Editor’s note: In their forties, American missionary couple Stephen and Denise were called by God to share the gospel with the Chinese people. After a decade’s efforts, a church was established in one of the metropolises. Through their ministry in China, they experienced God’s providence, guidance, and work in the hearts of Chinese Christians. Due to COVID-19, they are unable to travel back there to strengthen local church leaders but they serve as the role of coaches to sustain them. This is part 2 of the interview, see part 1 here.
China Christian Daily: Why did you leave China?
Stephen: My understanding of being a missionary is, from the day you start, you are slowly working yourself out of a job. Being a missionary is to train the nationals, the local people, to be able to do the work of the ministry. First of all, teach them about Jesus and they will come to know Jesus themselves. But once they are Christians, my job as a missionary is to train them about doing the work of ministry and to train leaders to be able to lead.
I believe scripture teaches that women can serve in the church, but I personally believe that God wants men to take the responsibility of pastors. We were not expelled from China. We felt like it was time for us to go. These men who were leading the church, as long as I was there present, they would always be looking to me to make decisions and to do more of the leadership. I realized that I needed to take a step back to allow them to be able to really take the leadership of the church. That was a big factor.
But also in our hearts, we just believe that God was moving us back. We were feeling a compelling desire or compulsion to go.
It was a process of two years. My goal was to come back and make visits regularly and to try to be an encouragement and maybe offer some more training. After we came back to the U.S., I went back to China in 2018 and in 2019. Because of Covid, I have not been able to go since 2020, even though I would love to go back. I do keep in touch over WeChat, and some others with the leaders there.
China Christian Daily: What are the unforgettable moments of your stay in China?
Denise: We had a Bible study in our home every Wednesday night in the second year. There was about 30 to 40 people coming. One Wednesday, Steve went to get the money we kept from a drawer under our bed. That was 2000 or 3000 yuan all we had. As we always had drinks and snacks at the meeting, he went to get it out to go to the store, but there was no money.
We adopted two children from China. But prior to this, a girl had come to live with us. The mother from China had a baby named Nathan, who is half black, born of a father from Africa. We took care of her and she lived with us for almost a year because her family did not want to help her three weeks before she had the baby. She left us two days ago and left the baby with us. We both knew in our hearts that she took our money. We were very close to her and loved her very much. We tried everything we could do to help her. Now our money was all gone, we didn't have enough money to even go buy drinks or snacks.
Suddenly we had no money, and we were in a foreign country, we wanted to cry because we were devastated. God brought us to China to teach the Chinese people about Jesus. We could have cried or been sad. We could have said, forget it. What did we do? We could get anxious, or we could trust God. He already knew this moment was coming. He already knew the money was going to be gone. He already knew we didn't have enough to buy a drink now. Could we trust this God? All these 40 people would be so excited to come to learn the Bible tonight. So we decided, together, we would go forward.
I remembered that we chose one song “Count Your Blessing” specifically that we were going to sing that night. We also decided that we would not tell anybody about this problem. We were going to teach the Bible. We asked God to help us to be strong when our whole world fell apart.
We had a very wonderful Bible study. Among them, there were two young boys who bought the snack that night. When they were joking with us that we should stay at home rather than go out to eat street food at late night, another Brazilian boy was curious about our situation. We told him the story. The 21-year-old boy felt so heavy and sad for us that he gave us 100 yuan, which was all he had. The next day, the Chinese people started bringing more and more money and in the end, it totaled over 10000 yuan. Because this boy started telling everybody, “We must help them.”
We received much more than was taken, but I believed it was a test of our faith. It was a test: “Are you going to stop the service today” Because that was the easiest thing. It was a great time for us to learn you just do what God told you to do and he will take care of his business.
Eventually, I kept trying to call the girl who stole our money. When I asked her whether she took our money not, she would change the subject. She would like to know how her son was doing, but I said, “I'm not gonna talk to you about Nathan. If you don't tell me if you took our money, you will never see your baby again.” She told us that she did. Anyway, I just wanted her to confess.
Stephen: We adopted two children from China, a boy and a girl. Both of these adoptions were very difficult because in China, most adoptions are done through government-approved orphanages, and people have to go through the application process. But neither of these adoptions followed the rules. We were adopting directly from individuals. In China, everything is tied back to the hometown, the hukou system.
Nathan’s mother was from Jilin, her hometown up in the north. So we were having to go through the government agency and they were very uncooperative. The woman who was in that office was very rude. At one point she said, “You're going to have to have this boy's father come back to China from Africa and sign these papers if you want this adoption.” We knew that was not going to happen because that man had no interest and he was not going to come back. We felt very hopeless about being able to get the adoption done. We just began to pray, “Lord, if you want us to adopt this boy, we’ve got to have help.”
China Christian Daily: What happened next?
Stephen: In the summertime, we had come back to the U-S for a visit. Denise got a phone call from Nathan's biological mother.
