Day 5: Church (No pictures)
Yes, there are members of the LDS church in China. However, for a church that is miraculously connected and while I did feel that much of it was the same, there were some key differences that those of you who are LDS as well or perhaps just interested in religion might want to note.
While China did declare “freedom of religious belief” in 2005, and you can believe whatever you would like now (go China!), practicing it is a whole other story. There are 5 legal and state recognized religions in China: 1. Buddhism 2. Daoism 3. Confucianism 4. A form of Protestantism that I can’t remember what they call it, but it’s pretty different from what we know in the West 5. A type of Catholicism that is also different than what we’re used to. For example, they can’t declare allegiance to the Pope because you can’t declare allegiance to a foreign figure. While other religions aren’t banned exactly, there are quite a few restrictions that make it so you feel like the government could come in and kick you out of the country at any moment.
If you are not one of the aforementioned state-sanctioned religions, you have to register with the government and be invited to worship by the Bureau of Religious Affairs. You also have to have a permit in order to gather with over 50 people in one spot and regardless of the number of your congregation, you have to start every meeting reading an announcement from the government not to talk about religion to any Chinese National. So for you missionary-minded folk, your work is absolutely and completely 100% illegal here. Active and passive proselyting is prohibited. I heard of a family who started to get a little bit too vocal about being Christian and they were exiled from China. They were told to pack up all of their things and had 24 hours to leave the country.
Now, while this doesn’t paint China in too fancy of a color for us independent Americans, I have to say that it never felt hostile. Provided you obey the law, they don’t give you any trouble. So while being told from the pulpit not to tell the Chinese about my religion was definitely strange for me, at the same time, it is nothing like the Mao days where I would be imprisoned and beaten to an inch of my life. So it should be known that they are far, far away from where their government used to be even though they are communist.
The strangest thing about this experience was how there was a Chinese National branch. Not only do I have NO clue on how they would have been able to form a branch and be a part of this church while still following their country’s rules, but as foreign members (the vast majority of the LDS presence in China are foreign passport holders) can’t talk to the Chinese Nationals about church. At all. So we would see these Chinese members in this office building where we meet and we could just say hello and talk about meaningless things. If you had wanted to invite them to a Relief Society event, you might as well buy your plane ticket because the government will somehow find out. You can’t meet in a church building if you are a minority religion, at least that was my understanding. Hence why we met in an office building.
So, in closing, I found myself worshiping the same as always, praying to the same God, with a typical looking ward although incredibly diverse in nationality, with Chinese people right next door having their Sunday school. I couldn’t help but want to talk to them. I think for the first time in my life, I understood the depth of why people have fought so desperately for religious freedom; we’re just hardwired to open that office door in between so we can all be in the same room, praying for the same kinds of things. Even if half of us would be praying in Mandarin Chinese.