The Outreach Foundation in China: the Heilongjiang Initiative
by Jefferson Ritchie
Heilongjiang Province, located in the northeastern corner of China, was an unlikely place for The Outreach Foundation to begin its first sustained mission involvement. Historically, it had no Presbyterian missionaries; instead it had a Russian heritage dating back over 100 years. But it did have a “Presbyterian Connection” through its 2,000,000 Chinese of Korean descent.
Among the Christians in the Church in Heilongjiang were Korean Chinese, and one of the Korean Chinese Christians, the Rev. Li Meilan, was a leader in the Church in Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang Province. Pastor Li was used by God to build the bridge to American Presbyterian mission efforts when she met two American Presbyterian missionaries serving in South Korea. This is how it came about.
The Rev. Dr. Art Kinsler and Mrs. Sue Kinsler were in China in the mid-1990s visiting Korean minorities as part of a Korean mission, the Bible Club Movement. This mission had been founded by Dr. Kinsler’s father, and Art was still on the Board of the mission. As the Bible Club leaders visited the Korean Chinese churches looking for ways to extend their mission into China, they met Pastor Li and her husband, the Rev. Lü De Zhi, also a pastor. This clergy couple had a great vision for the development of the Church in their province. One of the hopes they shared with the Kinslers concerned a church of over 2,000 worshipers who were meeting in a warehouse and who had been praying for six years for a sanctuary.
The Kinslers, Presbyterian missionaries who had been our neighbors in Seoul in the 1980s, were inspired and shared this vision with Dr. Insik Kim, Coordinator for East Asia and the Pacific for the PC(USA). “You must come and see this!” they urged him. Dr. Kim had already visited Liaoning, another province of Northeast China, and had sent some Korean American Koreans there to work as missionaries in partnership with a Korean Chinese Church to provide food relief to North Korea. Dr. Kim responded to the Kinslers’ excitement and organized a group to visit Heilongjiang, Liaoning, and other places where the Church was growing.
As part of the covenant relationship between The Outreach Foundation and the PC(USA), we were invited to be part of the visiting team. It would be my first overseas trip since joining the staff of The Outreach Foundation. Others on the team included two members of a sister mission organization, Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, two from the national staff of the PC(USA) along with four missionaries – Sue and Art Kinsler and Franklin and Jean Woo – and two from Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas. A long-time U.S. partner of The Outreach Foundation, Eastminster’s delegation included the Rev. David Bridgman, son of missionaries to China. David was making his first trip back to China after fifty years!
In the build-up to the trip, David Bridgman and I had been in close touch with Insik Kim about the possibility of partial support for construction of the church in Harbin about which Pastor Li had shared with the Kinslers. The Eastminster Church had committed half of its coming capital campaign, dubbed “Millennium Campaign,” for mission purposes, and Bridgman was hoping to put the construction of the church in Harbin into the portfolio of the campaign. The Outreach Foundation would be the channel for this gift if it were adopted and funded.
We went to China in November 1998 with high anticipation and great hopes. We started in Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province (also in northeast China). After a few days of visiting Korean and Chinese churches and the regional seminary there, we flew to Harbin where we received a warm welcome from the Heilongjiang Provincial Christian Council. Art and Sue Kinsler joined our team in Harbin.
Once in Harbin we visited two Bible Schools before participating in the main event, the ground-breaking ceremony for the new sanctuary we were hoping to support. The night before the ceremony it had snowed, and the ground was so cold that excavating equipment was needed to break up the ground enough to permit a ceremonial “first-shovel” to go into the earth! Our group joined a throng of believers, church leaders and government officials in the long ceremony which featured worship and civic elements. The Eastminster Church team of David Bridgman and Paul Brooks represented our group, and their remarks were first translated into Korean, then into Chinese. It was a long, cold morning, but it was a joyous occasion.
The government officials congratulated the new church, and we were told that one of them even suggested the name for the church, “Hallelujah.” Hearing this pleased us as one of our concerns about working with the official churches belonging to the China Christian Council was how much government interference or opposition they might face when working with friends from abroad. We were equally concerned that we might make unintentional mistakes which would harm the work of the Church in China. We thank God that in Heilongjiang Province the relationship between the church and the government has been particularly good and that our partnership with the Church there has gone smoothly for the most part.
Before we left Heilongjiang Province, our group was privileged to have some time with Pastors Li and Lü. They shared very personally about their lives and dreams for the church in their province. They looked extremely tired, as there are so few leaders like them to carry out the work of a growing church. They asked us to pray for more leaders. They also shared a long-term vision for a retreat center for pastors and leaders to retool their skills and refresh their souls for ministry.
The excitement over being part of a new major project in China, the Hallelujah Church, and developing long-term relationships with visionary leaders like Pastors Lü and Li made us determine that Harbin in Heilongjiang Province would be a place where we would return again and again. Since that trip in 1998, The Outreach Foundation has been to Harbin over a dozen times, and we have hosted Pastors Li and Lü several times in the U.S. They have become what the Chinese call “lao peng you,” or “old friends” to us and to the American Christians who have met them on our trips.
In the next blog I will share some thoughts of those American Christians who have been impacted by their Chinese friends in Harbin.