves as foreigners, it has not been possible for us to worship with these fellow Christians. I am grateful for the time to worship on a weekly basis with our small foreign community and have found that my personal devotion has strengthened with the lack of a larger community to rely on, but I have missed church.
Being a part of the Tai’an community these past 2 1/2 weeks has been an emotional experience and an incredible blessing in so many ways.
First of all, the hospitality of the members has been beyond compare. Not only have I been staying with an amazing host family and attending a place of worship, they have been persistent in taking me all over the city and feeding me everything in sight. My “schedule” has been packing with trips all over the city! There was one night that I was sitting at a restaurant with a dozen other (older) members of the church. After finishing our meal (which included squid, eel, stinky tofu, and frog legs, among other items), they proceeded to discuss (and argue over) MY schedule for the coming week. This conversation lasted for about an hour in Mandarin before someone said, “Maria, what does your calendar look like this week?” Haha!
Each member I encountered had a warm smile and words of welcome to share. They genuinely wanted to know who I was and why I was here. For the first time since coming to China I felt like I could be completely honest and somewhat vulnerable in answering these questions. I am a missionary of the United Methodist Church serving as a teacher in Ningxia! That’s not a statement I make in mainland China. (Then I explain where Ningxia is…which renders the same looks I get when I try to explain where South Dakota is. Haha!)
The pastor knew my background before I came and had asked me to lead a workshop or two. Well, my 3-day liturgical dance workshop morphed into a 5-day basic English class for elementary students. Then I was asked to visit the Youth Group…and 2 Sunday school classes…and lead Children’s songs…oh and by the way, can you present a liturgical dance and sing a hymn at worship? At first these continued offers seemed overwhelming, but in the midst of it all I realized it was exactly what my heart was yearning for. I had been yearning for a chance to minister directly- to sing about God, to lead a bible study, to engage in meaningful discussion with other young adults, and feel okay about sharing my call story. What an honor to be asked to do so much! What a blessing this community provided!
Being here, in a place that is religiously free has really put my given me a new perspective on my time in Ningxia. It has allowed for new insights as to how I have grown and what I have neglected over my first 4 months as a Global Mission Fellow. Being active in the Tai’an Church has reminded me of what a privilege it is to have a worship space, to have access to spiritual resources, and to be surrounded by a supportive community.
After just one month of engaging with this community, after just one month of connecting the church is mission, after just one month of growing in personal and social holiness…I feel a part of this congregation, not just someone passing through.
Though my journey is not over in Taiwan, I am leaving Taipei and the Tai’an community to head south to Kaohsiung this week. I never expected that it would feel hard to leave, but there is pain in my heart that I have to remove myself from this family so soon.
A church building is just a space, but a community of believers is living. The love, spirit, and trust that the Tai’an Church has given me has created a new sanctuary inside of me. I pray that the Lord will continue to fill this living space in me to flourish as I continue my mission in Ningxia.
Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.
With thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.