World Magazine: Christians taking risks

World Magazine
By Angela Lu & Emily Belz

Two Christian men, in two different parts of the world, upended their lives to serve their Lord

July is a month for honoring risk-takers. The 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence knew they were taking a risk, and most of them suffered for what they believed. Some died of wounds and hardship during the Revolutionary War. Others barely survived capture and imprisonment. Others crept back to their burned homes. But all 56 stayed true to the words that concluded the Declaration: “With a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

The Revolution as a whole was a risk. Think about seven famous revolutions of the past 400 years: English, American, French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Cambodian. Only one of them, the American, ended without a strongman taking power. The last five were particularly murderous. When a Philadelphian asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of governmental system he had helped devised, Franklin famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The odds against keeping it were high.

Yang Fenggang and Ed Morgan

The history of Christianity is a history of risk-takers. From Paul and Peter to Luther and Calvin to Bonhoeffer and millions of other martyrs over the past century, Christians gave up fortunes, societal honor, and sometimes their lives. Sometimes the risk may be as dramatic as imprisonment, as our profile of Yang Fenggang below relates. Sometimes it may be professional embarrassment and loss of a comfortable retirement, as our profile of Ed Morgan shows. But in all cases the common denominator for uncommon action is a desire to serve God rather than self. —Marvin Olasky

TAIPEI, Taiwan—Sipping an Americano at a hotel coffee shop, Purdue University professor Yang Fenggang feared what would happen once he returned to his homeland of China in late June and early July. Although he used to make yearly trips to China to conduct research on Christianity and lecture at universities, this time government officials warned his friends not to let him make any public appearances. Before leaving for his tour of Asia, he asked those working under him at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion at Purdue to publicize his plight should anything happen.

Yang is on the Chinese government’s radar for his work studying the growth of Christianity in China. He has predicted that China will become the most Christian nation by 2030 with more than 247 million believers. But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is trying to stop the growth of Christianity, and the state-backed Global Times called Yang’s 2030 figure “obviously an exaggeration.” Last year, Yang also arranged a symposium at Purdue about religious liberties in China, inviting prominent Chinese pastors and human rights lawyers. He knew this trip could be payback time.

Yang, 53, was a “sincere Marxist” in the 1980s when he taught about Christianity at Renmin University in Beijing. When tanks in 1989 rolled into Tiananmen Square and killed hundreds of student protesters, he began to fear the consequences of atheism: If there is no God and no soul, what will stop people from killing each other? He compared Chinese traditional religions to beautiful houses “already destroyed in the modernization process.” Christianity also looked like a beautiful house, but he didn’t know how to get in. Encouraged to talk to God, Yang went home to pray and suddenly felt inside the house: “Rationality didn’t get me into the house. It’s through prayer.”

Yang pursued a Ph.D. in sociology at Catholic University of America, studying Christianity among Chinese immigrants in America, and in 2000 shifted his focus to the growing church in China. Each year he’d return to China to interview Christians and visit churches all over the country to understand better the current religious climate. A study he conducted in 2007 found fewer than 15 percent of Chinese are atheists—which means CCP plans to end religion by banning it, requiring atheist education, or arresting those outside state-sanctioned religious groups, have failed.

In his book Religion in China: Survival and Revival Under Communist Rule (Oxford University Press, 2011), Yang writes that under Mao Zedong the destruction of churches and other places of worship created an unmet demand for religion. As China opened up after Mao’s death, supply came in three forms: red market (religious organizations officially approved and controlled by the government), black market (illegal religious gatherings like Falun Gong), and gray market (approved religions operating outside government control, such as house churches). The repression of religion does not reduce it, Yang argued: Instead, the gray market grows.

‘We do not see ourselves as hostile to the Chinese government.’ —Yang

A look at China today proves his theory: Under President Xi Jinping, restrictions on both house churches and even government-sanctioned Three-Self churches have increased. Since last year, the government has torn down more than 450 crosses from the tops of Three-Self churches in Zhejiang, hoping to abolish the visible symbol of Christianity. A new draft regulation details how crosses can be displayed—affixed to the front of the building, not on top; painted the same color as the rest of the building; not exceeding a certain height and width. Yang and many pastors believe the campaign will soon expand from Zhejiang province to all of China.

In preparation, pastors from other cities have visited Zhejiang to learn from local leaders how to resist when officials come to seize crosses. In the cities of Liushui and Fuyang, church members replaced felled crosses once the officials left. Chongyi Christian Church in Hangzhou, a Three-Self megachurch with about 10,000 attendees each week, published an open letter on the church website saying the policy “is likely to cause chaos … and religious conflicts,” according to The Christian Science Monitor. The church pointed to the Chinese Constitution, which promises respect for “the traditions and customs of all religions.”

