Read about our first VISIONS presentation here.
Building the best culture is a challenge at any time. And when the social order has dramatically fallen, trying to improve our life together can seem a hopeless affair. That is one reason why I love stories about people who find the way to encounter their neighbors and renew their lives, no matter the obstacles in their way.
Just recently, I was reminded how the best culture can be fostered even in the most difficult circumstances. The occasion was a visit to the Hubbard Hill Retirement Community for one of Cana Academy’s monthly seminars there in our yearlong VISIONS program. The title of that day’s presentation was Brother Yun: From Pagan to Apostle in Communist China.
Brother Yun rose to prominence in the last decades of the twentieth century as a principal leader of the massive house church movement in China. As one of the most effective apostles in the land of the Great Wall and as a prime target of the communist state, Brother Yun spent many years enduring one of the world’s harshest prison cultures. How he responded to the dark hopelessness of that environment is a sober reminder to those of us who work under comparatively free circumstances.
Here are some highlights of his response to the dark culture around him:
When confronted with a long prison term, which placed Brother Yun at the end of his rope, he engaged in extended fasting. He acted, in other words, out of the beatitude of poverty, utterly reliant on the Lord, allowing himself to diminish even more than his already diminished circumstances—to carve out more room for God.
When subjected to repeated beatings and torture, Yun’s response was constant prayer. On one level, this enabled him to focus on something other than his acute pain and humiliation. On another, by keeping his focus on Jesus in the midst of great suffering, his response made him more like the suffering Christ.
During heavy-handed kangaroo court trials run by the repressive state and under daily threats from his cruel captors, Brother Yun refused to betray his fellow Christians or his Lord. He stayed true to himself: he unflaggingly remembered that he belonged to Christ, his dear family, and his fellow Christians; and he persistently witnessed to his captors and his prison mates. He never forgot those who gave him life and those who relied on him.
Initially, his cell mates mocked and abused him. In response, Brother Yun gave them his food, tended to their needs, and prayed for them. His love melted their hearts. Many gave their lives to Jesus and joined him in service to others. The prison warden was so impressed by Yun’s impact on others, he gave him increased responsibility for the prison’s culture. Yun came to be in charge of the prison library, music selections played for the inmates, and the prison’s educational programs. He was encouraged to tend to the sick among the prisoners and prison officers as well. The warden went so far as to have Brother Yun help write reports to the state authorities on how the prisoners were developing; and, under Yun’s influence, they were developing better in the process of reform.
At one point, the prison warden gave Yun charge of a crazed murderer named Huang who, while on death row, repeatedly tried to harm others and kill himself. None of the guards could control him. The warden’s normal resources utterly failed. So, he turned to the one prisoner who had transformed his cell and every corner of the prison he touched.
Brother Yun gently tended to his new cellmate. He gave him his meager rations, dressed his wounds where the prison shackles cut to the bone, and sang for him. By his example, Yun even drew in the other cellmates who initially were appalled at sharing their cramped cell with the savage Huang. Under Yun’s care, Huang softened, calmed, and, most importantly, repented. On the day before Huang was executed by the state, the cellmates all chipped in drops of water from their meager rations so that Yun could baptize their newfound brother. That same day Huang wrote his parents: “Please don’t feel sad after I die… I will not die, for I’ve received eternal life!”
Away from the prison, Yun’s family suffered. Long separated from him and falling deeper into abject poverty, they despaired. In response, the father of the family, at his very lowest, penned notes of encouragement to his wife and children. As they grew poorer, his words were like food from Heaven, sustaining them until the family could be reunited.
The thing Yun did in prison that perhaps most tangibly changed the daily pattern of prison life was his singing. Sometimes the songs were simple and were built around a single word like “Hallelujah.” Others had more words and various images but always a simple, heartfelt focus. His songs arrested the attention of his cellmates and the guards; his voice and words interrupted their dark routine. Most amazingly, Brother Yun eventually had the men in his cell singing together, and joyfully at that, a striking contrast to the typical, violent pecking order that marked their crowded cell before Yun gave them another way to be.
In sum, what Brother Yun did was to change the culture inside and outside of the prison. He did it by being true; lovingly serving; envisioning himself, his captors, and his fellow prisoners as God sees them and not as the world of prison culture sees them; singing and leading others to sing; and giving encouraging words to his mates inside the prison and his family outside that dramatically transformed the way they responded to their immediate circumstances.
Brother Yun’s story makes for a good bit of counsel: if better culture can be built in a Chinese prison, surely we can build the best culture where we find ourselves.
Just after I completed my presentation, and as I was stepping away from the audience, one of the Hubbard Hill retirees broke into song:
“He is Lord, He is Lord. He is risen from the dead, and He is Lord.”
His lone voice interrupted the event’s ending. It caught our attention. On the next line, the entire room joined in with gentle but clear, lovely voices:
“Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
That was a better way to end.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.
Header image by Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman.