NANCHONG, China (Mennonite Mission Network) — Mr. Deng, a Nanchong farmer, is no relation to the more famous political leader Deng Xiaoping, although they did grow up within miles of each other. They share rural roots, a commitment to their home communities and a desire to leave home to make their way in the world. That’s where the similarity ends. Deng, the farmer, never left home.
At one point, though, Deng’s two children had dropped out of school, and he needed money. He tried to leave but the local congregation of about 100 Christians gathered in front of him in tears, begging him to stay and continue his leadership in the church.
They contacted the city church in Nanchong, trying to find some help. The two children enrolled in an inter-Mennonite China Educational Exchange student sponsorship plan — a program that sends almost 300 children to school. A local Christian lent Deng 2,000 yuan (about $280) to help with the cost.
Recently, a mission worker asked Deng what kind of help his congregation needed now. Deng remembered the educational aid his family had received and thought about others.
“We need more Bible training," he answered.
In rural areas of China, Deng said, swindlers who know a bit of the Bible target congregations and cheat people out of their already-meager resources. Lay leadership courses are vital to the health of the church since many rural Chinese Christians lack the training to resist the cults and false teachings Deng said are prevalent.
China Educational Exchange, in partnership with Mennonite Mission Network and other mission agencies, has provided money for travel and food, as well as for trained Chinese pastors and seminary professors to teach and develop curriculum for lay leadership training classes.
Sometimes, the only things that stand in the way of a church offering a lay leadership training course are bus tickets, photocopying costs, a little meat and a few vegetables to add to the rice and noodles students bring from home.
Rod Suderman, with his wife, Kathi, and through Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness, is CEE program coordinator and Mennonite Central Committee country representative for China. He said rural populations cannot afford extra costs involved in the training of students who arrive eager to study but with little food and no shelter. They sleep on church pews, but providing food is often a burden on the hosts.
“One area where I visit encourages those attending to at least bring their own blanket or a head of cabbage along to the training classes. Sometimes families aren’t even able to allow a blanket to be taken from the home as it is needed by others in the family,” Suderman said.
Deng said his desire to provide leadership training kept him from leaving the subsistence farm, even when he was eking out a living on land capable of providing food for his family, but not large enough to provide cash for school fees for his two children, medical expenses or any extras for his family.
His devotion to his farm and his church earned him praise from his wife and the rural congregation that he shepherds, but ridicule from his neighbors. They could not understand why a healthy young man would not leave to provide a better living for his family – they saw little use in staying to lead a congregation. Suderman said many Christians are the only believers in their families and receive little support when they seek training. They also receive little money, since all is needed to provide for the family.
When he received the CEE loan, Deng was too distant from large markets to grow vegetables. He used the loan money to buy a dryer for sweet potatoes, then sold sweet potato starch commonly used in Sichuan cuisine. From the money he earned, he bought chickens. Selling the chickens allowed him to buy ducks, then geese. He paid back the initial loan and bought a small cow to help till the fields.
And he stayed with the congregation to help teach the numbers of new believers that have skyrocketed in China over the last 20 years.
Without lay leadership training, Deng said new Christians sometimes fall into a practice that incorporates many religions and superstitions. Mennonite workers in China have heard this echoed from many pastors and lay leaders.
Jeanette Hanson serves with Mennonite Mission Network and MC Canada Witness as CEE representatives in Nanchong, China.