Interview With American Missionary Living for More Than 15 Years in China: 'We Have to Keep a Kingdom Mindset'

Education (photo: Pixabay)
By Karen Luo, Grace Song May 31st, 2022

Editor’s note: Having waited for 25 years since being given a vision and calling to serve in Mainland China, Eric was first sent to teach in the Jiaxing area of Zhejiang Province in 2004. The American "missionary in the workplace" taught character in schools to indirectly share the Gospel with young students. In a recent interview with China Christian Daily, Eric shared his path of knowing God, the story behind his vision for China, and his more than 15 years of teaching, working, and serving in China, led by the Lord.

China Christian Daily: Could you please introduce yourself?

Eric: I was born in Alabama, in the Southeast part of the United States and we moved from time to time with my father’s different jobs. When I was a junior-high student in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I started asking questions about life and faith. That was in the late 60s and early 70s. While China was having the Cultural Revolution, America was having the sexual revolution. It was a time of drug abuse, rebellion, and immorality among teenagers. I saw the bad decisions my friends were making and I started thinking of the meaning of life. I could see how people were looking for the meaning of life but looking for it in all the wrong places.

I was raised in the church and faith was kind of a tradition. I probably started going to church nine months before I was born. But I really wanted something more than just ritual. Deep in my heart, I really knew who had the answers to my questions, like: “What is the purpose of life?” Or “How can I ever have peace of mind?” I knew God had the answers to those questions, but I thought, “if I’m really serious and give God more than just my Sundays and I give God everything, then He might ruin my life and send me somewhere far away, like Africa to be a missionary, and I do not like lions and tigers and crocodiles!” So I was seriously thinking, “Could I really trust God to love me and take over my life and be my Master and my Lord?”

I was wrestling with the Lordship of Jesus for three days. He brought me to a place where I was so hungry to know God that it didn’t matter what He would ask. In the quietness of my room, I knelt by my bed and I gave God everything I knew. I laid my ‘weapons’ down and surrendered. I can still remember the hot tears flowing down my face, as I released my will to God’s will. Now there was peace and rest because I wasn’t fighting against God anymore.

It’s so interesting how God’s Word the Bible became alive to me, now that I personally knew the Author. It was like a love letter from God. The Bible opened up because it was from my dear Heavenly Father.

I noticed that God started changing me from the inside out. About six months after my encounter with God, I wrote a letter to a missions agency asking how to become a missionary. Now, I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than sharing with others about my best friend Jesus! I remember lying on my bed one evening as a ninth-grader, trying to figure out when I could become a missionary.

I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve got to graduate from high school.”

I assumed I would then go to college. So, I figured that I would have to wait until I was 22 years old before I could become a missionary. I didn’t know where, but I was willing to go wherever.

China Christian Daily: Why did you come to China and teach?

Eric: During my sophomore year preparing to study Mechanical Engineering at the university, I met a very humble young man who became a new friend. I went to a chemistry lab and noticed a guy that looked Chinese, and was very quiet. As the class started, we were asked to pick a lab partner. At that point, I was impressed in my heart that God was telling me, "Pick him.”

I sort of had an argument with God because I didn’t want to have any language problems during the experiments. In the end, I reluctantly became a lab partner with him.

Soon I learned that he was a Christian from Taiwan. He invited me to a Chinese Bible study that met on Friday nights. It was there that I met more Chinese than I had ever met in my entire life! Being only a few years after the Cultural Revolution, Mainland Chinese were still not free to travel, so most of these Chinese were from Taiwan. They were very kind and hospitable to me and adopted me into their big ‘family’. They shared their homemade Chinese food, taught me how to use chopsticks, and I learned some simple Chinese words.

Something else happened during this same Fall of 1978. One day I found in my mailbox, a book given to me as a gift and signed by an anonymous Christian sister. The book was called, “To China with Love” by Hudson Taylor. I tried very hard to figure out who this mysterious girl was who sent me this book? It wasn’t until one year later that God prompted me to ask an old friend named Julie, who I had tutored before in Calculus. I told her how thankful I was for her gift because God had really used this book in my life to give me a vision for China. The vision wasn’t for Taiwan, even though back then I was only connected with students from Taiwan. Instead, the vision was particularly for Mainland China. I would later be burdened even further for the unreached minority ethnic groups in Mainland China.

