National Lutheran News

The cost of sharing gospel values and the cost of not

China Service Ventures fulfills a unique, but longstanding, niche in mission work

The economic downturn has thrown a “big wet blanket” of uncertainty over
China Service Ventures (CSV) as it seeks to expand its mission work among
the poor of China’s Henan province, leaders of the program say.
Until the spring of 2008, the eight-year-old organization had been able to
count on a steady upward trajectory in donations each year that enabled it to
tackle new needs in that impoverished area of east-central China. Its annual
budget had reached $400,000.

But in the months since then, contributions from individuals and
congregations — its main source of income — have dropped by 10 percent,
and CSV has had to make cuts in several areas. While directors remain
“guardedly hopeful,” it is possible they will have to do further trimming when
they meet in May to adopt a budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year, according to
the Rev. Paul Ofstedal, president of the organization. CSV finds itself at a
“strange intersection” of a belief that God has clearly blessed its expanding
work and the need to be prudent in the face of the economic situation, the
pastor said.

So far CSV has dropped a program under which it provided free milk packets
each day to 726 children in selected grade schools in the Xinyang
administrative area. The decision was not entirely for economic reasons,
Ofstedal said. Leaders were also concerned about the tainted-milk scandal
that came to light in China.

CSV has reduced administration costs and changed its donation envelopes to
put more emphasis on gifts for overall operations compared with popular
individual programs. CSV is also being pressed to accelerate the second half
of its $25,000 pledge for construction of a new dormitory at a school in a
mountainous region of the province. Authorities in China went ahead before
all the funds were in hand and demolished the existing facility, which was
seriously inadequate, and started work on the new one. The new dorm stands
half completed, Ofstedal said.

All told, CSV to date has trimmed its monthly obligations by several thousand
dollars. “We hope we don’t have to do any more cutting because it’s been
very painful,” he said. However, he added, “At the May meeting of the board,
everything will be on the table.”

China Service Ventures was launched by a group of people who had some
connection with either mission work or China, Ofstedal said. In the early
1990s they had started the Hospitality Center for the Chinese, an outreach
mainly to the sizable number of Chinese scholars who had come to the
University of Minnesota for advanced study. They followed this with creation
of a Chinese worshipping community that met at St. Anthony Park Lutheran
Church (ELCA), which was served by Ofstedal prior to his retirement.

The group had in hand $30,000 which had been raised in honor of former
missionary Cora Martinson on the occasion of her 95th birthday but had no
clear idea of how to spend it. As the group continued meeting, however, there
was “a growing feeling that something should be done in China,” Ofstedal
said. Lutheran missionaries had done pioneering work there a century earlier,
but their efforts ended after the Communist revolution.

CSV was formally organized in 2001, and research work members had done
pointed to Henan as the place where they should concentrate their efforts.
Henan, which had also been the area where the earlier Lutheran missionaries
worked, was the most populous province in China, with 100 million people
living in an area not much larger than Minnesota. It also contained five of the
poorest counties in China. The average family wage was only $100-200 per
year, and many children were unable to attend elementary and middle school
because their parents couldn’t afford the small fee the government charged.

Told that this was the biggest problem in the area, CSV members made their
first trip to China in 2003 armed with a check for $10,000 and started putting
at-risk kids back in school. They began with 212 students and the number
soon reached 725.

Volunteer nurse teams from the United States began annual visits to assess
the health of the children and teach them basic hygiene. Nutrition programs
were started to remedy frequently observed protein deficiencies.

In the last couple years, the government has removed most of the fees for
children attending elementary and middle school, and CSV has been able to
shift its focus to the high school level. It now pays the way for 75 children
who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend high school in Xinyang. The cost
for room, board, and tuition is $500 per child per year.

A young Chinese intern on the staff of CSV visits elementary and middle
schools in the countryside and identifies the next group for the organization
to support in high school. He also identifies children from the poorest
families — those in desperate straits. CSV is currently aiding 35 such families
with basic needs like groceries and blankets.

Authorities in Henan told CSV that another big need was English-language
teachers. China has become an important player in world trade, and children
in the large cities and on seacoasts are learning English, Ofstedal said. If kids
in places like Henan are going to have a future and escape poverty, they will
need to know the English language, he explained.
CSV sent its first group of volunteer U.S. English teachers to work with
Chinese who are teaching English for three weeks in the summer of 2003. It
now has three couples staying long-term who teach English to future
teachers at three colleges in Xinyang and continues to send 12 or more
teachers each summer on short-term assignments.

Since 2004, CSV has been sending groups of youth volunteers to Henan each
summer to work with their Chinese counterparts on service projects, such as
painting schools and cleaning nursing homes. The youths’ work so impressed
one Chinese official that he said he wanted to restore a Christian presence in
an elevated area known as Rooster Mountain, where the early Lutheran
missionaries had developed a summer community to escape the blistering
heat in Xinyang. CSV leaders have found a place on the side of the mountain
that could be used for a youth camp, and they are discussing such a venture
with leaders of Wisconsin-based Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Bible Camps.

The economy could affect those plans, Ofstedal said. But the camp and
another item on CSV’s list of future projects, construction of a community
center in Xinyang to serve as the hub of all the group’s programs, would
provide important signs of CSV’s long-term commitment to the area.

Because foreigners are forbidden to evangelize publicly in China. CSV has
chosen mainly to let its acts of Christian service speak for it. But, Ofstedal
said, effective missionary work is done by CSV volunteers in the personal
relationships they develop with the Chinese.

When the volunteers are asked why they pay to travel to a foreign country to
help strangers, the president said, they can and do answer along these lines:
“We know a God who loves us very much. He came to our world to be a
servant. He has persuaded us that serving is the happiest way of life.”