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Excerpt: Chapter 13
“Can we come to your room for a chat?” Daniel asked Ling as they finished dinner.
“Yes, of course,” said the old man, who seemed relaxed and amenable. Nevertheless, Daniel was wary. The old man’s reaction to Brother Shuei’s murder confirmed that he possessed a side to his character that was volatile and unpredictable.
“I’ll tidy up,” said Brother Yoon kindly. “You go off now.”
Ling led them down the passageway to his own room, right next to his office. He offered them chairs. Again, Daniel marveled at the spartan lifestyle of the man. A bed, a table, a cupboard and the two chairs comprised the only furniture in the small room. Much of the spare space on the concrete floor was occupied with cardboard cartons. The crumbling and stained walls were bare, and Daniel could not see a solitary item of decoration anywhere.
Ling switched on an electric kettle. “One of our students gave me some very fine tea today,” he said. “Let’s try it.” He opened the unmarked packet and poured some tea into a pot. Before the water in the kettle came to a boil he emptied it into the pot, waited a couple of minutes and then poured three cups.
Daniel took a sip. It was rich and fragrant, slightly sweet, with the hint of a pineapple taste. “This is excellent,” he remarked.
“Dragon well tea,” said the director. “From down south. It’s supposed to help contemplation.” He looked at the pair. “It is not comfortable when someone dies.” Daniel translated for Jenny. “It makes us all uncomfortable. So we must persevere as best we can. But I had forgotten that you are Americans. And American Christians are used to a comfortable life.”
“That’s not quite true,” said Jenny after her husband had translated. “We chose to come here. We accept this style of life.” She waved her arm around the decrepit room.
“You aren’t used to being in a country where Christians face persecution,” continued Ling, as if she had not spoken. “Where Christians face death on a daily basis. I had forgotten that. So I may have been a little abrupt in my behavior. Perhaps it seemed as if I were insensitive. Or that I was not honoring the dead.”
“No, it’s not that,” said Daniel.
“It is that, Danny,” said Jenny, after he had repeated his words in English. “It is that.”
“I have seen many deaths,” said Ling, again as if they had not spoken. “I was working in a town in Sichuan province when a gang of hoodlums, inspired by the authorities, came and set fire to the building where we held secret worship services. Eight people burned to death. Four of them were children. A few years after that I was in Hunan province when the police attacked a group of underground worshippers with electric batons. Do you know what those do to you?”
Daniel shook his head.
“It’s like being lashed with strips of barbed wire. Just one touch of the baton is enough. The pain is intense. Then after attacking the worshippers the police took away dozens of them. Several never returned alive. When I was in prison the guards used to take the Christians and place us in coffins, or make us stand naked in unnatural positions for hours and hours, trying to make us recant our faith. I never did. But not everyone was able to resist. And I know that many of the brothers in prison with me never got out alive. So I am used to death.”
“What did you mean when you said it was your fault?” asked Jenny. “That you are being punished?”
“God commanded me to establish this seminary and he placed these students in my protection. I have failed. One of our students has been martyred.”
“You say martyred. So you feel that somehow he was killed because of his faith? It wasn’t just some gang trying to rob him?”
“It doesn’t matter who might have done it. He is dead, a martyr. He is in his Home, with God. That is all that matters.”
“But we might all be under threat. Shouldn’t we be doing something to protect ourselves?”
“We place ourselves in God’s hands. What bigger protection is there?”
“That other house church. The one you told us about. Over on the other side of town. Are they being attacked too?”
Ling stared at Jenny. “That is a house of evil. They are a cult. You are not to have anything to do with them.”
“But maybe they are also being attacked,” persisted Jenny. “Maybe they have some information about what is going on. Maybe…”
“They do not teach the true word of God,” shouted Ling, not even waiting for Daniel to finish translating. “They are a cult.”
“But if they…”
“You are not to have anything to do with them,” interrupted Ling, shouting even louder, his face red. “Do you understand? You are not to have anything to do with them?”
An awful silence now descended on the room. Jenny looked at her husband, clearly wishing to leave. But Daniel did not want to walk out right after such an outburst.
“How are Brother Shuei’s family taking his death?” he asked, sipping some tea as casually as possible.
“Government policy says Chinese parents can have only child.” Already Ling’s voice was calm and relaxed. Daniel was amazed at the rapid transformation. “So when that child dies it is quite devastating. Especially if you are poor - and many, many Chinese are poor - because you expected that child, especially a son, to help take care of you in old age. His parents are believers, and their pastor is helping them understand that their son has died a glorious martyr. They do understand that. But they will suffer. I am sure your church can send them some money. And Brother Yoon’s church.”
“We feel we have been sending you a lot of money,” said Jenny.
“A lot of money?” He swept an arm around the room, as Jenny had done earlier. “A lot of money? How many American Christians live like this? Tell me. How many?”
“He’s trying to make us feel guilty,” said Jenny to Daniel, after he had translated.
“But he’s not wrong. He’s got a point…”
“Danny, for goodness sake. Our church has been extremely generous. We’ve sent money. We’ve sent supplies. Our church has sent us. You and me. What more does he expect? And we both know that Brother Yoon’s church has sent even more. So ask him where it’s all gone, given that we’re living in a dump like this.” Now it was her turn to sweep her arm again around the room.
Once again Ling’s face was distorted. “Americans live in luxury and then send some crumbs to their poor, suffering little brothers and sisters in China. And then they complain when we don’t grovel and kiss your feet.”
“No, that’s not entirely fair,” said Daniel. He turned to Jenny. “I think we should go back to our room. Everyone’s pretty tired.” He gave an exaggerated yawn, then looked at the director. “Maybe we can talk some more in the morning…”
“Yes, get out,” said Ling, rage in his face, though his voice remained calm. “Get out now.”