The pushback is surprising coming from legally registered churches, which in the past rarely strayed from the Party line. Yang noted that this persecution of the red market has led some of these churches to leave the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and form independent churches. House church pastors who have historically been critical of the Three-Self church are now supporting their brothers and sisters facing persecution by holding prayer meetings and speaking up about their plight. Yang observed that President Xi recently said religion must take on “Chinese characteristics”: Yang believes this doesn’t just mean Chinese architecture or Chinese-style music but “Chinese Communist Party characteristics.”

As the noose tightens around the red market, even more severe persecution awaits the gray and black markets. In the eastern province of Shandong, house church members Zhao Weiliang and Cheng Hongpeng received four and three years in prison, respectively, for “utilizing a cult to obstruct justice.” In the western province of Xinjiang, two house church Christians lost a lawsuit against the police who detained them for 11 days for holding a children’s Sunday school class. In the southwestern province of Guizhou, dozens of armed police and police dogs raided a Sunday service and detained 11 believers for several days. When six members traveled to consult Christian lawyer Li Guizheng about the situation, Li and the Christians were taken into custody.

Bob Fu, president of China Aid, said government action “clearly shows China is moving backward on religious freedom and rule of law.” But the CCP has also tried encouraging traditional Chinese religions such as Buddhism, Daoism, and folk religion. The Party had originally tried to stamp out superstitions, banning what they saw as a backward way of life. But now, government is legalizing local temples and even trying to advertise them as tourist attractions for visitors from Taiwan. Yang found that the plan has backfired, and rather than diverting potential Christians into other religions, it has increased overall religion in the country.

As Christianity grows and believers make up a larger percentage of the population, their impact on society also increases. Already Christian influence can be felt through the work of Christian human rights lawyers who fight for the freedom of speech and press, land rights, persecuted religious minorities, and AIDS victims. Lawyer Teng Biao told The New York Review of Books about a fourth of human rights lawyers are Christians because their work is an uphill battle, “so without God or a belief, a human rights lawyer would feel hopeless.”

Yang looks at Taiwan and Hong Kong to predict what could happen when openly Christian politicians come into power. In Taiwan, the Christian faith of several of Taiwan’s presidents led to greater leniency in dealing with political dissidents. In Hong Kong, many of the leaders of the pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution are believers. “We do not see ourselves as hostile to the Chinese government,” Yang said, because Christians contribute spiritual capital that improves social stability.

Yang also sees Christian influence in the rise of Christian education in China as a response to a problematic education system. While the Christian schools are unregistered, the number of such schools is increasing annually, with Christians finding creative ways to skirt the system. Christian professors and journalists are also making their mark, although often in more subtle ways. Yang says: “This is like the Roman Empire. … Those emperors didn’t like those Christians in the government, in the military, but they are the good servants, they were the good fighters, so you got to have them.”

On July 3, Yang returned safely to the United States after meeting with some of these good fighters in China, including house church pastors, Christian artists, and human rights lawyers. While in Beijing, he visited Pastor Ezra Jin’s Zion Church, a well-known house church where 2,000 congregants gather each weekend at one of their five services. The church itself is an example of Christian renewal: The office floor where the worshippers now praised God had previously been a nightclub that had gone bankrupt.

NEW YORK—Leaving a major corporate job to run a struggling homeless mission is not as dramatic as staring down Chinese Communist officials, but it’s something few Christians do. Ed Morgan just stepped down from serving as president of the Bowery Mission after 20 years. Over that time he turned the struggling mission around to be one of the most effective ministries to the homeless.

Morgan came from five generations of pastors, but instead of following his father and grandfathers into ministry he joined the U.S. Air Force and went to Korea to command a radar site, monitoring the “scramble line” near the DMZ. If Communist planes crossed the line, American forces would scramble their jets. Then he left the military, became a consultant in Washington, D.C., and then spent 20 years working in the upper echelons of General Electric.

Morgan edited GE’s company magazine out of corporate headquarters in New York City, but Manhattan in the 1970s was such a dangerous place that the company moved its headquarters out to Connecticut, where the Morgans moved as well. One day at a country club he had lunch with GE executive Jack Welch, who wrote three key words on a cocktail napkin and asked Morgan to turn those three into a speech for security analysts. Morgan passed the test and became Welch’s speechwriter. They worked closely, often crisscrossing the United States in corporate jets, as Welch moved up the ranks to become GE’s chairman in 1980.

”It was very competitive,” Morgan recalls: “If you were not on top of your game, it was tough to be around.” Morgan also became a Sunday school teacher but felt he was missing “a sense of real connection to the Lord,” so in 1986 he and his wife Judy decided to be baptized. Soon after that, work began to fall apart and Morgan was misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer. For those weeks before doctors corrected the diagnosis, he thought he was dying. Morgan learned from the experience: “Before I could lead a compassion and life transformation ministry, I had to get some compassion for people who were not at the top of their game.”