It was with this interest that I began picking Chinese roommates to live with to continue to learn their Chinese customs and habits and to make new friends.

Finally in 1982, when I graduated from Auburn University, I was asking God, “Where do you want a Mechanical Engineer who has a heart for China?”. I didn’t really see myself pursuing the American dream.

Instead, I was looking for ways to go to China. God reminded me that I didn’t have the blessings of my parents to go to China. Finally, I realized that God wanted me to work as an engineer before I went across the globe, to serve on the other side of the earth.

When I look back, I see how God had already been preparing me with the idea of China even as a child. One day, when I was four or five years old, I was digging holes in the ground playing army with my little toy soldiers. Concerned about how big the hole was, my mom commented in passing, “You’re not digging a hole all the way to China, are you?”

For the next years, as I worked in industry, I could not get China out of my heart. At night, I slept in front of a big map of China in my bedroom. As I studied more about China and prayed for this country, I discovered that one of China’s most important holidays - its National Day on October 1st - was my birthday!

After eight years of working as an engineer, the Lord changed the heart of my parents and they began to advise me regarding China. So, I began to prepare more directly for the next step, which eventually meant resigning from my engineering job. Overseas Missionary Fellowship advised me that it would be good to get some formal Bible training. Therefore, I went to Columbia Bible College in South Carolina for one year and graduated in 1997. I then worked at a Christian organization in Dallas, Texas, where I learned about teaching character and Biblical principles. During that time, Mr. Wang, a retired government official from Taiwan, invited me to teach at his charitable organization in Mainland China. His charity was a scholarship program for poorer high school students. The Chinese government pays for a student’s education up to 9th grade. But many students in the countryside are unable to afford further education. Mr. Wang’s organization supported a scholarship program for the smartest of the smart students that were the poorest of the poor, to be able to continue their education at his school. I agreed to come to help him.

That was after 25 years of waiting for God to send me to China, from 1978 to 2003.

China Christian Daily: What subject did you teach in China?

Eric: A couple of weeks before I actually arrived in China on February 1, 2004, I was sent to serve with the best and largest high school near the city of Jiaxing in Zhejiang province. Even though I was hired to teach conversational English, I really wanted to teach something even more significant. I wanted to teach moral character.

It wasn’t long before I got an opportunity to talk about it. At the beginning of the Spring semester, soon after I had arrived in China, the school principal gave a public address over the speakers for the whole school campus. Apart from general announcements, he particularly commended two boys for their honesty in returning a wallet they had found. A few days later, when I met the principal, I reminded him of what he had said about the honesty of the two young men and I asked him for his permission to teach character qualities along with conversational English. He thoughtfully considered this and then agreed.

My students were 10th graders and sometimes 11th graders. Like many teenagers in the United States, many of my Chinese students wanted to talk about NBA basketball players, pop stars, and celebrities. Regardless, I was still able to talk about the importance of good character. If a basketball player does not have self-control, he will foul out of the game. If a basketball player is not diligent and obeys the rules, he can not win the game. So the importance of moral character is interwoven throughout everyday life to help us be more successful. Through many stories, illustrations in nature, and role models in history, I was able to teach and emphasize moral character in my conversational English classes.

In 2008, I accepted an invitation to teach in Beijing, where I was specifically invited to teach moral character. Then later in 2018, I became an employee for a Chinese company in Wenzhou, of Zhejiang Province. I worked there until I moved back to the US in 2021. This move was to help me be a little closer to my mother so I could better respond to her needs.

China Christian Daily: Were you able to preach the gospel or did you teach character in an evangelistic way?

Eric: As an employee of the Communist education system, I sought to honor my authorities and perform the job that they hired me to do. They entrusted me with their students and I tried to learn how to work for and serve the Chinese people. God gave me the verse, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16, NASB)

Teaching about moral character though was a good way to actually teach about the character of God. It’s part of God’s general revelation about His nature. He created us in His image, so we all have His moral law embedded in our conscience.

