A new book records the reflections on church and state in China by the imprisoned pastor and other house church leaders.
When I first met Wang Yi, he ushered me into a conference room overlooking a landscape of old and slightly run-down office buildings in central Chengdu, western China’s most important metropolis. It was 2011, and his church was then called Early Rain Reformed Church, later taking the name Early Rain Covenant Church. Like many churches that weren’t registered with the government, it was housed in an office building. This one was fairly old, with one functioning elevator that groaned its way up to the 19th floor. I had taken one look and walked up.
I explained that I was working on a book about the revival of religion in China. I had been to many rural churches in traditional Christian heartlands of China, such as the province of Henan, but felt that big, urban churches like his were becoming more important. Would he let me sit in on his services and talk to congregants?
Pastor Wang immediately agreed on two conditions: First, no photography in the church; and, second, if I wanted to quote anyone, I was welcome to do so but needed their permission. His reasoning was simple: Early Rain had nothing to hide. It was a public institution. All were welcome, and no one should be restricted in what they wrote. So if I wanted to visit his church that was my right. And if I wanted to write something, that was also my right as a free person. His restrictions were simply means to respect the privacy of those who attended, and to keep the service dignified.
At that point I had worked in China off and on since the mid-1980s. I knew that for me to visit his church regularly carried inherent risks. I asked him about the building security guards downstairs and whether they would report to the authorities that a foreigner was regularly …