A Love for the People of China
A Conversation With Henry Holley
February 1, 2008 - The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has a long history of connections with China, going back to Ruth Bell Graham’s being born and raised there. Ruth, along with her sisters and brother, returned for a visit in 1980; she returned again with her daughters in 1989. Billy Graham preached in several Chinese cities in 1988 and made brief stops in Beijing in 1992 and 1994; he held Crusades in Hong Kong in 1975 and 1990. In November, Franklin Graham held his first Festival in Hong Kong. Henry Holley, BGEA’s director of Asian ministries, has played a crucial role in our work in China, and Decision recently spoke with him about the perspective he has gained from that unique vantage point.
Interviewed by Jim Dailey
Q: I understand your first visit to China came in September 1945, when your Marine Corps division traveled there to accept the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. What was that like?
A: I was just a private first class; I didn’t know much. In those days when you signed up for military service, you signed up for the duration of the war plus six months. So even though the war was technically over Sept. 2, we had another six months to serve, and we served that time in North China. Our unit went to what used to be called Peking, now Beijing. The Chinese people welcomed us warmly, and God planted a love in my heart for that part of the world.
Q: What happened after the surrender?
A: Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communists, and Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalists, had been fighting each other before the war. They joined forces when Japan invaded China in 1937. But after the war, they started fighting each other again. In North China we were right in the midst of where Mao Zedong’s strength was. We could hear mortar and guns at night. Eventually, Mao pushed Chiang all the way back to Chongqing, which had been the wartime capital. From Chongqing, Chiang evacuated his government and took all of the treasures of China to Formosa, which has since been renamed Taiwan. Mao Zedong took over mainland China in 1949 and made Beijing the national capital of China.
Q: How did life change for Christians in China?
A: In 1950, China established the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. It is an interesting concept. It means that the officially recognized Protestant church is self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. There is a measure of freedom of religion, and there are, conservatively, 40 to 50 million Christians in China, compared to half a million in 1949. An average of five to six churches are being opened every day somewhere in China. So China has the potential of becoming the world leader, not only economically and militarily, but also spiritually.
Q: Tell us about your work in Asia for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
A: I retired from the U.S. Marine Corps after 24 years of active duty and came on with Billy Graham full time. I worked on setting up the 1967 Tokyo Crusade, and I’ve been working in Asia ever since.
I was a Crusade director for Mr. Graham’s Hong Kong Crusade in 1975, and I remember talking with Ruth Bell Graham about China. She said she would love to go back to the country where she was born and raised. So, that was the beginning for planning Mr. Graham’s 1988 visit. It was an effort that I think God directed in His time. He opened up the doors, and Billy had a great ministry there.
The people were very interested, mainly because Ruth was born and raised there. Relationships mean so much in China. When she came, it really opened up marvelous doors. The Chinese people have the same felt needs that we do, and their souls hunger for peace just as ours do. I think God is moving in China.
Q: You have seen the explosive growth of the Church in China. What attracts the Chinese people to Christ?
A: It is the marvelous work of the Holy Spirit that penetrates the heart with the Gospel. The simple Gospel message resonates with them—the message that there is a God who loves us and, though we are separated from Him, He made a way through Jesus Christ to bring us back to Himself.
Q: Tell us about the recent Franklin Graham Festival in Hong Kong.
A: It was a great success, with outstanding local leadership. We had official visitors from the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the China Christian Council, the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the China Association for International Friendly Contact. They met Franklin and came to the team’s morning prayer meeting. They have invited Franklin to come and preach in churches and to meet with government leaders and pastors. I think China is in a harvest season right now.
Q: How much freedom is there to preach the Gospel in China today?
A: I have preached in churches in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. The largest church in China, Chong Yi Church, is in Hangzhou. It seats 6,000 people. No one asked me what I was going to preach on. The interpreter and I went over the message, but there were no restrictions. I had absolute freedom to preach. I had the same experience at churches in Shanghai and Beijing.
I have always operated within the laws of China. You can worship, as long as it is in a place that has a permit. Without a permit, it could be an illegal assembly, and an illegal assembly is seen as a detriment to the society and the welfare of the people. So then they can place you under arrest.
Many people may not realize that Amity Press, in the city of Nanjing, has printed more than 50 million copies of the Bible. You cannot go down to just any bookstore store and expect to buy a Bible, but you can buy Bibles at designated bookstores and at churches.
The new president, Hu Jintao, has appointed five or six new members of the People’s Republic of China Central Committee, and they are all younger men. So there is a very progressive group of leaders now in China. I think that things are going to get better all the time. I have great hope for China.