Of course, just being a good person will never save anyone because we are all sinners and can never be good enough to reach God’s standard of holiness.

So in the Fall of 2004, after teaching at the school for several months, I went to the principal and asked him a very important question. For me this was like an “Esther moment” before King Ahasuerus. Prayerfully I asked the principal, "Could I have your permission to teach students the true meaning of Christmas and the true meaning of Easter according to the Bible?"

Thoughtfully he considered and said, “I suppose. That’s part of Western culture,” and he agreed to let me. So by God’s grace, I was able to share the Gospel boldly at least twice a year, with permission. When I moved to Beijing and taught at that school, I asked for permission, also. So by God’s grace, over the years of teaching in the Chinese public school, I was able to share the Gospel to as many as 9,000 students, with permission.

So the teaching of different moral character qualities all helped build a foundation for students to better understand the Gospel. Around Christmas time, I taught about generosity. Around Easter, I taught about forgiveness, justice, and mercy.

My purpose for teaching moral character was not just to get my students to do nice things and to be “good boys and girls”. Ultimately, I wanted them to know how to love others in everyday practical ways and how to love and serve their parents, fellow students, teachers, society, their country, and hopefully one day love and serve God.

No one can perfectly keep God’s laws and especially His royal law of love. Teaching moral character is a form of pre-evangelism that helps us know how truly spiritually bankrupt we are. And that is what God sent the law of Moses for, to show us how poor in spirit we really are and how much we all need a Saviour - His son Jesus Christ.

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:17. So though we have sinned and broken God’s law of love, the Gospel is about God’s mercy to forgive us and then change us by His grace.

China Christian Daily: Are there any unforgettable stories you have during your 15 years in China? Share two or three with us.

Eric: In my first year near Jiaxing of Zhejiang Province, the school held a sports day in October. Something interesting and special happened on that day. I was watching the games and seating among the students when a girl student started talking with me. She said she was a Christian and I could tell other students were listening to our conversation. Talking about religious/spiritual things with a student was a very sensitive thing. (Many students knew I was a Christian and I did not hide it. In fact, one of my Chinese English teacher colleagues, who was the daughter of a police officer, told me one time, she was surprised I was still there and not expelled out of China.) So as the other students bent their ears in to listen to our conversation, this student proceeded to ask me for a Bible. Inside my heart, it was great to know that she was spiritually hungry but I answered her in a rather unemotional way, by saying, “You can buy a Bible at the government church.”

She replied, “I do not go to the government church . . .” I replied, “I need to think about it . . .”

So I prayed about it and God showed me what to do. A little later, during the school games, she was sitting by herself and I went up to her and I told her that in the next couple of days I would leave a Bible on my desk (which was in the teacher’s office where I was accompanied and watched by the other Chinese English teachers). I told her if she went into my office and got the Bible off my desk, she could have it. So in the next couple of days, I found the Bible was gone. Several months later, I asked her about the Bible and she said she read it every night!

Later on, I was able to meet her parents and I found out there were hundreds of Chinese Christians that were meeting together as a part of the underground church in the local community countryside.

I have had the privilege of traveling over the years to many ancient places in the beautiful land of China. This has included 13 trips to Yunnan Province. I have visited and lived among the Naxi, Lisu, Zhuang, and Jingpo minority people groups. My passion was to learn about their needs and support the indigenous Chinese Christians and their outreach to these other ethnic people. These minority groups have their own language. Some of the places where they live are rough and remote. Even though I was from the other side of the earth, we were still able to communicate with each other, despite language differences and culture. I learned that even though people come in different shapes and sizes, they are all basically the same. People all over the world have hopes and struggles and dreams and can even have a similar sense of humor. I can still remember sitting with my Naxi friends as they cooked on the fire in their kitchen and laughed and talked about how big my nose was!

China Christian Daily: What was your church life like in China? Were there any impressive encounters with Chinese churches or Christians?

