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Today, the Communist Party's restrictions on religion help sects flourish. China's 18 state-sanctioned Protestant seminaries can't graduate enough ministers, and in the countryside, believers commonly outnumber ordained preachers 50,000 to one—not enough shepherds for an expanding flock. The unavailability of rural health-care means that "seven out of 10 converts come to faith through illness" after people pray for their recovery, estimates Faye Pearson, a teacher at China's biggest seminary, in Nanjing. Many of these converts have scarcely read the Bible. Without strong doctrinal leadership, it's a prescription for heterodoxy. "I'm not sure that most rural Christians are well enough grounded in Christianity to even know they're in a sect," says Daniel Bays, a historian of Chinese Christianity at Calvin College in Michigan.
A typical country church, this one outside Dengfeng county is run by a lay minister who has received no special training on dealing with strange sects. It is poor. The pulpit is a red flounce curtain draped over a desk; broken windows let the swirling central China dust coat the whitewashed walls. The biggest single expenditure this year was the $25 the congregation gave its most desperate members to celebrate the lunar new year. Every Sunday 150 peasants crowd onto low wooden benches to receive the Word, including a gray-haired woman known as Granny He.
On a chilly night three autumns ago, a young woman in her 20s walked past the chickens scratching in Granny He's courtyard and knocked on her red wooden door. The caller had done her research: she knew Granny He was Christian and that her husband, a teacher, spent time away. They talked about God for two hours that evening, and for longer on subsequent nights. Then the visitor arranged for a rare luxury—a car to drive Granny He to worship in someone's home. There, she and seven other believers sat facing the preacher. He said the Jesus of the Bible is the old one. The new Jesus has come, and she will destroy the earth. They sang hymns that the new savior had written to the tunes of familiar revolutionary ditties like Communist Party, My Loving Mama. Granny He returned four more times. On occasion, when the spirit moved them, they danced. "I half believed and half doubted," she says. A month later, concerned relatives forbade her to attend any more meetings. Sundays now find her back on the country church's wooden benches, but she sounds ambivalent about Lightning: "I don't think they harm people's spirit."
Granny He's experience was a textbook piece of evangelism. The sect's most trusted members receive a 67-page missionary manual explaining the dos and don'ts of conversion. Do start slowly, lend money, convince converts that God's work is incomplete and, finally, that doomsday is coming and Jesus has arrived to complete that work. Don't tell them until they are firm believers that the new Jesus will destroy the Great Red Dragon, which in the Bible represents Satan but to Lightning represents China. And if anybody asks why the "all-powerful" new Jesus must hide from police, the answer is that "there's a time for secrecy and a time for openness, but she has her plan," says Joseph Yu, a believer who arrived in New York City two years ago.
Sometimes, the plan seems unfathomable. A 60-year-old woman from Zhengzhou says Lightning devotees invited her to teach the Bible in their homes last year. They drove her to an unfamiliar village and presented her with a screaming and trembling man. They instructed her to cast out his devil. She couldn't. Then a Lightning follower prayed and sure enough the devil vanished, proving the woman's God was false, they said. Frightened, she acknowledged that her God seemed less powerful. Still, they held her nine more days, until her minister tracked her down and sought the police. She is too afraid to be quoted by name. "The other day I dreamed that they piled onto my bed and wouldn't leave," she said in a phone interview.
Lightning from the East has burrowed further underground in China. But already its followers hand out leaflets in Chinatowns in New York City and San Francisco. Lightning could soon strike the West.
- Source: Jesus Is Back, and She's Chinese: A bizarre religious sect is preying on China's rural Christian congregations, Matthew Forney Dengfeng. With reporting by Joe Pappalardo and Johanna Ransmeier/New York. TIME magazine, Nov. 5, 2001, Vol. 158. No. 18
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