A big welcome to Asian visitors
That’s what the Chinese Hospitality Center has to offer
During the past nine years, a group of Twin Cities ELCA Lutherans, many with backgrounds of interest and involvement in East-Asian mission work, have developed a fertile new field for Gospel outreach right at their doorstep in the metro area.
The object of their efforts is the large number of Chinese scholars doing graduate work at the University of Minnesota and their families.
“It’s a wonderful thing that out of this work we’re doing we’re getting so many Christians,” said the Rev. M. Douglas Swendseid, president of the board of directors of the Hospitality Center for Chinese, which has its headquarters in the Lutheran Campus Ministry building on Cleveland Avenue across from the University’s St. Paul campus.
“The majority are going back to China, and there they will be effective adult Christians reaching out,” added Swend-seid, a former missionary to Japan and retired head of the Northeast Asia program for the ELCA.
The ministry had its beginnings in the early 1990s when leaders like Paul Martinson, former missionary in Hong Kong and professor of church missions and world religions at Luther Seminary, and his sister, Charlotte Gronseth, former missionary in Taiwan and retired associate director of the Global Mission Institute at the seminary, became aware of the influx of Chinese scholars at the University.
They discovered that there were more foreign students from China at the University of Minnesota — over 1000 — than at any other university in the nation and that Chinese are the largest single foreign-student group at the U. of M.
In establishing the Hos-pitality Center in 1992 to meet various needs of these students, the sponsors pointed out that the scholars represented the cream of the crop in their nation’s intellectual community. They had been selected by the government in Beijing for advanced study abroad to prepare them to be future leaders of China in the areas of industry, education and government.
“Relating to China’s future leaders in our midst is a unique opportunity for American Christians to point to the love of God for all persons anywhere,” these sponsors declared.
The program mapped out at the Center puts the first emphasis on hospitality. Workers receive from the University each summer the names of 15 to 20 new scholars who will be coming to the Twin Cities, contact them in China to find out when they will be arriving, meet them at the airport, and arrange housing for them with a host family until they can find their own apartment.
The host family helps the visiting scholar and his or her family get acclimated to life in this area, taking them on trips and pointing out the locations of basic services like banks and shopping.
Shortly after their arrival, the Chinese students are invited to visit the Hospitality Center, where they learn about the lineup of nine classes offered each week in areas like English, cooking, and the Bible and Christian faith. In addition, they are told about the friendship meal held the third Saturday evening each month, which provides an opportunity for fellowship between the Chinese and Americans and is followed by a program.
Each of the classes draws between 10 and 15 Chinese, usually the spouses and family members of the scholars, according to Swendseid, while the fellowship evening attracts 150.
“When we started, we were cautious and didn’t want to offend the newcomers so we didn’t have courses in the Christian faith,” Swendseid said. “But we found this was wrong. They wanted courses in Christianity and the Bible so we added them … It’s astonishing how many come to classes in the Bible and are eager to learn.”
The Rev. Dr. Phil Bauman and his wife, Marlene, spent 33 years as missionaries in Hong Kong and are now in charge of carrying out the day-to-day operations of the Hospitality Center.
On a recent morning the couple worked with spouses of students to prepare a hearty pot of chicken vegetable soup from scratch, and Phil followed with a lesson in basic Christian beliefs. Afterwards, the pastor paused to weigh the reasons for the hunger for religious faith among the intellectually elite class in China with whom they deal at the center.
While each individual is different, he said, many of the students feel there is a vacuum in their lives. Under Communist rule in their country for the past half-century, they have been taught that there is no God, and they feel a lack of purpose in their lives and uncertainty about the future, both in this life and the hereafter.
While Chistianity has experienced a dramatic resurgence in China since the death of Mao Tse-tung and the end of the decade-long Cultural Revo-lution in 1976, restrictions on faith groups still exist, Bauman said. He cited the experience of Hu Gu, who has become a regular participant in activities at the Hospitality Center, as typical.
As a teenager in China, Hu noticed a new building with a large cross on it that had gone up in the post-Mao era. When he went inside to inquire about the meaning of the cross, a woman started to explain but stopped suddenly and asked how old Hu was. When she learned he was under 18, she said she was sorry but the law forbade her from talking to him about the Christian faith.
Hu went on to get a doctorate in metallurgy and then accompanied his wife when she came to the Twin Cities to pursue a Ph.D. in pharmacology at the University of Minnesota. He now comes to the Hospitality Center and avidly studies the Bible, Bauman said, and has joined the Chinese-language congregation established at nearby St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church. Hu has made a profession of faith there, Bauman added.
Bauman says another major factor at work in the hunger of the Chinese scholars and their families to learn about the Christian faith is the sincere love shown to them by workers at the Hospitality Center.
“When these people come, they see love in a whole new way,” he asserted.
The director recalls sitting in on an English-language class last summer and having a student come up to him afterwards and asking, “How come you love us so?”
Bauman observes: “The Lord has poured love into our hearts for people in such a way that it becomes very evident. It happens with the host families, in the teachers who teach on a regular basis. It’s communicated to these people that we really care about them. We care about every aspect of their lives.”
The goal of the work at the Hospitality Center, according to Bauman, is to lead the Chinese into a “thirst” that will channel them into active participation in the Minnesota Faith Chinese Lutheran congregation that meets at St. Anthony Park Church.
That congregation was launched in 1996 as a cooperative project of the Hospitality Center and the church. Chinese-language services are held at 1:30 p.m. on Sundays and a fellowship meal at 6 p.m. Fridays. The latter is primarily a time for socializing, according to Bauman, but teaching on faith-related topics also takes place.
Lin Qui, a Chinese native who had been studying at a seminary in Canada and is continuing some course work at Luther Seminary, has served as pastor of the congregation since its inception, when it was known as Faith Chinese Fellowship. In October of this year it was formally organized as a congregation of the ELCA.
Membership in the congregation holds steady at about 90 — no mean feat, Swendseid indicated, since scholars returning to China must be replaced each year by new ones. Amazingly, he said, there have been at least 85 adult baptisms in the more than four years since the congregation was launched.
The Hospitality Center is operating on a budget of $55,000 in the current year, with all funds coming from congregations and individuals in the metro area, Swendseid said. Roger Hoover, an electronic technician for a St. Paul aeronautical engineering firm, will replace the retiring Baumans January 1 as director.
Trained during military service as a Chinese-language translator, Hoover has been teaching English classes at the Center and serving as chair of the 24-member board’s hospitality committee. Like the Baumans, he’ll coordinate programs at the center, many of which are carried out by volunteers, teach classes and assist Chinese who have needs or questions.