Friday, March 18, 2011

St. Paul's Church, Nanjing

Some of you will know that for the last few years I have been attending St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Grinnell. So when I saw a similar name on an English map of Nanjing, I thought I had to go take a look.  Besides, Jill and I had enjoyed a long and warm friendship in Grinnell with Alex Moffett, a retired MD who had been born in China and who had returned to China as a missionary doctor until war and revolution ended his work here. In 2001, I and a Grinnell colleague had taken advantage of some free time here in Jiangsu province to seek out the Jiangyin mission station where Alex's clinic had been; what we found was a rapidly expanding city that had overtaken the past, so that we ended up at a rather new church that had been erected over (or at least near) the location of the missionary clinic. Because we had traveled on a weekday, we gained access to the church only with some difficulty, and could not report much about the church.  Still, Alex seemed quite excited at our report, and he attempted to reestablish contact with Jiangyin, something that the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, North Carolina, one of the original sponsors of the missionaries, did at about the same time. I don't know if Alex ever heard back from Jiangyin before he died a few years ago at age 103; however, I know that he wanted to hear back, and that, almost sixty years after having left China, he remained optimistic about his legacy here. So, when Jill and I thought about visiting the church here in Nanjing, it was no surprise that we thought about Alex.

Not knowing what to expect, we decided to make an initial foray on a Saturday, figuring that with no services underway we might at least take a few photos, and, if we were lucky, get to see the building from the inside. A couple of subway stops and several blocks of walking brought us onto Taiping Nanlu, for the most part a busy, commercial street. But there we found, cheek-and-jowl with commercial Nanjing, a building that we could be forgiven thinking an Episcopal church in Evanston, Illinois (except for the palm trees!). Different from everything else around it, St. Paul's presented a faux-Gothic face to Taiping Nanlu.

According to an article posted on line by Amity News Service, an Episcopalian missionary founded the church in 1913 (according to a woman there who chatted with us, the church now has no denominational affiliation), but the present building dates from 1922-23, as attested by the marker affixed to the exterior by the Nanjing register of historic buildings.
More recently the church added an auxiliary structure to provide for overflow attendance at Sunday services and for various Bible study groups.
Various on-line posts from visitors to St. Paul's assert that the church is prospering, but we were surprised to discover that even on a Saturday the facilities seemed in full use.  We happened upon a choir rehearsal in the original church and a young people's bible study out in the yard.
Our presence generated considerable interest, and several people stopped to chat with us, warmly inviting us to return on Sunday. As an Amity news release points out, several years ago St. Paul's initiated an English-language Sunday service, not so much for foreign visitors as for young Chinese; since Jill and I speak no Chinese, the folk who chatted with us suggested that we attend that service.

But as we thought about it and remembered Alex's lively interest in how Christians were faring in China, we decided to try to catch one of the Sunday morning Chinese services. We arrived part-way through the 9 AM service, which was absolutely packed.  The thirty or more rows of benches were full, and benches and stools along the side aisles were likewise fully occupied. Outside clusters of people sat on chairs, and, as we discovered later, upstairs in the annex next door, another large group had gathered around televisions viewing the service via closed circuit TV.

We would not have been able to stay in the main church had not several Chinese risen from their seats and insisted that we sit down. And so we did. We arrived just as the choir was singing, and there followed a reading from the bible, and then a rather spirited sermon—all in Chinese, of course. Since none of this was intelligible to me, I used much of this time to survey the worshipers, most of whom seemed to be paying rapt attention. Although there were certainly young people in attendance, many others were elderly, and I would say that there were more women than men present. From time to time (especially during the lengthy sermon), various ones rose to visit the toilets or to take their cellphones outdoors; some who arrived later than we were helped to seats by ushers, identified by the red cross on tags hanging around their necks. It was all very well organized, and demonstrated that this church had a large and fervent following.

As I say, I could understand none of the words I heard pronounced there.  Indeed, during the last hymn the woman next to me offered me her hymnal, but of course the Chinese text was of no use to me. Nevertheless, listening to the energetic and enthusiastic singing of the hymn, and listening to the congregation join its "amens" to the prayers, I was reminded of our friend Alex and what China had meant to him.  I remember him saying that he wondered what had happened to all those babies he had delivered in Jiangyin. What had history done to them and their families? Of course, we were sitting among Christians in a different city, and I don't suppose that anyone in this parish had had any direct connections with Alex and the Jiangyin mission station. Nevertheless, I was sure that, were Alex there with us Sunday, he would have shown that famously sweet smile of his.

28 June 2012

D. A. Smith, professor emeritus of history at Grinnell, recently provided some history and context to our 2011 visit to St. Paul's.  Don reported that the first connection he'd ever had with St. Paul's church came from a friendship with the Rev. Ernest Forster and his wife Clarissa in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1960s.  Mr. Forster was at that time the associate rector of Trinity Church on the Green, and was already retired from the ministry.  He had been a missionary in China, but he rarely spoke of his time in China.  White-haired and benignly pastoral, Forster was a fine example of the low-church, liberal evangelical school of Episcopal churchmanship characteristic of the American Church Mission in China.

Much, much later, in the late 1980s and the 1990s Don had the good fortune of taking part in the Grinnell-Nanjing exchange and got to see a good bit of Nanjing during the course of several visits there.  He read a great deal about the massacre perpetrated by the Japanese army in Nanjing in 1937-38, notably from the work of Iris Chang and the diaries of John Rabe as edited by Erwin Wickert and translated by John E. Woods. Through this reading, he was surprised to learn that Ernest Forster had been in Nanjing at this time and was one of the members of the International Safety Zone Committee, intended to protect as many Chinese people as possible from the depredations of the Japanese.

So in spring 2012 Don visited St. Paul's Church on Taiping road.  The Saturday morning service was nearly over; a woman was preaching, and the church was packed.  As with our visit, a member of the congregation offered Don her seat. St. Paul's is now part of the Chinese Christian Council, which was the result of the amalgamation of all the Protestant churches in China in the 1950s. It seems likely that the low-church character of St. Paul's facilitated this amalgamation.  The choir was vested, and near the end of the service the Doxology was sung.  After the service members of the congregation stood around in the church yard to chat with one another, a scene that repeats itself in churches all over the world.  There really was no way of inquiring whether anyone remembered the Forsters, who surely were no longer living.  

Anyone who would like to know more about St. Paul's and the Forsters can google "Ernest Forster Nanking" and "St. Paul's Church Nanking."  Among the photographs you can see shows a Japanese Christian soldier who worshipped in St. Paul's in February 1938. It is also worth nothing that Mr. Forster is among those commemorated in the house of John Rabe on the Nanjing University Campus for his work in the International Safety Zone.  And one may read Forster's moving farewell letter to John Rabe on p. 286 of THE GOOD MAN OF NANJING:  THE DIARIES OF JOHN RABE, ed. Wickert and trans. Wood.


1 comment:

  1. It truly is a small world! St. Paul's in the middle of Nanjing! Glad you were able to experience that and able to tie what you saw in 2011 to what Alex experienced so many decades ago.

    We just returned from visiting Nate & Heather in South Carolina where we hiked in the Blue Ridge Mtns and attended our first Unitarian Universalist service---not as far outside our general experience as your trip to China, but still something new. It is good that life offers us avenues of change.

    I don't catch all your posts, Dan, but certainly have enjoyed looking over the blog. All best to you and Jill.