It had been a week since the beginning of the lockdown. The day after he joined the neighborhood volunteer team, pastor Xue of GB Church received a white one-piece protective suit, a pair of shoe covers, a pair of gloves, and a face mask. (Xue and others throughout this piece have been given pseudonyms for their own safety. So have the church names.)
After 8:30 p.m. that day, he was responsible for collecting the garbage placed in the doorways of 72 homes on the 16th to 27th floors of the building. It took him about an hour to move nearly 150 kilograms of trash. The following day, the 150 bottles of alcohol and thousands of masks he ordered through online group purchase rapidly met the demand, and the community volunteers quickly became acquainted with him.
When they saw him at a community meeting, the local aunties and uncles immediately switched from Shanghainese to Mandarin with a strong Shanghai accent in their chatting to ensure unhindered communication. Xue’s newly added WeChat friends are all neighbors in the community. Neighbors are no longer an abstract concept or a group of people in the administrative or geographic sense, but people of all types, with their own temperaments.
In another area of the city, morning prayer meetings at the CL Church had seen a significant increase in attendance since the lockdown. While the city’s early risers were busy ordering groceries on their mobile apps, more than 20 Christians and seekers began online worship.
“With 15 minutes of Bible sharing and 15 minutes of prayer every morning, we encourage people to pray first after they wake up and before they do anything else. As Martin Luther said, if you wait till you finish everything else and then pray, you are actually giving up on prayer,” said pastor Han of CL Church.
Planted only a couple of years ago, this church had not anticipated the online ministry to last for two years. But now not only had the number of participants increased, but also many non-Christians had joined them. The seekers appreciated the sincerity of the church even more because they had heard Christians share honestly about their anxiety and insecurity during the lockdown.
Since March, the omicron variant has rapidly spread across Shanghai, a city of more than 25 million people. At first, city officials tried to contain the spread of the virus and reduce the disruption of normal life by sealing off individual buildings and residential areas. But by March 27, the government issued a notice to sequentially lock down Pudong (the half of the city east of the Pujiang River) and Puxi (the half west of the river) for at least four days. The earlier strategy of fine-tuned containment was abandoned. All public transportation and most businesses were shut down, and almost everyone was ordered to stay home and quarantine.
By April 7, the number of infections in Shanghai was in the tens of thousands per day, and for most neighborhoods, lifting quarantine was out of reach. But the consequences of the lockdown have been devastating. Hemodialysis patients have been unable to receive treatments. Families with new COVID-19 infections have had to follow a “no mix of positive and negative” quarantine policy that has separated children from their parents.
The shortage of medical supplies caused by the disorderly management of mobile cabin hospitals has caused widespread anxiety in Shanghai, a city that prides itself on order and stability. Everyone knows the city is sick, but there seems to be no cure. Everyone wants to be helped by people they know, but some give up on life in solitude. One non-Christian who found a church pastor in the midst of the lockdown said, “There is no solution for everyone anyway, but I know the church would pray for me, pray with me, and stay with me.”
What can Christ’s church do amid such turbulence and facing so many needs? Pastors and church leaders emphasize the importance of prayer, devotions, spiritual growth, and actions of charity.
Prayer up close and personal
“When the epidemic began in 2020, our church meetings moved online, with offline small group access to ensure that brothers and sisters still had face-to-face fellowship,” Xue told CT. “Once the situation improved, we resumed offline physical meetings. At that time, none of our members’ residential areas was locked down, and everyone was still free to travel. But this time, 100 percent of our members were sealed off in their own homes, and for the first time, we were confronted with the epidemic up close and personal, when we had just looked on and made comments about the epidemic in other cities of China.”
Xue said that three of his members’ families have been infected with the virus, and although the church could not give direct help, they asked church members to pray together for the infected. Members have spontaneously followed up with those who were sick and sent them prayer Scriptures. Elders and care deacons mostly asked members how they were doing and prayed for them.
CL Church especially encouraged members to pray not only with believers but also with nonbelievers. Rather than just sending a “Praying for you” message, they stop what they are doing, make the phone call, and pray with those in need or write down specific prayers.
For members or visitors who don’t know how to pray, Han encourages them to pray according to the Bible. “Spend half an hour each day, away from cellphone or computer screens and internet messages, and use Scripture as a guide to think about God’s attributes, not our needs,” he said. “It’s like when we read in the morning devotional that Jesus said, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matt. 12:48–50).
“When our refrigerator at home is full, our spiritual condition is not necessarily better, but when our spiritual condition is better, we will not have inner anxiety when we see the refrigerator empty. God speaks to us every day through the Scriptures, and we need to think and respond to him in prayer.”