Denise: She said that lady got moved to another department, and now they put a man in her job. The man looked at the paperwork and said, “No problem, we can do this.” But it was seven and a half years of searching, knocking, and begging China to allow this adoption to happen.
In the meantime, this other little girl originally from Changsha, Hunan Province came along and we wanted to adopt her too. But China had a law at the time that a child had to be adopted before 14. While I was working on Nathan's adoption, the girl was getting closer and closer to 14. Usually, it takes one year to do the adoption from China. We must do it in four months, or else no adoption. One day in December 2014, the official told us yes and that we must have money that day. We actually didn't have the money. It took a lot of money to do this, but God kept supplying many ways. We signed her adoption papers two days before she turned 14, then we made the trip to Changsha. They brought in the newspaper because this never happened to an American who adopted a child from a Chinese mother before in Hunan province. It is very rare for that to happen in China. We’ve had her for four years now.
China Christian Daily: Do you have more to share about your mission in China?
Stephen: We had so many roadblocks with these adoptions, because they were both cases that were outside of the box, so to speak, they were very difficult. But we give God the glory because He's taught us his word that what seems impossible with men is not impossible with him. We saw Him open the doors and do things that looked impossible to get these options done.
Our whole experience of living and serving in China was just such an amazing blessing. The brothers and sisters there loved us, and still do, but they showed us so much love and care. Denise broke her ankle and had to be in the hospital to have surgery. They were so caring and loving to take care of her. I had a heart problem and had to be in the hospital as well. We were just covered in love. We just cannot say enough about how much care and love we received the whole time we lived there.
I miss the food and I love Chinese. I hope and pray that things will open back up so we can travel back there to visit and get our girls (to be adopted) to come here.
Denise: We did a lot of work with orphans. We have so many stories of the miracles that God performed for us in the adoption process.
Not just that, but there were just different things. One night we had a Bible study in our home, and nobody showed up that night. It was the only time in all of our years no one showed up, except one guy who works for the government. Soon after it was time to start the Bible study, seven police officers came in with their flashlights looking all over our house, in our bookcases, and everything else. They were apparently searching for an Italian guy.
This Chinese man, our friend, was just sitting so calmly. Our daughters were visiting us at the time, and they went to the bedroom, and started praying because we never had this happen in our world.
It was a miracle. If normally there would be a room full of people with the Bible open, study in the Bible at that time when they came in. But that one night, in our eleven years in China, one night, nobody showed up, except the police. There were different things that happened that you only know that God is the orchestrator.
Another thing that I want to mention is that we got involved with the leper’s colony. It was a really wonderful experience for us, and I believe, for the people that we were working with. We would go once a month and that was so wonderful in such a very much a blessing for us. But it was great also to see the people in our church were very moved to go and be a blessing to the lepers.
China Christian Daily: According to your experience, how should foreign missionaries and pastors minister to Chinese people?
Stephen: It needs to be a longer process. I know many mission groups come to China and they're only there for maybe two weeks. Honestly, I think that does more harm than good because ministry takes time. I don't believe that people will be saved until they understand that they are lost. To teach people the Bible and give the Holy Spirit time to work in a person's heart doesn't happen overnight. I believe it takes time.
I believe one of the best things that ministries can do who want to serve in China is a longer-term commitment. It takes time to build relationships with people before they even trust you.
I was not a pastor before I went to China, but there's a saying that the only ability God really requires is availability. He will take care of the rest if we make ourselves available to him. If we say, “Lord, here is my life. Use it as you see fit,” God will give you whatever you need to take cut to carry out his will.
We are nothing special. We were not famous ministers. We just said, “Lord, if you want us to go to China, we will go.” I believe God honored that. God used us because we had willing hearts to go and just be used by him.
Denise: I think they should have a lot of love for the people. If you really love them, you will figure out how to help them. And you have to have knowledge of the word of God. You have to be able to speak the truth in love and be able to teach them things that maybe they've never heard of or things that are maybe resistant to, but be faithful to the Bible. Be faithful to the word of God, and love people. If you are faithful to the word of God and you love the people, you're going to make an impact.
China Christian Daily: Are you still involved in leading the Chinese church now?
Stephen: I would say my role at this point is more of encouragement to just keep in touch with the leaders and help them in ways I can. I will ask how things are going and if there is any help I can offer. I'm not involved in any regular routines. I was for a while doing some preaching once a month on Zoom, but we're not doing that presently.
Denise: They contact us very frequently and many people do.
China Christian Daily: Do you have any words for the church in China and Chinese Christians?
Stephen: I would say, “Come to America and show the Christians in America how to love God.” I know there are still many Americans who genuinely love God and want to serve Him, but the church in America is experiencing a drought in the work and moving of the Spirit. We need a spiritual revival. I'm thankful for the freedom of religion, but at the same time, people are not challenged enough.
My advice would be to keep your focus on the word of God. You have to be careful about so many voices out there online. There are people who claim to be Bible teachers, but some of what they're teaching is not true to the Bible. Keep your focus on God's Word, and allow His word to mold, shape, and help you to grow spiritually.