George Chen – In the garden: 18 years in prison
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George Chen – In the Garden: 18 years in prison
Persecution in 2022
Around the world, more than 360 million Christians live in places where they experience high levels of persecution, just for following Jesus. That’s 1 in 7 believers.
During the 18 years Chen had spent in prison, when he had often worried that all Christians had been killed or fallen away from the faith, God had caused the three churches he had led to increase from a total of 300 to 5,000 believers!
A Tribute by Paul Hattaway
George Chen was the very first Chinese Christian I ever met in my life. In the 1980s I was a new believer in Christ, saved just a few months, when the direction of my life was radically changed after hearing Chen speak at a church in my home country. I knew next to nothing about China at the time and my life was directionless. I had never had a single thought of going to China.
I was speechless after hearing the testimony of this man who spent 18 years in prison for Jesus. He had endured horrific conditions, and had not only survived the ordeal, but had emerged with an unconquerable faith! George Chen’s eyes shone as I spoke with him after the meeting. He encouraged me to unreservedly make myself available to God, and to consider being a “donkey for Jesus” by carrying Bibles across the border from Hong Kong to the spiritually starving Christians in China, who had been without Bibles for three decades.
As recorded in my biography, the Lord miraculously propelled me to China through a series of astonishing events, despite being a teenager with no money to my name. I found myself in China just weeks after that pivotal meeting, and I had also been exposed to a type of Christianity that was completely foreign to most Westerners. I recalled my meeting with George Chen in “An Asian Harvest”:
“His testimony impacted me deeply. in the formative time of my Christian walk. He had spent longer behind bars because of his love for Jesus than I had been alive at that time.
This precious man had learned to appreciate the small blessings of life…. George taught me that the kingdom of God cannot be defeated by evil men or governments. Whatever terrible things Satan and the world can throw at Jesus’ disciples, His purposes will not be thwarted.” …
The Apostle Paul told Timothy, “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3).
Churches throughout China suffered continual hammer blows throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as Satan’s fury was unleashed on them. One Christian who suffered greatly was George Chen (Chinese name: Chen Minying), who endured inhumane treatment at the hands of his persecutors, only to be preserved by the hand of God. He was even given an international ministry after his release from prison.
Chen was born in 1932 to a humble family in Zhejiang Province. The chaos engulfing China at the time caused them to move to Shanghai, where George grew up. After hearing the Gospel he surrendered his life to God, and the Holy Spirit gave him a gift of evangelism.
Chen founded three rural churches with a total of 300 members, most of whom he had personally led to Christ. The believers had a hunger for the Word of God and desired to spread the Gospel, which soon caught the attention of the Communist authorities. Chen was first arrested in 1960 and imprisoned as a counterrevolutionary.
For the first three-and-a-half years, George was one of five inmates crammed into a cell that was so small the men had to lie on their sides, head-to-toe, like sardines in a can. A wooden bucket in the corner of the tiny space served as the toilet for all the men. George was often so hungry that he ate toothpaste to satisfy his cravings. Chen’s wife and son were not allowed to contact him during his incarceration, and for years he was oblivious to the fact that she had died, and his son had been killed by the Communist authorities.
In 1964, Chen was moved inland to a prison labor camp in Anhui Province, where he served a further 14 years.
Inmates at a prison labor camp in China in the 1970s.
After months of backbreaking work, seven days a week, the prison leaders were infuriated that they had been unable to make the evangelist deny his faith in Jesus.
They ordered Chen to perform the worst job in the prison, daily shoveling human excrement to be used as fertilizer. The massive amount of waste produced by 60,000 prisoners flowed into a large cesspool a short distance from the cells. He later recalled the struggle of those long and difficult years, and how he was often troubled by thoughts that God had abandoned him:
“I spent my days deep in human waste, turning it with a shovel to make compost. They thought I would be miserable, but actually I was happy. It smelled so bad that no one came near me, so I could pray and sing aloud all day.
If I was not a Christian I would have died, because the smell was maddening, and the stench terrible. But I enjoyed being alone in the cesspool, so I could pray to our Lord, recite the Scriptures, and sing hymns loudly.”