Xue’s church started an online Bible reading program two weeks ago. For one hour, brothers and sisters read the Gospels aloud in segments via web conference, allowing God’s Word to be a strength to one another. Soon after, church members initiated another Bible reading by theme. After each person took a turn reading a passage, they shared intercession matters of their own or of others related to that theme and used the passage to pray for themselves and others.
The sister who initiated the activity wrote in her invitation letter, “When I am overwhelmed, entangled in the reality of difficulties and sins, and my mind cannot focus on a chapter of Scripture so I cannot pray, I pick up the Bible and open my mouth to read it aloud, and often my heart is opened by God’s word as I read, and my tightly closed mouth begins to pray and cry out to the Lord. I hope that God’s Word can help us in different ways.”
‘Love your neighbor’ is no longer just a phrase
GB Church offered a course on “Love Your Neighbor” right before this round of outbreak. In its introduction, it stated that loving our neighbor means loving all people, including those we want to avoid, those we despise, or even those we find suspicious. It is not our responsibility to judge who is worthy of love, but to be good neighbors who meet the needs of others.
The epidemic has made a big difference in Shanghai neighborhoods. The online group purchase of vegetables and food must be community-based, and the length of lockdown time is based on community infections. The professionals with their workplace skills transformed into online group buyers for their communities. Disinfection, rapid COVID-19 tests, and distribution of goods all rely on volunteer groups formed by neighbors.
“As Christians, we should show others that we are actively helping our communities,” Han said. “We need to help our neighbors create good order in the community. We can share the food we have, pray for our neighbors, and pray with them, telling them that we are Christians. If our neighbors test positive, we don’t turn our back on them. We can send them encouraging messages or videos and find out what they actually need.”
Elder Jiang, who is a pilot, has spent the past three years either flying or in isolation. The city’s sequestration allowed him to finally spend time at home with his wife and young son. But when the community called for volunteers, he didn’t hesitate to sign up and spent his days in protective clothing organizing COVID-19 tests and distributing supplies.
A few days later, while he and his wife were infected, his three-year-old son’s antigen test came back negative. This meant, following Shanghai’s quarantine policy, that the couple had to be separated from their child. But Jiang did not regret his choice. He just wished that his family could stay together during the quarantine.
Sister Tang has been delivering food regularly to the secluded brothers and sisters since the lockdown. She bought overpriced food, cooked it carefully, and gave it to sisters who were pregnant or single. When asked why she goes to such lengths, she smiles and says, “Their parents are away, and at this special time, I want them to taste double the love because our heavenly Father loves us this way too.”
Back in her own community, she volunteered at the risk of being verbally abused and infected, taking on dispensing and purchasing medication for those in need throughout the whole residential block. After days of running around, her voice became hoarse, and she made phone calls late into the night every day to ask stores for supplies for the community.
Xue said, “The benefits we seek for our community in this life cannot be saved for eternity, but it is worth doing. For when we love our neighbors, we show them what God is. We manifest God’s love. And when we not only love our neighbors but commit ourselves to our communities, we testify to God’s principles and manifest his wisdom.”
Seeing the fruits of growth in the midst of an epidemic
Since the lockdown, the offering of the CL Church has unexpectedly surpassed the previous few months, with large amounts of giving going to help those in need—not necessarily church members or Christians, but anyone actually in need. The leadership team plans to use a portion of this to help the poor—including those who are unemployed or elderly—by subsidizing their rent or giving financial assistance. Another portion is given to affected missionaries, ministries, or preachers.
In addition, Han believes that opening oneself up and sharing one’s weaknesses in front of others, both believers and unbelievers, is also a way for the Christian community to witness. In the midst of the pandemic, members of his church, who used to hold each other at arm’s length and were predominately elite white-collar workers, shared for the first time their anxieties about the epidemic, their worries about the lack of supplies at home, and their problems in child-rearing and marriage. Because of their authenticity, non-Christians no longer turned away from Christians, but can come before God as sinners with real needs and call on God’s love.
“We may be going through the biggest crisis in the two years since we planted the church, but this particular experience has also shown us that what was planted before the epidemic is now blossoming,” Han said.
“As we enter the last week of Easter, I am especially reminded that the hope of the resurrection determines our state at this moment. The more we believe in the resurrection, the lighter we look at the hardships of this moment,” Han added. He has spent more time with his coworkers in the church over the past few weeks, praying with them and making sure they are spiritually healthy.
It is the hope in these Shanghai Christians’ hearts that when the virus no longer resides in this city, the church will be a better companion of people and builder of community, bringing people closer to each other and people’s hearts closer to God.
Eva Chou is a Christian journalist and writer in Shanghai. She has served the local church with her husband for many years. The couple has one son.
Translation by Sean Cheng