1890, the Chinese population in Richmond numbered less than 100 and Immanuel Baptist Church was a thriving congregation at Fifth and Leigh Streets. That year, the church invited a group of Chinese people living in Richmond to attend a weekly Sunday School class and occasional worship services conducted by retired missionaries to China. This began Immanuel’s first official outreach to a people from another land – both at home and abroad.
At that time, the bulk of the Chinese population was centered in the heart of Richmond. Immanuel’s central location at Fifth and Leigh Streets, and later at Pine and Grace Streets, was an ideal place for reaching out to Richmond’s Chinese population until the early 1940s. As most of the Richmond Chinese population during this time had their roots in southern China, the Bible studies and worship services were conducted in Cantonese, the dialect of that region.
Moving forward 100 years from that first Sunday School class to the 1990s, much has changed. Immanuel is now at Monument and Thompson and the Chinese population in Richmond has grown to several thousand. Hundreds and thousands of Chinese students and visiting scholars are in the United States to pursue higher education. Many have come to Virginia. Not only China opened its door to the world, China has come to the United States, to Virginia and to Richmond.
During the 1992/93 academic year, I had the opportunity to go to the University of Virginia to lead Bible studies for a group of Chinese students. I met several visiting scholars and students from China and asked them the reason for their interest in studying the Bible. Their overwhelming answer was, “We had lost faith in a belief system that shaped our lives. Here in the US, we see the commitment of many Christians and we are impressed. We want to know what they believe in.” What a great opportunity to share the Word of God when hearts are hungry for the truth.
In June 1998, my wife, Eunice, and I joined a Chinese Bible Study on the VCU/MCV campus, witnessing to a group of graduate students from China. That September, sensing the great opportunity to evangelize and enlarge God’s kingdom in Richmond, Pastor Sparky Pritchard encouraged me to pray about leading a ministry to the Chinese at Immanuel. At the January 1999 Board of Elders meeting, the Board endorsed the idea, and Immanuel began to pray for God’s will for a new Chinese Ministry.
By the end of the summer, we were confident that God had answered our prayers, and the preparation for a Chinese worship service began in earnest. Brother Enguang Zhao single-handedly scanned the entire phone book, picking out all the addresses of anyone whose last name sounded Chinese. We sent out over 1000 letters to the greater Richmond area inviting the recipient to come to the Chinese worship service at Immanuel. And on December 5, 1999 the first Chinese worship service conducted in Mandarin, the Chinese national dialect, was held at the Mizpah Room, with over fifty people attending.
I want to share with you one story from that day that will forever be etched in my memory. On that December morning of the first service, at about 11 am, a Chinese couple and their little girl was walking down Thompson Street. They had just arrived from Australia three days earlier. They were staying at a hotel on the 3200 block of Broad Street, and were on their way to Hanover Avenue to look at an apartment. Because the sidewalk did not continue on their side of the street, they crossed Thompson at the corner of Monument and Thompson. One of our security personnel thought they were looking for the Chinese service and approached them with a big smile and enthusiasm, and ushered them to the Mizpah Room. It was already 15 minutes into the service, so they sat at the back, and because they had an appointment to keep, they left before the service ended. No one knew who they were or where they lived, and no one knew if they would come back the next week. But that following Sunday, they were the first ones to arrive for the Chinese service. QL and LC, and their little girl WS accepted the Lord as their Savior later in the spring of 2000, and were baptized on April 30, 2000. Surely we saw evidence that God is at work.
After the Sunday morning Chinese Worship Service was established, Immanuel also assumed the leadership of the Friday evening Chinese Bible Study at VCU in October 2000. These two meetings became the hallmark of the Chinese Ministry. Evangelism occurred on Friday evenings through seeker-friendly Bible studies, as well as home visits and one-on-one meetings, and Sunday mornings brought worship and instruction through expository preaching and in-depth Bible study.
Most newcomers and non-believers were introduced to the ministry through the Friday evening meetings. For many Chinese students and scholars, and their families, this was their first introduction to the Word of God. Our meetings began with a Chinese supper together, our discussions were generally evangelistic, and the relaxed and informal atmosphere gave ample opportunity for people to ask questions or raise issues. As their interest in the Bible grew, seekers would begin to attend the Sunday worship services and eventually, many would turn to God and become a follower of Jesus Christ.
From December 1999 to June 2017, God has blessed the ministry with more than 120 professions of faith and 112 baptisms. As these new believers finished their studies in Richmond, they found employment and moved to other parts of the United States, and even Canada and Australia. Some returned to China, and it is gratifying to hear that they are also walking with the Lord and active in their local churches.
None of these would have been possible but by the grace of God, and the faithfulness of many Immanuelites who labored both in front of and behind the scenes. As I read through 18 annual reports, and the well over 100 names of people who served the Chinese Ministry, I am just amazed at the goodness of our great God and am thankful for the partnership of everyone involved.
Since my retirement in July 2017, Brothers Hemin Yang and Jianmin Zhao continue to lead the Friday night Chinese Bible Study. While the demographics of the Chinese students/scholars population is very different from 20 years ago, opportunities to witness for Christ continue. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38).
Soli Deo gloria,