Eric: I have visited many different churches in China. For example, in the cities of Kunming, Puer, Dali, Lijiang, of Yunnan Province. One time, I was invited to a Miao church where they came to get me. I hopped on the back of a motorcycle, putting a helmet on and wrapping my face with a scarf to hide my characteristically long Western nose and to provide protection from the choking dust as we rode for about two hours to this remote village church. These Miao Christians I was to meet were probably the fruit of missionaries in the early 1900s. They sang some familiar hymns I recognized from the West, in the Miao language while I tried to sing with them in English. These dear people were hard workers who picked the tea leaves in the fields for a living. Yet for three long months, they had still not yet been paid! Many people would one day enjoy the tea that they had picked without even knowing the suffering they had experienced. They were out of sight and forgotten about people, yet God had not forgotten them.

After visiting for two or three hours with these precious people, I hopped back on the motorcycle to start the two-hour trip back to a van that was waiting for me to continue my travels in Yunnan. It was such an honor to meet these Miao saints. It was so hard to say, “Goodbye,” . . . so I did NOT say it. Instead, in the Chinese Mandarin language, we can say, “Zaijian,” which means, “See you again!” Yes, one day with Jesus, we would see each other again!

Most of the time that I lived in China, I went to the government church. If I went to a house church, they might get in trouble and I might get in trouble. Instead, I had many opportunities to serve in the registered church. Besides, house churches didn’t need me. Many were vibrant, Bible-believing, and healthy.

There were also sincere believers in the government church. When I was in Beijing, I went to a huge government church with about 7,000 members. They had an English fellowship that also gave foreigners opportunities to serve on Sundays. I was actually able to share and speak several times each Sunday over many years and there were many opportunities to serve young people. I was very grateful for that window of opportunity for service but beginning in the later part of 2016, step by step those opportunities began to disappear, as restrictions began to tighten.

In 2018, I moved from Beijing to Wenzhou of Zhejiang Province. In Wenzhou, there weren’t the same opportunities in the government church as I had in Beijing. For about nine months, I went to an international church in Wenzhou. Its American pastor was the supervisor of an international school with 100-200 Chinese students and that school was abruptly shut down. This took place in the early part of January 2020, right before the Covid virus hit Wuhan, Wenzhou, and other parts of China. The school’s assets were confiscated and all of the foreign teachers were commanded to leave immediately and never come back. God used these foreigners to touch the lives of many Chinese students and their families with the love of Jesus! These teachers were very sorely missed by the Chinese!

China Christian Daily: What is your general impression of government churches?

Eric: As I said before, I believe there are sincere Christians in the Three-Self churches. In general, I didn’t hear many messages about repenting of sin, but then again that might not be preached about in many churches in America, either. There was this English-speaking Chinese woman preacher in Beijing who indicated that she did not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. I confronted her about it. She had a lot of influence over hundreds of people because in China they have so much respect for teachers. Many young immature believers who heard this government church preacher might not know what the Bible actually said. In general, I heard good messages from the Bible in the government church but I do not remember many deep teachings.

China Christian Daily: What’s the will of God for China in your opinion? Any word for Chinese Christians?

Eric: I believe God is doing a mighty work in China. The Chinese believers are more acquainted with suffering, which helps purify their faith.

I was concerned that the passion and zeal of Chinese Christians would be watered down and diluted by Western Christianity. The Western influence of using rock music in worship, lower moral standards for pre-marriage/marriage, and liberal theology, are all bad influences from the West. Although there are many challenges, God is raising up the Chinese church to be light and salt for the nations. So my vision has been to help the Chinese Christians to reach their fellow Chinese and to take the Gospel all the way back to Jerusalem. I also recommend a book that will be hard to find but is a classic, called: “The Jesus Family in Communist China.”

China Christian Daily: Do you have any advice for those foreign Christians who plan to serve in China?

Eric: Wherever we serve the Lord Jesus, we must understand that we are expendable. Sometimes we may be taken advantage of. We must keep a Kingdom mindset. What will people think of my King and His Kingdom, if I demand my way and do not humbly walk in love? The Kingdom of God is more important than my little kingdom. Jesus must increase and I must decrease.

We should be jealous to love God’s Word - not just hear it but obey it even to death. It is the way of the cross, the way of the Lamb of God. Missionaries coming to China need to be willing to learn from the Chinese with a servant’s heart and be ready to suffer. They need to be humble servants to not only give a message but be a message.

related articles
LATEST FROM Church & Ministries