Morgan became head of communications for GE’s financial services unit but became increasingly depressed at GE: He disliked the work but needed the money to support a son about to attend high-tuition Vanderbilt University. One day, though, a Christian came to his office to tell him about a venerable nonprofit, the Christian Herald Association (CHA), that was hemorrhaging about $500,000 a year and draining its $3 million endowment.

‘I had to get some compassion for people who were not at the top of their game.’ —Morgan

CHA still published The Christian Herald, a magazine popular in the 1890s but little-read in the 1990s. CHA’s main task, though, was running the Bowery Mission, founded in 1879: America’s third-oldest Christian homeless shelter, it offered meals and clothing to the needy but didn’t do much to change lives. Morgan became a board member and started learning more about the organization’s lack of efficiency: For example, staff members kept track of donors via index cards rather than computerized records.

In 1994 the board asked Morgan to be president and CEO—at a 60 percent pay cut. Many executives would have found their corporation’s “golden handcuffs” too hard to remove. But Morgan said yes, and in the next few years led the organization to cut its publishing arm entirely and focus purely on ministry to the homeless. He also moved the mission’s corporate headquarters from waspy, wealthy Chappaqua, N.Y., where many donors lived, down to the city where it was ministering. “I’m sure that ruffled a lot of feathers,” said Emily Solway, who oversaw development.

Morgan analyzed the mission’s work with some of the strategic planning tools he had used at GE. Instead of emphasizing process—meals served, beds occupied—he looked at outcome: not how many individuals wandered into the mission, but how many left sober, employed, and connected to Christ and family. He accepted support from non-Christians who recognized the Bowery Mission’s increasing effectiveness. He refused major grants from a foundation that wanted the organization to change its policy of hiring only Christians.

The mission gained the high-profile support of New York Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg: On Giuliani’s last night in office he dropped off at the Bowery armfuls of suits for which he would now have less use. Abandoning the suburban Connecticut lifestyle, Ed and Judy Morgan lived above the mission’s office. The Morgans went to Calvary-St. George’s, one of the few theologically conservative Episcopal churches in the city, where they worked to bring in a theologically conservative rector to lead the church.

Under Morgan, the mission more than tripled its fundraising. It started a women’s program, with three new town homes around Manhattan for women to recover from homelessness, addiction, and abuse. It opened another home for men, revamped its Mont Lawn Camp for at-risk children, and started a program for children in the city with the goal of operating year-round. More than 1,700 men and women have graduated since 1996 by finishing Bowery programs and having a job and a plan for the future.

As the number of homeless individuals in New York City has increased to more than 50,000, the Bowery Mission has been one small operation with consistent results. Morgan hopes to increase “kingdom territory” in New York City, which is one reason he said it was a “travesty” when the American Bible Society sold its 12-story building near Columbus Circle earlier this year. Over the years many groups have wanted to buy the mission’s property, which once had Skid Row surroundings but is now near luxury hotels. Morgan, aware that the stream of homeless coming to the mission’s red doors never slowed, also said no—but he sold the Bowery Mission’s air rights at its headquarters.

When Morgan wanted to add to “kingdom territory” a townhouse on the Upper East Side, which he thought would make an ideal women’s home, he employed his skills of slowly wearing people down. Ten years ago the building, once the site of a ministry for women called Heartsease Home, was sitting empty and rundown. Morgan called the chairman of Heartsease every six months for three years to ask about putting the mission’s women’s program there. In 2008 the nonprofit finally suggested combining forces, so the Bowery Mission took on three Heartsease board members, bought the house for $1, and spent $450,000 on renovations. “Good investment,” Morgan said.

Last month Morgan, now 72, left the the mission’s command post, and the Morgans moved out of their apartment, which was equipped with two dishwashers for the big meals they used to host. The mission will now continue under another president with a corporate background, David Jones, who worked at mammoth accounting firm KPMG for 26 years and gained a partnership. Jones had stepped in as executive director of Newark Goodwill Rescue Mission before joining Bowery Mission.

Morgan hasn’t really retired. He’s now heading up a new venture, the Bowery Mission Foundation, where donors can give assets instead of straight cash. “I’m blessed to be 72, but I don’t feel 72,” he said. “I feel like I did when I was 60, which is wonderful. Wanting more and more to do things that have eternal weight and meaning.”


China Aid Contacts
Rachel Ritchie, English Media Director
Cell: (432) 553-1080 | Office: 1+ (888) 889-7757 | Other: (432) 689-6985
Email: [email protected]

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