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Mennonite hymnal links China, North America


Julie Wang and her sister Edith, avid singers in the choir at the Agape Church in Chongqing, China, are enjoying their newly discovered Mennonite hymnal.

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April 13, 2007
- Philip Bender

Chongqing, China — It’s about 12,000 kilometres from Chongqing, China to Washington, Iowa. But the distance between Julie Wang of Chongqing and the North American Mennonite Church is only as wide as the blue Mennonite hymnal.

Julie discovered Hymnal: A Worship Book (HWB) back in 2000. That’s when Katie and Jon Nofziger, who came to Chongqing to teach English at Chongqing Teachers College with Mennonite Partners in China (MPC, formerly China Educational Exchange), introduced Julie to the Mennonite praise and worship book.

The Nofzigers attended the large Agape Church of Chongqing, where Julie, and her sister Edith, are members. Their common love of music helped the four become friends. Katie and John would join Julie in singing in the church choir, which Edith directs.

When Katie Nofziger’s parents, Myron and Martha Graber of Iowa visited Chongqing in 2002, Julie invited them to her home. Along with sharing food and fellowship, the families sang together from HWB, which the Nofzigers had brought along. Julie’s obvious enjoyment of the hymnal later spurred the Grabers to send her one.

Hymns had earlier helped lead Julie to the Christian faith. In 1995, an American English teacher with whom Julie was studying in another Chinese city invited her to church.

“I was struck by the music,” Julie recalls about her first worship service. She returned that same evening to sing with the church choir in its weekly practice. The next Sunday morning she was back, and joined the choir. When Julie moved home to Chongqing, she looked for a church. In 1996 she was baptized in the Agape Church, and joined its choir.

Meanwhile, Julie’s sister Edith was already leading a singing group in her workplace. When Julie took her to the Agape Church in 1996, Edith was also moved by the music and the faith it conveyed. Edith was baptized in 1997, and became the church choir director.

Being a Christian in China has had its challenges for the Wang sisters. Edith asked her Communist party work supervisor whether she could “believe in religion” and still keep her job, not being sure what he would say. To her relief, he replied, “Yes you can.”

Julie, a middle school teacher, initially kept her newfound faith a secret – even from her husband, who is her school’s principal. “When he found out that I was praying and worshipping, he was angry,” Julie says. “But now he is more accepting. He will even wake me up on Sunday morning and tell me it’s time to go to church.”

When MPC teachers visit Agape Church for the first time, Julie and Edith will welcome them warmly. “I have known many fine boys and girls from the United States and Canada,” Julie says fondly. She has entertained the teachers in her home, and has taken them to visit her school.

Inside the front cover of her HWB, the Grabers wrote, “Julie, Thank you for having us in your home in 2002. Hope you have many hours of pleasure with this hymn book.”

Julie has been thankful. When MPCers come to visit, Julie is likely to pull out her hymnal and gather the group around her piano for a spontaneous hymn sing.

And though the English lyrics are difficult for some of the Chinese singers, hymns from HWB have occasionally been sung by the Agape Church choir.

In fact, right now Edith and her choir members are rehearsing one for next December’s Christmas eve service. North American Mennonites know it well. It is 118, “Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow.”

Philip Bender is a Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker with Mennonite Partners in China. He teaches English to med students at the Chongqing University of Medical Sciences.