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Volunteers unload rice at a church in Anxian county in China's Sichuan province. Local Christians carried out a relief effort in response to the May 12 earthquake. Mennonite Partners in China

Volunteers unload rice at a church in Anxian county in China's Sichuan province. Local Christians carried out a relief effort in response to the May 12 earthquake. Mennonite Partners in China

Chinese churches carry out unprecedented relief response

Tim Shenk
June 26, 2008

AKRON, Pa. – When the May 12 earthquake struck China's Sichuan province, a Chinese pastor named Peter was meeting with other pastors on the sixth floor of a hotel in the city of Luzhou.

The quake was relatively mild in Luzhou, and the pastors evacuated the building unharmed. But elsewhere in Sichuan, the effects were catastrophic. Houses, schools and other buildings collapsed, killing nearly 70,000 people and leaving millions of people homeless.

For Peter, who asked that his full name not be used, and other Christians in Sichuan, the tragedy of the earthquake became an opportunity to respond to the needs of their communities. While Christians make up only 1 to 2 percent of the population of Sichuan, local congregations undertook an unprecedented relief effort in the aftermath of the earthquake, providing aid to thousands of people.

"For Christians, this is a good chance to show God's love," Peter said.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite Partners in China (MPC) jointly provided $80,000 to support the relief work of churches in Sichuan and $20,000 to support the relief work of The Amity Foundation, a Chinese humanitarian organization. MPC is a joint program of the following agencies: MCC, Eastern Mennonite Missions, Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network.

Within a few days of the earthquake, three Protestant churches in Sichuan became distribution points for supplies and staging grounds for relief convoys. They are located in Anxian county and the cities of Guangyuan and Mianzhu.

Each church purchased rice, medicine and other supplies, such as blankets, bottled water and plastic sheets, and distributed these items to church and community members on the basis of need. To reach some areas, the church volunteers used trucks or motorized tricycles.

"I think they've done a great job of delivering this aid into the more remote areas," said Rod Suderman, an MCC China representative.

Peter traveled to many of the communities where the churches distributed aid. He noted that people were traumatized by the death and destruction around them. One young girl was troubled by the partial collapse of her school building that resulted in many injuries and some deaths.

"The little girl was very afraid," Peter said. "She did not act or talk normally. I talked to her for a while trying to get her to talk about her fears and to be calmer."

Peter said that some earthquake survivors are responding to a sense of spiritual need by attending a local church for the first time. About 1,000 new people attended the church in Anxian on a recent Sunday, he said.

While the Chinese government officially forbids churches from seeking converts to Christianity, Suderman noted that the church volunteers in Sichuan made their faith apparent as they distributed aid. Some wore T-shirts with Christian messages, he said.

"It's helped the church in its witness because the church is largely invisible in China," Suderman said.

Suderman noted that the churches were not alone in their relief efforts; many Chinese citizens provided aid to earthquake survivors through a variety of channels. But some local people expressed deep gratitude for the churches' response to the earthquake.

Peter reported that one community leader admitted that she had been opposed to Christianity until a group of church volunteers arrived with rice following the earthquake.

"She was educated to be an atheist and thought Christians were weak and superstitious," Peter said. "She said she had drastically changed her idea of Christianity. I asked her why. She said 'These are wonderful people. They show real love, and I want to know how God can change their lives like this.'"