To counteract the thoughts that he had been forsaken, as he stood deep in human waste every day, George often sung the beautiful words of his favorite hymn, In the Garden:
“I come to the garden alone While the dew is still on the roses And the voice I hear falling on my ear The Son of God discloses.
“And He walks with me And He talks with me And He tells me I am His own And the joy we share as we tarry there None other has ever known.”
Finally, in 1978, the political situation relaxed a little in China, and Chen was released from prison and placed under house arrest. Eighteen long years had passed.
When he entered prison, the Cultural Revolution had yet to begin, and Mao held complete power. Now, the Cultural Revolution was over, and Mao was in the grave.
George was afraid that nobody would remember who he was. Most of all, he wondered if any of the Christians he had once known were still alive, or if there were any believers left in China at all. With trepidation, he slowly made his way home, not knowing what he would find.
For almost two decades, George Chen had been both burdened and blessed by the memory of his church members. Countless times, as he stood in the excrement pit, he prayed aloud for them, asking the Holy Spirit to sustain their faith and help them to overcome. As he got off the bus in his home area, he failed to recognize many of the buildings or faces of the people he passed.
Then, from behind, came a cry of shock from an elderly woman. “Pastor… is it you?” One of his former church members was still alive! In a typically constrained Chinese manner, the two did not hug, but shook hands as tears rolled down their faces. George was relieved. Now he knew that he was not the only Christian left in China. There were at least two!
Millions of books (including Bibles) were burned during the Cultural Revolution, creating a famine of the Word of God in China.
God is Good
News of the pastor’s return spread throughout the neighborhood like wildfire, and soon the shining faces of many other believers pressed against the windows of a house he was invited to stay in. Many people were beside themselves with both shock and joy. They presumed the pastor had died decades earlier, and not a word had been heard to suggest that he was still alive.
The biggest shock was to come. When George asked one of his old friends if any fellowship of believers had survived, he was told, “Yes! God is good! He has sent His Spirit to breathe on us, and now we have many members. We are so glad that you have returned, because we do not have any Bibles and few of us remember many of the words of Jesus. Please teach us, pastor. Please!”
The Lord Jesus Christ, who promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church, had done a great miracle. During the 18 years Chen had spent in prison, when he had often worried that all Christians had been killed or fallen away from the faith, God had caused the three churches to increase from a total of 300 to 5,000 believers!
George was amazed, and he hardly slept that night as he tried to take in everything he had heard. His rejoicing was soon tempered, however, when he was told that his wife had died years earlier, and his young son had been killed. The prison officials had cruelly withheld this information from him.
Chen remained under house arrest until 1981, when he was “rehabilitated” by the government and his criminal records were erased.
Remarkably, for a man whom other Christians had forgotten about and assumed to be dead, God opened the door for George Chen to obtain a passport, and he shared his testimony in church meetings around the world during the late 1980s and 1990s. At each meeting, he invariably took time to thank the Body of Christ for sending missionaries to China in the past.
Chen remarried and spent much of his latter life traveling between his home and southwest China, where he ministered among ethnic minority groups, especially the Lisu people in the high mountains straddling the border with Myanmar. He was much loved, and he often drove a van hundreds of miles to deliver loads of precious Bibles to spiritually hungry Christians.
Although he officially retired in 2012 at the age of 80, George Chen continued to travel to China, where he advised house church leaders in Henan and Yunnan provinces. After many years spent ‘in the garden’ with Jesus Christ, his life shone into many dark places, and had become a sweet fragrance that attracted many souls to the kingdom of God.
Just a few months ago we received this photo of George. He looked fit and healthy, and we remarked that he would probably live to one hundred.
It wasn’t to be, however, and the Lord Jesus Christ finally called His servant home on October 27, 2021, when George Chen died peacefully in his sleep while in Hong Kong.
He was 89 years old.
George Chen in 2021, aged 89
Posts on China – from Mission Blogs:
Asia’s Maturing Church (David Wang)
The Spirit told us what to do (Carl Lawrence)
Revival in China (Dennis Balcombe)
House Churches in China (Barbara Nield)
China – New Wave of Revival
Chinese turning to Christianity
Revival breaks out in China’s government approved churches
China: how a mother started a house church movement
China – Life-changing Miracle
China’s next generation: New China, New Church, New World
China: The cross on our shoulders and in our hearts