Do you remember what you were doing in 1989? Not to brag or anything, but I was smuggling Bibles into Communist China.
I don’t know if anyone still smuggles Bibles, but 30 years ago it was just about the most exciting thing a young Christian could do. I smuggled hundreds of Bibles and Christian books across the border, and when I tell people this, I am invariably asked one question: What happened when you got caught? Short answer: not much.
I once convinced a young man that the Communists punished me by chopping off a finger, but the truth is more prosaic. They would confiscate your books, and you’d collect them on the way out of the country. At least that’s what happened on the busy Hong Kong/Shenzhen border. Further up-country you might get detained for a while, and if you were a Chinese national you could get in serious trouble. Since I had a foreign passport, I was relatively untouchable. I got lectured and harangued on occasion, but that was the worst of it. But that didn’t make the smuggling game any less exciting.
There was this one trip…
In the winter of ’89 I did a trip into Xian where the 3-hour flight was delayed 22 hours on account of a snowstorm. By the time we took off, I was shattered. But I needed to stay alert. I was transporting a huge order of books and Bibles for a missionary friend, and I really didn’t want to lose any at the border.
When we landed, everyone on the plane applauded. Since this was my first ride on a Chinese airline I was surprised by the clapping. Did they think we weren’t going to make it?
As the plane rolled to a stop, I looked out into the dark and snowy night. Machine-gun wielding soldiers lined the tarmac and they looked the biz. The Tiananmen Square “incident” had occurred only a few months earlier and the government was remained edgy. Dissidents and troublemaking students were still getting shot outside the city walls.
As a foreign national, I wasn’t too worried about getting shot but I certainly didn’t want to get detained or arrested. I prayed the prayer that all Bible smugglers pray. It’s the one Brother Andrew made famous after smuggling Bibles into Romania.
Lord, in my luggage I have Scripture I want to take to your children. When you were on earth, you made blind eyes see. Now, I pray, make seeing eyes blind. Do not let the guards see those things you do not want them to see.
There was no jet bridge into a warm and welcoming terminal. Instead, we disembarked into the cold night to walk like sheep past those soldiers. I had no idea where to go, so I followed the other passengers to a shed where a tractor had deposited our luggage. That’s when I had a terrible realization: There are no trolleys and I’ve got 175 pounds of luggage. How am I going to carry all my bags?
I was a pretty skinny kid at the time. There was no way I was going to hoist all that weight and walk nonchalantly past customs. I would be like an ant struggling under a boulder.
I struggled into my backpack, then put another book-filled bag over my shoulder. It was a heavy load but I wasn’t done. I had left the biggest and heaviest bag for last. As I bent to lift it, the strap went as taut as a guitar string, before snapping off in my hands. This bag weighs a ton, I said to myself. How am I going to carry it? In Hong Kong, I had had help getting to the airport. Help and trolleys. But in the middle of frozen China, I was on my own. Except I wasn’t alone at all, as I was about to find out.
Samson, Part Deux
I laid hands on the bag-that-would-not-be-lifted and prayed, “Lord, give me strength.” Then I picked up the bag like it was nothing more than a bag of groceries. I felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger. (For all the millennials reading this, Schwarzenegger was a musclebound actor famous in the ‘80s. I feel old.)
The Lord gave me supernatural strength and I wasn’t as surprised as you might think. Bible smugglers experienced miracles all the time. We collected stories of divine intervention like souvenirs.
With almost no effort at all, I carried more than my body weight in luggage to the terminal. Approaching the customs officials, I put on my game face. The trick was to look as untouristy as possible. Be cool, I reminded myself. Look like you belong. And walk in the middle of the aisle, as far from the x-ray machines as possible.
I didn’t fool anyone.
A uniformed inspector called me out of the crowd. I ignored him. Play dumb and keep walking, I said to myself. That didn’t work either. The man in the uniform shouted at me causing heads to turn. Soldiers looked right at me. I could tell this guy really wanted to see inside my bags. His gestures told me to put my gear on the belt that fed the scanner.
In China there were two kinds of x-ray machine. There was the budget kind that scanned only the sides of your bags, and there was enclosed kind that scanned from the top as well. Bible smugglers dreaded the second kind of scanner. Almost nothing got through them. As I put my bags on the belt, I saw that all the money these guys had saved by not buying a jet bridge or a luggage carousel had been used to buy the expensive kind of x-ray machine. They were going to get a real good look at my stuff.
My bags went through the scanner in fits and starts. I sauntered round to the other end trying to look as innocent as a Chinese cherub, but on the inside I was anxious. Had they seen the books?
A customs official came over and asked for my passport. Then he put his hand on my biggest bag and said, “What have you got in here?”
“Some teaching materials and clothes.” This was my standard answer. At Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, the customs officials had learned that “teaching materials” usually meant banned books. Did they think the same way in central China? After a long stare the official returned my passport and sent me on my way. For the second time, I picked up my heavy bags with ease. A few more steps and I was greeted by a familiar face and a waiting van. By the grace of God, I had made it. I hadn’t lost a single book.
Over the next few days I had the privilege of helping to distribute to Chinese Christians the very books that I had carried. To get their very own Bible caused some of them to weep for joy. I’ll never forget it.
Good News for China
These days organizations such as the Bible Society, Bibles for China, and Asia Harvest, are working hard to print and distribute Bibles within China. But the Chinese church is growing so fast they can’t keep up with demand.
It’s been a long time since I physically carried a Bible or Christian book into China, but I still have a burning desire to help equip the Chinese church. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I write. My hope is that the articles and books I write about God’s grace will reach our brothers and sisters in China.
Does it happen? Not as much as you think. The number of page views for Escape to Reality in China is in the low thousands, which is not much at all. The great Firewall of China is an effective barrier to the gospel. So is the English language. But my prayer is that the message will get through. I’m praying for translators who can translate the grace message into simplified and traditional Chinese. I’m also praying for podcasters who broadcast it in all the dialects of China. And I’m praying for the funds to make it happen.
I have no doubt my prayers will be answered, because Jesus loves his Chinese church. He even loves the Communists who oppress it. And he’s going to make sure they hear the message of grace, just as you and I did.