Far East

Reaching China’s Shadow People

We’re republishing this as part of our 25th anniversary series featuring favorite stories from our archives. This story by Dan Reichard about caring for individuals with special needs in China appeared in ANM’s magazine in 2013.

A dear friend once advised me, “If anyone tries to tell you that they understand China, they don’t.” So my second trip to China in three years hardly makes me an expert on China.

I am closer to being an expert in the world of children and adults with special needs, though. My wife’s sister, who lives with us, has special needs, as does another who lives with us as well. Shelley, my wife, has worked as an interpreter for the deaf and owned a company to help connect special-needs persons with local businesses to bring them into their work force. And one of the most rewarding aspects of my tenure as a former principal of Christian schools was to encourage students with learning disabilities and their families.

So on my recent trip to China the Lord put together an itinerary that brought me once again face to face with the reality that there are millions of people in the world who have special needs. It amazes me how societies choose to deal with this segment of society. Yet how society, the government, and families deal with it tells a great deal about their values.

The Chinese government has a long history of wanting to keep “these kinds of people” in the shadows. Consequently, a large, disabled population is forced to beg, steal, and live homeless lives. China’s families see their children who are blind, disabled, crippled, brain damaged, or otherwise handicapped as being a sign of bad luck. Such children are often abandoned or placed in the few government institutions available.

Shelley and I visited a Christian orphanage for blind Chinese orphans a few years ago and many of them had been physically, mentally or sexually abused. One precious little boy had been locked in a closet and fed under the door for years. When he was found at the age of 14, he weighed less than 60 pounds. These are the children the government and families choose to ignore. They are the shadow children of China who, if they survive, become the shadow adults of China.

Christian delve into the shadows

Yet what surprised me when I visited China last fall: These are the very children the churches of China are reaching out to. And their effort is producing amazing fruit.

One of the first ministries we visited was an orphanage and school for the deaf and hard of hearing. We played with and watched the children play for hours. Resources were few and far between; staff was stretched beyond measure, but God’s love and a genuine sense of acceptance were everywhere.

In that same city, connected with the same ministry, were eight house churches specifically established for adults with special needs. They met five days a week to sing, write Bible verses in notebooks, hear Bible stories taught on their levels, and, if needed, to “hear” these stories in sign language.

One of the most touching moments in my entire life was when an older man offered to give me his notebook filled with his favorite verses inside. I wept when I saw his love for a total stranger and God’s love to him—one who would never hear unless someone cared enough to reach him where and as he was. The government looks the other way, the family forsakes those who an embarrassment to them, but the church has come alongside of the “least of these my brethren.”

Doorway to the unreached

One of my main purposes for this China trip was to connect with indigenous Chinese ministries that were reaching unreached and least-reached people groups. What I found were organizations and individual ministries that were experiencing historic breakthroughs via mercy ministries.

One ministry had spent years in Tibet with no fruit. One day a policeman approached the missionaries and said, “If you want to do something, why don’t you do something with all of these homeless children who are running the streets and getting into trouble”?

Soon the missionaries established an orphanage for these children, most of whom had been abandoned by their parents because of their disability. When members of the community saw the compassion these Christian missionaries demonstrated, they began to ask, “What makes these people show mercy to these ‘throw away’ children?”

This presented a great opportunity, not simply to explain the Gospel, but to show forth the dynamic power of Christ’s love. Now a thriving church stands near the orphanage.

Several mercy ministries are located within unreached people groups. Some minister to lepers, some feed the hungry, some have started schools and/or feeding centers. Each demonstrates God’s love to those who have never experienced it or heard of it before.

The mobilization of the church has been an extraordinary story. In 2003 the SARS epidemic severely struck Guangdon Province. During the epidemic the previously factionalized churches in different regions began to mobilize and work together. Thus the first step to acting as one body.

In 2008 a devastating earthquake struck the Sichuan Province leaving as many as 70,000 people dead, 374,000 injured, and 4.8 million rendered homeless, with 18,000 unaccounted for. How does a nation recover from such a traumatic disaster that covered more than a whole state of China?

Volunteers came from all over China and thousands more opened their hearts and gave money, food and clothing to help the survivors. Many Chinese moved to the devastated region and set up schools and feeding stations for the thousands of children who were orphaned and/or homeless. Authorities realized later that more than 70% of those Chinese volunteers were Christians. The government and the nation took notice that believers did more than just “talk the talk;” they truly “walked the walk.”

That same year house-church leaders agreed in advance not to demonstrate for human rights during the 2008 Olympics. Officials again noticed, and concluded that Christians are “good citizens” who did not want to embarrass their country.

China is still a land of contradictions. And while much needs to be done in the area of human and religious rights, strides are being made. The church is “exploding” and experiencing unprecedented growth. In just 40 short years, estimates show the church has grown from less than one million believers to as many as 150 million. What is the reason for that growth? That is a question for a much longer article.

Yet one thing is obvious: The churches of China seem to have come face to face with the place and priority of these “shadow people.” Somehow they seem to have taken seriously the admonition that Christ gave in Matthew 25:40 when He said, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”

Despite of the ongoing persecutions, growing pains, lack of resources, and a hundred other dilemmas facing the Chinese churches, they seem to be getting this part of it right. Their reaching the shadow people is bringing many people into the Light.

Twenty-five years after we started partnering with native ministries to make a difference among the least and lost, like these precious marginalized people in China, we are closer than ever to seeing the Gospel proclaimed and lived out among every people group in the world. Thank you for your partnership in the Gospel!

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