On Sunday morning, during our regular Church service, something rather special happened. It was a rare occasion, and was rather unexpected by most of the members of the congregation, but that did not make it any the less meaningful for all of us.
The first thing I heard about what was going to occur, was a phone call at 7:45 am, from the Chief Steward to my Father, who was acting as Senior Steward on Sunday. She had just been notified that there would be a baptism during the Eucharist. We were all rather excited to hear this; I can’t remember the last time I was at a baptism. Furthermore, we were told that it would be an adult baptism, which is quite rare to have during the Eucharist, usually either taking place during confirmation services, or in private. Upon arriving at Church, we looked through the notice sheet for August to try and find out who was going to be baptised. But nobody knew.
Before the service started, it was announced that the candidate was William, a student at the local University, someone who I had seen around several times, but never really had the opportunity to speak to. As is the case with many Churches, in my experience, the younger congregants tend to sit at the back of the Church, and have mastered the art of getting to coffee as quickly as is humanly possible, to ensure a) the hottest coffee, and b) the best biscuits (on the lucky Sundays when there are free biscuits). The result of this was that, sadly, for many members of the congregation, William was seen as an elusive member of the congregation, despite being there week on week, and I doubt how many of them would have known his history, let alone his name.
William originated from China, and has been studying at the University for several years. He is due to return to China soon. As our preacher on Sunday so eloquently pointed out and reminded us, despite the growing population of Christians in China, the Chinese Communist Party uses the Church, to increase support for itself. The Church is just a tool for increasing patriotism and loyalty to the party. It undermines what the Church is about, and detracts from the faith which binds it, dictating rules and regulations to control the Church’s bounds and strength. Thus, in China as a Christian you have to take the decision either to join a Communist supported Church, or to attend underground ‘house churches.’ William was a member of one such house church. It is painfully clear that to be open about your faith in China is extremely hard.
Chairman Mao described religion as “poison” and the regime in China during 1960s and 70s sought to eradicate it all together. However the Church in China survived, albeit underground. In the 1980s the Party began to acknowledge its existence, and use it to their party advantage using slogans such as “love you country – love your religion.” Now, it is estimated that more people in China go to Church on Sunday than in the whole of Europe, but over 3/4 of these will not openly confess to being Christian. Having William among us acted as reminder, certainly for me, and I’m sure for many others, as a reminder that being a Christian is not always easy. I take it for granted being able to speak openly about my faith, but so many are condemned or persecuted for it. When William returns to China, he will return to such a society. He will return to his House Church, and his former hidden faith. But he will be baptised, and I hope this will remind him that all of us in the Church are praying for him, and those in situations like his. He will return as part of the worldwide fellowship of Christianity. He will return as part of an intercontinental family, who will never condemn him. I hope that this will give him the inspiration to carry on living out his life as a disciple of Christ, and that one day, he will be as free in religion in his home country as he has been here.
I was fortunate enough to have met William several times before, and I felt privileged to be able to talk to him before the service. I admired him for opting to be baptised in front of the whole congregation. I find it a little nerve racking taking the collection, or reading, and I remember that when I was confirmed, the Church jam-packed with relatives, friends, sponsors and congregants, my hands and knees were shaking throughout the whole service. He did admit to me, as we walked down the central aisle to the Sacristy, that he was indeed a little nervous and was trying not to show it. I offered him a friendly smile, and said that it would all be fine, and he need not be worried. Mostly, he said, he was excited, and couldn’t wait to begin his own personal journey with God, as a member of His Church.
The service began, and we came to the part where William had to make his declaration of faith, before being baptised. Suddenly, it was just William, up in front of the whole congregation, standing waiting. Just William, repeating with utmost conviction his beliefs one after the other. It seemed like his solitary voice echoed in the vast building, bouncing off the scaffolding. Just William, beside the font.
But he will never again be just William. He will be part of the Church. He will never be alone, because he will walk in life with God, and with all Christians in the world. And even if he will never be able to say that out loud, he will know it inside of him.
After his baptism, William walked up and down the Church, and shook hands with every single person there. No matter how old they were, whether he knew them or not, he shook their hands. He said ‘thank you’ to every single person. Thank you for supporting him. Thank you for praying for him. Whatever ‘thank you’ meant to you. He clutched his candle and showed every one of us what it is to be a light in the world, to share God’s love with one and all, no matter how dark the night gets, all the time knowing that he may never get that opportunity again.
William, I doubt that you will ever read this, but I want you to know that I am praying for you, and that I hope your return to China is safe, and that you may flourish in your future life. In the short time I knew you, you taught me what it is to appreciate my religion, and the freedom I have. I will never take it for granted again. The conviction of your declaration of faith, the shine in your eyes as you shook every person’s hand, and the sincere ‘thank you’ that you gave to every one of us, are reminders that faith crosses all boundaries, can survive all condemnations, and can unite strangers. You are no longer a stranger in our Church, you are no longer just William. We will always be with you, united by our faith.