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My Time in a Chinese Holding Cell

The terror of a God moment.

I experienced China firsthand when I attempted to smuggle a large load of Bibles into the country.

I take the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19–20) very seriously. I have always had a heart for missions, for speaking, singing, and reaching out to other cultures where Jesus is not well-known amongst the people.

From Russia to Turkey to the high mountains of Guatemala and beyond, each trip has deepened my love for other peoples and other cultures as I watch the power of God work. Perhaps the greatest work has been done in me. But the “God moments” I experience never cease to amaze me.

While in China, I witnessed and experienced the power of God more poignantly than on any other trip. It was both awesome and terrifying. But ultimately, it was simply amazing. And I don’t use that word lightly.

Prior to departure, I was given training on how to act, what to wear, where to meet up with home church leaders, and what to do if I was caught going through customs. I felt confident knowing I was in God’s hands and had spent much time in prayer.

I was well aware of the potential dangers of my actions. China does not allow people to bring in Bibles in bulk. Bible availability in China is a complicated issue. It is not illegal to own one. But Bibles cannot be sold in “regular” stores. Nor can they be sold online. Enforcement is strict. All books sold in China must have an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). And the Bible has never had an ISBN.

Bibles can only be sold legally in bookstores of government approved churches. Most government approved churches are located in large cities. China controls the printing of Bibles through the only printing company authorized to print Bibles, Amity Printing. And the supplies are limited.

There are also government “approved meeting sites” that are affiliated with the approved churches located outside the city. However, they, too are highly monitored with limited supplies. In addition, many are reluctant to visit these “approved church sites” due to a fear of surveillance.

Underground Christian home fellowships began to pop up years ago. Pastors and members of these home churches have been arrested and imprisoned for “inciting subversion” over the years. This is still going on today. Yet, Christianity seems to be flourishing.

My first trip entering China

I initially flew into Hong Kong (before the country reverted back to China) where I would be based. The plan was to take several short flights to different areas of mainland China with suitcases full of Bibles. My toiletries and a single change of clothing were stuffed into my backpack. The suitcases were filled with Bibles.

Each of us was required to enter China alone so as not to attract attention. On the eve of my first trip, confidence faded. Upon arriving in Beijing, I was petrified.

Standing in line waiting to go through customs, I noticed there were guards at every luggage scanning station armed with machine guns. Each piece of luggage was scanned by an X-ray machine and viewed by these guards. I felt doomed.

By the time it was my turn to go through, I felt like I was visibly shaking. Then the “God moment” occurred.

All of a sudden, there was a great commotion to my right. The guards from all the stations near me ran to where a group of Japanese tourists were innocently trying to bypass customs. The guards were busy yelling and shoving the Japanese with their rifles just as my luggage was going through the X-ray machine.

The civilian attendant was also distracted by the commotion, and my luggage passed through with no issues. I quickly grabbed my belongings and did my best to walk calmly to the exit while giving thanks and praise! I was totally amazed at how innovative God was at that moment!

I found my prearranged meeting place with the home church pastor to make my delivery.

The pastor had recently been released after spending several years in prison for teaching Christianity. As we shared a meal, I eagerly asked about his stint in prison, expressing my inability to comprehend how he could choose to undergo the risk of such persecution each and every day.

His reply will forever haunt my memory.

 “It is an honor to be persecuted for my Savior. The persecution we endure here has a purpose. We are humbled to be a part of God’s great plan. What I do not understand is how Americans choose to live under the constant veil of the persecution of disillusionment. The Gospel is available to them. They are free to worship whenever and wherever they wish. Yet, most see little value in the precious gift they have been given. Instead, they live with the disillusionment that things that will satisfy them. They actually believe these things will make them happy. That would not be living to me. I prefer the type of persecution our people endure to the persecution of disillusionment.” — Pastor Yu

I had no idea how to respond. The truth of those words stung me to the core. I knew the pastor was right. I left that meal with a sadness in my heart.

I remained in the Beijing area to do some sightseeing for an additional three days with my one change of clothing. The beauty of China was breathtaking. I regretted having to leave so soon.

The second entrance trip

I flew back to Hong Kong to stock up on Bibles since my next trip to the southern part of China was coming up. Upon arriving in Guangzhou (Canton), I felt alone but less nervous.

I had seen God’s handiwork in Beijing and felt certain I would make it through customs. I’m certain God must have laughed at my cockiness. This trip would go much differently.

Once again, each piece of luggage was to be scanned. As I drew closer to the scanner, I kept waiting for some distraction to occur. Yet, to my horror, as my luggage passed through, the commotion actually became me.

Guards surrounded me, pushing me with their rifles, and ushered me into a holding cell with no windows. Two guards were present. One was screaming at me in Chinese as the other pointed his rifle at me. I was trying to remain calm, telling them I spoke no Chinese.

A third guard brought in my suitcases and opened them, exposing the Bibles. He started throwing them at me across the room, continuing the tirade in Chinese. I had no idea what was being said, but I was certain it wasn’t a welcome speech.

The room cleared, and I waited for hours in the hot, stuffy room surrounded by Bibles all over the floor, praying, but becoming more and more nervous. Eventually two different guards entered. One spoke broken English and, as he bent down to pick up one of the Bibles, he held it up and stated, “This book illegal. Why you bring in our country? Do you mean to propaganda our people? Who you see here in city? Who meet you to buy from you?”

I quickly prayed that God would give me the right words to say. I looked up at the man from my metal chair and said quietly, “This is a good book. It brings hope to people. I wanted to give these away to bring hope to your people. No one is buying them.”

I had no idea if he understood me or not. He just snorted and replied, “Foolish woman! This is not lawful, and you can go to jail. No care if you are American.”

He spoke briskly in Chinese to his companion, and the other officer left the room. The remaining guard stared at me for a very long time. Then, without saying another word, he picked up a small Bible and tucked it under his belt, covering it with his shirt. He didn’t smile. He didn’t talk. He just stared at me as if warning me not to speak.

The other guard returned with a garbage sack and tossed all the remaining Bibles in the sack. Both guards left, and I remained in that cell for over 12 additional hours with no food or water.

At last, a new set of guards came in. Two simple words of English were spoken, “You leave.” 

They escorted me to the airline desk where an agent issued me a return flight to Hong Kong and put me on a watch list for customs agents. The guards accompanied to the boarding area and made sure I was on the plane. Everyone was staring. I was a criminal. And I was going back to the disillusionment of freedom.

Thank you for reading my article. I welcome any input. You can find additional articles at https://www.annehopebooks.com/blog

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